7 years ago, I got a PhD offer from professor X. Thinking that I would have no chance with other applications, I accepted it. I signed the offer, and the HR was helping me with the enrollment process.

But then I unexpectedly got another offer, and I broke my promise. I apologized in the most sincere way my poor English could express. X briefly said he understood. This is morally wrong, but not what I want to ask.

One of my collaborator just joined the department of X. He wants to involve X in our on going work. I have no problem with that, X is nice, and he can make a good contribution. But what should I say to X to break the ice?

  • Should I start by apologizing again?
  • Should I just pretend that I don't remember about him? This is good if he already forget about me. But if he still remembers about me because I caused him so much trouble, then I will appear as a horrible person to him.

What should I do?

  • 17
    If he remembers you, can't you just say some sort of things like this: "Finally, the research re-unite us again...". Well, I'm not trying to be funny. I just believe that typical professor doesn't hold grudge on the issue like your condition with X. As far as I know (from the internet, and the professors themselves), they see students coming and leaving as something not personal. Real professor might come here to help you with a more proper answer :)
    – user168
    Jul 27, 2017 at 7:44
  • 39
    Assume he has no idea who you are. If he does, take it from there. There is a good chance that even if he remembers, he has no particular interest in warming this 7-year-old story up again.
    – xLeitix
    Jul 27, 2017 at 7:51
  • 29
    What "promise" are you talking about? Starting a PhD is usually a contract, not a promise. There is nothing morally wrong in quitting a program for a better offer.
    – Cape Code
    Jul 27, 2017 at 10:05
  • It's very unlikely that he doesn't remember you after just 7 years; don't try to hide that thing, it's very likely that doing so would lend to an awkward and uncomfortable relationship; whether or not in hindsight you realized you should have acted differently, or he was irritated by your behaviour or not, you at least for sure have a better english now, so you'll be able to explain or apologize better; do it and you'll sure make a good impression. Maybe don't use it to break the ice, but don't wait too much; let's say, after 10-15 minutes of chit-chat would probably be a good time.
    – gbr
    Jul 27, 2017 at 17:53
  • 1
    Why should he remember you? Did you meet with each other for over a week? Did you have a furious argument on the phone? Did he only see a photo of yourself? Have you not changed in 7 years? Do you have any particular distinguishing features that make you stand out from the crowd? E.g you are 2.10 m tall, are you incredibly good looking and look like a famous movie actor? I doubt someone who met you once or three times (if he had) 7 years ago will still remember you today unless you're omitting a significant detail.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 29, 2017 at 8:51

6 Answers 6


I understand that this situation is somewhat awkward, but I think it is important not to overthink this. It was, after all, a fairly long time okay, and at the time the professor said he understands, so you may be taking this incident harder than he is.

But what should I say to X to break the ice?

I probably wouldn't mention anything, at least not at the beginning and definitely not over e-mail. Bring it up at an opportune time, or not at all.

Should I start by apologizing again?

No. See above. Even if he remembers you (which is not at all guaranteed), starting a collaboration with "remember how I reneged from our agreement last time?" seems supremely awkward. Should the collaboration take off and you meet more often and personally, it might be nice to apologize again, optimally in a social setting. Alternatively, if he brings the topic up, you can and should apologize. However, don't make a big deal out of it if he doesn't.

Should I just pretend that I don't remember about him? This is good if he already forget about me. But if he still remembers about me because I caused him so much trouble, then I will appear as a horrible person to him.

You don't need to pretend you don't remember him. Just interact with him normally - even if you don't start a conversation about your last interaction immediately (and he remembers you), he will probably not assume that you forgot about him, but that you are trying to not make the situation awkward. He won't consider you a horrible person for this.

  • 6
    "All but guaranteed" is ambiguous, it seems that it could either mean "almost guaranteed" or "everything except guaranteed". I'm curious which of the two you actually meant.
    – Murch
    Jul 27, 2017 at 15:33
  • 21
    I usually take it to mean "almost guaranteed". @Murch
    – SH7890
    Jul 27, 2017 at 16:51
  • 3
    I usually use it to mean "everything except guaranteed", so definitely an ambiguous phrase. Hah, Google defines "all but" as: "1. very nearly; 2. all except".
    – Nat
    Jul 27, 2017 at 17:35
  • 6
    @Nat, yes, but "all except" refers to nouns, not modifiers. "Everything" does not equal "all." So "all but guaranteed" is entirely unambiguous. (You just need to clear up the grammar involved.)
    – Wildcard
    Jul 27, 2017 at 21:19
  • I downvoted. The OP already apologized before and it's ridiculous to give Prof. X the benefit of feeling betrayed or whatever after 7 years. In particular given that it's not even clear if the OP did or didn't something wrong.
    – user347489
    Jul 28, 2017 at 2:49

How to break the ice? You don't need to mention the issue, much less apologize when you first meet him. Just act like with any other professional: "Hi, how are you? It looks like we have some exciting research ahead".

