Every year a colleague at another university and I find ourselves trying to recruit some of the same prospective graduate students. Some of the students come Here, some go There, some go elsewhere, and somehow it works out that we both get some new students. Recently I heard from this friend/colleague that a student we were both trying to recruit will be going There for grad school rather than Here.
This colleague and I have been joking with each other during our most recent mutual recruitment efforts. For example, although in reality we both said nice things about each other to prospective students, it's more fun to pretend that I told students about my colleague's sadistic philosophy of advising and that my colleague told students that I am highly unstable. (note: In real life, my colleague has none of these negative qualities, and I only have a few)
It is not uncommon that a visiting prospective student will say to me "I'm trying to decide between the graduate programs Here and There." So then I say nice things about my colleague and outline what I think the main differences are in the graduate programs at the University of Here vs. the University of There. My colleague does the same. We both think it is important that (1) students know that both places are great; and (2) students should weigh all the information and decide which place is a better fit for their interests and preference for work environment.
My colleague and I were recently discussing the fact that when we have these conversations with prospective students, we both have the same thought: If I say too many nice things about the other place/advisor, will the student think I don't want them to come Here and are trying to get them to go There? That is, are we being too nice?
I think that as long as the conversation is kept fairly general and I don't say something like "You know, now that I've met you, it is clear to me that the University of There would be the best place for you. Have a nice life. Goodbye.", it should be fairly clear that I am being sincere in my praise of a colleague I like and admire and not trying to send a coded message that I want the student to go somewhere else. To reduce ambiguity, I have started inserting the phrase "Of course, I hope you come here, but.." somewhere in these conversations about how great my colleague at the University of There is.
ACADEMIC ETIQUETTE POINT #527:
I realize that it can be hard for a student to tell a potential advisor about a decision not to work with her/him, but it really is best to tell us as soon as you have made a decision. For example, in the case discussed above, I know from my colleague that a certain prospective student has decided not to come to my university to work with me. Until this student tells my department formally of this decision, however, I cannot recommend admission for any of the applicants on the waiting list, and there are some excellent applicants on the waiting list. The drop-dead date of 15 April is fast approaching, at which time everyone at the top of the waiting list will have made decisions to go elsewhere.
If you wait until the last minute to inform a department of your decision not to attend that program, you are eliminating opportunities for students on the waiting list. If you really didn't decide until the last minute, that's fine. If you know your decision but don't send the official declination of an offer until the last minute, that is selfish, however unintentional.
10 months ago