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I will graduate soon from the doctoral program. I will apply for multiple postdoc positions. The results of the one that I really think is great for my career will be probably announced later than the others. If I accept an earlier offer, and later learn that I could also get the one I desire the most, then I will really regret. However, I don't want to risk by refusing an early offer, since at the end I may get nothing.

Do you have any recommendations for such situations? Have you ever experienced this dilemma? How did you manage it?

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The same question could be asked about faculty positions. – JeffE Jan 27 at 13:16
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You can always ask for (and often get) additional time from the place that has made an offer, while letting your preferred place know that you have a deadline and they'd better hurry up. That worked for me. – David Ketcheson Jan 28 at 12:11
up vote 14 down vote accepted

This is an typical situation in application process with no perfect solution available. I is totally ok to apply for several positions at a time. The institutions are also talking to several applicants in parallel. But after signing a contract, it is not a nice gesture to revoke this w/o reason (even if notice periods would allow this legally). The institute has set trust in you and canceled the application of others. How would you feel if, after you have signed at an institute and canceled other applications, they would say : "Oh sorry, we got the confirmation from somebody which is more suitable to our business targets. Thanks for your time and good luck."

Below are some ideas on how to handle the dilemma. It is up to you, which one you want to follow:

  • Accept that in life you have to make decisions at time when you don't have all pros and cons available. It's is not like finding a solution to an exam, where the data available clearly defines which answer is correct and which is wrong.

  • Accept that, even if if you would have all offers available at the same time, you cannot say which offer is the best. Many unexpected events might happen at one position or the other: Your project might get canceled during your work. Your professor might change department. You might meet your future spouse.

  • If you are really sure which is the best position for you, but the confirmation from this position has still not arrived: Contact this potential employer and explain your situation. You are really interested in this position, but you have also agreements from other institutes so you need to make about the alternatives an decision. Is it possible for your target employer to give you an confirmation earlier? If the employer is really interested in you, they will try to shorten the decision time. Otherwise there is the risk that they lose you.

  • After signing a contract, withdraw all applications to other institutes. So you save them work. Additionally you avoid you dilemma, when you get an positive reply, but have signed already elsewhere.

  • Attention: Only be sure to have a job after you have signed a contract. Don't rely on verbal promises only. Things might change easily: The project start might be delayed by 1 year. Or the nephew of the CEO might be interested in the position ...

  • Asking for time (e.g. 1 weekend) to think it over an recent contract is ok. But at durations longer than 1 week, the employer might become impatient.

  • A bit more time can be gained, if you ask for some small modifications on an proposed contract. The employer might need some time (eg. 1 week) to issue a new contract. Anyhow this point (and the previous one) shall not be exploited too much. The employer might get the impression that you are not really interested and hire an other candidate in the meantime.

  • If possible, you can try to reduce the risk a bit, by smart timing of the applications. First send them out to one or two institutions which are not in your main target area. The benefit here, is that you have the opportunity to get some more training in the application process. You become more confident in interview situation. Second try your number 1 choice. You can hope for earlier feedback if there is an opportunity for you. With some delay you could contact departments which are a good fallback solution, althrough not the main target. The idea here is that you are not forced to early to decide to take or leave an offer here. If your number one declines, you might get some positive feedback from these good fallback solutions later. Of course this strategy has to be adapted to time restrictions, and the application deadlines for the adverticed positions.

  • Career is not only defined by your first job. Of course this first job already gives you an direction in industry you will develop. Further corrections here might be energy and time consuming. But the final result, if you become an owner of an multinational enterprise, an university professor, or simply an employe w/o significant career step depends mostly on personality.

  • Potential employers prefer candidates who appear to be authentic. Don't try to play to much games with them.

  • Trust your gut feeling.

