Taking a Chance

Feb 01 2012 Published by under applying for an academic job

Several readers have written for advice about complex situations involving making major career decisions before all possible options are known. Most of these e-mails are very long and detailed, and I am not going to include any one e-mail here, but will just present the general situation for discussion.

What do you do if you have an offer for a job (e.g., a tenure-track position) that is not your dream job (for whatever reason: location, resources, colleagues, family/life issues etc.) and you also have some indication that you might eventually have more/better offers, but nothing is certain (e.g., you have other interview invitations). You have to give an answer to the place that has offered you a job before you will know all your options. (Let's assume that you asked for more time to make a decision and maybe even got some, but it's not enough; the hiring department can't wait any longer.)

Do you accept the offer that is in-hand and withdraw from the other search(es) or do you turn down the in-hand offer and hope/gamble that you will get something better?

First let me say that I know that discussions of such topics are painful for those in fields with no/few job options, but in fields with job opportunities, including tenure-track positions, this is a common 'problem'.

You might think it is a simple decision: If you are lucky enough to get a job offer, take the job. And yet: the reason that the e-mails to me on this topic are so long and complex is because this can be a difficult decision, particularly if you (and any partners/family involved in the decision) are not thrilled about Job Offer #1 and would be thrilled if you are so fortunate as to get an offer from another place that might be an option if you wait a bit longer.

I hope everyone agrees that it is important to conduct discussions in good faith with all concerned, but beyond that generic statement, it's worth discussing some of the gray areas.

For example, what if you accept Job Offer #1 and then renege if a 'better' offer comes through a month or three later? That's not good, especially for the institution that has invested time and money in hiring you, but is it more or less bad than accepting the offer, starting the job, perhaps spending your no-doubt considerable start-up funds, and then leaving as soon as you can get something better?

Or: what if you decline Job Offer #1 and then nothing else comes through? That's not good for you, but is it more or less bad than taking a job that you know will make you (and/or your family) unhappy? (I would caution here that we can't always predict these things. I left what I thought was my 'dream job' for another place I didn't think I would like nearly as much, but the new place turned out to be even better than my first job.)

You might be wondering: Why would someone apply to Job Offer #1 University if they think they will be unhappy there and don't really want the job? This is a good question, but such situations are quite common for a variety of reasons, including (1) Some people send out applications to every possible job for which they are even somewhat qualified, not knowing how well they will fare on the job market; and (2) Some people might apply for a job that they think might be OK, but after they visit for an interview, realize that working there would not be so great. So, it happens, and as long as different institutions conduct searches at different times and rates, these situations will arise.

What to do, what to do? You can weigh all the pros and cons for your career/life, try to guess what is the 'best' place for you, and maybe flip a coin or consult an oracle, or something. Can the blogosphere help? I don't know, but I hope that readers who have been in this situation -- either as a job candidate or as an administrator trying to recruit top candidates -- will weigh in with comments and advice.

25 responses so far

  • plam says:

    That's a tough question. I'm glad that I didn't have that problem when getting a job.

    I have heard about people taking and not taking the offered job. Neither is actually a good solution. It's easy to say what people "ought" to do, but I think I'd just say that people have to do what they can live with.

  • John Vidale says:

    The first choice is always to delay the decision until one knows all the options, but you ruled that out. I'll just add that often, even if the first institution says they can't wait, if one says "I need 2 more months or I'm declining the job", they'll give it. Brinksmanship, and sometimes aided by an understanding of the situation by the search committee, although understanding can alternately lead to forcing the issue.

    Second, remember the math, most people on the short list will be disappointed. So don't be more optimistic about not-yet-complete searches than warranted. And turning down the only in-hand offer raises questions.

    Third, if one takes the first job, most often that means withdrawing from other simultaneous searches. Few academics actually interview and talk with a second school behind the first school's back for the very good reason it is playing with dynamite. The gossip mill is ruthlessly efficient in most cases. I only remember one case of someone taking a job, then backing out. That person actually did it to three schools in the row, and wound up being recognized as troubled, although he recovered.

    Very difficult situation.

