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I know a PhD student (X) who is soon to defend, reaching the end of his funding, and has thus been applying to PostDoc positions. He was applying to two positions in two different groups.

The first group (Y) invites him to present in person and suggests that he buy his own tickets, where expenses will be reimbursed upon arrival; he is very interested in the position and complies, buying the flight at considerable cost (15+ hours flying on two legs).

After buying the ticket, the second group (Z) requests an online talk and interview; he again is very interested in the position and complies, presenting the talk and doing the interview online. Shortly after, the second group offers him the position. Being very interested in the position and not wanting to appear unsure or ungrateful, he accepts a few hours after the offer is made, and a week before being due to travel to the first group.

Not wanting to be feel deceptive towards the first group, he tells them about accepting another position and offers to travel anyways in order to give the talk he has been preparing for their group. The first group tells him not to come and that they will not reimburse any costs.


Question: is it ethical/unethical for the first group to refuse to reimburse costs?

I'm also interested in anecdotes, similar experiences, etc., to get an idea of how common or uncommon the first group's behaviour in this situation is.

On the one hand, the original reason why the first group offered to reimburse costs is now off the table.

On the other hand, the student has acted perfectly honestly throughout (almost to a fault) but ends up out of pocket having bought tickets at the first group's request.

(Of course someone has to take a loss, but in my mind, it should be the group who takes the hit, not a PhD student soon to run out of funding, and who again was simply complying with the group's instructions to remain in their hiring process ... and is now getting screwed in the process.)


(There's a couple of related questions like this one, but I don't find a question that addresses the issue of the interviewee being out of pocket.)

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    I realize the horse is gone and it's too late to close the barn door, but because of such cases, it would have been wise for X to make travel arrangements that were at least mostly refundable. Fully refundable airfare may be excessively expensive, but it's usually reasonable to book a ticket where you have the option to cancel and use most of the fare (possibly minus a fee) for future travel on the same airline. Job candidates ought to buy such tickets, even if they are not the cheapest possible ticket, and not feel guilty about it. – Nate Eldredge May 6 at 21:33
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    Also, I think X did err in this process: I don't think X ought to have accepted Z's offer so rapidly. Rather, X ought to have given Y a chance to counter-offer. "Dear Y, I have received another offer, with a deadline of D. With our current interview timeline, would you anticipate making an offer before date D? If, after the interview, you should decide to offer me the job, I would very much like to be able to consider your offer before having to give an answer on my other offer. If necessary, I could come for an interview earlier than we scheduled." [...] – Nate Eldredge May 6 at 21:56
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    This then puts the ball in Y's court. If Y is able to move up the process, then great: X gets to pick between two offers. If Y says they can't and prefers to skip interviewing X, then the cancellation was Y's decision and they're more likely to be willing to cover the costs. While I can sympathize with X's fear of seeming "unsure or ungrateful", I think it was unfounded: Z should fully expect that X will take time to consider their offer and potential competing offers. – Nate Eldredge May 6 at 22:00
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    But as it stands, I can sort of see why Y might feel like X did not treat them fairly: they weren't even given a chance to try to convince X to consider an offer from them instead. – Nate Eldredge May 6 at 22:01
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    I find the way you have written this to be very confusing. Can you just describe what you did in a normal way without the unnecessary circumlocution? – Azor Ahai May 6 at 23:05
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Both parties are at fault for not communicating the terms of the reimbursement clearly.

  • It is reasonable for the university to want to reimburse only interviews that were actually attended, and to not want to bother interviewing applicants who have already declined.
  • It is also reasonable for the student to want to get reimbursed when they have personally expended funds in good faith.

It's a bit difficult to even say what the university's policy for such things should be:

  • Not paying these expenses encourages applicants to lie, go through with the interview, and waste everyone's time in addition to money.
  • Paying these expenses encourages people to get an interview, cancel, and then use the free tickets for a vacation (doubt this happens all that often, but it's possible, and can be a major source of scandal).

