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Last week, I had a postdoc interview for a "senior" role. They call it senior because they've asked me to lead on a (perhaps the) research problem. For the interview, they asked me to prepare a 10 minutes presentation where I propose a research plan. My presentation focused on a particular case with a detailed plan. I proposed to work on a particular case simply because it's all I can do at the moment (in terms of my current knowledge and research experience from my Ph.D.).

They complimented my presentation and the fact that I have a clear plan. But they did say that they want someone to work on the research problem from a general perspective and then perhaps at the end, target a particular case. The researcher is also expected to show leadership during his research when working on the project. The issue is the general case will require a lot of reading. The interview was really good and I have answered all of their questions. But they didn't ask much to be honest (I guess it's because my presentation was technical and focused on the particular case and not the whole problem). But I wasn't expecting an offer because our research goals weren't the same.

Now that I gave some background to why I am hesitant, I will get to my question. The PI sent me an informal email just two days after the interview, saying that I did a good interview and I should expect good news. The next day, he did say that he's going to offer me the position (again informally) and that I need to accept so he can send a formal letter. I told him that I am interested but I have another interview next week in which I've confirmed my attendance. I said that we can start the formal procedure next week after my next interview. He basically said that you have 2 days (before my next interview) to accept otherwise he will move to the waiting list. It's my first time receiving an offer, is this normal? To give 2 days as a deadline knowing that I asked for more time for my second interview? Note that a 5 day-deadline is more than enough to have an idea about both postdoc positions!

Update

I want to thank you for answers. Really good points were mentioned that help see things from both sides (candidate's and the PI's point view). For this particular case, I decided to quickly decline the PI's offer informally.

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    It's a red flag that's on fire being towed by a red plane that is also on fire and is currently plummeting towards the earth, where it will leave a smoking red crater. – Libor Feb 21 at 15:44
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    @Libor, colorful. Possibly correct. – Buffy Feb 21 at 16:02
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    If you accept informally (nothing written) you can still reject formally. If they send out rejections to the other candidates upon your merely informal "acceptance", it's their loss if you have second thoughts; and they can still inquire with a rejected candidate if they are still interested in the position anyway. – henning -- reinstate Monica Feb 21 at 18:31
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    This might be region-dependent. Where are you applying? – user151413 Feb 21 at 20:17
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    @user151413 It's really is very country/region dependent. From my (EU) perspective, having to make a decision before even seeing the formal offer feels completely backwards. Yet there are countries where a "formal offer" is pretty much the last step in a hiring process. – TooTea Feb 22 at 12:14
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This means one of two things:

  1. The PI has a certain set of needs right now and wants them met. Your needs are irrelevant. This will be the case for the duration of your employment - they'll be a decent boss until they need something and then that thing will be more important than anything you've got going on. This is a reasonably common PI mindset and most of them will respond to pushback - if you're assertive and can manage their expectations and needs this could be an ok fit for you.

  2. The PI is cynically abusive to staff. This is a test. They want anyone assertive to get filtered out at this stage, because you'd just quit later in the face of abuse anyway. This is a shibboleth to identify postdocs who can be used and discarded. There is no way to make this job work for you. This PI is rarer but tends to be hiring a lot (for obvious reasons) and so you'll see them more than you would expect on the job market.

It's better to not work for either kind of PI if you can avoid it.

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    What if the PI has a set of needs which are prioritized over the needs of someone else? Isn't that just #1? – Libor Feb 22 at 4:22
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    It's not a random person, it's someone you want to work with with for years or you wouldn't hire them. You're still just describing #1 with a weird unrealistic hypothetical. – Libor Feb 22 at 5:05
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    @Behacad If the PI has a list of candidates, but is going to grab the first one who looks OK instead of carrying out due-diligence by interviewing them and finding the most suitable, that in itself is a red flag that the PI is incompetent on many levels. – Graham Feb 22 at 9:45
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    Why is your red plane not appearing in your answer? – user21820 Feb 22 at 13:24
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    @user21820: the red plane caught fire and crashed earlier, burning itself, its occupants, and the red banner it was towing, and leaving behind the aforementioned smoking crater which was also red. – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Feb 23 at 1:27
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In negotiation theory, such a tactic is known as an exploding offer, and its adverse effects are well-known: rushing people into hasty decisions and giving them the feeling that they're disposable can create distrust and a flawed work relationship. It also signals desperation, which will damage the PI's brand if the word gets around.

