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I am currently on the academic job market, and scheduling on-campus interviews with institutions that might want to hire me.

Suppose I am invited to an on-campus interview at the University of X, and must travel there by air. They handle travel on a reimbursement basis: I buy the plane ticket, and then they reimburse me.

However, the interview is a few weeks away. Since the job market sometimes moves fast, there is a chance that by the time of the scheduled interview, I may have already accepted another offer (say from the University of Y). Of course I should then decline the interview at X, but I would have already bought the plane ticket.

How should I plan for this contingency?

  1. I could buy a refundable ticket to X. However, these are normally several times the price of a non-refundable ticket, and if I do end up traveling to X, they might balk at reimbursing me for such an expensive fare.

  2. I could buy a non-refundable ticket to X. If I end up not going there, I could ask X to reimburse me for the cost of the ticket (or at least the "change fee" charged by the airline to let me use the ticket's value for a future flight). However, I suspect they will be reluctant to reimburse me for a trip I'm not making, and might refuse to do so altogether, in which case I am out-of-pocket.

  3. I could wait until the last minute to buy a non-refundable ticket for X. But it may still be expensive for them (or may exceed their limits), and the most convenient flights may be sold out.

  4. I could contact University of X and ask them for guidance. I'm a bit hesitant to do this, as I am afraid that if I bring up the possibility that I might accept another position, they might think I am not seriously interested in theirs.

Is there a standard way to handle this situation?

This is in the United States, if it matters.

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9 Answers 9

I am writing to disagree with Charles Morisset's answer. (I signed up just now, and am unable to comment.) At least, I would consider part of his answer to be poor advice for applying to TT jobs in mathematics.

In particular, I believe you should always accept invitations to interview if you think they're in your best interest -- i.e., if you would be happy to take a job there, and if you are not absolutely confident you won't get better offers.

Suppose that I had scheduled an interview at A, and I get an interview offer from B. I prefer A to B, but I also really like B. Then I would definitely accept the interview offer at B, even if you might get an offer from A in the meantime.

I say this as someone who was on our hiring committee this year. It is a difficult and stressful process for us, but surely it is much more difficult and stressful for candidates. We understand that candidates want to get the best job possible and expect that they will look out for their own best interests. We expect honesty, but hesitating to accept an interview offer at a school you like, under almost any circumstances, seems unwise to me.

What if you accept an offer from A before your interview at B, and the plane ticket is bought? I would contact B, tell them you had accepted another offer, offer thanks and apologies, and offer either to come and give your lecture, or to simply cancel the trip. Most hiring committees, I think, would be gracious and kind, would ask you not to come, and would refund your plane ticket. Perhaps they would like to meet you anyway, and give you the option of giving your talk. In the unlikely event that they are rude, this will give you reason to be grateful that you will be working elsewhere.

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To be fair, I didn't say not to accept invitation, but only to try to wait to schedule it, and in case of complex situation, to explain the situation to the committee. The last interviews I had (not for TT though) where at least half-days, or even full days, where I was the only candidate, and asking a committee to book an entire day and not to show up is not, in my opinion, a good move, but I might be wrong. If your interview is 15 minutes between two candidates (like in the French system), then not showing up is probably not that bad. –  Charles Morisset Jan 31 '13 at 22:09
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I think there's two major problems with your comment. First, there's no way to put off the invitation or "explain the situation" without hurting your chances of getting an offer. Second, I think the vast majority of professors would be thrilled to have a day that was booked suddenly free to get work done. Interviewing is done so that you can hire people, not because people enjoy it on its own. –  Noah Snyder Jan 31 '13 at 22:32

I have been in similar situations recently, and I have to say first that most of the time, the university was directly taking care of buying the plane ticket for me, so it somehow simplifies things. Nevertheless, I would say that the first point is that whenever you schedule an interview, you should somehow commit to attend it, meaning not accepting any offer before scheduling the interview. If you are expecting soon an answer from a place that you would definitely take if accepted, then wait until having received the answer before scheduling the next interview.