Regardless: in the real world, I think it's rather unusual for institutions to reimburse interview expenses for an interview that never happened. Given this reality, applicants are the ones that have the burden of establishing the reimbursement terms before shelling out their own money.

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Yes, it is reasonable, justified and common for a university not to reimburse travel costs if

  • the interview was not attended; or
  • the interview was attended, the offer was made, and the candidate rejected the offer.

Your situation is quite similar — the candidate withdrew before attending the interview, which also, I think, makes it inappropriate for them to apply for reimbursement.

In your example, to avoid a risk of not being reimbursed, the candidate could:

  1. Avoid making travel arrangements in advance, and only buy a ticket when they are completely determined they will travel for the interview; or
  2. Choose a refundable tariff for the flight; or
  3. Buy an appropriate insurance to protect against such event; or
  4. Do not rush accepting an offer from another university (and risk losing it, of course) to attend another interview.

Your question seems to only focus on ethics applied to University policies. However, the candidate also has made certain choices it is appropriate for them to accept their responsibility for consequences. It is a pain to lose money like this, but hopefully the position in another university is worth it.

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    Why is it reasonable not to reimburse travel if the offer is rejected? – Anyon May 6 at 21:40
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    All the interviews I attended had the travel reimbursed and they insisted - I did not have to ask and it did not matter if they or I declined the opportunity. – Solar Mike May 6 at 21:58
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    @DmitrySavostyanov: Interesting. Theoretically, this means that for candidates the university decides not to hire, they have an incentive to instead make them an insulting lowball offer. "We would like to offer you the position, with a salary of the legal minimum wage. You will be teaching 8 courses per term, with all of our most obnoxious students, and your office will be in the broom closet. Your deadline to respond is tomorrow. [...] Oh, you're declining our offer? That's too bad. No reimbursement for you." – Nate Eldredge May 6 at 22:11
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    @NateEldredge In the UK, at least, the positions are advertised with clear salary band and the offered salary in most cases is max(applicant's current salary, minimal salary in the band). There are typically no negotiations up to Full Prof posts. – Dmitry Savostyanov May 6 at 22:15
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    @DmitrySavostyanov Absolutely, but it's also very possible to go to an interview and participate in good faith while also interviewing elsewhere... A candidate can be interested in multiple positions, interview for all of them, and get several offers. Picking the best offer out of those does not imply bad faith, and is simply a risk the hiring party (usually, in my experience) accepts. – Anyon May 6 at 22:29
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(This question is in my opinion hard to read because of the variables X, Y, Z.)

My ansatz to this problem is to consider the industry equivalent of this. A very big difference between academia and industry is (in my experience) that academics often have to pay out of their pockets (especially junior academics) and get reimbursed later, while in industry everything is paid via a company credit card. So when it comes to money, there is far more trust involved in academia. Such a system can only work if the reimbursing insitutions are trustworthy.

(Other examples are: in academia, sometimes contracts arrive very late or not at all; working without a contract is not at all advised in industry. Or here on this site, I read that people who ask if a certain behaviour of their advisor is correct get asked "Why do you ask with them if you don't trust them?").

So in industry, the institution would pay for the student. So the loss would totally be on their side.

This would be my approch to this.

(I have never heard of an institution behaving like this especially since the people who decide whether the student should come and the person who pays are usually different. Especially if this is the case, I do find the behaviour of the institution very unethical.)

Addendum: In the (maybe similar) situation that the student is promised reimbursebent but cannot travel due to sickness, I do think it's also ethical for the institution to pay for the costs of the trip.

  • Banks in the UK won't reimburse travel expenses at all. – Dmitry Savostyanov May 6 at 22:00
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    "in industry everything is paid via a company credit card". Why do you think this? Certainly it is not universally true (and not sure I understand your argument even if this were universally true). – cag51 May 7 at 0:59

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