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I am a PhD student in mathematics in the US, scheduled to graduate this year. Last fall, I applied for postdoc positions. My situation is a bit complicated: in late January, I was offered a postdoc position in China. I wasn't particularly thrilled about this opportunity because there's no one working in my specific area of expertise at that institute, although there is no teaching load involved. Additionally, I have no proficiency in the Chinese language, and as a married individual with children, I anticipate potential challenges in adapting to life in China. Despite my doubts, I tentatively accepted the offer at the beginning of March, although no formal documentation has been signed yet, as I was informed that the onboarding process had already commenced.

The day after accepting the offer from China, I received an invitation for an interview from a university in the UK, which is where I would prefer to go because there are researchers there who specialize in the same area as I do. However, the interview isn't until four weeks from now. If I receive an offer from the UK university, I am seriously considering declining the offer from China. I understand that the academic community is relatively small, and this decision may have potential repercussions, but I question the wisdom of joining University X without a mentor and without proficiency in the local language, especially given my family situation.

Could anyone provide advice on what steps I should take in this situation?

UPD. If this somehow alleviates the situation, I am prepared to reimburse all financial expenses that have been incurred during the onboarding process. I need to emphasize that I applied for both positions at the same time, but for some reason, they took different amounts of time to reach their final decisions or schedule interviews.

3 Answers 3

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All you need to do is apologize but say that you must decline the offer for personal reasons. You don't need to say more.

Neither do you need to reimburse them for things that are part of their normal process. If they have given you travel funds or some such then you probably need to reimburse those, but not otherwise. They are familiar with such things and have budget for their own process. They probably also have a backup plan that you don't know about.

Just a polite note to say that it is now impossible to move forward. Thank them for their consideration.

And FWIW, there seem to be a lot of negatives with language and family and mentorship and....

Also, making multiple applications is perfectly normal.

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  • Thank you very much for your reply! To be honest, my point of view was completely opposite. I have talked with a few people, and they discouraged me and kind of convinced me not to accept the interview from the UK. Of course, it is possible that I will not get an offer from the UK, and in that case, I'll go to China. I have asked the hiring committee from the UK, and they told me that they will make a decision by mid-April(immediately after interviews). Given that I accepted the offer from China on March 1st, turning down the offer after 1.5 months of acceptance. Is that normal?
    – RFZ
    Mar 14 at 0:00
  • It seems a long time, actually. Especially since you "accepted", though you haven't made it official, if I read it correctly. But if you are going to do this, then sooner is better, though risky for yourself. Consider your own best interests.
    – Buffy
    Mar 14 at 0:03
  • Perhaps very soon the Chinese university will send me some official documents that I need to sign, probably (I am not sure whether it will happen or not?). Unfortunately, I cannot make it sooner since there are other candidates who should be interviewed the same day as I. You said "though risky for yourself". What do you mean?
    – RFZ
    Mar 14 at 0:12
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    Risky because you could wind up with no offers open.
    – Buffy
    Mar 14 at 12:35
  • Hello! Finally, I have received an offer from a UK university, which I was talking about. So now, I believe I can withdraw the offer which I accepted from China at the beginning of March. I know that rejecting an offer after accepting it is not good, but at this point, I care more about my research and family. So hopefully Chinese will understand my situation..
    – RFZ
    Apr 11 at 15:48
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You are going international--I don't think we are connected at the universal level in the way you are thinking. If you get an offer from the UK, I don't think walking back from the contract with a Chinese university would affect you at all. And, when you have to cross the border, there are always ways to deny any offers citing logistics or other issues. International hiring is not simple and your Chinese university personnel will understand. Even if they don't understand, there is almost no to very little chance that might hurt you. Just write a simple and polite email saying you are unable to move to China because of your reason.

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  • Given that I accepted the offer from China on March 1st, turning down the offer after 1.5 months of acceptance (because the UK university will announce the final decision in mid-April). Is that normal?
    – RFZ
    Mar 14 at 0:13
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    If the hiring process in China gets completed before you accept the UK offer and start working, you can resign. Resigning is normal. If you are still in the hiring phase but accepted, you can tell them you decide to reject. Everyone is looking to optimize their own goal and not someone else. I have heard Japanese get disappointed when someone changes their job in a short period but I don't know about Chinese work culture. Regardless, you want to optimize your goal, not someone else. Also, the chance of hurting your career, because you declined, is negligible given cross country's situation. Mar 14 at 0:28
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I was in the same situation as you, having to decline a previously accepted postdoc offer. And I was also worrying a lot about it. What helped me a bit was reminding myself that it is the universities, not us, who hold the position of power. I have submitted so many applications, only to have them rejected later. This required a significant amount of time and effort on my part. Sometimes, I traveled for an interview (that was before COVID) only to be rejected afterward. And moving to another country with a family is a huge decision. So the relationship between you and the university is in no way symmetrical, and you have every moral right to reverse a decision.

And on a personal level, the professor was very understanding. We met at a conference a year later and had a nice chat. There is no guarantee that a specific person won't hold a grudge — who knows? But most often, people are well aware of the difficulties involved in such decisions and are quite understanding.

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