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Unlike in science? – Mason Wheeler Jan 27 at 20:51
    
Yes. What I want to say is: At university you learn to analyse problems, by deeply analysing everything which influences the outcome. Publications should only include statements which are completly water-proof. Also at exams you are drilled to find the clearly defined correct answer. In contrary in life there is no exact correctand wrong. I admid that this statement is a bit provoking and simplifying. I know that during research you also have to make decision based on incomplete data. But I hope you get the main idea what I wanted to say. – BerndGit Jan 27 at 21:12
    
I have edited my answer a bit in order to be more clear. – BerndGit Jan 27 at 21:21
    
@BerndGit, I find many people in academia suggesting/recommending what you did to the OP (in summary, one shouldn't revoke a signed contract for another better offer). I wonder why different standards for academia and industry with respect to free-will/free-market? In most countries, including the US, the employers can not bind the employees even after signing a contract. There can't be any legal reasons for such advises, except for some specific cases. Are you saying that the OP should still go to an institute that offered 40K/year salary even if s\he later on gets an offer of 70K/year? – John Jan 27 at 22:29
    
@John: Even in industry, it's definitely frowned upon to back out of a signed contract. I would never hire or recommend someone who I knew had done it, and I would never apply to or recommend a company that I knew had done it. I think the difference is just that in academia, "frowned upon" carries much more weight, since it's a much smaller community, with references and word-of-mouth playing a much larger role in hiring. – ruakh Jan 27 at 23:36

This can be difficult. If you get an offer with an uncomfortable deadline, I would recommend bringing it to the attention of departments which you prefer (and/or individual faculty at those departments).

This is not guaranteed to push them to make a faster decision, but it could.

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It is perfectly ethical to apply to several positions at the same time. It is a different thing if you accept and then decline later on (as they may plan for you to come at that stage); still it happens, but it's not ideal.

The fairest solution is, once you get an acceptance from the first batch, to ask them to wait for a certain period - they may not like it, but you agreeing to getting interviewed is not a promise to join them and they have the option to deadline you if they need a quick decision. If you are strong, they may be more flexible in that respect.

You will not get entirely around this dilemma of balancing your and their legitimate interests.

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"Ask them to wait" is spot on -- if they want (or even need) an answer immediately they can tell you. You might want to use an approach like "time to consider" rather than "there's another job I fancy more". – Chris H Jan 27 at 13:40

I can answer this question from my experience of applying for multiple postdoc positions and accepting one of two offers.

A few years ago, I applied to around 6 postdoc positions. The professor for one of the positions gave me an interview, and gave me an exploding offer for position A with a one week deadline.

At the time, I felt that position A was the best fit for me, so I was going to take the offer and just withdraw from the other positions. However, my PhD advisor advised me to follow up with my other applications, just in case. Upon his urging, I sent a follow-up e-mail to each of the other positions to which I applied, basically saying

I was wondering if there are any updates regarding my postdoc application? I would like to work with you, so I wanted to let you know that I just received an offer for another postdoc position, which I have to decide to accept by the date.

After I sent these e-mails, a few of the faculty told me that they would not be able to make a decision quickly and so would not be able to give an offer. One of the faculty decided to give me an interview, and eventually gave me an offer which I accepted.

I am thankful for my PhD advisor's advice which led me to a position B which I felt was a better fit for me than position A. I am also thankful that the faculty at position A gave me one week which was a reasonable time frame for me to contact the other positions and to work out an offer which I eventually accepted.

TL;DR When you receive a firm offer, you can politely let the other recruiters/faculty know that you need to make a decision soon. If they are interested in you, that may spur them to act more quickly to give you and interview and offer.

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NOTE: I do not have any experience in applying a postdoc position; but this comes to my mind:

I logically guess that, there should be some time between the date that the university calls applicant and tells him that he passed evaluation tests and his application is accepted and the latest date that the applicant can inform the university or research institute that he will accept and register for his position.

I recommend you to take care of these dates and time gaps.

Maybe, when you are in the gap time that you can register for another institute where you are less interested in working; the more preferred one inform you that you are accepted and you may register there.

Another option may be contacting the institute you are applying to or the professor with whom you will be working (your mentor) and ask whether you can delay your registration/attendance or not. They may assist their applicant in some emergency conditions.

Please note that, I am not really sure whether it is ethical or not to decline your application after it is accepted by a university; or whether it is ethical to apply for more than one institute at a time. However, I have the sense that it is applicant's future and opportunities, and he can apply to many job positions simultaneously.

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