  • el says:

    I was in that situation with my tenure-track position a few years ago.
    It would have been easier had I simply not liked the group where I got offer
    #1. Instead it was mainly a strong geographical preference for place #2, where the application review process unhappily took much longer.
    When offer #1 came, place #2 hadn't even started the interviews, but I knew I would take the offer at #2 if it came. Which would have been extremely rude to place #1 to say the least.
    So after an extended deadline that wasn't sufficient, I decided I couldn't
    accept offer #1 under those conditions and got a third place to offer me a
    postdoc to make sure I still had a job in case I didn't get that offer from
    place #2. Fortunately that didn't become relevant, but those extra weeks were very stressful.
    There is no way I would have dared to gamble with my job in an uncertain
    economy if I hadn't already gotten some unofficial positive vibrations from
    place #2 during the initial stages of their review process.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Short answer as usual is that it depends.

    It probably is a good idea to sit down and talk/think about what makes the offered job less interesting to you. It may be a situation where you have some room to negotiate, e.g. I really cannot take your offer unless WE can find a local position (not necessarily at the same place) for my partner. Are there possibilities that I have not thought of, or I really need more lab space/set up funding/released time/student support, etc to accomplish what we all want me to accomplish.

    And, of course, if there is no room for negotiation, or you really really really hate the place, you can walk away nicely. In a sense this is viewing the offer letter as the first step in a negotiation not as the end.

  • Anon says:

    I was in a similar position at one time, and here is the advice I got -- go tell your "dream job" schools the situation. The ones I hadn't heard back from yet -- I said "I have several job offers right now and need to make a decision soon, but I would rather come to your school. If you could get back to me soon, please let me know."

    P.S. A school that I wanted more did get back to me -- I interviewed there and now I work there.

    So, when you ask for more time, be pro-active and email/call those search committees and mention that they should consider you now otherwise you may be off the job market. It's that "using a job to leverage a job" thing.

  • anon says:

    I can only speak from my own experience. If there is an option to stay in the current post-doc or whatever position for an extra year, it pays to be picky. Really. I was heavily pressured to take a not-so-ideal job offer (low start-up, little evidence of strong support, etc), took it, and tried to make the best of it. It was an absolute disaster and just about destroyed my career. I was lucky enough to be able to get my own funding and move away from there. In retrospect, I was badly advised, and if I had to do it again, I would have waited for a better offer.

  • JoshPhD says:

    I had a somewhat similar situation. I applied for several positions, and was shortlisted on a few. Then offer #1 came though. I would have been very happy to take it, and was about to take it when my dream job called and asked me to wait on accepting offer #1 (we were in dialogue about my other prospects). I asked for and was granted a 2-week extension by offer #1. 2-weeks came and went and still no offer from dream job. Dream job told me that the hold up was on the administrative side of things and that they couldn't officially make me an offer until they had the paperwork in hand. They invited me back out to discuss things in more detail. On my way back to dream job, offer #1 called and said they needed a decision. I turned them down because I felt really strongly that dream job would come through. I also felt really bad for dragging offer #1 along any further just to turn them down if dream job came through. In the end, it worked out great for me. Dream job offer came through a few days later, and the rest is history!

  • Susan says:

    - your link on your other blog to this page is bad.

    - Your timing is uncanny to say the least.

    - The blogosphere is helpful. At a nadir in my own decision process, I googled a question and found this:
    http://www.historiann.com/2011/03/06/declining-a-job-offer-after-inking-the-contract/

    - In discussing this issue with many colleagues, the trend emerged that everyone's first reaction to the issue of reneging was uniformly negative. The most negative reaction, though, turned out to be a trained behavior resulting from a horror story told at a uni career-services-office seminar. In most cases everyone's second reaction was ".. but I'd do it".

    - There are interesting parallels to walking away from an upside-down mortgage: while the party line we're all ingrained to recite is something about morality or ethics, we know that corporations regularly walk away from debts that are no longer in their interest to service. You've got to look out for #1, and no one else is going to do it for you.

    - The idea that we should only apply to jobs we'd certainly take is ludicrous in this buyer's market. First, we don't know that up front, in either direction. Second, the overwhelmingly common advice is to apply for every job we have any hope of being considered for. It's not quite fair to turn around and blame it on us for applying, later.

