Monday, March 22, 2010

Go Ahead - Reject Me

An e-mail question from a reader:

What's the best (most diplomatic?) way to reject an admission offer from a school?

For most places, you don't have to do anything except click on the decline option on a webpage, but if you feel that you should send a personalized e-mail to various people at the rejected institution, including faculty who were your potential advisers, here are my preferences:

I prefer a rapid rejection. As soon as you know you will not be accepting a particular offer, inform that institution so they can make additional offers to applicants on the waiting list. If you delay because you don't know what to say or you feel bad about rejecting an offer (for whatever reason), please get over this and give an opportunity to someone else. There are typically many highly qualified applicants on waiting lists, and the only reason some of them are there is because there are limited admission slots and they weren't as lucky as you to get a first-round offer.

If you interacted with particular people, including some who devoted time to discussing research opportunities with you, write to them and just say that you have decided that Other University is a better fit for your interests, thank them for their time, and that's that. Don't ramble on about how great the people at the declined institution are and how you wish them luck with their future research and hope to see them at meetings in the future. See also this old post for a cautionary tale.

I always find it strange when a student is vague about what university's offer they have accepted. If a student spends a day or two in my department, talking to me and people in my research group, and then they decide to go somewhere else, I am fine with that, but what is the point of being mysterious about where they do decide to attend graduate school? The webpage on which offers are declined or accepted may ask for this information, although of course it is optional to provide it. Similarly, you don't have to tell faculty at the declined institution if you prefer not to, but again, why not?

If you are feeling anxious about sending a rejection letter, perhaps this will help: I have never felt annoyed or angry at a student who was potentially going to work with me but who declined an offer from my university. Every individual makes the best decision they can about what the fit is for their interests and other factors in their lives. Most faculty respect and understand that.

The only exception to the declaration above is that I do get extremely annoyed with the occasional applicant who already knew they were going to accept another offer before they visited and wasted a lot of people's time and my department's money.

In a recent example of this, I found out via someone who is an applicant's friend on Facebook that the applicant had decided to accept an offer from another university before even visiting My University. That applicant was not a potential student of mine, but would normally be on my schedule for an individual meeting. Knowing what I know, why should I take the time to meet with him/her? On the off chance that the FB information was wrong? Just in case this person is so blown away by the visit to My University that he/she will change plans? Because I should take every opportunity to chat with bright young students? My delicate professorial ego is not bruised by a student's decision to go elsewhere, especially if they weren't going to work with me even if they came here, but I can think of better uses of my time than to meet with an applicant who has already accepted another offer.

But I digress. Regarding writing a diplomatic rejection letter: Keep in mind that, for students, the decision about where to attend graduate school is momentous, but for most faculty with established research programs, the loss of an opportunity to work with any particular student is routine (some students accept their offers, some don't, life goes on), so don't sweat the rejection letter. Just be sincere and professional, and then focus on the exciting things to come in the future.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

the anxiety goes beyond grad school too. I have rejected job offers where my interviews had been long and arduous involving taking up the time of many people. so my rejection anxiety stems from the feeling of having wasted many people's time and resources if it involved flying me out there and taking me out to dinner etc.

One such interview involved a potential lateral transfer within my current institution so even after many people in the group spent one-on-one time interviewing me, and I later declined their offer, I still had to see them and interact with them because I was still in the same institution just in a different group since I had offers from two different groups in the same department. For awhile that was quite awkward to me (I'm not sure if they cared, I'm hoping not), but now over two years later it's not a big deal.

Anonymous said...

As a student, I have been vague because I have decided to not go to one university before I have made the final decision on where I will go.

Anonymous said...

Thanks FSP - very timely and helpful post. I was pondering the same issue this past weekend.

My field is fairly small, and I'd like to leave a positive impression of myself with the people I met at the university I'll be turning down.

I doubt the professors I met will remember me after several years though, but maybe I'm wrong.

unlikelygrad said...

I always find it strange when a student is vague about what university's offer they have accepted.

