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I am currently in a job in the US (on STEM OPT). I had a postdoc offer from a large US university that was supposed to start April 16. I signed an offer letter for a two year contract. We were in the process of deciding which visa to apply for (H1/J1).

Today I got an email from the PI (HR copied) saying she would like to put the position on hold until things settle down. I asked for a clarification on what "on hold" meant and whether the offer letter was still valid. The HR replied this (PI copied):

As for the offer letter you signed (due to redacted’s current situation) please consider it void until future notice.

Professor [redacted] will contact you if you are still being considered for the position.

This is the last communication I had with the HR or the PI.

What does this mean? Since I have the signed offer, when things do settle down, is the university legally obligated to offer the position back to me before anyone else? Or the university is formally rescinding the offer and I should just move on? Can they do that?

EDIT: Some answers have asked about my eligibility to work in the US. For clarification: I’m in the US now, in my current status, I can work in the US till the end of May. If the university applied for an H1B (which is typically approved for non profit), I could stay in the US as long as I didn’t leave the country (in which case I would have to get a visa stamped). Things could have gotten more complicated with J1, so we did not discuss much about that.

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    Maybe you could try to ask if you could start the job remotely? – Erwan Mar 21 at 0:39
  • When you say “(due to redacted’s current situation)”, is the redacted name yourself, another person employed as a post-doc, or a supervisor of the post-doc position? It matters. – djs Mar 21 at 10:56
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    This question would be better asked on law.stackexchange.com, where it would also be a much more interesting question. – RBarryYoung Mar 21 at 17:28
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    So worse case scenario financially for the University is that they have to pay you for 2 weeks? you force honoring the contract, and they immediately give you 2 weeks notice on day 1? – eps Mar 22 at 17:54
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    Fully computational work, absolutely zero lab work. – postdoc_aspirant Mar 23 at 16:15
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A signed offer letter is normally a valid contract. Usually it is the only contract document. Only someone who has read the offer letter can give you a perfect answer to this question.

They have announced their intention to break the contract. That is illegal unless the offer letter says otherwise. Moving on is probably your best option.

There are two possibilities:

  1. The university is unable to pay you, so they are forced to do something that could potentially cause them a lot of harm in the form of bad press or litigation.
  2. They did this voluntarily or out of incompetence, in which case the university is a bad place to work and you are lucky not to be working there.

In either case, you should look for employment elsewhere.

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    One might ask why moving on is a better option than taking legal action. Consider whether you actually have the time and money to pursue that option and also consider whether you would still want the job if they did give it to you grudgingly in response to your legal threat. – Brian Borchers Mar 21 at 4:46
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    @BrianBorchers Legal action is off topic, and useless if the university cannot pay. A job obtained through threats is not a good job. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 21 at 5:10
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    Yes, a postdoc‘s work is pretty tied with the supervisor. It’s difficult to have a good working relation with somebody after suing them – postdoc_aspirant Mar 21 at 6:17
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    An official state of emergency (which is declared in many places now) tends to legally allow withdrawing from all kinds of offers and contracts - the devil is in the details, but in this situation a legal challenge has less chances of succeeding. It is not "business as usual" at the moment. – Peteris Mar 21 at 10:31
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    @Peteris I seriously doubt that now all Americans are suddenly allowed to arbitrarily break contracts (kick renters out of homes, fire employees without respecting agreed notice periods, etc.). The point of the state of emergency is not exactly to create anarchy. Do you have a source for that? – wimi Mar 22 at 16:16
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This is not a forum for discussing legal questions, and in any case it seems to me that to try to pursue the matter through legal means would lead you down a rabbit hole from which your academic career would never emerge in one piece. As others have said in the comments, a postdoc position obtained through legal coercion is not one worth having.

Since you mentioned that the institution that made you the offer is a large university, so presumably one that values its reputation and that employs serious researchers who value their own reputation, perhaps the best course of action would be to apply pressure on the PI through your advisor and the advisor’s informal network in the research community. If some well-known colleagues of the PI’s write to the PI to tell him/her that it is unseemly and unprofessional to rescind a postdoc offer at the last minute based on external circumstances, however grim, perhaps he or she will reconsider.

