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I'm in/from the US. I'm finishing my PhD this semester. I've been offered a research postdoc, via email, by the dept. chair at one of my top choices, but outside the US (would rather not give too many details). I replied to say I'm accepting the position. Everyone seems very happy: me, the chair, the professor I intend to work with. But I have nothing in writing.

In the meantime I have an offer for a teaching job at another place much closer, which I would definitely take if I were not getting the above postdoc. I don't feel comfortable turning this down until the other setup is official.

I emailed the postdoc place asking for an official letter. They said they would send it out by mail, but ignored my request for a scanned emailed copy, and I need to give a yes or no answer to the second place before their alleged letter would arrive. I emailed them again about the scanned copy and no response though it has only been a couple days.

How confident should I be that this postdoc is really happening? How common is it for informal agreements like that to be backed out of? Are scanned emailed letters less customary outside the US? It would be terrible of I turned down the teaching job and then the postdoc fell through.

Also, what should I say to the other place if I am still unsure about the postdoc by the deadline for my yes/no?

Update: I got the requested scan of the official letter today. I ran it by my adviser and he says this seals the deal and I can cancel any other interviews. Whew!!!

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They said they would send it out by mail. I have a similar incident recently (nothing to do with job offer). I sent the other party a signed official document via express mail so I know when it gets there and who signs the receipt of the document. – scaaahu Mar 15 at 6:28
I might be wrong, but I would guess this depends a lot of which country. – Jessica B Mar 15 at 6:43
Note that there are institutions at which offer letters cannot be written for legal reasons. In such a case, the paperwork that you are expecting would be some form for starting the hiring process. This may be the reason why you are not getting a scanned copy upfront - you could not use it for anything. Since you did not write where your postdoc would be, I'm only guessing here, though. – DCTLib Mar 15 at 9:16
"Are scanned emailed letters less customary outside the US?" -- Even in the U.S., use of digital communications varies widely by institution. In the early oughts I was at a college where everything was digital. Over a decade later, I'm at a college where basically everything is done on paper, and no one is in the habit of doing things by email (e.g., many people would not know how to scan a document). – Daniel R. Collins Mar 15 at 11:40
This sounds like it is a real offer but I would still be wary of this. A close friend of mine was offered an assistant professor position at a good US university in such a manner and had even worked out details such as how he planned on spending his startup fund. Turned out the reason he wasn't getting the offer was because one of the professors at the department was delaying the process to try to squeeze in an interview for one of his friends and my friend never got the offer he was promised (verbally on the phone by the department head). I suggest you get an extension on your other offer. – Hadi Mar 16 at 23:08
up vote 32 down vote accepted

An offer in this type of situation is almost always a real offer. However, this kind of delay in getting a written offer is nonetheless quite common and has to do with the way the university's internal bureaucracy works. And as the word "almost" indicates, there is always a chance that something will go wrong, so you are absolutely right to be concerned.

The way it works (in the U.S., and probably in some other countries) is this: postdoc offers are often made by a department chair, but are often subject to approval by a higher university authority such as a dean. Naturally, the dean needs to actually review the file before approving the appointment, and this takes extra time (sometimes several weeks, since deans are busy with many other things) after the department chair or search committee have already recommended making the appointment. In the meantime, the department wants to ensure that they can secure the candidate's commitment to accept the position. Waiting those extra weeks before contacting the candidate is completely impractical and means that they will almost certainly miss out on the opportunity of hiring the person.

The result of this dynamic is that the university will try to play a game whereby the department chair will contact a postdoc candidate with an email, formulated to look as formal as possible (e.g., containing salary and other details, and a response deadline) without actually entering the university into a legally binding commitment. (By the way, IANAL, but just the fact that it's an email rather than a letter is not necessarily the issue; I believe an email could very conceivably be held up in court to be just as binding as a "written" offer, and that it really all depends what the "offer" actually says, including nuances such as whether the word "offer" is used, and whether it contains weasel phrases such as "recommend your appointment to", "subject to approval by", "pending review" etc.)

