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I was offered a post doc position in a top level university about 2 months ago, which I have already accepted.

However, I was recently called for an interview in another equally prestigious university for another postdoc position which I applied to before getting the previous position offered.

The second position is, in my view, much better than the first one in many senses (I like the country more, a substantially higher salary, closer to my home town), however I am worried that if I decline the first offer (which I already accepted) now, the supervisor from the first university will get annoyed and that will carry repercussions in my future career and my image to the scientific community.

I have heard that many people do these things (declining offers already accepted) for academic positions, but that this is seen as much worse for postdocs positions. However, I think that everyone would agree that the second offer is a substantially better option, even the supervisor from the first university.

Should I give up the position I already accepted in order to pursue the better option?

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    I don't agree that many people do this, at least not without putting their reputation at stake. As soon as you accepted that offer, you ought to have told the other places you had applied so they knew you were no longer interested in those positions, rather than wasting their time inviting you for an interview. – Tobias Kildetoft Oct 24 '17 at 9:41
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    I told them that in the moment they invited my for the interview. They were totally aware that I already accepted a postdoc in the first university and that I would have to decline it in case I choose their position. – A. Nonimous Oct 24 '17 at 9:43
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    Once you have accepted a position, it is no longer declining, it is reneging, which is a whole different story. – Tobias Kildetoft Oct 24 '17 at 9:47
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    It is not nice, but if you think the other position is better: go for it. However, there really is something wrong with the criteria you mention (like the country more ? salary ? closer to home town ??). What about the research subject, lab facilities, personality of PI, ... – louic Oct 24 '17 at 10:00
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    Two months is a long delay. If you pull out now, the university is unlikely to be able to replace you with their next choice, as that person will have kept looking. – Jessica B Oct 24 '17 at 14:29
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To come right to the point: after accepting the first offer, you should have withdrawn all your other applications. When you were contacted for the second interview, it was not enough to inform them that you had already accepted an offer -- you should have informed them of this and therefore declined the interview. (I find it strange though that this second institution was happy to interview someone who told them they had already accepted another offer. I wonder if there was some kind of miscommunication / misunderstanding here.) In academia, accepting an offer means committing to show up to that job for at least one semester (which is the atomic unit of most academic jobs). In my circles at least, the minimum length of time to spend in an accepted academic position and "leave honorably" is one academic year.

I have heard that many people do these things (declining offers already accepted) for academic positions, but that this is seen much worse for postdocs positions.

Yes, it happens somewhat frequently. Like a lot of negative human behavior, that it happens frequently does not excuse it. I don't necessarily agree that it is seen as worse for postdocs; it really depends on the situation. I would argue that all other things being equal, getting reneged on by a temporary employee is not as bad as getting reneged on by a (relatively) permanent employee.

However, I think that everyone would agree that the second offer is substantially a better option, even the supervisor from the first university.

Better for you. But would the supervisor from the first university think it is better for her? What happens to her if you renege -- will she have the time and opportunity to hire someone else? If she can't hire anyone, will that have negative repercussions on her work and the work of her affiliates and students?

The way to find out the answers to these questions is to ask. I strongly suggest contacting your supervisor as soon as possible. Explain your situation and perspective, including why the second position would be substantially more desirable to you for personal reasons. Then ask what repercussions there would be if you weren't able to show up for the first position. If there would be severely negative consequences for your supervisor, I think you should stick with the job you committed to. Otherwise you may suggest to the supervisor, with maximum politeness, that you would like to take the second job instead of the first, and see if she will give you her blessing.

Good luck.

