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I just got my PhD 2 weeks ago. Last April I discussed with a professor about an offer to join her team. However, this offer was pending a certain project acceptance (I was supposed to work mainly on that project).

The project got accepted on July and I accepted to start working beginning of December. Since September I sent 3 emails asking when can we start with the official procedures of preparing and signing the contract. I always received the same answer 'whenever you want', I would reply that I need to start it early so I can settle and finish the boring paperwork, then I receive nothing back.

Until 2 days before my PhD defense when she suggested to start the procedures of preparing a contract (these procedures would take at least 3 weeks). Meanwhile this professor asked me to do minor tasks for the project, I did it. But when she kept delaying the official procedures, I felt worried. I thought maybe she is not sure yet about hiring me, so I made other interviews and already received two much better offers and I'm comparing between the three offers now.

My question is, how rude, professional-wise, my situation is? I already talked to her by phone and described that I'm deciding between various offers and that I will finally decide in two days but she wasn't ok with that at all. She said you are already committed with me (even without a contract). I really don't want to burn bridges.

  • Can you clarify if this is a post-doc position or a position that requires a doctoral degree? – Penguin_Knight Dec 16 '15 at 16:37
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    Thanks a lot @Penguin_Knight for answering. It's a postdoc position. In fact, in my current school it's not uncommon for PhD candidates who have a fixed defense date to move to a postdoc position sometime before graduation. So I didn't have to have my PhD before signing with her. – Dina Dec 16 '15 at 16:59
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    This may be a blessing in disguise. This could be a strong indication of how this professor runs their team. Would you be okay looking for guidance or clearance to proceed and having things go the same way? – Myles Dec 17 '15 at 12:54
  • Oral contract is no less binding than written contract. By "accepting to start working at beginning of December" you had entered a contract. A very imprecise one, but still. – Agent_L Dec 17 '15 at 13:31
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In my opinion neither party has behaved very well. You received an offer and accepted it. Then you asked for a contract and it was not provided in a timely manner. However, from your descriptions it doesn't sound like you conveyed how important it was to you to sign the contract at a certain time.

I would reply that I need to start it early so I can settle and finish the boring paperwork

This is not very clear: early and late are entirely subjective terms. It is plausible that the professor thought she was acting early. You should have said "I need to sign the contract by Date X, or I will have to consider other offers." Yes, this is a somewhat strongly worded statement, but step back and took a look at the situation: is being firm about getting a contract on a job that has been offered and accepted going to place the job in any jeopardy? Almost certainly not, and if it does then perhaps you're dodging a bullet by not taking this job. Also, interviewing for other jobs after you've accepted a job offer is a significantly more precipitous action. It is understandable but only ethically watertight if you made best efforts to nail down the job you've accepted, and it's not clear that you did. Moreover, having the professor find out that you interviewed elsewhere -- which is extremely likely in most academic communities, by the way -- risks annoying her much more than a "Please stop dragging your feet" email.

Moreover, doing work for a job before you've signed a contract is a very bad idea. How do you signal more interest in a job than actually starting the job? If you pull out after doing work then the professor is almost certainly going to be surprised and a bit miffed (unless she has been playing games with you all along). On the other hand, if you end up never signing the contract and not taking the job, the work that you've done goes down the drain. Good luck getting paid for it, and good luck maintaining an academic collaboration with the professor. But for the record, I blame the employer more: a wizard professor should know better. She is not behaving professionally.

In my opinion this is not the start of a beautiful friendship. If you have another job offer that you think is significantly better, in my opinion yes, you can take it. You haven't signed anything, and you made inquiries about signing which were not handled in a timely manner. You should expect that if you pull out of this, the professor will be displeased with you. But that happens sometimes, and it should not stop you from acting in your own professional best interests. Still, you should be thinking about how not to get into this same situation in the future.

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    You received an offer and accepted it: No. A verbal promise of an offer is not an offer. A contract is an offer. The professor cannot hold the OP to a higher moral standard than she holds herself, by acting evasively, delaying the contract, asking OP to do things for free in the meantime, and then act all outraged when OP reacts in the obvious way any other person would react to such abuse. So, your (mild) criticism of OP's behavior is unwarranted in my opinion. I agree with the rest of the answer though. – Dan Romik Dec 16 '15 at 17:41
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    @Dan: There are different degrees of seriousness of offers. Legally speaking, verbal contracts can sometimes be binding, and part of the difficulties come from lack of enforcement. The OP didn't say "verbal," and I think it is likely that there was an email exchange. I think that an emailed offer is a "real offer" and an emailed acceptance is a "real acceptance." While I wouldn't act legally on it in either direction, in my experience this is the way the academic community functions. – Pete L. Clark Dec 16 '15 at 17:48
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    For example, about a week after I accepted (by email) my postdoctoral offer in a different country, I got another postdoctoral offer from an American university, with a 50% higher salary. I did not think the second offer was better enough to renege on the first offer. While I would have felt legally defensible in reneging, morally I still think it's a renege, because someone gave their word and I gave my word in return. This is how academics behave: by giving their word, not primarily by signing contracts. – Pete L. Clark Dec 16 '15 at 17:50
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    @Dan: Sorry to disappoint, but I agree with you. :) – Pete L. Clark Dec 16 '15 at 18:00
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    @Dina I can also see a disturbing possbility that the reason for the professor's delay and evasiveness could have been that she herself was trying to sign on another postdoc whom she would have preferred over you, and might have been the one to leave you hanging without a job if her plan had worked out. All things considered, it sounds to me like you behaved pretty responsibly whereas she behaved unprofessionally and maybe unethically. Your careful consideration of your next actions by asking this question here also shows a good sense of ethics and reflects very well on you. Good luck! – Dan Romik Dec 16 '15 at 19:40
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I sent 3 emails asking when can we start with the official procedures of preparing and signing the contract. I always received the same answer 'whenever you want', I would reply that I need to start it early so I can settle and finish the boring paperwork, then I receive nothing back.