Note that the way this process is designed is more or less well-intentioned and done in good faith, at least in places I'm familiar with. The goal is simply to achieve an optimal outcome under the constraints of how the university functions, while protecting the university's interests to the extent possible. In all likelihood, no one is trying to scam you into accepting an offer that they will then not offer you. At the same time, as a department chair myself I often think that this way of conducting the university's affairs is somewhat unfair and places an undue burden of worry on the candidate's shoulders. After all, there is always a chance that something will go wrong, there will be a disagreement between the chair and the dean or some other step in the process will fail and the appointment will fall through. And I wonder if when push comes to shove, the university's position of sending emails that are carefully optimized to get people to think that they have a real offer when the language of the email actually avoids making any concrete promises will really hold up in court. At least from an ethical point of view it seems problematic to me. But that's the way things work in many places, and usually things work out in the end.

The bottom line is that a lot of this comes down to a question of trust: did the hiring department manage to instill in you a feeling that they "got you covered" and are backing up their claims with concrete actions? Or are they behaving in a way that seems suspicious and alarming? The lack of willingness to email you a scanned copy certainly seems like a possible red flag (depending on whom you sent it to - never discount the possibility that that person may simply be incompetent or forgetful, so consider looking for other people in the department whom you can turn to for help). Only you can decide how risky the situation feels, and how much risk you are willing to tolerate to secure the position. The only general answer we can give is "an offer is usually a real offer, except when it's not".

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I've been speaking to the dept. chair and the professor I would be working with. When I raised these concerns with the chair he said there is absolutely no need to worry and that he would expidite sending the letter by mail. As for the prof. I am certain he would be very upset if this fell through, even thanked me for accepting. Only cause for alarm is the lack of reply from the chair about the scan request. – j0equ1nn Mar 15 at 12:30
While from the chair side of the table, you are correct that these offers are "real" and rarely fall through. The issue I have seen is when overly anxious candidates misinterpret an "expression of interest" as an offer. Candidates need to have a frank discussion about what is happening to make sure everyone is on the same page. – StrongBad Mar 15 at 17:13

Don't count on an offer until you have it officially, in writing. A verbal offer is not an offer. An email or call saying you will get the offer is not an offer.

You say you "emailed the postdoc place". Who did you email? If it is an administrator they may not understand the urgency of the situation. I would email the professor you will be working for and (politely) make it completely clear that you have a non-negotiable deadline for replying to another offer. You should also state that if you don't have at least a scanned copy of an official offer from him/her before then, you will have no choice but to accept the teaching position, even though the postdoc is your first choice. If they really want you, they will take the 5 minutes to scan a copy of the letter. If they don't, maybe it's best to turn down that offer anyway.

In the meantime, I would also negotiate with the second place for an extension of the deadline.

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"An email ... is not an offer" you should provide a legal citation for this. In the US, you would want to read up on the UETA and Forcelli v Gelco. – corsiKa Mar 15 at 13:51
People break the law all the time. Unless the OP is ready to spend his time litigating a university in a foreign country, the details of the law do not matter. – Jørgen Fogh Mar 15 at 14:20
@JørgenFogh Not to mention "burning the bridges" with those people, if the litigation gets anywhere. - - - - - - - - Actually a police sheriff in a speech ("Don't talk to the police" is the title on youtube, i think) on a law school said that everyone has broken some law at some point. – Mindwin Mar 15 at 15:16
@JørgenFogh your logic also applies to so-called "written" offers. If the details of the law truly "do not matter" because "people break the law all the time", why is a written offer any better than an email? The answer is that your premise is incorrect - the law does matter, even if not as much as we would like. corsiKa's point is valid and important. – Dan Romik Mar 15 at 19:20
This whole discussion is not relevant to my answer; I did not write that "an email is not an offer". An email very often is an offer! – David Ketcheson Mar 16 at 5:28

This may seem obvious but the fact that you are asking the question implies that you are unsure as to certainty and that alone should encourage you question anything that is not a signed contract.

Personally I would approach this by contacting them directly and explaining your position. If they are 100% on their commitment then expediting the written confirmation you need will not be an issue. A little pressure will work wonders.

Good luck.

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I wanted to say something like this, too. Your immediate problem was already resolved, but if it weren't, I would not hesitate to call the place and explain (again) why a scanned copy in email would be urgently required. Though I'm guessing their conundrum was that they didn't take a photo before putting it in the mail, and producing a scan of a newly printed second copy would seem to be of dubious utility, and possibly raise questions about forgery, even though the purpose is completely legitimate and pressing. – tripleee Mar 16 at 8:56

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