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    Thanks for your answer and suggestions. I think they would prefer me probably to decline/renege my position rather than starting it and leaving it in six months (both positions are for 3 years). I understand your point about reneging not being good for the supervisor of the first option, however, it is going to be 3 years of my life spent with much worse working conditions/quality of life than with the second choice, so I think that it is probably much more important for me than for him – A. Nonimous Oct 24 '17 at 12:51
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    If the working conditions were "much worse," maybe you shouldn't have taken the job while other options were still open. And you say "probably" twice, but you don't know until you ask. Also keep in mind that going back on your word is almost universally viewed as dishonorable. Some people will take that a lot more seriously than others. If you want to spend your life in a certain profession, then being viewed as honorable by those in that profession is worth something. – Pete L. Clark Oct 24 '17 at 13:01
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Of course the answer of Pete Clark is correct, and you should have made some different decisions in the past. Most of all, you should have asked for more time to make your choice.

At the moment you have a choice between doing what's best for your "reputation", and your personal preferences. This is a decision only you can make, but in my opinion many academics would be better off mentally if they looked out for their personal well-being a bit more.

However, making a choice based on the information you supplied here might not be the best idea, because there's a lot more information out there you could get in a short time.

Call up your supervisor and tell them you'd feel very unhappy about not having the opportunity to pursue the second position, that you might prefer based on personal reasons. Ask whether they can postpone hiring you. Perhaps they'll be supportive and you can go to the other interview, or they might tell you that you accepted the position and expect you to be there when you agreed. (If they get really angry this would actually be a good time to bail on the position)

I don't know how far along you are regarding signing contract etc., and what kind of grant you'd be working on (can it be postponed, etc.). This would be something you should know, or should find out.

I'm sure that talking to your new supervisor would solve many potential issues, but I really don't agree with (edit: or actually, just with the priorities of) Pete Clark about sticking with the job when there are negative consequences. This is about some time, a new hiring process or some grant money for your supervisor, but for you this is about one to three years of your life.

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    "At the moment you have a choice between doing what's best for your "reputation", and your personal preferences." That's not all it's about; there is also the other side in this agreement. Depending on how the position is funded, after two months there is some chance that the three year position could be permanently lost. There is also a chance that this could negatively impact students at the institution. – Pete L. Clark Oct 24 '17 at 15:03
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    "I really don't agree with Pete Clark about sticking with the job when there are negative consequences." I didn't tell the OP to stick with the job; I encouraged them to explore getting out of it in a way that acknowledges there are other people involved. To speak from the perspective of the supervisor: there would have to be very dire and specific consequences to the renege for me not to give my blessing to the postdoc if asked. However I would be rather upset not to be asked. I agree that it probably matters more to them than to me, but it still matters something to me. – Pete L. Clark Oct 24 '17 at 15:06
  • For your first comment: this is what you should talk about, but the emphasis shouldn't be on finding out the negative impacts of your supervisor. Those are their problem, and although it would be good to keep it in mind and to try to mitigate the consequences, ultimately it's really not your responsibility as an applicant. I think asking implies too much something like asking for permission. The conversation should be about your plans, and if there are negative consequences reneging is still an option. – VonBeche Oct 24 '17 at 17:27
  • And for your second comment: I made an edit, and I completely agree. Just calling them that you found another position (or not even calling and just not showing up...) would be absolutely unacceptable. Keep your supervisor in the loop. – VonBeche Oct 24 '17 at 17:30
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I'm not talking about ethical issues here.

People do this all the time, i.e. rejected an accepted offer, but only at the early stage in the career, e.g. PhD application (I did that). It is easy since you are just a random guy, and easy to be forgotten.

If you have done enough to be accepted in a top level university, it will not be easy for you to be forgotten. Academia is very small, if the two groups you are/was applying to work in the same research area, it is very likely that the two advisors know each other.

If you develop a reputation of rejecting a already accepted offer, there may be serious consequence in the future, without the rejected advisor doing anything to damage your career.

  • I wanted to comment on the last paragraph (which I agree with). When you renege on a position, several people at the institution will know about it, and potentially an entire research group or department could know. What can they do to "damage your future career"? Practically speaking, one thing: they can mention to other parties that this happened. I firmly disagree that doing this is "vindictive"; there is no expectation for them to cover for your bad behavior. Is this kind of talk a serious risk to your future job prospects? Not necessarily, but it depends on the people involved. – Pete L. Clark Oct 24 '17 at 20:15

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