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As universities provide short deadlines for faculty position offers, applicants can accept an offer-1 (verbally or by signing a contract) and which is not the best. What is the recommended option if a late and a better offer-2 arrives after accepting offer-1?

  • Reject offer-2 and stay with offer-1.
  • Reject offer-1 and accept offer-2.
  • Accept and delay offer-2 for a year or two if possible, and work for a year or two with University-1.
  • other options?
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    Sometimes the procedure is a bit different than what you describe: the department makes an informal offer that is in writing, but still conditional on the approval of the Provost. Then the candidate may informally accept (in writing, but without a signature.) Later the candidate receives a formal offer letter from the Provost, which, when signed, creates the contract. – Trevor Wilson Feb 2 '15 at 2:54
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    I'd go against option 3, it's immoral and it also wastes time of all the three parties. School 1 will waste a year incorporating the candidate, school 2 will waste a year missing a faculty member in their planning and grant competition, the candidate will waste a year yearning to get out, doing no long-term plan with the colleagues in school 1. It's a lose-lose-lose situation. – Penguin_Knight Feb 2 '15 at 18:34
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    Related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/62298/… Beware of the advises that are based on 'ethics'! 'Ethics' in this particular situation of academia may very well be 'convenience to the employers'. Employers can afford being in the convenient position due to the usually bad job market for employees. If there is not something specific in your signed offer-1 that binds you for a certain period with uni-1, then there is nothing that could stop you accepting offer-2. – John Feb 15 '16 at 22:04
  • Except that you may find the losers from uni-1 bad-mouthing about you! – John Feb 15 '16 at 22:10
  • I am happy to work in centralized France, were almost all application are synchronized so that you get all answers before you decide which offer to take. – Benoît Kloeckner Nov 22 '16 at 11:30
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This situation should not actually arise if you are handling your faculty job search properly. If you accept an offer, you should withdraw all your remaining job applications. Otherwise either you are wasting their time in considering you for a position you won't accept, or you were insincere in accepting the previous offer. If you aren't comfortable withdrawing your other applications, then you aren't comfortable accepting the job. You can negotiate on this point, for example by telling them that another job would solve your two-body problem and you hope they can wait on a final decision until you hear about that job, but there's no guarantee that they will agree.

The basic ethical principle here is honesty: you shouldn't give someone a decision they understand to be final without actually meaning it. By default, job acceptances are considered binding decisions in the parts of academia I'm familiar with (certainly in mathematics in the U.S.), so you can't just assume that of course they knew you might change your mind. If you have any reservations or conditions, you should make them explicit before accepting the position. This can't hurt you if nobody really considered the decision to be final in the first place, and it will avoid unethical behavior if they did.

Even though this shouldn't happen, people do occasionally get themselves into this situation. If you unilaterally rescind your initial acceptance and take the other position instead, you face almost no legal risk, since nobody's going to try suing over this. However, you can hurt your reputation, which is a serious danger.

Instead, the way you should handle it is by careful discussions. Typically, University 2 will let you defer their offer for at least a year, since otherwise they look like jerks for trying to steal you away from University 1 after you already accepted an offer. (Another possibility is that University 2 had no idea you had already accepted and will rescind their offer upon learning this.) Then you approach University 1 and apologize profusely for inadvertently creating a terribly awkward situation. You explain that you are willing to come to University 1 and fulfill your obligations, but you have an offer from University 2 and you would very likely leave after a year to go there, so you wonder whether there is any chance they would release you from your acceptance. If they agree, then you are ethically free to accept University 2's offer immediately. (University 1 still won't be happy with you, so you shouldn't do this unless it really matters to you, but asking them for permission is much better than just announcing you aren't coming.) If University 1 insists that they need you next year, then you defer University 2's offer and show up at University 1.

But you really shouldn't let yourself get further faculty offers after you've already accepted a job. You might be able to get away with it once by explaining that you accidentally forgot to withdraw your other applications, but you really don't want to develop a reputation over time as someone who deliberately manipulates the system in unethical ways.

