I have received an excellent job offer from institution A. I have also applied to institution B, which I would likely prefer over A if I had the choice. I believe I have a shot at getting an offer from B, but it is far from sure, and they will only start making offers well after I have to give an answer at A.

Suppose I accept the job at A and subsequently I am offered the job at B. Once I accept A I would commit to staying for at least 1 year, but starting one year later at B should not be a problem.

My question is: how and, more importantly, when should I tell A about B? I can think of three possibilities:

1) I tell A even before I accept the position at A (and before I get the answer from B). I believe in honesty so I would prefer this but there are the obvious risks that A will withdraw their offer or assume that I will leave at the first chance I get (which is not quite true; if I don't get B I'd stay at A for at least a few years).

2) I tell A right after I accept the position at B (this would mean I would start my job at A with everyone knowing that I'm leaving after a year - awkward).

3) I tell A at the very latest legally allowed moment. This would seem best from a selfish point of view, but in addition to having to lie about my future plans there is a risk A will find out I accepted the job from B anyway (it's a small community).

Any additional thoughts are very welcome! In particular, how would you react in each scenario if you were a member of A?


Edit: Thank you all for the comments and answers. In my situation A is not able to wait until I get an answer from B; I agree this would be the best solution. Although I haven't made a decision yet, I'm leaning towards avoiding all the scenarios in the question and either accept A and withdraw my application from B, or reject A, wait for B, and keep applying next year if I don't get B.

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    Try negotiating an extension of deadline from A. Doing anything else is essentially dishonest, and will jerk some people around, and become part of your permanent reputation, because "everyone" will hear about it. (This is not answering the question as posed, hence I'm posting it as a "comment", not an "answer".) – paul garrett Dec 5 at 22:38
  • What type of job? Postdoc, tenure-track, something else? – Nate Eldredge Dec 5 at 23:09
  • @paulgarrett - I think negotiating an extension is not possible... wouldn't option 1) be equally honest though? It does give them the choice to extend the deadline or even withdraw the offer – Anonymous Dec 5 at 23:37
  • @NateEldredge - they are all tenured positions. But since I'd expect this situation to be rather common at all levels in academia, comments on any type of job would be useful – Anonymous Dec 5 at 23:40
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    @Anonymous: Yes, the situation is common at all levels, but the way to respond is different. Taking a postdoc and leaving after a year has a much less severe impact on the department than for a tenured position, and so the blowback to your reputation would likewise be much less. – Nate Eldredge Dec 5 at 23:45

I'll comment from the point of view of a former department chair.

A job search is quite an administratively arduous task to undertake when you think about it. You need to seek and gain approval to initiate the hiring process, deputise a search chair, convene a search committee, advertise an opening, screen applicants, interview them, check references, and negotiate a deal that includes a start date. All this needs to take place so that the work of the department -- teaching, research and engagement -- continues without a hitch.

When a department makes an offer to an applicant, it is in good faith. It is expected that the other party acts in good faith, too. The worst that can happen is that an offer is accepted with an ulterior motive in mind. This is because operations might be severely affected. For example, say you're hired to undertake a typical load of teaching and research at the assistant professor level. In particular, say you're assigned to lead one subject in the spring semester and supervise three master's students. The department was up front about this responsibility, it was part of the negotiation, and you signed a contract of employment. If you were to give notice a few weeks into your employment that you would be leaving to take up a post in another university, then the teaching and supervision responsibilities would be reassigned and may cause disruption.

As chair of the department, I would seek to handle this in two ways. First, I would activate that clause in your contract that states that we can ask you to see out the remainder of the semester. This is a standard clause in most academic contracts, but may be different in your specific case. Second, I would activate another round of hiring to fill in your position in time for the summer session or autumn semester.

Depending on your performance in this situation, I may or may not have a word to the academics in your new department about the issues you put us through. (Shock horror! We do talk to each other.)

What would I advise in this situation?

That you have applied for a position in another university is material information that I would like to know. While I don't think you have any legal obligation to disclose this (and I'm not a lawyer), it remains material to the decisions I, as department chair, need to make. You don't need to draw attention to it, but it is important to our considerations, nonetheless.

It's not as difficult as you might think. We expect that you've sent your application to a number of places and we have a sense of our department's standing in relation to other departments in other academic institutions. Thus, you're simply confirming what we already suspect, and it's likely that we've factored it into our assessments.