Such offers can happen, but they are definitely not the norm, and could be interpreted as a red flag. Proceed with caution.

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    Thank you for your answer. I mean it was discouraging enough for me that they wanted someone to basically lead the project and working on research problems that they're going to define. – U. User Feb 21 at 15:50
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    @U.User That alone would not be a red flag for me (but possibly a mismatch of expectations). A post-doc is supposed to be the phase in which you grow to become an independent researcher, a quality you will need when you apply for faculty jobs. Defining and leading your own project is a good way to achieve that. – lighthouse keeper Feb 21 at 15:52
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    Agreed, I'd clarify to ensure they understood but never work for someone who'd force me into a situation like this. – brenzo Feb 22 at 4:33
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    Great answer. You might consider quoting some of the adverse effects from the source. – M. Stern Feb 22 at 6:55
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I think that the PI is pressing you improperly. I'd suggest replying that you need to have the details in writing before you can formally accept an offer. You can say that you are interested and "inclined to accept" but without making a definite decision prior to having the actual details.

This is likely to give you the time you need for the other interview. And if it isn't acceptable to the PI, then I'd worry whether everything is proper or not on their end.

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    Again, you can only accept or reject knowing all the details. You can be "interested", even at a high level. But no commitments without full disclosure. – Buffy Feb 21 at 15:57
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    How he deals with his other candidates is his problem, not yours. I wouldn't think too much about the informal accept. – Eelco Hoogendoorn Feb 22 at 11:58
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    If they send rejection letters to other candidates based on an informal acceptance and without a signed contract from both sides, they should improve their hiring practices. – penelope Feb 22 at 12:41
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    @U.User You just answered your own question here... "But 2 days is too short for me." Thank them for the opportunity, but move on. Make sure you let them know that you simply cannot define your next several years work in two working days. – CGCampbell Feb 22 at 14:23
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    That "he will generate all the details after ... I accept informally" is a HUGE red flag. You should not accept until you know exactly what you're getting into, and the PI should know this. – Paul Price Feb 22 at 15:25
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I wanted to also provide a different perspective, which adds to Ian Sudbery's answer.

I was recently in the interview panel for a postdoc position. The first two candidates both performed really well, and first choice was a close call, with another great candidate following. It is common in the UK to extend an informal offer to the 1st candidate within a day or two of the interview. The first candidate was offered a generous (too generous?) two-week deadline to respond. 15 days later, he responded in the negative. The second candidate was very surprised when we got in touch 16 days after the interview... 3 days later he apologised saying that he unfortunately already accepted another offer.

Now, the funding for this particular position was time-limited: it expired on a fixed date, regardless of when the candidate started. Advertising for a position generally takes at least 5+ weeks: the position needs to be advertised for at least 2 weeks, and there needs to be at least 2 weeks between informing the shortlisted candidates and the interview date. A week or two are usually lost in between -- and often, new hires can only start in 1-3 months time, or even longer if they need to get a visa sorted.

Add to all of this that over the last year, due to covid, the Universities' budget is much tighter, individual research groups get less (or no) discretionary budget, there was even a hiring freeze in play for a few months.

I'll let you draw your own conclusions from this. 2 days certainly seems very insensitive to (you) the candidate. But if this is the second time the position is advertised in a similar situation to above, the PI likely has a fire burning under their chair as well.

On the more practical side, I would suggest:

  • If you really do not think the position is a good fit for you, reject quickly.

    You have expressed many doubts. Also, as many answers point out, this kind of pressure at the offer stage might indicate negative things about the PI. Or the PI might be under a lot of legitimate stress to fill the position in this call, and is yet to learn how to handle it better. You need to decide what you think is more likely.

  • If you think the position might be a good fit, tell the PI that you are happy to start the formal paperwork.

    Then go to the other interview. Under no circumstances cancel the other interview unless you have a signed contract -- and if it's just a video call anyway, just attend it. The paperwork will likely take a week or so -- and if you have a point of negotiation, like salary, it might take a few days longer.

    If you want to "be nice", accept the contract if everything seems in order, and reject the other offer quickly if it comes.