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    It's worth noting that this is quite different to what you would expect in industry, where very few people would consider it unethical to continue applying in the hope of a better offer. I think a lot of mix-ups are caused by expecting academia to play by the same rules. – sapi Feb 2 '15 at 12:12
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    There are good reasons for this difference between academia and industry, which is that academia is built around semester and year calendars. Leaving an academic job mid-semester would be a disaster, so even non-tenured faculty are typically on year-long contracts rather than at-will like in industry. This is also in the interest of faculty, since there aren't jobs offered all year round. These differences run both directions, which is why it was such a scandal when Microsoft Research laid off a bunch of academics without advanced notice and while paying no regard to timing. – Noah Snyder Feb 2 '15 at 16:49
  • I feel this answer is taking the point of view of recruiter strongly. Now that I am in this side, I try to be quite understanding that we are competing for bright colleagues, not only them are competing for nice places such as ours. My guess is if there where less of a shortage of positions, the convention would be inversed. I agree that it seems to be as you say in the US, but it a convention rather than an ethic ruling. – Benoît Kloeckner Nov 22 '16 at 11:29
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    @BenoîtKloeckner: I agree halfway: it's both a convention and an ethical requirement. There's no reason why the job market couldn't follow different conventions, but there's a powerful assumption that everyone is agreeing to whatever the standard conventions are. You are free to ask for an exception if you'd like, and maybe you can negotiate one if the department really wants you, but you have to say this explicitly. If you say nothing, then the department will reasonably assume you are following standard practices, and it's dishonest to let them believe this if you don't intend to do so. – Anonymous Mathematician Nov 28 '16 at 4:12
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There's a missing aspect in both of the other answers here: how long did the first university give you to make your decision?

First, you should immediately acknowledge the receipt of their offer, and then if U1 gave you a week (or a day, it happens!), the you should tell them immediately that you like their offer, but that you have other applications pending and that you need more time to decide. This starts a negotiation and recognizes to them your continued interest in the position. Then you should get in touch with all of the other universities which you would still contemplate accepting an offer from and let them know (without, necessarily, naming U1) that you have received an offer with a short deadline to accept. This gives the other universities where you have applied an opportunity to communicate their ongoing interest in you (or not) and help you make your decision about whether to accept or reject U1's offer before hearing from the others.

You should keep this communication up as things progress. There are so many things going on behind the scenes that you don't know about. The more open your communications are, the more likely you are to find the best position for yourself and allow the places you don't go to find their next best option.

When a university makes you an offer, that means they have decided that you are the best candidate that applied that they think they can actually get. They have made a strategic decision to offer you a job over other applicants. They have given you some sort of time limit to decide, because they have other options still waiting, and they don't want to lose their chance at them if you are going to decline. This is true of the places which you haven't heard from yet as well. Letting them know you have an offer will push them to figure out what they want to do.

As others have said, once you have accepted an offer, you really should bow out of the other positions you have applied for, but you don't have to let it get to that point if you communicate with everyone well.

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    This is great advice, but doesn't strictly apply to the question since in the OP's case it is too late to do this. – David Ketcheson Feb 15 '16 at 7:40
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Although some would argue about the ethics of the situation, I'd say accept the better offer... unless acceptance of offer-1 was in the form of signing a contract. My reasoning is this: If you were already employed at Uni-1 and Uni-2 made you a better offer, you'd work out the duration of your contract and move.

If you have signed a contract, you are ethically and legally bound to honor it. (Whether anything bad happens if you break it is another question.)

What you must not do is accept Uni-2's offer until you are clear of Uni-1. There's a certain amount of peril in that because Uni-2 might do the same thing you are contemplating, namely withdraw their offer for a better prospect.