I would prefer to know during the negotiation stage. The statement you make should be brief and to the point. It's not likely we're going to dwell on it anyway. For example, "I'm considering positions in other institutions. I wanted to put that on the table." My standard response is, "Thank you. If you accept our offer, we expect you to meet your obligations under your contract."

Good luck to you.

  • So, assuming the standard contract, the only options would be "Take A, and stick with it", or "Don't take A, and hope for B", because taking A locks you out from B 'cause contract? – Malandy Dec 6 at 15:24
  • The OP states that the position at B would (possibly) start a year later, so the impact on A would not be as severe as the one you describe (other than having to restart a hiring process which is a PITA of course). And seriously, if the applicant tells you "if B says OK I'll leave", will you even consider them for a position? – jcaron Dec 6 at 17:03
  • @Malandy, I'm not sure that the options identified are exhaustive, to be honest. I also note that there's quite a lot of new information in the comments that have been posted since I submitted my piece. A contract only prevents you from leaving for a fixed time, say for a semester. Thus, it might be possible to negotiate a late start with the third party, although I'm not sure how the third party would take this, given that they've got a timeframe to consider, too. – St. Inkbug Dec 6 at 23:24
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    @jcaron, it depends on the needs of my department, to be honest. A brilliant educator who's willing to stay to fill a need in the short-term will allow me to defer long-term planning by a few months. For example, we had an opening that arose because of the unexpected death of a staff member. We covered the load within the department, but needed a better solution. The former head of the WHO Food Programme was looking for a posting, but only for a year. He made this clear to us and we accepted. It was not a permanent solution, but it allowed me time to resolve the emergency and plan ahead. – St. Inkbug Dec 6 at 23:32

I've added the ethics tag to the question, since it has ethical implications.

However, since there is no guarantee from B and you are willing to make at least an initial commitment to A, I see no ethical constraint. It would be different if you would be intending to drop a commitment to A immediately on getting an offer from B. After all, the offer from B may never materialize.

But you should, out of courtesy, at least, inform A when you do get an offer from B. Don't wait until you accept the offer, but when you get it. There are a couple of reasons for this, one being that A might want to sweeten the conditions. It would also give them more time to find a replacement.

No one assumes that accepting an offer means a lifetime commitment. But there are situations where you need to make a multi-year commitment and you would need to honor that ethically, and probably legally.

There might be different issues, of course, if A needs to spend considerable resources to support you than would, in effect, go to waste if you leave early. That would change the balance here. Likewise if leaving early would leave others, students or researchers, disadvantaged in their own work, then you would need to consider that as well.

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    This would be a completely wrong answer if it happened in the industry. Telling your boss that you got an offer from another company and that you're looking to change would possibly lead to you being replaced sooner than anticipated and you're now out of a job completely until hired by the other company - an event that may or may not happen until you have a signed contract. What makes this a reasonable way forward in academia? Would your institution offer you the same courtesy of telling you that they plan to replace you in the future if they find a better applicant? – pipe Dec 6 at 12:06
  • @pipe, one difference is that industry employees may deal with company (trade) secrets, future product development, and market strategies. That isn't an issue in academia. Universities, being not-for-profit, don't have the same competitive concerns that companies do. – Buffy Dec 6 at 12:16

I argue that honestly is the best policy here. Unless there are very special circumstances, search committees are generally aware that their positions are not the only game in town. You can say that you are very honored by the invitation to join the faculty at A, but you still need some time to consider it. Of course this means that you may lose the offer to someone else who’s interested, but if there’s genuine interest in you they’d be willing to wait a bit.

The one year option sounds like a bad idea to me. I can’t imagine anyone in A’s administration would like you too much. You are making the department undergo an expensive search in a year’s time, and also making the search committee look bad for taking in non-committed people. It may also reduce the number of slots the department gets next year. You’ll also have problems collaborating and finding students if you’re there for 1 year, and if management is sufficiently vindictive they can make your life hell for that one year (less consideration in teaching loads, equipment and resources don’t get to you etc). It might make B uneasy about taking you, and make your time there less fun when you join.

The last option also seems like it would anger any department. It means a lot of sunk costs and perhaps dropped offers to other good candidates. If you start waffling, they’ll wait a bit, and if you don’t sign they’ll post a deadline after which they’ll rescind the offer or extend offers to others.

Good luck!

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