  • SJP says:

    In my case, I took the first offer even with other options still out there. I thought it was less than ideal for location/personal reasons, but has turned out to be a great place for me. I have thrived here.

    A close friend of mine choose the other route. She did get the wonderful, fantastic job in the awesome location. But that fairy tale had a very dark ending--it was a completely dysfunctional department, and she was on the job market again within 2 years (by her own choice).

    My point: it's hard to predict the future, and in any situation either choice might be the right OR wrong one.

  • Anonymous says:

    Maybe this doesn't have to be such a hard decision. The glass is half empty or half full, no matter what you decide. Just decide one way or another, and then see the glass half full. And don't look back.

  • Since essentially all jobs are filled, but not all people wishing to stay in academia do so, it is clear that the employers have more pull. On the other hand, they should know how things work (if not, do you want to work there?). If this situation happens, it depends strongly on the chances of getting a job somewhere else. In many countries, not taking up the job for a minimum time (3 years for full professors, say) after signing the contract is illegal. Even if not, I wouldn't do it. Suppose there is an offer from the place where one doesn't really want to go. Tell this to the places one does want to go and say that one has another offer but doesn't want to decide based on who makes an offer first. (Note: Some countries have a common deadline for all offers, which solves this problem completely.) At least inofficially they will have to think about it. If they don't want you anyway, then you'll find out sooner. If they do, they might be able to find a way to get a decision out more quickly. If not, then one still has some pull at the first place, since they did make you an offer so you are, in their eyes, the best candidate. Tell them you need more time since you have other applications. If you decide for somewhere else, better for all concerned, for the first institute because the person they do hire will probably stay there. If not, then they know you will stay.

    Again, to those who think that one should somehow negotiate a job for the spouse here, just imagine what it would be like in another context. NASA: You want the job? Potential astronaut: Sure. N: Will you accept our offer? PA: What about offering my spouse a job as well. N: We don't have any more jobs to offer now, but when we do, your spouse is free to apply. PA: Then create a job for her. N: That wouldn't be fair to other candidates. If your spouse is good enough, then we will consider that application when the time comes. PA: But we both need a job now. N: Astronauts make more than most people. PA: But it's bad for my spouse's ego if only I get a job. N: You really think that getting a job on your coattails is better?

  • Susan says:

    Philip, I love that it's such a straightforward if/then tree for you, but: what if a) other places have not made their lists yet, and are nowhere near coming to a decision/offer point; and/or b) the first place cannot extend a deadline longer than an extra week (I know; negotiate and they'll extend it, if they really want you they'll extend it, etc, etc, but please consider: what if they in reality cannot extend it)? There is a real quandry here where information does not overlap and you cannot make it overlap.

    • There is not always a solution, but I think the best strategy is wait until an offer is made (so it is clear that you are the top candidate) then negotiate. Before you have an offer, nothing is firm enough. After you have accepted, it is at best in bad taste to back out.

  • An Ony Mouse says:

    I was in this situation. In my first year on the job market, I got an offer from a small school that was trying to get the jump on other places by sending their offers out early. They gave me an extra week to respond, no more. The excellent advice I got from my mentors was to think very specifically about what I would need to make that job work for me, and then try to negotiate for those things. Obviously there are some limitations to this strategy ("I need a $1M startup package or I'm outta here" is not going to fly at most places), but I was careful to tailor my requests to that particular institution and justify each one in terms of how it would enable me to be productive there and provide their students with good opportunities.

    When their response was "Sorry, we can't negotiate," it was not difficult for me to decline the offer. I did have another year left on my postdoc, for which I was extremely grateful, since I got no other offers that year. I talked to people who thought I was crazy for having walked away from a sure thing, but I felt that if the institution was unable or unwilling to negotiate with me on some reasonable requests that would have made me more successful as a faculty member, it was not a place I wanted to be.

