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What does it mean to accept a job offer? Or maybe more accurately when have you accepted a job offer?

The latest and most conservative might be when you sign a contract. This seems a little late in the game as often contracts, especially in the States are slow to be generated. The earliest might be when you go for an interview. In the UK it is pretty standard for universities to not reimburse candidates to whom offers are made and subsequently turned down. Middle ground might be when you enter contract negotiations or verbally agree to the terms of your contract.

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

It sounds like customs depend on the field and country, but here's my experience based on mathematics in the U.S. I'll answer based on customs rather than laws, since that's generally more relevant: one can get a bad reputation for doing something perfectly legal, and one can get away with things that aren't legally justified if nobody is willing to enforce their rights in court.

The short version:

Acceptance is understood to be a final decision that commits you to showing up for a year. You can ask to be released from that obligation, but you shouldn't just announce you aren't coming. If you give a good enough reason for your request, they'll grant it. If your reason isn't compelling to them, they won't try to force you to show up but you'll really damage your reputation (not just at that university). Saying you got a better offer afterwards is not considered compelling, and you are expected to withdraw other applications upon accepting an offer.

The long version:

Negotiating does not imply accepting an offer, and in fact you should always try to negotiate over whatever you care about before you accept, since your leverage will never be higher. (Some candidates don't like the idea of having leverage, but you can think of it as a benefit to the department as well: it's much more effective for the department to tell the administration "We need to do X to get our wonderful candidate to accept" than "Our wonderful new hire wishes we would do X".)

Accepting an offer just amounts to saying you accept it. In principle, this could be tricky: people's memories of an oral acceptance could be disputed later, and it's possible to write things that sound like an acceptance but might not be meant that way ("Great, I guess we'll be colleagues next fall then"). Of course I'd strongly recommend avoiding anything that might be ambiguous or confusing, just in case, but in practice I've never seen this actually cause a serious problem. Any sensible department will follow up to get an unambiguous answer in writing, so if the situation remains ambiguous it's because both sides screwed up.

The real question is how binding an acceptance is, assuming both sides agree the offer was accepted. In the communities I'm familiar with, you cannot unilaterally change your decision once you have accepted. You could presumably get away with it, since the department isn't going to sue you if you don't show up, but that would be very bad for your reputation. Instead, the standard approach is to explain how things have changed and ask the department for permission to withdraw your acceptance.

In certain cases, this is perfectly straightforward. Suppose an unexpected problem has arisen in your life: for example, one of your parents was just diagnosed with cancer and you want to live close to them for the next year or two. Surely any reasonable department would understand and approve.

Of course, most cases are less clear cut, and amount to personal preference. This is more likely to arise after a deferral, where you accepted a job but then went on leave for a year first, since the extra time allows for more things to change. In general, departments will be pretty unhappy if you defer and then change your mind. It's important to ask to be released from your obligation rather than simply announcing you won't come; the department will often agree, since they understand you would likely leave after a year anyway. It's not good and you should try hard to avoid this situation, but occasionally it happens. If it does, you should feel a little guilty for making it harder for other candidates to get deferrals, by contributing to the impression that people with deferrals might change their minds in the meantime.

At the other extreme, you might simply change your mind within a single yearly job market cycle and decide you prefer another offer you already had at the time of your decision. This is probably not even worth asking about: when you accept an offer, it is understood to be a final decision, and you can't just re-evaluate your options. You should officially decline all your other offers when you accept an offer; if you aren't ready to do that, then you aren't ready to accept a job yet.

Of course, the trickiest case is when you get an offer with an early deadline and have to make a decision before other universities you might prefer can make an offer. Most departments don't want to pressure people into making this kind of decision, and it's always worth asking for an extension of the deadline. Many departments will agree, but a few will not (I know of one department that strategizes about how to put time pressure on people).

If you are caught negotiating with a department that is trying to pressure you in this way, then you should be as tough as they are. On the other hand, their behavior does not mean your acceptance becomes non-binding, and unilaterally changing your mind will still look bad throughout the community. If the department refuses to grant an extension or show any other flexibility, then they are clearly indicating they want a definitive answer now, and you'll have to give them one. It's worth considering whether you even want to work for a department that would treat you that way.