While you are pursuing this route, it’s also good not to assume anything and to keep looking at all your options. People are in panic mode right now and it’s entirely possible that the PI will be unwilling or unable to re-extend the offer in the next few months, and possibly not after that as well.

It’s a tough position to be in. Everyone’s suffering right now but beginning academics like you are suffering more than most of us. Good luck!

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They seem to claim that they aren't obligated, but that may not be a valid claim. But only a (local) lawyer can answer definitively. It might be worth pressing them outside the legal system, pointing to the letter. But a signed offer letter may be considered differently from a signed contract.

There might be some emergency legislation that permits this or they might just be hoping you won't press it.

But you can, at least ask why they think rescinding an offer is a valid action.

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    "at least ask why they think rescinding an offer is a valid action." Well, I know that Australian universities have lost hundreds of millions of dollars this year because of the international travel bans affecting their ability to sell international student placements. – nick012000 Mar 21 at 9:32
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Surely this is a case of force majeure. The university made the offer in good faith but circumstances outside its control mean it cannot proceed with this offer.

America, like many other countries, has closed its borders. If you are an American citizen, you have an absolute right of return if you can find a ship or a plane to take you there. America is not issuing new visas to non-Americans. The university does not know when American will open its borders. It could be weeks or months or even years before international travel becomes the norm again. I doubt "years" is very likely but "months" looks very feasible. What do you expect the university to do?

With the clarification that you are already in the US, your problem changes. I had read your original post to mean that you were applying for admission to the States.

Edit following clarification

It is not clear from the latest version of your post if you now know what "redacted’s current situation" is. If the university has been told that no visa application for you will be considered for the foreseeable future then it is still a case of force majeure.

As I understand it, "redacted’s current situation" means "Professor X’s current situation". This implies it is not about you but about Professor X. If, for example, Professor X is being investigated over some allegations, then HR's reluctance to give a clear explanation would become understandable. Or perhaps Professor X has lost a grant and can no longer offer the position you accepted.

Have you tried for a better explanation since HR's letter? Perhaps a phone call would help. They may be willing to tell you what they cannot put in writing.

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    I’m in the US. I can legally work in the US without leaving for the next couple of years. The university is well aware of the status. My physical availability is absolutely not an issue here. – postdoc_aspirant Mar 21 at 18:39
  • Edited for clarification – postdoc_aspirant Mar 21 at 19:37
  • @postdoc_aspirant I am unsure if the OP is told if an answer is updated. This comment unsure you know. – Tony Dallimore Mar 24 at 0:25
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Contrary to other answers I am not sure whether the university actually intends to act as badly for you as this letter looks. You where supposed to start in the middle of April and that is not going to happen. The university also doesn't know right now whether you could start in the middle of June instead or whether the situation will last for years so they won't make commit to anything timewise. But I am not sure whether they actually meant to say 'we are not giving you the job, period'. Suppose by June the Corona situation is mostly over and life is mostly back to normal. It seems quite reasonable to me that in such a situation the university would still honor its promise and have you start in say mid July. I would try to talk to the professor, preferably by phone, and ask him what he thinks. Don't expect any promises but a general intent what he wants to happen. Maybe things are not as dire as they seem.

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  • I have tried to talk to the PI multiple times but she refuses to communicate. This is what baffled me the most. – postdoc_aspirant Mar 23 at 21:16
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My personal take is to try to salvage something from this situation. I think, and as others answers here conveyed, that the university simply won't pay you right now if it can't. I would reply saying I understand the touch circumstances and their need to postpone the start of your employment. Suggest to postpone your start-date in the contract to June so that you guys can talk when the situation is more clear.

Best case: they agree and you can start then or at least be where we are now with a less panicked world.

So-so case: they may say they'd happily reconsider comes summer, in which case you have an email chain to go back to.

Worst case: no worse than now..

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