13

I have accepted a PhD offer from university A. I have informed a not so prestigious university D that they should dismiss my application (they invited me for an interview, offered me to pay the flight, etc.). I am still waiting to hear from very prestigious universities B and C (which, as A, are top 10 in most rankings). Is it ethically acceptable for me to wait for the decisions of B and C and inform them about my choice of A afterwards? I am curious whether they would have taken me. Informing B and C late means wasting their time, but I paid application fees for B and C.

To clarify: I do not intend to attend either of B or C.

  • 16
    I think if you consider B and C as an option, it's ok to wait. But if you just do it for curiosity, I would find it ethically questionable, as you are wasting their time - on the other hand, if the application fees are considerable, you may have paid them for their time, so, depending on this, YMMV. – Captain Emacs Feb 17 '17 at 15:21
  • I always thought of the application fee as being a token amount meant to deter non-serious applications, not as something that recoups the cost of considering an application in any real way. – chepner Feb 18 '17 at 18:09
  • It seems the visa problem is not an issue for you. But I think it is worth mentioning that for most of the students who are struggling with that problem, it is totally normal (and seemingly ethical) not to dismiss any of their options. I have known some students who got offers from prestigious universities, but they were forced to switch to plan B (or C, etc.) at the very end. Because they got stuck by the visa problem. – polfosol Feb 19 '17 at 16:13
15

I am sympathetic to your desire to get some feedback on your attractiveness as an applicant at prestigious universities. In the context of this debate, it's worth keeping in mind that in academia, getting formal feedback of this sort -- answers to graduate applications, and later paper submissions, grant proposals, job applications, etc. -- is really crucial to signal to us about the quality of the work we are doing, which in turn is helpful for us to later make actual decisions that influence the future course of our careers. Moreover, this sort of feedback can be quite infrequent and hard to come by, so your desire to take advantage of a potentially rare opportunity to receive it, even by employing a course of action that may be seen as dishonest in a small way, is understandable, even reasonable: if a small dishonest and essentially harmless act helps you fulfill your potential in life later on, that seems like a net benefit not just to you but also to the rest of the world.

With that said, I would still encourage you to inform universities B and C that you no longer wish for your applications to them to be considered. It's not really about the ethics issue, which I see as impossible to answer with any degree of consensus -- some people will think it's ethical because you paid the application fees and are therefore entitled to get the service you paid for in the form of an answer to your applications; others will argue that you are thinking of using the admissions system in a way that it was clearly not meant to be used, and causing a needless waste of resources. I see this discussion as relatively unimportant, because ultimately the stakes are very low: yes, you may waste 10 minutes of someone's time, but if you promptly inform universities B and C that you are declining their offer if and when they end up accepting you, there will be no harm done to anyone. So it's an abstract discussion with no real practical significance -- fun to talk about perhaps, but in itself a waste of time.

The real reason I think you should withdraw is that the information you will get by waiting to hear an answer is actually not very useful at all, and potentially even misleading. Mostly it will give you a sense that you have learned something about yourself and how the world views you, and satisfy some psychological need that we all have for knowing what people think of us, but that feeling will actually be illusory. The point is that admissions decisions depend on so many factors, most of which you have no knowledge of, that they have a very low signal-to-noise ratio. Moreover, in a situation like yours, where you have already been admitted to your top choice (and very prestigious) school, which is already very good positive feedback, the knowledge that you were also accepted to schools B and/or C, or rejected from them, would be worth even less. Again to use a math/engineering terminology (hope that makes sense to you), you can think of this as a situation where you are about to receive two bits of information that are essentially almost completely random, but the bits are labeled in a way that makes them seem like they carry real, useful information. So in my opinion the psychological satisfaction you will get from being told these bits is actually outweighed by the risk that you will incorrectly attribute too much real significance to the meaning the bits supposedly carry. That's what I meant when I said above that the answers from B and C could even be potentially misleading. Ultimately, these answers are simply not useful information.

Hope this helps, and congratulations for getting into your preferred school!

  • 2
    I would strongly dispute the notion that waiting to hear back from universities B and C does not do any harm to the waiting-list students who would otherwise have gotten an offer (see my answer for why). That said,your third paragraph is a useful take as well. – E.P. Feb 18 '17 at 0:08
  • Thanks for your very good advice. Come to think about it, your last paragraph is quite enlightening and addresses the issue very neatly. – Rüdiger Feb 18 '17 at 14:48
43

I think you should withdraw your applications from B and C.