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    It seems like you are saying that it is unethical to break a signed contract, but it isn't unethical to break a less formal (but no less serious) agreement. Isn't the difference purely legal, rather than ethical? – Trevor Wilson Feb 2 '15 at 2:38
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    @TrevorWilson: The difference between a contract and a less formal acceptance is more than legal. The contract binds both parties for a time certain. The informal acceptance is acknowledgment of the intention to be bound. To put it another way, it's not a deal until it's a deal. – Bob Brown Feb 2 '15 at 3:30
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    And also... my experience of offer letters is very limited, but the ones I know about contain weasel-words like, "... contingent upon available funding and the needs of the department..." In other words, the institution explicitly reserves the right to back out for very nebulous reasons. A firmer offer, sans weasel words, is deserving of a more considered response. Finally, a verbal offer is not worth the paper it's written on. – Bob Brown Feb 2 '15 at 3:54
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    @BobBrown It's worth being aware that in some juristictions a verbal contract is binding and may be all you get. I think this is unlikely to occur for a faculty position, but it is a possibility more widely. – Jessica B Feb 2 '15 at 7:46
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    @JessicaB: A "verbal offer" is not the same as a "verbal contract," although Samuel Goldwyn said "not worth the paper it's written on" with respect to verbal contracts. We are kind of far afield here, but the problem with verbal contracts is proof. – Bob Brown Feb 2 '15 at 11:11
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For my understanding it is totally okay to turn down an offer even after verbal acceptance, as long as you didn't sign the contract. So I assume we are talking about an offer which you accepted in writing (signed). Ethically speaking, the point when you sign the contract should be the point when you inform other universities that you withdraw from their searches. If you already have signed the contract with University 1, but you really want to accept offer from University 2 for X,Y,Z reasons, then there is nothing wrong in doing so. But you should be aware that you are most likely will burn bridges with University 1, since you crossed an ethical line which most of the Universities at least want to see being honored by their future employees. University 1 also told other candidates that the position is taken, but in reality, that doesn't make a big difference, if not a lot of time passed between signing the contract and you declining the offer. I would be as honest as possible, apologize, tell them about your reasons. If you have good personal reasons, most of the people would be understanding. Professional reasons might raise some temporary or permanent anger on their side. However, eventually they will let you do this, because they don't want a faculty working in their department who only is there because he legally has to be there. You can do decline in writing or via phone. I would use the way they were communicating with you most of the time. And remember, by the end of the day, it's your gut feeling which decides. Don't let the other people scare you. Some folks are better listening to their gut, others aren't that good at it. It is good that you are competitive enough to get more than one job offer, and also Universities trying to get good people on the hook. And for the future you might consider a better negotiation ethics. For example it would be totally okay to inform University 2 that you have a written offer in hand from University 1 and you would like to know what your chances are. As long as you don't sign, it's not a massively big deal for any of the participating parties. You might get some good vibrations from University 2 and then it would be up to you whether or not you want to gamble or be on the safe site. But that's life, sometimes you just have to make decisions which don't always cover all you necessities.

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    Although your answer is good, it's hard to read because it's a wall of texts. Would you take some time to improve it? Thanks. – scaaahu Nov 22 '16 at 8:22
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I must disagree with "anonymous Mathematician". That advice might leave you without any offers. His/her advice does not account for the fact that campus interviews, and therefore offers, often occur weeks and even months apart. If the first offer is close enough (2-3 weeks) from an anticipated second offer, you should try to ask for an extension. Inevitably, a school will eventually need an an answer and it is perfectly acceptable for you to accept the offer from School #1 while waiting for a campus interview from School #2. You may have to call School #1 back and let them know the bad news, but don't let people on here scare you into thinking you HAVE to stay with School #1. In my experience, School #1 is perfectly understanding. They would rather let you go than have a bitter faculty member who is disheartened that they didn't have the foresight to reject School #1's offer.

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    This seems to be the similar to the deleted answer you gave last month and it is not clear to me how it answers the question. – StrongBad Mar 9 '16 at 20:45
  • I phrased it more in the form an answer as opposed to a response. The candidate asked what is the recommended option and I recommend that candidate take the second offer. That is answering the question. Please do not delete my post simply because you don't like/agree with my answer. – Lee Mar 9 '16 at 23:14
  • In any case, this situation happened to me and School #1 was perfectly understanding. I had even signed a contract. Candidates out there reading these posts are looking to hear our experiences and opinions, so they can better decide how to proceed in their own dilemmas. – Lee Mar 9 '16 at 23:19

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