    I went back on the job market the next year and got three offers, all of which were better than the first one. Of course there is never a guarantee, but I want people in this situation to know it CAN happen that you'll get a better offer down the road. Ultimately, though, my future prospects actually became sort of irrelevant to the decision -- it simply came down to saying no to a situation that was clearly not right for me.

  • aprofessor says:

    A slightly different perspective, maybe. Don't look at trying to get the absolute optimal solution. Look at it instead as a threshold issue. Is the job that you've been offered good enough that you could be happy there? If so, take it, be happy, and live your life. Better to be a superstar at a tier or two below where you might have been able to get.

    My dad tells a story of someone who turned down an offer when he thought he could do better. A decade and a half later this dude said, 100% serious and with a straight face, that he would seriously and literally give his right arm to have taken that job.

    Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  • Mac says:

    I have done both things. I turned down a good but problematic (for me) job because of other things in the works and I accepted a not-perfect job when other things at other schools were still possible. In my case it hasn't worked out well. I think the threshold standard is a good one as is listening carefully to the people with whom you're negotiating. There were some weird dealings in my negotiations that have turned out to be a reflection of a deeply dysfunctional place. I don't regret turning the first job down - it wouldn't have been the right place - something I did not understand until I was on the interview. However, if I could go back and approach my negotiations with a far more cynical eye (there was a lot of friendly but unprofessional behavior which has now turned into unfriendly unprofessional behavior) I would definitely turn this job down.

    • anonme says:

      Could you give some specific examples? What should we watch for in an interview?

      • Mac says:

        One example is that I was hearing different things from different people and while this is always going to be a little true because people have different perceptions and needs (one person's "spacious lab" is another person's "too cramp and poky") what I should have realized was that these weren't perceptual issues but actually reflected a schism in the department. What I would consider "my side" of that schism is either leaving, just left, or is on the market but that wasn't true when I interviewed and they were still selling the place. I should have listened to how differently they described the dept from how others did - it's like they work in different schools (b/c they soon will).

        I don't know but while it's hard on an interview to not be selling yourself the whole time and part of this is being positive about what they say and show you - I think on the return home going over you impressions from a more cynical perspective is probably useful.

      • Z says:

        That's an interesting question. I've misjudged a few times, due to being on the lookout for schisms and so on. In retrospect, the places where I thought I detected schisms, just had a more impersonal institutional culture, which I've since realized I actually like.

  • James Annan says:

    You obviously take the first job, unless it is actually worse than nothing. Then you blow them off if/when you get a better offer. Just like they would kick you out if they thought you weren't good enough either during in the probationary period or end of contract (depending on the details). I really don't see there is much of a dilemma here. It's not an ideal situation, but life rarely hands you ideal situations.

    It is always possible that your opinion may change about how bad the first place is, and/or they may enhance your situation to try to retain you...but most importantly, the later offers may not materialise!

  • Z says:

    I'm for taking it if you feel good about it at a gut level, and if not then staying at the pokey postdoc. The jobs I've rationalized myself into taking because it was "smart" or safe, I've regretted; both times I had a fallback I didn't use because I thought I needed to take a "real job" so as to "look serious enough."

    I also think James Annan is right although reneging would be hard for me to do - I'm trained to consider it tasteless.

    I think it depends a lot how you do it - don't wait, don't come up with a complicated story, be up front.

  • B says:

    I tend to agree with James Annan. After recent experiences with salary freezes, furloughs, threats of layoffs/shutting down departments and such, it is pretty clear that the only interest you should look out for is your own. The university will not blink an eye before cutting you out, so why should you?

  • KB says:

    I had this same situation fifteen years ago. The first university I interviewed with offered me the position, yet I had several more interviews lined up and, although the first university extended the decision deadline, they could not/would not extend it long enough. I went with my gut reaction that I had during the interview. Because I had negative feelings about many aspects of the place and job during the interview, that sealed the deal for me. I declined the position on the day of their deadline, knowing I was taking a big risk and feeling nervous about it. I went on the several other interviews, and received several other offers. I accepted one of these later offers and am still at that same university. Since that time, I have occasionally run into the person who filled the position I declined at conferences and it is clear to me, when hearing about her job, colleagues, administration, etc., that I made the correct decision for me. Listen to your gut!