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I am an academic in computer science in Europe, just completed my Ph.D. and applied for tenure-track positions in Europe. I received a very early offer in the UK more than a month ago and the negotiation stretched until now. Given the overal small startup packages in the UK, I managed to negotiate for a decent startup budget. However, as the department has no presence nor material for the research I am doing, the deal is more average/minimal. Apart from the details in the offer, the thing that is holding me back is that my partner also has a good career here but in the UK, she would have a very hard time and probably have to go back to university to make her degree compatible. We discussed all of this and I would take the offer if all other applications do not work out. Now the university really wants me to make a decision this week.

I have a tenure-track application running at my home university where I did my studies, grew up, and I am still living. The place is quite decent and despite the down-sides of staying at the same place, I would be very happy with the position as I was able to do good work here in the past, and my partner would be able to continue her career as well. I have a good chance of receiving an offer here but the interview and results will be out in 3-4 weeks. I contacted the university but they cannot speed-up the process. The other thing is that the position at the university here is quite exceptional in that a similar position will not be available anytime soon. As there not many/no universities that have a presence in my field nearby, this is the one opportunity for my partner and I to live in our hometown.

So I need to make a decision this week on an offer in the UK which I would totally take if the outcome on the other application would be negative. The application at my home university, which would be my preferred choice, will still take 3 weeks. If I say NO to the offer in the UK, I could end up with no position. The safest thing would be to say YES this week. But potentially canceling the offer in 3 weeks, when the results at my home university are out, is probably not very ethical?

Just for completeness, I have another tenure-track application at a university nearby, this could be a backup, but is very uncertain as it is not specifically focusing on my area of research.

I would welcome any advise or hear about similar experiences.

  • I have a tenure-track application running at my home university where I did my studies, grew up, and I am still living Is this possible? – PsySp Apr 11 '17 at 13:12
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    As far as I am aware, there is no tenure track in the UK, as there is no tenure. I hope you haven't misinterpreted the offer. – Jeremy Miles Apr 11 '17 at 16:33
  • You are right, in the UK it is called a probation period. But in many ways the terms are better compared to the one for a tenure-track. – J. McCabe Apr 11 '17 at 20:30
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I think you should accept the UK job in a few days' time, and then if your home university gives you a job, take that, and tell the truth to the UK people about the reason you are changing your mind.

In my experience, people generally don't regard it as certain that a newly hired person will actually turn up and start their new job, until they turn up on the first day. (Don't count your chickens before they're hatched.) This is especially true if the new person is coming from a foreign country. Moreover you say the UK university "really wants me to make a decision this week," which suggests they already know you are having difficulty deciding.

I disagree completely with StrongBad, who advocates lying, thinks that changing your mind about a job is unethical, and says the important thing is whether you can get away with it. I think people should not lie, and I think it is not particularly terrible to accept a job and then change your mind. And, if you follow my advice, I don't think you should worry too much about encountering people in the future. Personally I would be more ill-disposed towards someone who had lied, or who I strongly suspected of lying, than someone who had accepted a job then changed their mind.

Edited to add: I was slightly too harsh on StrongBad. There is a difference between (1) changing your mind about a job after you have accepted it because something unexpected happened, and (2) accepting a job while knowing that you might be offered a better one in a few weeks and if so you will take that instead. StrongBad was talking about (2) rather than (1). But this doesn't affect my view of what you should do. Also, if you accept the UK job and then change your mind, you should tell them as soon as possible, apologize, and do anything you can to help them deal with the situation.

  • I think I partly agree with this answer. But if you advocate of being honest in the future why not being honest now? I.e., accept conditionally the job in UK. People in academia are understanding of such situations. – PsySp Apr 12 '17 at 10:19
  • I do advocate being honest now. What do you mean by "accept conditionally"? Telling them "I accept the job but I might change my mind if I get another one"? I think the UK university wants a more definite answer than that. – user72102 Apr 12 '17 at 10:39
  • Yes you are right. In any case I agree with being honest, if time comes to reject the offer. – PsySp Apr 12 '17 at 10:42
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I think what you are asking is if there is an ethical way to accept a position and then bail if you get a better position. Ethics are often very personal, but I think most people would conclude that this is unethical. That said, potentially the more important question, is can you get away with the behavior. From a legal standpoint, there is likely very little that can be done to punish you.

