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I recently received two postdoc offers on the same day. I accepted one (verbally, in saying "I would like to accept this job offer", but I have signed nothing), but then some additional information came to light that I would not be happy in that role and the other was probably a better fit for me after all.

It is undoubtedly the case that I failed to adequately understand the pros and cons of each role before accepting one of the roles. I accept this, but it's also my first job, and frankly I have no idea what I am doing. If I had a better idea what I was doing then I would have been able to extract this information before accepting one of the roles. I accept that I have been fairly useless in this decision-making process and I am quite ashamed and horrified by it all (I'm not really sleeping and I've even had nightmares, as ridiculous as that may sound). Frankly, I just want it to end, but I want to make the right decision as it will have a profound impact on my life. And the right decision for me is to decline the offer that I had previously accepted and go forwards with this alternative one. At most as it stands I'll have cost them about 2-3 days of time. It's not as if I've kept them hanging for several weeks or months before finally backing out. I can already tell my would-be supervisor in the role I wish to decline is a very decent and kind person and I want to cause them them the absolute minimum undue difficulties and upset.

How unethical is it to decline an offer after accepting it (but without having signed anything)? How can I go ahead with now going back on my decision and let them know in the best possible way? Thanks for your help.

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    If you're sure, you need to act as quickly as possible to control the damage. The PI might not have rejected the other candidates yet. – lighthouse keeper Nov 10 '20 at 15:38
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    Whatever inconvenience your late rejection will cause, it cannot compare to the damage from accepting the offer you don't feel happy about. By refusing now you'll minimize the damage for everyone, which is anything but unethical. – Dmitry Grigoryev Nov 11 '20 at 9:19
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    Note that (jurisdiction dependent) contracts generally do not have to be signed to be accepted, so the fact that you did or didn't sign is not a relevant factor. Signtures are used to prove that acceptance took place, but are not themselves the act of acceptance (although the two can coincide). – JBentley Nov 12 '20 at 15:56
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    I think you could maybe get away with it at PhD level, but beyond you likely can't as it will affect your reputation. Academia is a small world so creating bad blood is a bad idea. – Tom Nov 12 '20 at 21:53
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    Apologize, apologize, apologize. Hope you're not burning bridges (because the word may very well travel), and if at all possible, offer to still collaborate on a project in the foreseeable future (and try to live up to this offer, don't use it just as appeasement). – Ink blot Nov 13 '20 at 12:50
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Being on the receiving end is very unpleasant, and it will have probably cost them more than just 2-3 days; the bureaucratic arrangement, possibly losing other postdoc candidates, having to go readvertising etc. is a very serious hassle, let's not pretend it isn't. Being there, done that.

Nonetheless, you need to take a decision and inform them as quickly as possible. There is no point for you taking a postdoc that you (and ultimately them) will regret. Decide and inform. This is an unpleasantry that is part of life. Yours and theirs.

To contain the damage as much as possible, you need to face it upfront. Good luck!

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    Hmmm. Did you make the mistake of assuming all was well with only a verbal commitment and telling others they'd been rejected? It might have been wiser to wait a bit with rejections or otherwise organize things so that you can meet the advertised deadlines. But, yes, a fast response is required. – Buffy Nov 10 '20 at 15:55
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    @Buffy Nobody knows how the advertising prof proceeds. Candidates are likely to interpret a hold-off as a no or waiting list and agree to join elsewhere. – Captain Emacs Nov 10 '20 at 15:59
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    +1 Time is of the essence. OP should realize they're now racing with the #2 (or #3, …) candidate accepting an offer elsewhere. An extra hour of a delay can make all the difference between "No problem, we just hired #2 instead" and "We'll have to scrap the whole hiring process and start from scratch because everyone usable already got a job elsewhere.". – TooTea Nov 11 '20 at 9:37
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    @Buffy: Having recently been hiring, I know that the liner notes of the ad read "results are expected by date X, and if you haven't heard by date Y, you can assume the answer is negative". We sent the top candidates their offers within a day or two of the interview. We don't know the OP's situation, and we don't know the situation in the postdoc they should have declined by now. So it's not at all presumptuous to suggest this may very well cause a lot of hassle on the no-longer-hiring side. – Ink blot Nov 13 '20 at 12:48
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Honestly admit you changed you mind, and provide some sort of brief explanation for your change. Many years ago, a colleague of mine accepted a postdoc and the next day was offered full time teaching position at much higher pay.

He respectfully then backed out of the postdoc offer and explained that the other job offered much higher pay and that was a deciding factor as he had a spouse and children to consider.

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    Honestly, and quickly... – Jon Custer Nov 11 '20 at 1:24
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    I don't think you need a spouse and children to go after more money haha – Azor Ahai -him- Nov 11 '20 at 20:19
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    @AzorAhai-him- No, but it's often seen as the default "honourable excuse" when justifying going for more money ("I have two kids, and another on the way."), less work ("I have two kids, and I need a work/life balance to spend more time with them.") and even dramatic movie-style scenarios such as weaseling out of self-sacrifice ("I'd love to offer myself up to that man-eating lion to save all you fine folk while you make a run for it- but you see, I have a family"). Oh, and don't flame me, I have a family. :) – Deepak Nov 12 '20 at 14:20
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    @Deepak but puts others without those into a lesser maneuverable category, e.g. "But you are single, you have no excuse!" – uhoh Nov 13 '20 at 5:37
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    @uhoh Indeed it does, which is why it's so insidious that it's considered not just socially acceptable but even laudable (by some). But society at large is built with discrimination of many sorts woven into its fabric - taxation is often preferentially applied to married people. Btw, I'm married and have a kid so I'm not speaking out of resentment or anything. – Deepak Nov 13 '20 at 5:54
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If you haven't signed anything, or at least been given a written offer, then you may not have an enforceable contract. Changing your mind within a few days will cause only minimal, if any, disruption at the other end.