By keeping your application active, not only are you wasting the committee's time, you are potentially hurting other students. Most graduate programs can only accept a certain number of students per year, but there may be many more applicants who would still be well qualified and able to succeed. If the committee accepts your application, that means they are denying admission to someone else who might be equally deserving. If you withdraw now, you open that space for someone else.

  • 5
    I don't think OP's waiting will hurt other students' chances. Any programs have a waiting list for qualified but not top candidates for cases similar to this. If OP is offered, but then deny, the candidates in the waiting list will receive the offer. If one cannot make it to the waiting list, you cannot say (s)he is hurt. – qsp Feb 17 '17 at 21:12
  • 12
    @qsp The OP may be hurting candidates "on the waiting list" if B or C was their first choice, but they accept an offer from D because they haven't yet receieved an offer from B or C. In any case, since the OP says he/she doesn't intend to accept an offer from B or C, there is no reason not to withdraw, except for taking the position that "my time is so much more valuable than yours that I'm not going to talk to you unless I have to" - which is not a good way to make friends! – alephzero Feb 17 '17 at 23:15
  • 7
    @qsp That is completely disingenuous. The time wasted in the process will delay the offer to the waiting-list candidates, and delay can make a huge difference if e.g. they still need to apply for funding to external sources or apply for visas (or both), and the OP has no way of knowing how much hassle/anguish/ actual loss of opportunities will come to other people of what is essentially a vanity stunt. – E.P. Feb 17 '17 at 23:33
  • 4
    @E.P.: Currently on the hunt for a postdoc position, I can tell you that what alephzero wrote is correct. If you get "yes" from a reasonable university, and your top choice tells you that you're on the waiting list, then you're going to take your offer and run with it. And if that's because someone didn't pull out, then sucks to be you, because you would have gotten the position otherwise. – Ink blot Feb 18 '17 at 8:01
  • 5
    +1. In the end I decided to withdraw. Apart from curiosity, there is no reason why I should care about the decisions of B and C. – Rüdiger Feb 18 '17 at 15:50
15

If your only purpose is to just to see if you get in (presumably because getting into a prestigious university feels good and is rewarding, even if you ultimately attend a different prestigious university), then I would say that it's very ethically questionable, and recommend that you withdraw your application.

As mentioned above, if they decide to accept you, that typically results in another student being rejected or waitlisted. Even if you paid the application fee, you choosing not to withdraw is not simply "wasting their time" in return for your fee, it's wasting their time while also hurting another student for whom this university may be their first and best choice.

If you want to attend university A, then politely withdraw your application from B and C. If you aren't 100% sure that you want to attend university A, then it's perfectly acceptable to see if B or C accepts you, and then figure out which one is the best fit for you, but it doesn't sound like that's your intent.

5

Since you write that you

do not intend to attend either of B or C,

I would say it is ethically and morally wrong for you to delay your notification to those universities that you are no longer considering them.

If you wait until they decide and they offer you a place, that's an offer that could be made to other students who are still considering those universities (and potentially have it as their best shot). After you decline, those waiting-list candidates will be offered your place, but his introduces a delay in their applications process. Right off the bat, this says that you value your vanity more than the time of both your peers and the admission committees, so you're not coming from a great place.

More importantly, though, you have no way of knowing how the rest of the application process looks like for the waiting-list students on whom you're enforcing a delay. In particular, they might need to apply for funding or for a student visa (or for both) after having the university offer. This can quite often have a very constrained timing structure, and it is entirely plausible that a two-week delay between your declining and them being offered your place can mean that they are no longer able to take the offer.

All of this for an offer you have no intention of taking? That's what you need to ask yourself.

  • Two week delay? Are you serious? Sorry, but a department that is that inefficient deserves to miss out on good students, who in turn would be better served going elsewhere. – Dan Romik Feb 18 '17 at 0:16
  • Call it several days if you will, once you factor everything in. I've seen folks with less wriggle time than that. Either way, the point stands: OP has no way of knowing what's going on with those peers. – E.P. Feb 18 '17 at 0:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.