I recently was offered 2 researcher job offers in two different countries. The first one is from the USA and the second one is in Japan. The professor in USA prepared all the documents for a J-1 Visa and after receiving them I have been issued a visa for 2 years.

I have now been offered another, more suitable job in Japan (more related to my interest and higher salary). I am also very interested in living in Japan. Although I applied to both jobs at the same time, the selection process in Japan took a month longer than the US process.

I accepted and signed the offer letter from the USA professor. This is an agreement to the professor that I will join, moving forward the professor will issue the documents for J-1 Visa. I was also asked in the interview whether I am considering any other job positions somewhere else. I replied yes, but my first preference is this one (the USA one).

How can I politely decline or inform the US professor of my changed situation? How would the professor in the USA feel after everything is done and I decline at the last moment?

  • 55
    Signing the offer letter is a commitment to take that job, just like the offer letter is a commitment to give you that position. These may not be contracts in the legal sense, but if you sign the letter and do not take the job, most people will view this as reneging on a commitment.
    – AJK
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 4:02
  • 15
    Signing a contract IS commitment. Promising to go there even if you have an other offer IS commitment. What s not clear about that? (Since you got a visa, it is clear you already signed the contract - you cannot have visa without it)
    – Greg
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 5:23
  • 15
    If you said "yes, but this is my first preference", it means "no, no other offer ever would make me give up this one". What you said was not true, as it turned out that Japan was your first preference.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 9:29
  • 21
    You're betraying their trust, it's not possible to do that politely. If the roles were reversed and they decided not to give you the job after committing to give you the job, how would you feel?
    – A E
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 15:11
  • 20
    How can I politely screw over the US professor should be the title of this question. He/she probably already committed his/her funds and already spent some on the visa process, etc. How a PhD holder simply states that there was NO commitment after signing an offer letter is simply beyond me.
    – dev_nut
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 16:25

8 Answers 8


Joining the other commenters: I'm not sure what you think a "commitment" is if signing an offer letter and having your employer issue a visa do not qualify!

I'm not sure why you think that your answer in the interview is relevant: it is perfectly normal for you to consider other positions until you accept one, at which point you should take yourself off the market.

I think it is very likely that the offer is not legally binding: I have seen such things happen to departments, and they have never pursued the matter legally. What will happen though is that the people who offered you the job will feel that you reneged on them, and in particular that you broke your word. That they have gone to the time and expense of successfully getting you a visa is likely to amplify their feelings of ill will. (Also, it could make them be less willing to hire foreign workers needing visas in the future: please think about the implications of that for a while.) It is possible that this could damage your academic and professional reputation in the long-term with this faculty member, at this university, and perhaps in broader circles containing them. It is also possible that they will get over it rather quickly and hold no lasting grudge.

If you want to renege for a permanent academic job in a country that you distinctly prefer living in: in my experience, while some will call that action dishonorable, most will ultimately countenance it as something that you needed to do in order to get the happy life you want. But if this is a temporary job for which you cannot see your way to your next job or staying in the country you want to live in: this could turn out to be a decision that you regret. Whatever you do, I certainly urge you to get up to speed on how academic hiring works: this will stop you from making serious mistakes in the future (and may convey other advantages in your future career).

  • 3
    Please consider explicitly spelling out that OP has committed to come work as a post-doc with the US professor.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 9:35

TL;DR - Politeness is the least of your worries. You may need to engage in some damage control here.

This seems a little messy to me.

That you've received a visa under the J-1 visa program means that you've got a commitment with a sponsor enough for the US government to agree to providing you with a visa. The application for a J-1 visa is rather time-consuming and will involve the outlay of resources. At the very least, the sponsor must provide evidence of insurance and fees. It is likely that these have been covered by your sponsor.

Thus, you have two problems that you need to resolve.

First, you need to inform your employer/sponsor. You need to understand that because they have already issued you with a visa, then it is highly likely that they were anticipating that you would take up the offer. You need to review the paperwork you've signed. It is likely that you have misunderstood the implications of commitment. In my university, visa processing does not begin until there is a firm commitment from the candidate in the form of a contract. Whether it is a contract or not in the legal sense is for you to determine. What is important is that the sponsor has prepared for your arrival. This means that

  1. They have stopped the job search, something they will need to restart
  2. They have planned a training or work program (a requirement of the J-1 visa) that they cannot now fill
  3. They may have paid fees on your behalf for visa processing, insurance, housing reservations

There are many other things that might have happened behind the scenes. You will need to appreciate all of these and understand how your refusal may cause them not a little bit of disappointment.

