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.