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I'm a 4-year (most likely 4.5-year) experimental psychology PhD student who just got an offer to be a visiting lecturer at a regional branch of a major university in the United States. They gave me two days to accept an offer for a lecturer position.

I have a couple of other first-stage interviews lined up, so I'm wondering if I can retract my acceptance if I obtain something better later this month or sometime in July. Nothing in my letter states whether I can retract or not, nor can I find any clear information online.

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You are asking if it's okay to tell people you will do something when you are premeditating the possibility of not doing it after all and telling them later that you changed your mind. In your personal life you can do whatever you want of course. In a professional setting in academia, behaving in such a way will pretty much always make people upset and can be seen as unethical behavior. Even more so, if you keep looking for a job after accepting an offer, that's definitely seen as a violation of job search norms and not considered appropriate. The standard and ethical thing you are expected to do after accepting an offer is to inform other places you've applied to that you are no longer searching for a job.

I do understand your dilemma and your desire not to settle for an inferior position out of the necessity of a short deadline. People in academia deal with such dilemmas all the time, and trust me, the people who made you the lecturer offer also don't want you to accept their offer and then see you either rescind your acceptance later or start the job with them but end up bitter and resentful that they "tricked you" into working for them. So, the first and most obvious thing to do would be to explain the situation to those people and ask for an extension of the deadline. If it is practical to give you the extension, it's very likely they will be willing to.

In a scenario where they cannot extend your deadline sufficiently for you to explore your other options, you'll have to make a tough decision. That's what people usually do. It also does happen occasionally that people rescind their previous acceptance and then take a different job. It's "possible" in that sense, but it can upset people and harm your reputation. If you are thinking of doing it, maybe think how you would feel if the employer was the one backing out of their offer to you.

Good luck in any case!

Edit to address the multiple downvotes on my answer:

I can only speculate as to the reason for the downvotes, since no downvoter has commented explicitly. It seems likely that many people consider the academic hiring and employment game to be rigged in favor of employers, particularly in the realm of low-status visiting/adjunct positions. If one starts from that premise, then the conclusion might be, to quote @cag51's comment, to adopt the mentality of "the system screws everyone, so OP shouldn't feel bad about screwing the system when they have to." With that mindset, what I wrote may seem naive or overly righteous.

It's true that the relationship between employers and job candidates is not symmetric. And it's true that if academia has not been kind to you, you might feel less inclined to be kind back to it. I understand that people make such mental calculations, and don't want to argue that they are invalid. I don't want to claim that my sense of ethics is more correct or developed than other people's, and with these sorts of questions there are always many nuances to take into account depending on the specific context. There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer.

Nonetheless, I think there are principles we can all agree on. Dishonestly promising something that you think you might not deliver, and creating the impression that you are committing to something and then continuing to explore other options, are shady behaviors. They upset people. They are things that one should try to avoid doing if there are other alternatives, both for practical reasons and just for your own happiness and peace of mind.

I didn't say to OP: "Don't ever do this under any circumstances." I didn't say: "This is absolutely terrible behavior." I simply tried to offer a balanced perspective, acknowledging that people sometimes behave in such a way, while warning of the ethical and practical pitfalls with OP's approach. I'm fine with the downvotes, and if anyone thinks they have a better way of looking at the situation, I'd be happy to read your answer or comment where you explain in what ways you disagree with my analysis.

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    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 14 at 14:47
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Legally there is nothing to stop you accepting one offer to later retract your acceptance. It is highly unlikely that if you do this you will suffer any legal or financial consequences.

Practically it is possible you will suffer some reputational damage. People at the first university may be upset with you. Only you can judge how mad this will be for you professionally. I doubt they will remember you for long. And if you get a position elsewhere, it probably doesn't matter if you've burnt your bridges with people at a minor regional branch of a university. It's not like we are talking about a tenure track professorship that people have put hours and hours into courting you and developing a package.

The problems are mainly moral and ethical. It's always problematic to say yes to something you don't intend to actually do. How problematic depends on the damage done to the wronged party. If this visiting professorship is the sort of position i think it is (short term, no fixed hours or pay, otherwise why is it "visiting"), personally I'm sufficiently against the existence of such positions, and the people who offer them, I'd weight that somewhat in a decision. However I still think that on balance I'd decide that I couldn't deliberately say yes, if I knew there was a good chance I wouldn't end up taking up the position. But you will have to examine your own conscience.