As soon as you have accepted an offer, you should withdraw all your other job applications. Partly this is so they don't have to waste time evaluating a candidate who is no longer available, and partly it is because if you don't withdraw them, then it looks like you are still hoping for a better offer. That is what will really offend people, because it will look like you tricked the department whose offer you accepted by giving them what was understood to be a final decision while still staying on the market to see what other offers you could get.

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I totally agree with this. I would go even further and say that acceptance of a TT job commits you to showing up for TWO years. The job market opens so early in many fields that you cannot give a new job a fair shot before you need to apply for new jobs. –  StrongBad Feb 3 '13 at 13:18
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There are many different takes. “Accepting” a job offer is pretty much that: if you tell the person who offered you (your HR contact, the hiring committee, any person of authority in the hiring process) that you accept their offer, that you take the job.

Does it mean there's not turning back? Of course not! The question then becomes: how binding is that agreement? And again, there are answers on many different levels: legal, moral, diplomatic…

  • Legal: as always, better ask a lawyer, union representative or knowledgeable and trusted friend. Everything depends on the local law, the type of offer made, what you said and/or wrote, etc. It may sound logical that nothing's set in stone until you have signed a contract, but that may not always be the case. Some institutions might, for example, require you to write and sign a binding letter of engagement before the contract is drafted (which, as you said, can take time). In some jurisdiction, the simple fact of showing up for work on the first day of the contract is a binding, implicit contract following the terms of your offer. (Though I would say it should be obvious to all that actually coming to work is pretty binding.)

  • Moral: that's the most variable of all. Turning down an offer you had accepted orally, because you now have a better offer from some other place, is not wrong in itself. The important thing is: being of good faith, and being diligent to inform them that you have changed your mind. If it turns out that you have accepted the offer, knowing all the while you would end up turning it down, that would be unexcusable.

  • Diplomatic: people understand the position you're in, as they have most probably been through it themselves some year back. So, they will be sympathetic, as long as they feel you are of good faith, diligent and show acceptable contrition (not sure that's the right term for what I'm trying to describe… let's say you look/sound apologetic enough). Otherwise, well, you risk make enemies and that may not be the best thing to do early in your career.

The fact is: the game is played by both sides. Hiring committees don't dismiss all other candidates immediately when they offer you a position, and they know that Stuff Happens. In a competitive environment such as academia, they surely have a plan B (and probably C and D).

Finally: if that's a tenured or tenure-track position, you'll probably stay very long (life?) there. It's an important choice, and thus you shouldn't find yourself bound by promises made too fast, or you may come to regret it.

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great answer! I couldn't agree more, especially regarding the different perspectives to the question –  posdef Jan 31 '13 at 11:53
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In my experience, people sometimes make a future commitment ("I'll come work for you after I spent a year at Institute X") and then change their minds before they arrive. This has to be handled very delicately, basically by saying you know you are obligated but hope they'll understand and release you from the obligation (with the subtext that if they don't you'll come for a year to fulfill your obligation and then leave, which won't be any good for anyone). The time delay is crucial here, in establishing that the situation now seems different than when you accepted the job. –  Anonymous Mathematician Jan 31 '13 at 14:13
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On the other hand, accepting a job and then trying to switch to another job during the same year/job market cycle is very rare (at least in mathematics). This is incredibly risky for your reputation. It might be possible to pull it off if you really beg, but even still some people will think you did something wrong/manipulative. –  Anonymous Mathematician Jan 31 '13 at 14:17
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Yeah, it's almost certainly field/country dependent. I just want to emphasize that there are cases where changing an acceptance can be very dangerous. (And the linked case is definitely anomalous - it got a lot of internet discussion precisely because it was a borderline case and opinions differed.) –  Anonymous Mathematician Jan 31 '13 at 14:22
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An important defense against the moral ambiguity of an oral acceptance is to speak carefully. Don't say "I accept the offer" before you have a written offer letter. Say "I'm eager to take the job, but for obvious reasons, I need to see the offer letter before I can formally accept." –  JeffE Jan 31 '13 at 17:11
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