Based on what you've written here, it sounds like one possible explanation for these event is simple miscommunication: the professor told you that she was willing to start the procedures any time you wanted, but you never replied with a specific date, so she just assumed that you weren't quite ready yet, and that you'd tell her when you were.

If you did, in fact, want to start immediately, you should have told her so; instead, you used vague expressions like "early", which the professor may have interpreted as "soon, but not yet".

That said, even if this is the real explanation, I wouldn't call it entirely your fault; the professor should have become concerned when you told her that you wanted to start the procedures early, and then never followed up with a "let's start now", and she should have written back to you sooner to explicitly ask you whether you still need it done early, and if so, to name a specific deadline. Still, it's quite possible and understandable that she may have been distracted by other, more pressing matters, especially if you weren't in frequent communication and if there was no particular deadline involved for her.


Regarding what you should do now, I agree with the other answers that the damage is basically done already. One option, if you want to take it, is to simply walk away and take one of the other offers. You may be leaving a burned bridge behind you if you do so — but that bridge is already aflame, and there's no guarantee that you can put it out at this point.

If you do want to try and mend your relationship with this professor, what you need to do is sit down and talk with her. Explain what you believe has happened, from your viewpoint, and ask her to explain how she sees the situation, and be willing to accept that those two viewpoints might look very different, and that the misunderstanding may not be entirely her fault.

Before you do that, it may be a good idea to make up your mind on which postdoc position you want to choose, and make that clear to her from the beginning. If you're going to take one of the other offers, make that clear from the start, and say you're sorry — don't give the impression that you're trying to make the professor bargain to make you stay. And conversely, if you do want to stay and work with her, also let her know that from the start. Either way, make it clear that this isn't a negotiation, but that you just want to figure out what went wrong and how you can avoid making the same mistakes again.

(That's not to say that you should irrevocably commit to a particular choice before the discussion; it is, after all, possible that some new information might come up during or after the discussion that could legitimately make you re-evaluate your choices. But do at least make a definite choice first, and make it clear that you're not expecting to change your mind unless something truly unexpected comes up. The point is that you're not sitting down to bargain, but to clear the air and figure out how to move on.)

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It boils down to how sure are you that it was she who delayed the procedures, and why. Did she delay by lack of organisation or intentionally? Some people are not intentionally delaying procedures, but just disorganised. Or it may be possible that she didn't think you would finish at a certain time and the procedures require a completed defense.

If you have grounds to believe, however, that she may have done that intentionally, then you probably will have a snapshot of how your collaboration may look in the future when even more critical issues are at stake (publications, credit, funding, references).

What you need to make sure is that it was not you that, somehow, by negligence, caused the delays. If you are confident that this is not the case (BTW, nothing in your mail indicates this, I am just suggesting to make sure), then it is necessary to identify her responsibility in the situation. "Burning bridges" is not the right term to use here, but rather whether the fair and justified interest of the parties involved was respected. Did you keep your side of the bargain? Do you feel the other side upheld their side of the bargain?

The whole appearance of the story is that she wanted to be in control of the situation, and now circumstances (and your talent) put you in control instead.

You ask how rude you would be to take advantage of that. Yes, you may be "rude" (in some sense), and end up happy or be polite and end up unhappy. It is your life, and, unless in your country spoken agreements count as contracts (there are places where this is the case), you can legally pull back. Even if it is an agreement, you could make the point that she didn't uphold her part of the bargain.

In any case, if you decide to go for the original offer, after all, don't let yourself be tempted to turn down the other, better, offers until you have got your contract in hand, though.

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    Thanks a lot for answering. In fact, early when I accepted her offer she mentioned that even though the project is accepted, yet funding is still a couple of formal signatures away. So when she kept delaying the contract signature I thought maybe funding is not ready yet or she simply changed her mind about hiring me. It turned out later that she already hired 2 PhD students to work on that project as early as September. So that was awkward and it encouraged me more to accept interviews. I will keep your advice in mind, I won't feel tempted to turn down other offers. – Dina Dec 16 '15 at 19:00
  • Above message about a possible misunderstanding brought up also an important point. It is worthwhile to make sure that the whole issue is not just an innocent miscommunication (that happens more often than one would think). – Captain Emacs Dec 17 '15 at 20:17

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