Make up your mind, already !

Academic job seekers are sometimes in the fortunate position of choosing one of several job offers (not often these days, given the difficult job market). This happens both at the postdoctoral, as well as the faculty level. The reason is simple; someone needing a job will send out as many applications as possible, and it is not inconceivable that more than one employer may be interested in hiring the same person (paradoxically, this seems to be happening more so at times of tight job market, for reasons that continue to befuddle me).
Anyway, I hear a lot of opinions regarding the proper “etiquette” that an applicant should observe, when in the enviable situation of entertaining several offers (either actual or expected). Some of them are sensible, others… not so much. So, I thought I would give my two cents worth.

My basic tenet is that job applicants are in the weaker position, and should thus be given considerable leeway. They are the ones fighting for their professional future, which entitles them to be “selfish” — i.e., priority should be given to the their need, not those of the prospective employers. This is because the choice is much more crucial for the candidates than for the employers, if one takes a long term view of it. The fortunes of a department, or of a Principal Investigator (PI)’s research program, do not (except, I suppose, in some exceedingly rare cases) depend on the hire of an individual postdoctoral associate or tenure-track assistant professor. On the other hand, a bad choice on the part of the applicant can have serious repercussions on her career. And as usual, a choice can be made based not only on professional, but also personal reasons that belong with the candidate and the candidate only, and must be respected no matter how unsound and mind boggling they might appear.

Prospective employers should always keep that in mind, and consequently act reasonably and sensibly. Putting pressure on someone to whom an offer has been extended, in order for her to make up her mind and/or accept in a rush, even in the light of other offers that the person has the right to entertain carefully, is not reasonable nor sensible. It is also counter-productive. It can only have the effect of creating tension between the prospective employer and potential employee, possibly leading to bad blood between them in the future, regardless of whether the offer is eventually accepted. Anyone who, in order to induce a candidate to accept an offer, should act in ways which could come across as intimidating, threatening, aggressive (if not borderline bullying), is likely not a PI or department chair with whom working is easy. It is in the best interest of the offerer to allow the chosen person to take some time and come to the best decision. Of course, that does not mean allowing one to take forever to give an answer (I come back to this below).

Because of the paramount importance of the decision for the candidate, and because in the end it does not serve anyone’s best interest to have a postdoc or tenure-track faculty who is unhappy with her job, within reason people should also be allowed to change their mind, without eliciting anger or bitterness on the part of the person whose offer is turned down (much less future retaliation). In particular, aside from all obvious situations (e.g., unforeseen personal circumstances), one is allowed to change one’s mind and turn down an offer previously accepted, if an indisputably, materially better employment opportunity (one of which the candidate was not aware early on, or which could reasonably be deemed sufficiently unlikely to pan out that no prudent job seeker should bank on it) does suddenly appear, subsequently to the candidate having accepted an offer.
What do I mean, by “indisputably better” ? Well, there is obviously no “clear-cut” criterion, and individual cases may be different, but, for example, I do not see how one can be blamed for opting for a permanent position that materializes after a temporary one has been accepted [0]. In some cases, a prestigious fellowship (i.e., a term appointment), coming with much greater visibility and a much higher salary, could also be regarded as “indisputably better” than another term appointment (e.g., a postdoctoral position). In these cases, no reasonable person can try to shame a job seeker for changing her mind.
Job offerers acting as if this amounted to “playing games”, “betrayal”, “sneakiness”, “double-facedness” and similar nonsense, are delusional, and deserve to be ridiculed and/or ignored. Job seekers need not worry about future retaliation. In the highly unlikely event of such delusional job offerers trying to exact revenge, by badmouthing job seekers to colleagues and peers, they will only make themselves look stupid. No one will take them seriously. Trust me on this one [1].