You are talking about 7 years ago and the professor might not even give it any importance, otherwise he'd not be willing to collaborate with you. So I'd suggest you stop punishing yourself, get over it, and just focus on acting as a professional.

If the issue arises, make some funny comment and move on. If he insists on making it personal and taking you to a guilt-trip or you feel uncomfortable working with him, just stop the collaboration and find another colleague to collaborate with.

  • 2
    +1 IMO this is the right course of action. What happened 7 years ago is of little importance at this point. There's nothing to apologize for and it would be very unprofessional of them to let this affect the collaboration.
    – user347489
    Jul 28, 2017 at 2:40

You've already apologized, the apology was accepted, and you've both moved on.

There is no reason to bring it back up, and the professional thing to do is to let the past stay in the past. Chances are good he will as well.

Unless he brings it up, don't bring it up yourself. Conduct your research as well as you can, and show him how you've grown over the years.

If it still really bothers you, then well after you've established your research relationship, at a time outside of work (social), you might simply say, "I still feel bad about..." and express your feelings again, adding, "But I'm so glad we have this chance to work together."


ya know qsp, i dunno your gender or orientation, but i will put it from the perspective of a hetero-male.

it's like you had made a date with a girl, and later canceled it. you go out with the other girl but eventually, because the first girl and you live in the same town and have some of the same interests, you bump into her again and decide, heck, you wanna date each other again. if she wants to and you want to, hell, what's the problem?

i can think of a lot more nasty academic compromises of morality (usually involving plagiarism or misrepresenting data or stealing an idea). collaborating with a person that you had previously "stood up" is not one of them.


Anyone who has ever been in charge of anything has offered a spot to someone who turned it down, either right on the spot, or later. Being aced by a better offer comes with the territory. If I was the one who had offered you a spot, a later collaboration would only confirm my first decision that you had been someone I wanted in my group.

So, what should you expect? I certainly wouldn't bring up the past in any negative way, I'd say I was glad to be working with you.

And what should you say?

(1) Don't apologize. I didn't do anything for you, and you didn't take anything from me, so you don't owe me anything. Even if you cancelled so late that the position stayed unfilled for a while, that's not on you. If there's something of mine that will fail without staff that's on me. It up to me to have a contingency plan, and I will. "Many's the slip, 'twixt the cup and the lip". Anyone who belongs in their job knows the difference between someone on-board and someone who made nice noises about an offer.

(2) Don't ever bring up not taking the spot. I knew at the time you either got a better offer or had a family crisis, so now I know you got a better offer. If I want to know why you took the other offer I'll figure it out from working with you.

(3) if this person does bring the past up, or complains about you taking a better offer, or whatever, don't respond with anything about better or worse. Make it a matter of personal preference, like a food choice, say there was something about the other offer that really seemed like it was a good match for you. If the other person asks again or for details, deal with them like someone who has had too much alcohol and is saying foolish things. Smile, repeat your first answer patiently, smile again, and then talk about an clearly unrelated subject.

I don't know if this is great advice for people playing academic politics. I didn't earn my ph.d. as a grad student getting stipends, I was working full time in the r&d end of my field I had a wife & children and I had tangential research that interested me to pursue and write up for a thesis and a dissertation and some projects, and I took graduate level courses classes that interested me, and I paid tuition and fees. That wasn't as unusual then as now.


As others have mentioned above, I think you were right when you apologised 7 years back and you don't necessarily have to do it again, unless the situation begs you to.

You have got another chance to work with him again that you had to miss out that time. So, just try to make the most out of it. There is nothing to feel bad about.

Just let him know you're excited to work with him and if you feel he is not very comfortable or if he brings up the topic of you opting out of his offer, you can always apologise.

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