It's also worth mentioning that in many cases, an interview is not just an interview, and you might also give a seminar, meet and talk with people there, so it might be interesting to go there in any case, even if you have been accepted to another place. However, it's quite important to be open about it with the interviewing institution. I have been in this situation, i.e., going to an interview while having accepted another offer before, and mentioning only at the last minute, and it was clearly a rude thing on my side (to my defense, I didn't fully realise it was an actual interview, and thought it was just a seminar to make contact with the team there. It was however a clear fault on my side).

So, to answer your question, let's assume you've already applied to A, and you're waiting for their answer, and you need to schedule an interview for B. Two cases are possible:

  • either A is your preferred place, and in that case, wait until you have received their answer before making any arrangement. Ask A when they plan to give the answer, and if the expected date is close to the interview for B, then explain the situation to B. Academia is a competitive market, and there is nothing wrong in applying for several positions at the same time. Excellent candidates are usually accepted in several places, and as JeffE would say, if you're not excellent, why would they hire you anyway?

  • or B is your preferred place, and in that case, schedule the interview regardless of the date when you receive the decision from A. The only tricky part might be that you receive the answer from A before the interview to B, and that you have to make a decision, but that's hope to you to know the trade-off between accepting A and losing for sure B, or refusing A and risking for B.

So, in both case, go for 3: wait until the last moment to make any arrangement. You should finally consider the fact that academia is a small world, and that if you apply to both A and B, it's very possible that they are both aware of your double application. Anyway, I wouldn't expect a recruitment committee to believe that you have only applied to their opening.

EDIT Apparently, I wasn't as clear as I wanted to. In no case I'm suggesting not to accept any interview offer, but simply to try, if possible, when you're waiting for an answer from A, which would be your first choice, and you receive an interview offer from B, to wait to have the answer from A to schedule the interview at B. If you can't wait, then schedule it anyway, but be clear with B that you're expecting an answer from A that might arrive, and that you might have to formally accept before the interview at B.

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If I understand correctly, this is advice for interviewing for postdocs in the sciences in Europe. It may well be good advice in that context, but it should not be taken as advice for tenure track jobs in America. –  Noah Snyder Jan 31 '13 at 15:22
    
You said "[If you prefer A to B] wait until you have received [A's] answer before making any arrangement [to interview at B]." I think this is terrible advice that's liable to end up with people being unemployed when they could have gotten a job at B. If B is somewhere that you'd like a job, the only right reply to an invitation is "Yes, I would be excited to interview at your school, here's the dates that work for me." –  Noah Snyder Jan 31 '13 at 23:10

If you've bought the ticket for an interview that you honestly intended to go for, and you get an offer in the meantime, it doesn't necessarily mean that you should decline the interview.

  • You might be pleasantly surprised by the place and realize that it's more in contention than you think.
  • You might make useful contacts that will help you later on in your career even if you don't go there.
  • you might get an offer from this place, and having two offers improves your negotiating position tremendously.
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I'm thinking of the case that I have accepted an offer from Y before the interview at X. It can't be appropriate to attend the interview at X if I have already accepted another offer. (In principle, X could ask me to visit anyway just to give a talk, but they would probably rather use the time to interview another candidate.) –  Nate Eldredge Jan 28 '13 at 13:38

I'm assuming you're applying for tenure track jobs here. The value of a tenure track job is enough more than the cost of a plane ticket, that I really don't think it's worth doing anything that could compromise your odds at University X. If it's a matter of buying a ticket today or in a couple days, then you can easily drag your feet on buying the ticket without them even knowing. But otherwise, just buy the plane ticket and deal with the tricky situation if it comes about.

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It is always best to ask. You can use another pretext as a reason for your “hesitation”. Say, for example (in short):

I wonder what the restrictions are on travel reimbursement. I could buy a ticket X right now but I am not fully sure about the exact timing of the flight (due to family arrangements not yet settled). However the price might increase if I wait.