If they believe that you do have a binding contract, then they will let you know immediately and you will have to deal with that. You could ask to be released from it, of course. But speed is essential.

Just send them something in writing along with an email declining the offer and offering apologies for your earlier statements. You don't really need to say more than that.

They might be unhappy, but would be less happy to have you join them grudgingly.

I suppose there are some places where a verbal agreement can hold legal weight, but I doubt that even then, they would think it wise to enforce it. They likely have other options.

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    The current disruption (if any) is only part of the global picture. If you are working in a fairly small field, don't be surprised if your next post-doc application is read by somebody who already knows what you did last time around. – alephzero Nov 11 '20 at 17:57
  • "If you haven't signed anything then you don't have a contract in most places" - definitely not true for the UK in relation to employment contracts, and also not true in relation to most types of contracts generally. I'm actually quite surprised to see a claim that a signature is required for a valid contract elsewhere, as verbal contracts take place routinely every day (e.g. when you buy a drink from a shop or when you employ someone to mow your lawn). But I'll concede there are probably jurisdictional differences. – JBentley Nov 12 '20 at 16:04
  • @JBentley, how does one enforce a complex but unwritten contract? Just by arguing back and forth in court about the terms? I assume some sort of evidence is required. – Buffy Nov 12 '20 at 16:15
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    @Buffy This is a topic better suited to law stack exchange, but briefly: (in most common law systems e.g. the UK / USA) for a contract you simply need intention, consideration, and agreement. There is no requirement that any of that be in writing, unless there is a rule of law to the contrary (e.g. the LPMPA 1989, s 2(1)). Whether or not you can prove the contract is separate from whether or not there is a contract. – JBentley Nov 12 '20 at 16:20
  • Also note that evidence can take the form of witness statements, and the standard of proof is balance of probabilities i.e. whichever party the judge/jury believes more (even just a tiny bit more) than the other party, will be the party that wins. – JBentley Nov 12 '20 at 16:21
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Inform the professor immediately of your change of heart. You will have to try to think of some reasoning, to make the conversation easier, dampen any bruising of their ego and to attempt to maintain a cordial relationship, if possible.

I am concerned that you are overly worried about the fallout of this, based on your question details. Bizaarely the top-ranked answer right now appears worded to heighten your stress. Ultimately the professor, and you, will be better off as a result of your decision, and changes-of-heart like this are a normal part of real life, and any career. For perspective, the professor whom you will be letting down almost certainly has a much more stable place in academia than you do, and many would consider any very extreme reaction on their part to be an indication of lack of character. Most PIs which I have known have been quite realistic regarding the hiring process, and it is common for top candidates to recieve multiple offers. Decision changes happen.

Unless you are in some exceptionally small field with an exceptionally insecure PI at its helm, it is likely everything will be fine for you.

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  • "and it is common for top candidates to recieve multiple offers. Decision changes happen." This glosses over the fact that most candidates will not accept an offer and later change their decision. OP messed up (though surely not in a particular extreme way) and should approach the situation from this mindset. – lighthouse keeper Nov 13 '20 at 14:33
  • Everyone I have spoken to in real life thinks what I did is no big deal. My own (current) PI said it doesn't matter, especially when you consider the sort of things that people get up to in academia. I struggle to reconcile this with the other replies I've received here, although it's undoubtedly possible that people close to me were telling me what I wanted to hear. The implication in some of the comments that I'll get a "reputation" and "word will spread"... it just doesn't ring remotely true to me. Maybe a different field or a different continent. – rooms Nov 13 '20 at 15:33
  • @rooms your experiences regarding the comments of your PIs and colleagues mirror with the academic world which I have seen also. I think that the flagellatory additions to some of the answers here are quite unnecessary. Your original question made it quite clear that you already realised that your actions would lead to some degree of immediate inconvenience. You asked how to respond and whether it was unethical, not whether it was inconvenient. Go boldly forth! Your future success will surely depend on your publication record predominantly anyway - not this minor blip! – steve_b Nov 14 '20 at 17:51
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You have two options:

  1. You stay in the job that you accepted. Maybe it will be fine, or maybe (as you suspect) you won't be happy.

  2. You tell the people you accepted that you are very sorry to mess them around, but have changed your mind. Maybe this only causes them a minor inconvenience, or maybe it causes them a lot of hassle. Maybe it hurts your relationship in the future for a while, and maybe it doesn't. Then, maybe you are happy in this job and maybe you aren't.

There are risks either way. You have to judge which is the greater risk. As others have pointed out, the risk of a bad outcome from option 2 increases with time.

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You should just tell the postdoc director you've changed your mind. And quickly, so he can look for another candidate, or call back a candidate he refused. The sooner the better.

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