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I have been doing my due diligence in preparation for graduate school by reaching out to potential PIs and evaluating each one for fit. I found a brand new PI, at a T-30 with whom I "think" I mesh well (cannot be certain since I would be his first graduate student). I have met with him in person on a few occasions and he has stated he would like to take me on as a graduate student (this is a direct admit program with no rotations). Naturally, I was excited and agreed to work with him. Fast forward to the admission season, I applied to other schools and I did not anticipate I would be viewed as favorably at "higher ranked" institutions and I found other PIs I meshed with as well.

I have sound reasoning other than rank for waffling,

  1. Better support programs and network post degree for both industry & academic paths
  2. Better financial package (I am older married with a child)
  3. established mentors with track record ( I have to get in and get out for same reason)

So I ask can I renege on the agreement without a) messing up this PIs startup? b) Without looking like a flake professionally by going back on my word?

Also, Are PIs expected to have grad students their very first year?

Thanks in advance.

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    Were you admitted to the program when you committed verbally? And do you know what language you used? "I would like to work for you as well" is different from "I accept your offer and I'll arrive in June to begin work." If I am understanding the order of actions here, my initial thought is that you made a mistake by committing, even if only verbally, and then going on to apply to other schools. – Bryan Krause Jan 27 '17 at 19:52
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    @BryanKrause All the conversations with this person happened before I applied to any program including his. I did not explicitly say I will be there on XX date. I simply said "cool", but I was implying it through subsequent conversations about potential interest and asking for suggestions for papers to read. Also, I did not say I was applying to other schools, but I did not want to put all my eggs in one basket. How far is to far, to a point where it is improper to back out? – TheCodeNovice Jan 27 '17 at 20:04
  • It's totally reasonable for you to make contacts with PIs before applying and to not want to put anything in one basket, but you would have avoided this problem if you were clear about this; any PI who is actually worth working with would completely understand that you were considering other opportunities before making a final decision. If you know for certain you are going elsewhere, you should inform this PI as soon as possible. Based on what you've shared so far I don't think you made a strong enough commitment to be morally bound. – Bryan Krause Jan 27 '17 at 20:28
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A few points:

First, morality is a bad way to evaluate this decision. Certainly you want to be an ethical person, but realize that taking on a graduate student position is an employer/employee relationship. It is generally expected that you will make decisions that are in your best interest, even if that means switching advisors or switching programs. Your potential advisors are certainly going to make the decisions that are in their best interests. Your advisor/advisee relationship should only last as long as it's in both of your best interests to do so.

Second, there are definite consequences to reneging on an agreement, written or verbal. Academics is a small community. You are embarking on a professional career, and your reputation will follow you. You want to be seen as someone who follows through on commitments. When you do need to back off of an agreement you want to do so gracefully and avoid "burning bridges". That said, your actions in your current position are not going to follow you for the rest of your life. Your potential PI has not sacrificed for you, they will be able to find another grad student, and you leaving them at this time is not going to ruin their career. This is very different than, for example, working with an advisor for years, building expectations and relationships, and then vanishing.

However, if your decision is firm you should definitely inform them as soon as possible. The pool of good applicants grows smaller the longer you wait.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, there are community expectations and norms concerning this. The most relevant thing here is the April 15th Resolution. Many graduate schools are signatories to this document (including most or all of the highly desirable "role-model" institutions). Essentially, the resolution says:

  1. Prospective students should not be obligated to commit to a graduate school until April 15th.

  2. Students are only considered committed once they have formally accepted an offer of financial support. This means formal acceptance of a scholarship or stipend supported position such as a research or teaching assistantship. A verbal commitment to attend, without a specific formal offer of financial support, is not considered formal acceptance.

  3. Students may withdraw their acceptance until April 15th by submitting a written resignation to their prospective department. Appointments not recinded by the department or resigned by the student by April 15th are expected to be honored by both parties.

Lastly, the goal of the graduate admissions process is to make the best matches between students and schools. You are doing yourself and your potential advisor a disservice if you go into a program without full conviction. Your potential advisor certainly will not like the news that you've decided to go someplace else or study a different topic, but they will be far happier with a student who really wants to be with them and study their topic. You will be far happier if you are a place you really want to be and studying something that truly engages you. Certainly they will understand your actions and will (probably) not hold a grudge if you secure a better position than what they can offer.

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