If you do not want to ask you have no possibility other than 1 or 3. Depends on how you evaluate your chances of finding a job before the interview. Probably 3 is worse than 1: if you have a cool new job you will not mind so much losing a plane ticket. I do not think universities would accept option 2.

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While the cost of buying the plane ticket is expensive, I would look at it as an "opportunity cost." If you wait until the last minute, and don't get a job offer and don't get reimbursement, then you have the worst of all worlds: no job offer, and a very expensive plane ticket to pay for!

It is therefore much better to ask the schools for guidance. However, if the issue is a financial one, you could mention to the school that you might need a travel advance in order to help pay for your ticket. Normally they can work out some sort of arrangement if it is a problem for the candidate to pay for her own ticket.

You are correct, however, in thinking that the school would not appreciate having to ask what happens if you need to cancel because of accepting another job. If you do that, you can save yourself buying the plane ticket, because you're probably not getting a job at that school anyway!

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I'm a bit confused by this answer. How I can ask the school for guidance without invoking the specter of another job? If I ask "What if I need to cancel", I assume the subtext would be obvious. Also, I'm not sure the financial part makes sense because (like most people) I would just float the ticket on my credit card until I get reimbursed. –  Nate Eldredge Jan 25 '13 at 22:07
    
If you're a postdoc or a grad student, having to wait one to two months for the reimbursement means carrying a bunch of extra interest. In the short run, that can be a big deal for some people. But I would imagine many schools can buy the tickets for candidates under circumstances like these. –  aeismail Jan 26 '13 at 17:31

The university and hiring committee is already committed to paying for your flight out (plus room and board). As such, I think it would be reasonable to offer to pay for half the cost of the ticket IF you accepted an offer at another university.

I would not ask beforehand about anything, but this gives them the opportunity to not be so out on the money and can pay for someone else's ticket out there -- what's $200 out of a $400 ticket compared to hiring the right somebody?

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You should go ahead and book your non-refundable ticket now. If you get a job offer from your preferred school prior to this interview, ask them when they need their decision by. If they say a date prior to this interview ask if you can extend the date until after this interview. They will almost always agree to this if they truly believe you are the best position for the candidate.

You should do this for two reasons. (1) Who knows, while at this school you may fall in love with it! But (2) if you don't, and you get an offer from them, you can use it to bargain with the other school. Note you should do this tactfully.

In the end, if worse comes to worse, you have a job and can afford to sacrifice several hundred dollars on a plane ticket. I'd worry about this scenario only afterwards.

Also, sometimes if you tell a school "I've gotten a great offer from another university, but I really like your program. Is there any way for me to move up my interview so I can have your decision before I have to get back to the other university?" They will agree. You should only do this if it is conceivable you could accept their position.

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I am not sure why you can't just tell them you have already accepted an offer, and leave it to them to cancel the interview. If they cancel the interview on the ticket that they agreed to reimburse you for, then they have to reimburse you. This shouldn't make them mad because they have the choice of interviewing you or cancelling, so they are no worse off than any other scenario in which you accept the first job offer. It is assumed you will have job offers, so its a risk on their part in participating in the process. Additionally, you could ask about this scenario from a different phone number or anonymous email to get what information you can about the university. Disclaimer: I am not a professor.

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"They have to reimburse you": That would be logical, but university travel reimbursement policies are rarely logical :) Standard reimbursement procedures require you to submit receipts and sign a form saying you actually took the trip and incurred the expenses. Some places even require you to submit your boarding pass. –  Nate Eldredge Jan 22 at 3:50
    
@NateEldredge, so you are saying that they can cancel interviews whenever they want and leave poor graduate students to pay for tickets they can't use? That doesn't sound legal. –  anon Jan 22 at 19:23
    
@NateEldredge, if that is the policy then they accept the possibility of interviews that are "dead on arrival". –  anon Jan 22 at 19:24
    
I agree it doesn't seem right. I don't know whether it is legal. I'm not sure I'm willing to rule out the possibility that it could happen... –  Nate Eldredge Jan 22 at 21:38

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