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  • Please can you clarify the double negative in the first paragraph? I think you mean "it is highly unlikely that you will suffer legal or financial consequences if you do this" but you might mean the opposite, so I won't unilaterally edit it Commented Jun 13 at 15:32
  • "Legally there is nothing to stop you accepting one offer to later retract your acceptance." Doesn't this depend on the letter you signed? Just because employers tend not to pursue civil relief over these sorts of issues, that doesn't mean they're not entitle to in the right situations. Commented Jun 13 at 15:59
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    @user2390246 you are correct. I have edit the answer. Commented Jun 13 at 23:43
  • @scottseidman the OP says there is nothing in the letter. At most an employment contract could specify a notice period, often either three months or till the end of the current semester. Both would leave the OP clear to start something else in the new academic year. I don't strictly speaking know about US law, but in the absence of a notice period in the letter, in the UK, this would leave you free to leave at will. Even so, you'll note my wording was that it was highly unlikely. Commented Jun 13 at 23:53
  • ..., and of course, no department would really want somebody who doesn't want to be there for plenty of reasons -- but that doesn't mean that there aren't legal avenues that can be pursued. I just have a thing about offering what seems to be clear legal advice with no caveats that may or may not be correct, or that may or may not be true. Commented Jun 14 at 17:09
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You would be better to ask for an extension as two days isn't long enough to consider your options. If you sign a contract you can be held to it. But an informal or verbal statement can also be construed (by courts) as a contract so beware.

That said, retracting an acceptance isn't especially rare and the university probably has a backup plan as long as the "delay" is short enough.

But this is a legal question so an answer from a lawyer with knowledge of the law in Michigan would be better than this or any other answer from strangers.

At least do an online search for "verbal statements as binding contracts" to get more information. My quick look suggests that they can be binding. And, an online search isn't a replacement for advice from a lawyer.

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    I think it is less about what is legally possible, but what impression you leave. Is it socially accepted? Or will the Michigan psychology community remember that zzmondo1 broke his word and will be an a person non grata from now on?
    – usr1234567
    Commented Jun 12 at 7:54
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    @usr1234567 The bigger problem is that not only the "Michigan psychology community" may remember. Academics meet at conferences, and academics love to gossip. Easy to become henceforth known as "zzmondo1 who agreed to a position at Michigan State and then never showed up".
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jun 13 at 11:46
  • @xLeitix It seems very relevant to this issue that "visiting assistant professorships" are not real positions in the academic status economy. Commented Jun 14 at 23:31
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This seems to be a not-so-essential visiting lecturer position at a regional campus thus the Earth will not shake one way or the other. You should look for your interest first and act accordingly. The kind of position you mention is in the group of exploitive positions -- lots of hours and not much financial reward that, if you have potentially better things coming, you should go for it. Employers are not institutions guided by some (or any) moral principles, on the contrary, academic institutions nowadays are corporations guided by their exclusive self-interest and greed. I remember that, once upon a time, when I was applying for jobs, I had been swindled by potential university employers twice, one of them an "ivy league" university. In each case they offered an Associate Professor position ORALLY. However, within a week or so, they had rescinded their offers. In fact the "ivy league" one pretended they never heard of me before when I asked them for a contract and all. The other one told me that they wanted me to explain the ongoing lawsuit I filed against my ex university employer. I refused to talk about it after recommendation of the attorneys. I suspect the reason I have not heard from the other one was the same -- it was horrible that I sued an ex-employer (incidentally, I won that lawsuit). Nevertheless, you should not have any MORAL considerations when it comes to employers because employers are not guided by morals, but by money. I would inform them that I am still in the middle of interviewing and that I would like to compare offers (I always did that). If they do not like that, good riddance, it is likely that you have not lost much.

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  • Surprisingly downvoted
    – Fattie
    Commented Jun 14 at 17:14
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    @Fattie Voting here (like everywhere?) has nothing to do with the substance.
    – Rado
    Commented Jun 16 at 22:29

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