Now, does that mean that, as far as the job seeker is concerned, “anything goes” ? That since a job seeker is in a weak position, then one should be unscrupulous and ruthless ? That it is OK, for example, to commit verbally to accepting a bunch of offers, knowing that in the end only one will be actually taken ? Of course not. In particular, the following is not acceptable:

  • Accepting an offer while waiting for another PI or university to make a decision on a comparable position, knowing that, should a second offer come from one of these other places, the first one (initially accepted) will be turned down. That is not acceptable. I think that the professional, correct way to act, is for the candidate to ask the person or institution making the first offer some time to make a decision, as other, similar offers could conceivably arrive (after all, those making offers also went through a bunch of applications and picked the ones they liked the best — why should job seekers not be entitled to the same privilege ?) [2]. At the same time, the candidate should contact other places and let them know that she has received an offer, and is therefore in no position to wait too long. If those other people or institutions really want her, they will get their act together and make her an offer too. If they keep taking their time, there is a pretty good chance that no offer would ever come anyway.
  • Entertaining negotiations with several institutions for the sole purpose of extracting the best possible deal from the one and only place that one is really, genuinely considering.
  • The above behaviour is unacceptable because it can cost jobs to others. So, by all means try to do what is best for you, but do not forget your fellow job seekers.


    [0] In the case of an offer for a permanent post, coming concurrently to the acceptance of a temporary (postdoctoral) position, it is usually the case that the candidate can negotiate the deferment of the start date for the permanent job, in order to honour the commitment made to the person whose postdoctoral offer was accepted. Typically, one can be a postdoc for one year and then start on the permanent job. If that is not possible, for whatever reason, a decision of the candidate of forgoing the postdoctoral opportunity in favour of the permanent one must be accepted as legitimate, in any circumstance.

    [1] Should a candidate mention to prospective employer A, that she has submitted applications for positions that would have to be preferred to the one offered by A, but are likely not going to materialize ? This is a tough one, and largely a matter of opinions. I personally do not recommend that of my advisees. There is no certainty in life — one is constantly playing the probability game. Anything that a job seeker should honestly regard as unlikely, ned not be mentioned. In my view, the academic path being as difficult, the job market being as brutal as they are, it must be always understood that an aspiring young scholar has the primary responsibility of finding a permanent post, and that implies exploring all possible paths, including those that may seem like “long shots”.

    [2] What does “some time” mean ? I think that in the vast majority of cases, two to three weeks is adequate.

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    One Response to “Make up your mind, already !”

    1. GMP Says:

      After I had interviewed (has it been 7 years already?), the first offer I received was from my first choice (among the places I interviewed), let’s call it Uni A, and it had something like a 4-week deadline; the second offer came a week after, from Uni B. After hearing that I had received an offer already, Uni B gave me a week to decide. Actually, Uni B had been the first to interview me, more than a month before any other; I liked them a lot, and if they had been prompt about making an offer, I would have likely taken it. Instead, they waited more than 2 months to give me an offer, during which I had two more interviews and fell in love with my current place (Uni A). I ended up deciding 10 days after the 1st offer (from Uni A), and 3 after receiving offer from Uni B. At that time, I withdrew my application from the third place where I had interviewed only a couple of days before the first offer came through (I knew I would never consider their offer as competitive to those of Uni A or B, too high of a teaching load and part of the country I would really not want to live in if I could help it).

      Anyway, I think it’s important to assess whether the candidate genuinely seems like he/she would want to work at your university. Sometimes we get these excellent candidates, but they don’t click, there is a marked lack of interest on their part, yet we still give them offers and waste a lot of time waiting and they of course don’t accept. For instance, we interviewed a woman a few years back, she had 6 or 7 interviews that year. She gave a great talk and had a stellar record, but you could tell she didn’t particularly care about the impression she left on us; she had her sights set on greener pastures. That’s quite alright, but we ended up giving her an offer which she of course declined.

      I am contrasting this with another excellent candidate where there was an instant chemistry with everyone in the department and he was genuinely excited about the city and the potential collaborators. You could tell he would be a great fit, and he is! My interview was a bit like that — love at first sight, both with the city and the potential collaborations. I never regretted my decision.

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