Maybe because they haven't decided where exactly to go? I know this was the case for me. I applied to some traditional programs in my undergrad field and some interdisciplinary programs. After visiting all the schools that accepted me, it was incredibly obvious to me that the interdisciplinary programs were a better fit for me. I turned down the top-10 traditional program almost right away (I knew others were more interested in the spot), even though I hadn't made a final decision about where I was actually going to go yet.

Anonymous said...

What about if you've done a rotation project with them but decided not to progress onto a PhD level with them? I do want to write a diplomatic rejection letter or e-mail (even though I really couldn't stand one of the supervisors as the lab environment that supervisor created was really hostile) as I fear what the retribution could be...how should I bring about that?

Dan said...

I know of one reason to visit a school even when you've already decided to attend another.

You are accepted to schools A and B. You arrange visits and buy tickets to fly to each of them separately. After your visit to school A, you know that you are going to go there. But you've already paid for the ticket to school B, and you assume that the only way that you're going to get reimbursed is if you go ahead and go through with the charade of the interview.

Faulty logic? Or is that reasonable?

John V said...

I generally advise grad applicants to visit as many of the schools that have accepted them as possible, up to 4 or 5. They won't be treated as well upon visiting for many years, and they'll get a first-hand look at many curricular and research programs, whether or not they're likely to attend.

It's a big first step in their grad education.

I generally enjoy the 30- or 60-minute chats. If it is someone my discipline is recruiting, and they've decided to go elsewhere, I probably will be seeing them around doing research for years, so again the time may be well-spent.

They shouldn't decide their choice until after the visits, and should tell us immediately upon deciding. But I'm only irritated if they recruit against us at the prospective student open house.

female Science Professor said...

It's fine if you haven't yet decided where to go (just where not to go), but I've received e-mails that say "I've decided to accept an offer from another university", strongly implying a decision has been made.

My department pays for travel for some visiting students (the top admits), so they are wasting our money and time if they have already decided to go elsewhere. If it's your own money, you still shouldn't waste people's time.

Anonymous said...

"What about if you've done a rotation project with them but decided not to progress onto a PhD level with them?"

Most of the time, people wait until they have found a PhD lab home before telling the other labs that they aren't interested. In my dept things generally happen all at once within a couple of weeks at the end of the last rotation period.

This makes it easier on you, since you can give almost any reason for choosing your home lab (rather than trying to tell someone why you DON'T want to join their lab, say why you DID choose to join the lab you did). You can even simply that you thought it was the best fit and leave the reason vague.

Anonymous said...

One of my interviews went so well that afterwards, I was 99% sure I would be accepting their offer. I considered canceling the last interview I had planned. The plane tickets hadn't been purchased yet so I was free to do so. I decided to go to the interview anyway - there was always a chance that this school could have wow'd me in some way (it didn't). I was also advised by several people that I should attend all the interviews I was invited to so that I could make the most informed decision possible about where I'd be spending the next 5-6 years.

I agree that it would be weird and wasteful to visit an institution for interview if one had absolutely no intention of going there. However, are things ever that black and white? What percentage of certainty should the student have to cancel an interview? 80%? 90%? 99%? 105%? The student is wasting their own time as well - surely they have some reason to be going to the interview, and presumably it is that they think there's a chance they'll change their mind.

female Science Professor said...

If you have any indecision, however slight, then go ahead, visit. If you have, however, posted on Facebook "I'm going to X University next year!", then don't visit Y University after doing so.

franglais said...

Time "wasted" is a soft concept. For example, the potential student who has already made up her/his mind to go elsewhere but will still visit your department, presumably to know it better, may end up collaborating with your faculty during her/his PhD, or doing a postdoc. Then time may not be so wasted. Whether the facts are laid out on Facebook or not, I am quite sure that many students visit with a clear idea of where they want to go (for academic and personal reasons) and just go through the motions of being prospective graduate students and taking advantage of an opportunity to learn about key research groups in their field.

female Science Professor said...

franglais, such students can meet faculty at conferences, correspond, visit another time when they have some research interests or results to discuss, or find other ways to interact. If someone might want to collaborate with these faculty at some point, it's best not to start off by being insincere or deceptive.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

AHAHAHAHAH! This kind of shit cracks me up.