    If you want to prioritize your own interest, and don't care about leaving a slightly negative impression -- wait to see if you get an offer for a better position. And then reject the current offer ASAP. If this is before the paperwork was signed, great, just let them know that you accepted a better offer in the meantime. If this happens to be after the paperwork was signed... well, let's just say that most PI's will understand that forcing somebody to stick to a contract for the duration of their notice period is just causing more delays and does not benefit anybody. Also, most PI's don't remember that one guy they never worked with a year later.

    Don't do this if the 2nd offer comes in much later. But, if you do this within a few days, it should still leave the PI plenty of time to contact their second choices. If they send the rejection e-mails to their backup choices that quickly, especially without a signed contract for you, they should improve their hiring process. (You decide which duration of "much later" and "few days" makes you comfortable)

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Just to provide a somewhat different perspective to what has been discussed already, I'd say that what you have just described is very common (no comment on whether its morally suspect or practically counter-productive).

I was given a short time limit to accept both my PhD position and the one postdoc I had that was secured via a normal advertised position. While the same tactic wasn't quite used when I got my faculty position, they did want an informal commitment shortly after the offer, even if they accepted that it was conditional on successful negotiations of the conditions.

Generally the explanation given is that the recruiter wants to not keep others on the list hanging around too long. Of course, the other reason is to try and get you to take this one rather than bothering to interview at the other and therefore secure a superior worker for what might be a less good position for the worker.

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    The faculty position negotiation and outcome described here seems to have the correct nuance. And the last sentence of the post is critical to keep in mind. – Buffy Feb 21 at 16:00
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    When you say "short time", do you indeed mean 2 days, like in OP's case? – lighthouse keeper Feb 21 at 16:21
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    For the PhD and the postdoc, yes. I think in both cases I interviewed on Friday, and they wanted the answer by Monday morning. For the faculty position, it may have been more interview on monday, answer in principle by friday. – Ian Sudbery Feb 21 at 18:14
  • From friends and such outside academia, I would say this sort of thing is even more common there. 2 days may even be generous. – Bryan Krause Feb 21 at 19:26
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    It might be country-dependent. I once got a postdoc offer from a university in the UK with a deadline of 2 days. I know the PI well and trust him, and according to him he had little influence over that part of the hiring process; it was handled by the uni HR department. That deadline seems to be standard for that uni and possibly all of UK. (I was able to extend the deadline one day, which was enough time to obtain an offer from my preferred university and decline the UK offer.) – Noiralef Feb 22 at 10:54
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If the company desperately wants you, they will wait for you. (A university waited for me a full year after I just finished my grad school.) If you desperately want the company, you will accept promptly. You do not seem to be in that situation, rather a feely-touchy one. So your response should be of that kind too. I would tell them that I was honored to be considered for employment and that, for your final "yes" you would need to see the details of the offer. Upon seeing the details you can negotiate the parts that are not agreeable to you. In the meantime your second interview will happen and you will know whether it is worth waiting for the second company to possibly offer you the job, etc.

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You're thinking from your perspective, with information you have.

There might be another candidate available, as good as you, but you seemed (bit) more promising AND they want to fill position ASAP. 2 days is not much, but not 2 hours as well. If you came to interview, you should have been ready to accept it. If not, why waste yours and others time, especially if they clearly indicated before, that they'll think they'll give you an offer.

Imo, it's more of a "take it or leave it" offer. You (and a lot of people here) might think it's "insensitive" or "too quickly", but if you've been on the other side of the table, You'll get my point- either candidate wants to work with you or no. No one needs doubter, "window shoppers" or CV builders, who'll probably leave the very moment the better opportunity arises.

You can try stalling of course (by say, asking for written offer or saying you'd like to have another call and schedule something for 1 week later or ...), but don't think it'll change for you much, because apparently they either want you to accept or move on and you need to make that decision now, not in 2 weeks from now, when there will be second answer available.

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    An interview should be a 2-way process: you do not come to the interview ready to accept, as the interview conveys a lot of useful information about the PI/team/University that you can't see from the advertisement. It's not window shopping, it's a mature attitude when looking for a position. – penelope Feb 23 at 11:26
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    Shoving a take it or leave it offer down someone's throat means they're much more likely to leave the second they get another opportunity. Letting them choose to work for you means they're less likely to jump ship. You seem to have this entirely backwards. – Libor Feb 23 at 17:13

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