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About four weeks ago I interviewed a university (outside the U.S.) for a tenure-track assistant professor position. The head of the department scheduled a meeting with me the next day, gave me a verbal offer and talked about the package. The interview experience was great and the package is great too, but the thing is that they would not process an official letter unless I said I'll take the offer.

I emailed the head and said yes the week after. They quickly responded and cc-ed the staff who'll be working on the paperwork with me. The staff said they will prepare the documents to seek approval from the university. I was very excited and forgot to ask questions such as timeframe and other details. I also declined an interview invite from another university (these two universities are close so I thought it's not appropriate to do the interview).

Now it's been three weeks but I haven't heard anything from them. I emailed the staff yesterday to ask if there are any updates but haven't gotten any responses so far. Now I'm a bit stressed out and start worrying about the offer. Should I email the head if no response from the staff in the next few days?

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(For context: US-based, former department chair here.)

Do you have the terms of the offer and the basic intent to make the offer documented in an email? If so, I think you shouldn’t worry too much. If not, then that is more concerning. Anything that isn’t documented in writing cannot safely be assumed to exist in any meaningful sense, and should not be used as a basis for any actions such as withdrawing other applications or declining job interviews.

With that said, as far as the situation of having things documented by email goes, not worrying too much doesn’t mean not worrying at all. Email documentation is not the same as an offer, it’s just evidence that the chair is acting in (more or less) good faith and that the process is in motion. In most universities a department head does not have the authority to make a formal offer — that has to come from a dean or higher level administrator — and on rare occasions recruitments have been known to get derailed even with the department wanting to hire someone. So, it’s quite reasonable to be concerned and want to know what’s going on.

It’s also reasonable and normal to contact the department head directly and ask for updates. It’s their job to communicate with you, and poor practice to leave such communications to administrative staff who are slow to reply.

Good luck! I hope things turn out all right.

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    @randomcat I see. Well, it’s possible that things will work out (perhaps even likely, I can’t say), but you should be working on a plan B in case they didn’t. If I were you I’d start looking into un-declining those interviews. You should also let the department head know that until you have a written offer in hand, you have no choice but to keep all your employment options open. This should be said as diplomatically as possible. Get a senior mentor to help you navigate this tricky situation if you can.
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 23 at 14:55
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    By the way, telling a candidate you will not work on a formal offer unless they “accept” a (meaningless) verbal, undocumented “offer” is an unethical move. I have friends who had such a trick pulled on them. The correct way to respond to this is “I am excited about our phone conversation from last week. The details of the offer you outlined are promising, and I am looking forward to receiving a written offer. Please be advised that I have upcoming interviews in the next couple of weeks at universities of X, Y, Z. …
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 23 at 15:29
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    … Please be advised that while your department is my top choice in the current situation given the parameters of the offer you outlined to me during our conversation, as I’m sure you’ll understand I will be considering all my options until I have a written offer in hand.”
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 23 at 15:29
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    I'd say that because of this unethical way of proceeding (which seems quite common, and it is pretty much an awful leveraging of power), you should not feel at all constrained by the fact that you "accepted" the (non-existing) offer via email. Yes, you will ruin some relationships if you then don't accept it, but the power balance shifts significantly once you have the offer in hand (in many places, at least in the US, once an offer is out it may not be possible to make another one to a different candidate in the same cycle if the first is not accepted).
    – Matteo
    Nov 23 at 16:47
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    @randomcat it is not “the norm” at any reputable department to pressure candidates to pre-accept a not-yet-extended offer. It may be something that is done occasionally by an unscrupulous and/or inexperienced chair, but a department that does it as a matter of habit will pretty quickly develop serious reputational (and potentially, legal) troubles.
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 23 at 18:33

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