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I am a PhD student in mathematics in the US. I am graduating next month. Last fall, I applied for many postdoctoral positions, and at that time, I only received two offers from China. In March, I felt compelled to accept one of the offers from China because I did not have any other options. It's not a bad offer, but it does have a few disadvantages, such as the absence of mentorship, which I believe is important at this stage of my career. Additionally, as a married individual with children, moving to a country where we don't know the language is undoubtedly tough.

A few days ago, I received a very good offer from the UK. When I informed my advisor about this, he was very unhappy and insisted that I must accept the offer from China; otherwise, it could reflect poorly on my professionalism and integrity. While there may be some merit to his perspective, my family and my career are my top priorities.

How should I handle this situation and respectfully decline the offer from China, while also explaining to my advisor that I cannot relocate there? Overall, we have a good relationship, and I want to maintain it in the future. However, I need to provide him with a reasonable explanation for my decision not to go to China.

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    Thank you for the kind offer. I’m honored but, for practical reasons, won’t be able to accept it. Apr 13 at 20:46
  • @Aruralreader, Thank you for your clarification. I'm seeking advice on how to present my rationale for changing postdoctoral positions to my advisor. I value my relationship with him greatly, as maintaining positive connections in academia is crucial to me. Although he's a great mentor, he seemed a bit upset when I mentioned considering rejecting the accepted offer from China in favor of one from the UK.
    – RFZ
    Apr 13 at 20:49
  • @DavidWhite, thank you for the link! I know that post, but I’d say my situation is a bit different. My visa has not been issued yet, and I haven't signed any contracts yet.
    – RFZ
    Apr 13 at 21:32

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Speaking as a mathematician, I think your advisor has a point, that giving the first university a verbal commitment does obligate you to take the job, at least for a year. Think about it: they planned their budget to include you, and it's very late in the season to find another good candidate to replace you. Furthermore, they probably could have hired another good candidate if you'd told them weeks/months ago when you got the position, that you were not going to take it. By now, most of the other applicants to the job you accepted will have taken other jobs.

You're not asking how to accept one place over another. You're asking how to break a commitment to the place in China because you prefer a postdoc offer that came later. Most people, after making a commitment to the first university would alert the other ones that they are no longer on the job market, to avoid wasting others' time. That's what I did once I accepted an offer when I was in your shoes. You're lucky that the first university is in China, so I'm guessing that they have not assigned courses for you to teach in the fall. Leaving them short an instructor would make this whole thing even worse.

It seems to me that the ethical thing to do would be to communicate to the university in China that you've been made another offer that works much better for your family, and ask them if they would free you from the commitment you made to them, so that you could take that other postdoc. Offer to come to China for the first year, so they know that you take your commitments seriously. Probably they would rather go back to the applicant pool and try to find someone who can stay for 2 or 3 years instead of having you for only one year. However, if they insist that, because they've already got you in the budget and it's too late to change that, then you can write to the university in the UK and ask them if you can defer your start date, explaining that you already accepted an offer in China and feel the need to keep your word.

In an ideal world, the China job will free you from your commitment, recognizing that it's important to do what's best for your family. If that happens, it'll be easy to communicate with your advisor because you'll have done things the ethically right way rather than screwing over the people at the first university.

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    OP has a spouse and children, has no visa yet, has not signed a contract, and we are talking about them moving continent to a country where they don't speak the language. I don't think the university in China will be quite as surprised as you suggest if OP changes his or her mind.
    – toby544
    Apr 13 at 22:32
  • @toby544 Yes, and that's why I wrote that probably they will likely release him from his verbal commitment. But, the right thing to do is to explain the situation to them. Apr 13 at 22:39
  • The degree to which this verbal commitment is regarded as binding probably varies by country. More broadly speaking, I think you might be underestimating the degree to which things are different in different countries - it would be interesting if someone who is familiar with the culture of universities in China could comment on this answer.
    – toby544
    Apr 13 at 22:48
  • I am not assigned any teaching duties in the fall, and I have no one to work with in China. Going there for one year doesn't make any sense to me, I guess. Having a family makes all this very, very complicated.
    – RFZ
    Apr 13 at 22:50
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    @DavidWhite But presumably if OP offers to go there for one year and the Chinese university says yes, then you think OP should go there for one year? And then move continent again? Also, OP has no teaching duties or people to work with in China, so withdrawing from that job will not leave the Chinese university in the lurch very badly.
    – toby544
    Apr 13 at 23:20
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Tell your advisor the truth. Your family and career are your top priorities.

You could also emphasize the issues of language and culture. China and the UK are very different countries and moving to one instead of the other is a big deal especially when you have a family.

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