From a career standpoint accepting an offer and then turning it down tends to be a recipe for creating academic enemies. In your case, however, I think you can get away with it because of the Brexit and the fact you have a partner. If in the next month you get a better offer, you can tell the UK university that your partner has had a change of heart. Yes, I am advocating blaming it all on your partner to keep you from making enemies. Explain that your partner is concerned about moving to the UK because of Brexit and their treatment of foreigners. Yes, I am advocating telling a straight up lie. UK academics are generally up in arms about the Brexit. Having a change of heart because of the Brexit will be totally believable to them.

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    Having accepted the offer and a couple of weeks later changing the mind "because of BREXIT" is an obvious straight lie and might create opposite effect even if UK academics are up in arms about it. I am not sure that's a good advice. – PsySp Apr 11 '17 at 13:42
  • @PsySp as I said it is a lie, but it is believable and no one can prove it is a lie. – StrongBad Apr 11 '17 at 13:47
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    Yes. I get your point. But it has a high risk to be an obvious lie (since this was not an issue during their preliminary discussions) and it might backfire. Personally, I would not find it very believable given the circumstances, but that's my personal feeling. – PsySp Apr 11 '17 at 13:55
  • Thank you for this discussion. What if I would go for this option and next week they already want me to sign a contract? Can I still turn down everything later or would that be harder with a signature? – J. McCabe Apr 11 '17 at 14:18
  • @J.McCabe it is unlikely they can legally make you work or even impose large payback penalties on any relocation money (beyond the actual money). The further down the road you go, the more likely they will hold you leaving against you. Remember, that despite a limited ability to "punish" you, lying to them is unethical. – StrongBad Apr 11 '17 at 15:21
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I think your decision should hinge on what your fallback position would be if you turn down your current offer and don't get an offer from your ideal school. Would you work in a postdoc? Industry? Do you want an academic career, or an ideal academic career?

For context, I will explain the situation I had. I had an offer at a less-than-ideal place and a flyout scheduled at the institution where I had done my MA. I had many contacts there (the flyout felt like a family reunion) and my husband also had an offer in town. I did not get that job. However, the fact that I was competitive for both and had many other outstanding flyouts/applicaitons made me feel confident enough to turn down the first offer.

I later got an offer at a third institution, which is a bit better than the first, but certainly not as good as the MA institution. However, I think I would have been less confident in this strategy if I had not completed 40+ applications and already had 3 future flyouts scheduled when I turned down the first offer.


Update based on his response: Strategically, it seems like it could make sense to turn down the current UK job. If you turn it down, one of two things happens: Either you get the job you want, or you do a post-doc in your current location and go on the market again. If you go on the market again, then I don't see why you would expect worse options than you currently have. If you think of game theory, you need to decide if you are maximizing expected payoffs or playing a maximin strategy

  • Thank you for sharing your experience and for highlighting the aspects I should take into account. To answer your question in the first paragraph, I would really like to stay in academia for various reasons. It should be possible to stay here as a postdoc for a while but I would probably face the same challenges during the interview season next year. In industry, I would face similar challenges as many interesting jobs would require me and my partner to move abroad as well. – J. McCabe Apr 11 '17 at 14:23
  • Based on your response, it seems like there is little risk to turning down the current UK job. You may get the job you want, or you may be able to do a post-doc and go on the market again. If you go on the market again, then I don't see why you would expect worse options than you currently have. If you think of game theory, you need to decide if you are maximizing expected payoffs or playing a maximin strategy. – Dawn Apr 11 '17 at 14:55
  • I get your point and I think it makes sense. However, I have a decent track record now. Hence I received some offers without real post-doc experience. If I would apply next year, I would be evaluated as a post-doc and one could evaluate my resume very different. Of course, my resume will strengthen this year but you never know. I just feel that I have more momentum now than I will probably have next year. – J. McCabe Apr 11 '17 at 20:42
  • That makes sense too. I think in my field people have a difficult time mentally down-weighting the number of publicaitons on post-doc applications. For the job I wanted, I was told that the person who got it did a postdoc, and therefore had more papers than me. I felt like yelling - "That is because they had a postdoc!" – Dawn Apr 11 '17 at 20:54

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