No graduate program gives a single flying fuck about any individual magical wagical snowflake applicant's declining acceptance. They are not "insulted" or "disappointed" if you decline an offer.

What they do care about are *systematic* reasons for declined offers that are affecting their overall distribution of accepted offers and biasing it towards the acceptable, but less highly ranked, applicants.

Sharon said...

I chair our admissions committee, and I agree, tell us as early as you know you're going to reject us (even if you haven't decided which school to accept), and don't visit if you know you're not coming.

The other thing, though, is realize what a small world the research community in field X is. Don't fail to respond to emails from faculty telling you that you're accepted and trying to arrange a visit. Don't visit and be rude to everyone. Don't get drunk on the visit weekend and sleep through the next day's events. We remember.

Kevin said...

Disagreeing with Comrade PhysioProf, I do care where individual applicants end up and why. I greatly appreciate it when students tell me things like "I ended up choosing UW, because the program there had ...".

First, it tells me who our main competition for the top students is, and what they have been doing to entice them away. I can't do much about places that can offer more money, or students who choose a school because of family or significant others. But I can make sure in future that applicants know about strengths here that may not have been obvious.

There are several applicnats who have had e-mail exchanges with me about where they were planning to go, in which I told them frankly that they had made a good choice in choosing a different institution for what they wanted to do. We're very good at what we do, but we're not the best at everything. If a student gets in at a place that is a better match, good for them! In the cases where I think they are making a mistake, I'll tell them that also.

We have a strong enough applicant pool that we aren't desperately trying to hang onto every admittee, though we would like to have a decent yield each year.

I second FSP's remark that promptly informing the department (via the official web site) when you have decided for or against a particular offer is essential. We don't have a waiting list, but there is other planning that depends on how many students are coming and which ones.

Incidentally, a personal e-mail is not a substitute for the official web site for accepting or declining. Faculty usually have no access to the official records, and can't enter your decision for you (nor would you want the security on the web site to be that lax).

Anonymous said...

"I chair our admissions committee, and I agree, tell us as early as you know you're going to reject us (even if you haven't decided which school to accept), and don't visit if you know you're not coming.. The other thing, though, is realize what a small world the research community in field X is. Don't fail to respond to emails from faculty telling you that you're accepted and trying to arrange a visit. Don't visit and be rude to everyone. Don't get drunk on the visit weekend and sleep through the next day's events. We remember."

As the Chair one of our Admissions Committees this year, I strongly support all of these comments. I'd add that perhaps the key thing while interviewing is to project interest in science in general and the research of the person you are meeting with in particular. I value excitement about science over many other, more quantifiable variables, as that is what will keep you going during the inevitable slow times.

I HAVE met previous applicants in other contexts later in their careers, so in the case of the best (and most memorable worst) applicants, we do remember.

Mark P

Alex said...

I've been on job interviews where I had a hunch going in that I wouldn't want to take an offer, but it was merely a hunch, not a decision, so I went in with an open mind. In some cases I came away with my hunch confirmed, and in other cases I came away realizing that it is a good place and I would seriously consider an offer. As long as you go into a visit (whether a job interview or grad school visit or whatever) with an open mind I see no dishonesty in going there despite leaning against it.

female Science Professor said...

I agree.

Ms.PhD said...

FSP, I think you overreacted to gossip and were being unfairly judgmental.

Just because someone expresses enthusiasm about one place doesn't mean they are completely closed-minded about your place (maybe you are, but not everyone is). But I'm deeply disappointed to think that you, FSP, would use 2nd hand information by way of Facebook, of all things. Don't you have better things to do???

Disgusting to me to only be realizing now just how petty and selfish most faculty really are. And shortsighted. I agree with the comments emphasizing the potential for networking - even with STUDENTS! - from every visit. And what that could do for your reputation as a school or a department if they have a good visit, EVEN IF they decide to go somewhere else, and EVEN IF they suspected they would go somewhere else BEFORE they visited.

Anonymous said...