Indeed, if I were the sponsor, I would be furious about this development.

Your second problem is with the US government. The circumstances under which you gained the J-1 visa now no longer exist. You will need to work with your sponsor to have the visa cancelled. You do not want to travel to the US with this hanging over you as the immigration service is another world altogether.

I wish you the best of luck.

  • 16
    Restarting the job search sounds like it might be a trivial thing, but often it actually is not. In many circumstances, when someone leaves a position, that opening is not automatically available, but needs to be re-justified. It may be that the position which was taken here made it through the justification process on last year's budget but is not guaranteed to do the same on next year's.
    – mattdm
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 12:32
  • 1
    Overall, it could be a lot more than just disappointment — putting trust in the applicant here could turn out to be a very costly mistake for the professor.
    – mattdm
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 12:36
  • 4
    Additionnal burdens on the US side: the delays in everything related to the job the applicant was supposed to do. + it could be that they got funding for it based on something (publications?) the applicant was bringing to the table, and thus may lose this funding as well. The applicant 1) should have told the whole truth (waiting for the Japanese proposal result) 2) not signed the letter 3) instead should have asked for a delay until they got the Japanese reply. Now, 4) (s)he needs to call the US job offerer asap, explain the situation and see with them the best course to take. Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 15:47
  • 4
    Not only will they need to restart the job search but also, they probably won't be able to just offer the job to their second-favourite candidate from the first time around. Given the time it takes to get a J1 visa, it's likely that the rejected candidates have already found other jobs. Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 21:40

I'll be blunt, you would be losing a lot of face if you back out of the job offer in the United States a month after it was issued. It could be so far as to prevent you from ever working with anyone in that group again.

While an offer letter is not a legally binding contract, the understanding in the United States is that by signing and returning it you are accepting their offer and committing your services to them. Typically this also means you should contact other prospects to let them know that you are no longer on the market. In the event you have another interview lined up, usually people in the United States will inform the people that made the offer and negotiate accordingly.

Generally backing out of a offer letter is only acceptable in the United States if extenuating circumstances occur that would render you unable to do the job. Think something along the line of major illness, death in the family, and so forth. Even then, depending on the circumstances and the position, the employer might just negotiate a delayed start date for you to allow you to take care of things.

As mentioned by another person, double check what you signed. I find it very hard to believe that they would have started the J-1 Visa process without having an employment contract from you as well. In contrast to the offer letter, an employment contract is a legal document that has clauses enforceable in court. They can't force you to work but there may be a clause that allows them to claw back fees associated with your hiring process if you back out of the contract in bad faith.

Pragmatically, if you haven't already tried to back out of the deal with the group in the United States, I would recommend that you just politely decline the position in Japan and continue with the offer you originally accepted. Granted you would be in the United States instead of Japan, but if you can get an offer from a group in Japan once, most likely you can do it a second time.

  • and if you can get an offer from the U.S. once, you will most likely do it for a second time. But that's irrelevant with the subject...
    – BioGeo
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 15:57
  • I find it hard to believe that an employment contract has relevant enforceable clauses. Human traffickers often tell their victims that they have to "work to pay off debts" - which this sounds like.
    – emory
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 20:08
  • @emory It's actually not that uncommon in the United States, the question is usually more about enforcement than anything else. Typically, if an employer is spending money or advancing funds (ex. moving expenses) on an employee, they may be able to recoup that loss in the event of breech of contract.
    – anonymous
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 20:21
  • 2
    @DavidRicherby That's what I get for writing without coffee, it's been clarified to be more pedantic.
    – anonymous
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 21:51
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby Also, as a curiosity more than anything else, slavery isn't totally illegal in the United States either. It's just that it's been limited to a power of the state.
    – anonymous
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 22:00

I think other answers here address your direct question, but probably aren't the answer you were hoping for. Here's an idea that might make everyone happy.

  1. Just take the US job. As AJK commented, you've made a commitment to do so.

The next step is where your politeness skills can start to pay off.

  1. Contact the Japanese team and ask them very politely if you can turn their job offer into a paid visiting position for a year or six months or something like that. At least in principle this is not out of the question. For example, maybe your boss in the US won't mind you working from Japan for a period of time, or maybe you could do it after the US job is over, or take a leave of absence. All of that could be negotiated; the main point is that if you can take an extended paid research visit to Japan in any form, it will look good on your CV, and satisfy your desire to spend time there. You can decide later where you want to live long-term. In general it's a good idea to visit someplace before you take a job there anyway!

