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I am a PhD student in Applied mathematics. I submitted my PhD thesis (not yet defended) and am applying for postdocs. Until now I have gotten two unofficial postdoc offers: the PIs unofficially informed me about the offers mentioning the salary and duration. I accepted one offer by emailing the PI. However, I have not signed any contract yet. Till I get an official letter can I also apply to other places?

Any help/suggestions will be useful. Thanks in advance.

  • Do you want to keep applying because you would prefer another position, or because you are worried that the first offer is not official and might not happen? In other words, if you get another position which one would you take? In my experience the informal answer for a postdoc contract can be trusted, it's just that it can take time for the institution to issue the formal contract. – Erwan Aug 5 '18 at 13:33
  • @erwan: thanks. It is the second one: it is not official. I want to go to that position which I accepted by email. – RIchard Williams Aug 5 '18 at 15:09
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Till I get any official letter can I apply to other places also ?

Depending on the laws in your country, it is likely that you are allowed to do so without breaking any law. However you should be very careful about damaging your reputation in case you end up committing to several positions.

In my experience, in academia an unofficial commitment can be trusted and official paperwork can take some time to be issued. This depends on many things obviously, in particular how much you trust the PI who offers the job.

Since you mention that your main concern is about having a backup plan, I would recommend inquiring with the future PI (or the administration of the future institution) about their administrative procedure. Why not also mention to the PI that you are considering other offers? This could motivate them to speed up the process. And in case you feel that they are stalling, then you have a good reason to look elsewhere.

  • "clearly you wouldn't be in breach of any law if you did": that's not so clear to me. As I said in another comment, in some jurisdictions (e.g. France), even a verbal offer and acceptance is as good as a written contract. Reneging on this can lead to a civil lawsuit, from the potential employee or from the potential employer depending on who went back on their word. Some countries are more protective of workers' rights (and incidentally, employers' rights). – user9646 Aug 5 '18 at 16:47
  • @NajibIdrissi fair enough, I updated my answer accordingly. – Erwan Aug 5 '18 at 17:19
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    In my experience, in academia an unofficial commitment can be trusted — In my experience (in the US), the intention behind a verbal offer can almost always be trusted, but sometimes things go wrong. Which is why my experienced colleagues phrase their verbal offers very carefully, and why I advise my studetns not to “accept” anything less than a formal written offer. – JeffE Aug 5 '18 at 18:10
  • @Erwan: In order to join the accepted postdoc phd thesis needs to be defended. In our country thesis is sent to two reviewers (one in country and another outside). Till now one review report has come, another is pending. All these procedure can take some time. In that time I want to apply for other places also. – RIchard Williams Aug 6 '18 at 3:16
  • @RIchardWilliams: actually it's fairly common to start a postdoc position even before defending the PhD, provided the defense is planned soon; this depends on the rules and usages in the institution and on the agreement of the PI, of course. Usually administrative constraints are not the main issue, what matters more is to make sure that the time frame is right: can you be available when the contract is expected to start? This can sometimes be negotiated, you can ask the PI. – Erwan Aug 6 '18 at 10:22
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Until you have accepted a signed offer in writing, you don't have a job and should continue to search for one.

If you've verbally accepted a verbal offer, you are free to continue to be cautious and continue to search, but you might want to prioritize accepting the eventual written offer that matches that verbal offer.

Of course they might send you a written offer that differs significantly from that verbal offer, in which case, feel free to decline it.

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How important is your personal honor to you? How important is your academic reputation? I strongly recommend that you consider your acceptance as final, even though not yet legally enforceable, unless you come to an agreement with the PI in question that you want to withdraw "firm" acceptance until such time as the arrangement can be made official.

The proper (ethical) course of action is to communicate with the PI. You don't want to get a reputation that your word can't be trusted. Nor that you are willing to leave others "in the lurch" while seeking personal advancement. The negative consequences can all be on you and your academic reputation.

Of course, the PI can than withdraw the offer altogether if you don't come to agreement, so state your case carefully. But there is nothing unethical about changing your mind and communicating that to the PI. You just need to try to work out a suitable accommodation that is acceptable to both.

However, if you consider yourself bound, the only downside of looking elsewhere is that you may be wasting resources of the places you apply to. It may provide backup to you, but it would also be good to be honest with those new institutions that you are in the final stages of an acceptance. But then, if you get a new offer, you are in a deeper bind, unless the earlier offer wasn't as serious as it seems.

When you get such an offer it is even better to be clear in your intentions. If you are a bit tentative and feel at risk, you can say that the offer seems acceptable, but that it needs to be official before you can really accept it. In such a case you are clearly free to continue your search and even accept another offer. But even if you say that you would accept it if offered formally, you have given your word and shouldn't go back on it. But in this latter case you need assurance that it will be offered formally.

Consider for a moment the opposite situation in which they offer you a position verbally, which you accept, but then they continue their search without notifying you that it isn't really an offer. Suppose they then hire someone else instead.

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