When I visited grad schools, after school #5 I knew where I was going.. I called school #6 and cancelled the visit (driving distance, should have saved them money and certainly, time). I debated if it was the 'right' thing to do (having always tried to please people it felt weird to say 'no'), but I feel it was.

Unfortunately, the person charged with recruiting me labelled me a bitch, which got back to me. Further confirming my decision...

Anonymous said...

My answer echos that of the other admissions chairs in the crowd - we want the content of your answer, not the packaging! A simple "Thank you for the opportunity to visit your program, I have decided to go to X." You won't hurt our feelings!

When I applied to grad school, I visited several places where my enthusiasm level was only moderate. One of those places quickly emerged as one of my least favorite, but I had a pleasant visit and was impressed with the faculty and department even though it was clear that this would not be the place for me to get my PhD. Later, when I was applying for faculty positions, I applied to this place SOLEY because of the positive interactions I had while a prospective graduate student (the university was in a city that I wasn't excited about living in). When I visited as a faculty candidate, I was even more impressed with the faculty and students and I ended up taking the job. Of course, the other faculty didn't remember that I had been a prospective student so many years ago, but it is a small world! If I had cancelled that visit years ago I would have missed out on some excellent career opportunities.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Disagreeing with Comrade PhysioProf, I do care where individual applicants end up and why.

Your reading comprehension sucks motherfucking ass. Try again.

Anonymous said...

I had it down to two schools, A and B. A was the front runner the whole way, and I even visited it at a significant cost to myself (no help from A). Very late in the game, a big part of the anticipated deal with A fell through (part of the collaboration, funding, my salary, etc). I realized that my situation, both personal and professional, were only going to be feasible at B. I then politely and quickly let A know that because of the changed situation, I was going to have to decline and would most likely go with B.

Long story short, among other things I later that morning received a personal call from the head of A's department angrily berating me and acting as though I had been yanking their chain, when it was arguably the other way around. Luckily A and B were pretty divergent fields. Just thought I'd give you an example of how sometimes you can handle everything professionally and how professors/departments can still take it apparently very personally. I think it was actually worse I told them about B because it was technically a higher-rated school and I think that stoked the fire.

Never regretted going to B and had a great time. So don't close off your options prematurely.

Isabellawarschonhella said...

applicant's friend on Facebook:

Who knows what that friend really said, and whether the posting friend grossly distorted his or her statement. Tells you never to discuss these matters in any way that could be compromising except with people you trust.

I interviewed with several people for post-doc positions back in the days, and didn't write "thanks but no thanks" letters to a couple. I was immature, insecure, in-everything, and still feel very bad about it. If you are in the situation, just write a few lines. It won't kill you, and it will help you keep a good conscience for years to come.

female Science Professor said...

The Facebook post was unambiguous. When you read a direct statement like that, it is information, not gossip or hearsay.

Anonymous said...

One of our recruits this year loudly stated that (s)he (gender was clear, just trying to keep it anonymous here) wasn't coming to our U. According to him/her the only reason of the recruit visit was 'to drink your alcohol and eat your food'. Of course this was not said in front of faculty, only in front of the students. Who were nice and didn't tell the faculty just in case (s)he would change his/her mind. I would have let them know right away to keep them from wasting their time on this person. If you are so ignorant as to blurt out stuff like that...

a physicist said...

I am in a relatively small field of physics. I have kept in touch with many former applicants who went elsewhere to graduate school. I'll reiterate two points: (1) it's completely fine if you decide to go elsewhere, you won't hurt our feelings, and (2) don't burn any bridges, because yes, we will remember. But by far, my memories are pleasant and I always enjoy meeting former applicants at conferences. Who knows, there's a chance they'll end up working with me as a postdoctoral fellow or eventually as a faculty colleague!

And to reiterate a third point, you're welcome to visit us as long as you have an open mind. We understand if you've been admitted to shinier fancier places, but we're happy that you're giving us a chance. And some students are impressed and change their minds and come to our program. If you're just visiting us for the free food, then no, that's not an open mind, and you're probably taking away the opportunity from another student who we might admit / invite for a visit.