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I have been on the postdoc treadmill for 5 years now. My current employer has been clear from the start that unless I meet certain metrics with publications, I would not be able to stay past my current contract, which expires this year.

An ex-co-author of mine, who works at another institution, recently won a grant for a five year research project that is right on my field of expertise. She has struggled to recruit a candidate that meets the job requirements and on the second round of advertisement for a postdoc position, she encouraged me to apply for the job. My current employer strongly supported my application for this position. When I received an offer to join as a postdoc on the 5 year project of my colleague, my current employer made a surprise offer, for a 5 year contract extension and with an immediate 24% salary increase (despite still not meeting the publication requirements mentioned by my employer).

I have known my co-author for ten years. She was my undergraduate and graduate teacher and advised me heavily during my PhD. We have worked together in other research projects. I brought up the surprise offer from my current employer and she said that I should pick the offer that is best for my career and family. However, she also said that if she failed to hire a postdoc, that she would run into problems with the organization funding the project.

I am torn. I dont know how to tell my colleague that I will be declining the postdoc offer. I dont even know if I should decline it. The project I am currently working on is great and I have a good relationship with my research team. The PI is relatively younger and less well known than my colleague offering me a postdoc. The project that my colleague will be working on is also right on my field of expertise. So both projects are interesting, last about the same time but have a very large difference in terms of salary. The postdoc at my colleague's institution would also require me to move to another state.

What should I do? Do you have any advice?

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    Your current employer sounds, well, flakey at best. And in your field how are 10-year postdocs looked upon? Can you get one or the other to be upgraded to a (soft money) research position? What is your desired permanent job, and will this arrangement actually help?
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 15, 2023 at 20:17
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    My current employer is indeed flakey. We get along well, but it is not the first time that they come out with surprises like this. I would have not applied to the other postdoc if I had a guarantee of extending my contract. In my field, 5 year postdocs are already quite common. 10 years in postdoc does not look good in my field, but the peculiarity of the projects I have worked on mitigate this. My desired job is a tenure track position, which is a posibility at my current job if I meet some publication metrics.
    – JChase1990
    Aug 15, 2023 at 20:26
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    In any of the cases, remember that a postdoc is a job, its not like a PhD. You can leave it before the 5 year mark, anytime, if you get a better position or offer. You are not bound to the end of any contract. Aug 16, 2023 at 9:53
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    Side note: What is an ex-co-author? Aug 17, 2023 at 6:37
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    @leonos I would still call such a person a co-author. Aug 18, 2023 at 3:42

6 Answers 6

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It's your life and your decision, and it also seems that you already made your choice with the title asking how to reject the offer, not if you should accept the offer or not. There's no subtle way to throw a grenade, so if that's your decision, just say that.

HOWEVER. If you have not yet made a decision, let me offer a suggestion. Your ex-co-author saying that you should choose the best for your career does not mean that the other option is better. Three reasons: (1) Your ex-co-author is an upfront person, told you about the opportunity and selected you without any BS. Your current employer only removed conditions and gave you an offer after they saw you had another offer. I prefer people who don't need to have their arms twisted to do the right thing. (2) Instead of using manipulating language, give you false promises, or guilt you into accepting, your ex-co-author asked you to do what's best for you. Your current employer is only offering more money, not showing any other concern for you. (3) You have known her for 10 years, and she needs you to keep her grant. She seems the type of person who will have your back when you need it, and by accepting her offer, you will have shown that you had her back when she needed you. Your current employer seems transactional.

I always prefer a bigger salary to a smaller salary, but an honest, straight-forward, known quantity is in my book, worth the 25% salary difference.

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    I'm a software engineer, and not academia -- In my field it's a common knowledge that it's never a good idea to accept a counter-offer after you have resigned. Aug 16, 2023 at 20:00
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    @Diagon The prevailing wisdom is often stated as, "they know you're looking to leave so will show you no loyalty in the future" or "it shouldn't have taken you leaving to get a basic offer that matches your worth". Ultimata rarely enhance a relationship or its trust
    – bertieb
    Aug 17, 2023 at 11:50
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    This is excellent advice. It's something I consider a lot in my career. Ultimately, you can't buy friends, a good working environment or a good relationship with your employer. Some intangibles are worth more than money and should be considered. Aug 17, 2023 at 13:22
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    @ConnieMnemonic It also bears from my experience. The best career move I've made in my life involved taking a 25% pay cut to move to a position with a good working environment.
    – Cheery
    Aug 17, 2023 at 13:28
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    Fully agree with @GrannyAching, never accept an counter-offer. Will only be suffering for you. Like, more teaching load.
    – yarchik
    Aug 17, 2023 at 14:12
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She has already indicated that it is your choice and you should choose to your own benefit. She has other options for a postdoc and it is her responsibility, not yours, to fill the slot.

Just say that your other offer is better and that you will accept it. She may be disappointed, but it would be no reason to cut you off for future contact/collaboration.

Some things just need to be said. Better in person if you can manage it and don't make it sound like you are fishing for a better offer, though that is a possibility, perhaps. Talk to her before you finalize anything.

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    More salary is usually an excellent reason to accept a job, or leave on job for another, etc. It sounds materialistic, but it is well accepted, at least in the U.S. Aug 16, 2023 at 18:42
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she said that I should pick the offer that is best for my career and family

This advice is as good as any other you'll get. There is more to "career" than just salary, of course, but you shouldn't ignore it, either.

Do consider that you'll need a new job in 5 years that may or may not be in academia. But, there's no real way for an outsider to make the decision for you: you'll have to weigh all aspects of the decision and make a choice based on your own values.

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I suggest first signing the contract with the position you want, or at least getting a written offer and making sure it matches your expectations, then declining the other offer.

In the meantime you can tell both PIs that you are considering their offers.

The fact that your colleague might have problems if they don't find a postdoc is not your problem, even if you like them. What you could do to help is say you'll help advertise the job description to your network.

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A post doc is a financial transaction: your time for their money. Treat it as such.

No one is doing anyone a favor here. Pick the best salary/most advantageous position for YOU. The rest is the problem of the PI. I am sure that if they really needed someone, they will offer more money and find it.

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    I agree with the sentiment that this is a transaction of time for money. But it's not as simple as just salary. A postdoc offer in NYC has to be at least double the salary than anywhere in Maine to be comparable. And "pick the most advantageous" also includes having a good working environment. How much that's worth is different for every person, but it's worth something, and that needs to be entered into the calculation. For you, it might be $1, for me it's worth a few thousand.
    – Cheery
    Aug 18, 2023 at 13:33
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    Yes. But the point is that this is a job. There is no "loyalty" involved. In fact, being "loyal" will only hort you on the long run. In this profession or any other. Aug 20, 2023 at 4:01
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A post-doc is not a way of life. A string of 5-yr postdocs is not a career. If this were your last post-doc, which would you choose? I would look at it that way.

The post-doc is a low-paying holding pattern for people reluctant to leave academia but not successful enough to get a faculty position. Consider this to be your last post-doc. Then which one would you take? Even if it's not your last post-doc, two 5-year post-docs is no way to live, and it probably SHOULD be your last post-doc.

Academia is a pyramid scheme. Some people finish their PhDs in an area that suddenly becomes stone-cold. Some people finish their PhDs during a recession when big lights in the field are clamoring to go back to academic positions. Just because your timing was not good, is not necessarily your fault. I finished my PhD and got an immediate faculty offer at a highly rated school, but it was the lowest paying institution in north america (relative to the cost of living). I stayed as a faculty member for only 2 years.

That light at the end of the tunnel - even if it appears - may be exceedingly dim. Life is that way. Not every dream comes true.

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