If you can do things this way, then you will strengthen your network, improve your chances of doing interesting research, and keep everyone happy.

tl;dr: Build bridges, don't burn them.

  • 3
    "Furthermore, you can decide later which of the two institutions you actually want to get your degree from." - Note that this question is about a postdoc - doesn't involve earning any degree. (Also note that the OP does not say what the duration of this postdoc is - hard to say if "visiting" somewhere else for a year will be feasible.)
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 0:41
  • OK, missed that it was a postdoc - I'll edit accordingly. Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 0:44

In addition to the issues raised above, it's possible that the Japanese would, because of your actions a) withdraw their offer, or b) feel you are untrustworthy. Your worse case therefor is losing both offers.
(As indeed might be the case if either establishment sees this correspondence!)

  • This seems more like a comment than an answer...
    – arboviral
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 10:28

I would do the following:

  • Talk to them (if possible, in person) and explain that a major and unexpected event occured, that motivated your decision about the position;
  • Politely apologize to them;
  • Offer to cover all expenses they had with the process.

Even this not being the case, there are things that happen in life that could issue a change of events (e.g. a divorce, children, a disease, family, etc). It is better for everybody if you forfeit the position now then later.

  • 3
    The thing is, getting the Japan job offer is not a "major unexpected event". The other examples that you mentioned in parentheses do match that description. However, there's no real support as yet for the final conclusion. If the OP said "I've decided that living in the US would be horrible and make me depressed and unable to work" then yes, such a conclusion would be warranted. If the OP said "I just prefer Japan slightly more" then, I'm sorry, they may have to put up with living in the US and doing the job they have committed to do -- hopefully w/ the minimum amount of whining. Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 0:28
  • 3
    +1 for offering to reimburse expenses. That shows the apology is sincere. Is disagree with @JoeCorneli , the worst thing to do is go into a new job reluctantly, thinking you missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime because of it.
    – jiggunjer
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 11:10

To directly answer your question of how to do this "politely":

Simple: generously pay back everyone that you can for the damages you may be incurring.

You made a commitment (that's literally what signing something means), and you're reneging on it, so the only way to save any face is to make it up to them, and short of actually finding a clone of yourself who can live the life you would've lived, the next-best option would be money.
In which case, I hope you're really rich, because I imagine you're going to need a lot of money. Think about all the things that could have gone wrong, and how much it might really be costing them. The professor might very well not be able to get a million-dollar grant down the road because you're not there doing the work you promised for him/her, stalling his/her progress.

If you can donate enough to the research/department/college/university/etc. to cover all these costs so that they don't even think about getting upset, then I'm sure you'll save lots of face — I don't imagine they'll mind missing 1 hire if this gets them (say) a million-dollar donation! It'll easily help them find other people. But if you're not quite rich enough to do that, well, sorry, I'm pretty sure there's no other way to do it politely. When you err, the polite thing to do is to shut your mouth and make it up to others. If you can't, then, well, you can't.


Do not listen to other respondents. The United States is "employment at will" which means that you can resign from your post-doc at any time for any reason - even a dumb one. The J-1 visa is not your problem.

If you feel unreasonable pressure to take this post-doc, then that is slavery which is illegal in the United States. Call the Department of Labor and report it.

  • 4
    -1 Just because the United States is employment at will doesn't mean there aren't ethical considerations. There may also be legal considerations for early termination of a contract as well.
    – anonymous
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 19:59
  • 19
    "If you feel unreasonable pressure to take this post-doc, then that is slavery" That is perhaps the most magnificently, spectacularly wrong thing I have ever read on this site. Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 20:18
  • 13
    My understanding is that this answer is correct in the sense that the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution means that you cannot be forced to work at this job even though you have signed a letter accepting their offer. That said, the offhand comment implying that doing so would be for a "dumb" reason needs explication. You can legally walk away, but there may be ethical and career consequences to doing so.
    – mako
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 21:09
  • @BenjaminMakoHill I meant that since one does not have to explain one's reasons, one could do so for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. No one is owed an explanation.
    – emory
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 22:38
  • 6
    -1 for "Do not listen to other respondents" part. Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 22:09

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .