6th 2011
Declining a job offer after inking the contract

Posted under: happy endings, jobs, unhappy endings

In a post I missed last week called “Things that should go without saying, but obviously do not,” Flavia writes:

After signing a contract to accept a tenure-track job, you should not subsequently back out.

I now know of two people who have done this. And seriously, dudes, what’s so hard to figure out? If you weren’t sold on the institution, you shouldn’t have accepted the offer. If you were waiting to hear from another school where you had a campus visit, you should have told the offering institution that, and asked for more time. But if you thought you were out of the running someplace else, and then they came knocking–or if a fancier job appeared in the spring job list and you applied anyway–you kinda suck.

(My apologies to Flavia for copying and pasting her entire post–I thought that the whole thing was quoteworthy.) 

I can certainly understand that a hiring department that thought its work was done and a tenure line filled in January or February would be irritated beyond measure if they were informed in March, April, or May (or later?) that in fact “their new hire” had decided to take another job instead.  I’ve seen it happen.  (And for the record, it wasn’t me!  Sadly, I’ve never been offered more than one job at a time, or even within a span of several months.)

But–do we really want to hire people who don’t want to work with us?  Do we really want to hire only people who have no other options?  Sometimes other searches take longer, or they fail and have to bring in a whole new slate of candidates.  Just f’r’instance, my university is terrible about spousal/partner employment these days, and we’re just far enough from Denver (about a 70 minute drive to most places, even if you’re driving the posted 75 MPH!) that this is a major hassle for most people with partners or families.  And as much as I like it here, I recognize that my partner was lucky to find a job in the area.  Some of my colleages’ partners have had to retrain for a new career, or they’re still struggling to patch together a living.  Baa Ram U. does nothing for us, so why should we be surprised that people with partners find it difficult to say “yes” to our job offers?

When this happened in my department a few years ago, some of my colleagues were hot under the collar and talking about suing for breach of contract, about “making” someone teach for a year in our department because ze had signed a contract in February but then got a better job offer in April.  The Dean of our college, who is also an attorney as well as a Ph.D., informed us that there was no recourse–the university was unwilling to spend the resources to “make” anyone do anything.  (This was interesting news–the idea that our contracts are only one-way obligations on the part of the university.  Of course, they might also be worthless in terms of securing anyone’s future behavior, which is interesting considering their role in the tenure and promotion process, but I digress. . . )

Even if Baa Ram U. were willing to go after a new Assistant Professor for breach of contract, did we really want a resentful colleague around even if for just one year?  Because it seems to me that we’d be getting much less than we were paying for.  Tenure-track people make more money than lecturers or adjuncts because we pay them to do more than teach.  We pay them to engage 50% of the time in scholarship and service, none of which would be doing us any good in the short or the long run.  (I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone who was only here and gone to engage in any worthwhile service.)  So how much good could hir presence do for us?  It seemed like a better deal all the way around to re-open the search and hire someone else either to 1) fill the tenure-track position, or 2) hire a full-time lecturer to cover the intended courses, plus a few more.

I don’t blame the person in question for leaving us behind for a better job that also offered better partner employment options.  One of the things that I think speaks well of my department is that the people who leave us leave for much better jobs–for example, my former colleagues have gone to Toronto, Chicago, Utah, and Berkeley.  It stinks to be left behind, but it would stink even more if my department were a career-ending stop at the end of the line.  At least, that’s how I console myself–we get great people, but we just don’t have the resources to hang onto some of them. 

It’s better than never getting great people in the first place, isn’t it?


78 Responses to “Declining a job offer after inking the contract”

  1. Dr. Crazy on 06 Mar 2011 at 12:29 pm #

    I think there are two separate issues in your post.

    On the one hand, there are people who are hired in good faith, who accept in good faith, and work in the job for x amount of time but ultimately move on to another position. I think you’re right that there’s nothing at all wrong with this, that personal life factors can be one reason why this happens, and that it’s good that your department isn’t a career-ending department.

    On the other hand, and this is how I interpreted Flavia’s post, there are people who are offered a job, go through the negotiating process, accept the offer, and sign a contract, only to back out months later with no warning. Lake Flavia, I think this is a kind of sucky move. While you may be right that a department wouldn’t want that person anyway, that sort of behavior *does* strike me as unprofessional and acting in bad faith. And, ultimately, I don’t think it’s something that will reflect well on the candidate in future interactions with the people at the hiring institution and, potentially, their friends at other institutions. Even in a ginormous discipline like English, it’s a small world, and word gets around. I personally wouldn’t want people I met in the future to see me as that person who backed out of an offer after the contract was signed.

    I get that stuff happens, and people do need to do what is best for them in the long term. It’s not that I think the job candidate owes the hiring *institution* anything, actually. I do think, though, that backing out in that particular way is a shitty thing to do to your colleagues – and those people on that search committee and in that hiring department *are* your colleagues, whether you accept the position or not.

  2. Historiann on 06 Mar 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    In the case in my department, I’m pretty sure the person negotiated in perfectly good faith and was happy to take a job with us–until a better job appeared, and it offered a better situation for hir partner. (And we all know that some searches don’t move according to schedule, right? We all know of departments that wrap the job up in January, and others whose searches drag into May or even the summer.)

    IOW, you see it as two separate issues, but I think it’s totally plausible that someone would get two ill-timed job offers in a single season. And in the current climate, I sure wouldn’t expect a job candidate to “try again” on the job market down the road–because who knows if there will ever be an “again” for hir field, etc.

    I realize I’m alone here in defending the interests of individual job candidates, BTW, considering the comments on the post at Flavia’s place, but I’m really curious: what do you (Dr. Crazy, or anyone else) seriously expect people to do if they get a late, better job offer? Is it really worth your while as a hiring department to (possibly) make a move across the country for one year to “make” someone work with you, only to know that person will be moving on again?

    I’d like to hear from people who got a last-minute better job offer but did the “honorable” thing and took the less-great job they had already accepted. (But I won’t hold my breath–because I don’t think that person exists!)

  3. Didion on 06 Mar 2011 at 12:46 pm #

    It might be kind of sucky in those rare cases when a search committee is left in the lurch, unable to hire another candidate for the short term — but honestly, Dr. Crazy, have you seen the job market? The metrics are maybe just a little bit weighted in favor of the hiring committees and out of the hands of the candidates.

    Signing a contract for a job is the one time — the ONE time — a candidate has power in the process. It’s a chance to try to bargain for a teeny bit more pay, a teeny bit of research money maybe. Schools might comply with those requests because they really like the person and want hir to come; once hired, the person is often left in a situation where there are no raises for 4 years straight no matter how much they publish (for example).

    But what if that candidate gets a really great offer after getting a just-okay offer? A 2-2 teaching load rather than 3-4? A notoriously happy department vs. a notoriously toxic one? I think it’s to the benefit of the profession if we cop to the fact that some jobs are better than the ones we’re offering, wish that candidate the very best, and call the rest of the candidates we interviewed to see if it’s still possible to hire someone for the slot. You know what? There’s probably a great candidate out there who hasn’t gotten a job in this terrible market. Just because they didn’t stand out in Round One doesn’t mean they won’t be a terrific hire.

    I worry that this is one of those cases where the charge “this is unprofessional behavior!” is used to bludgeon the last bit of agency out of a candidate who has the tiniest bit of power to make a choice. Yeah, it’s kind of sucky to back out on a contract. But taking the wider view of the real power dynamics, let’s be gracious and recognize that we search committees still have most of the control in this situation.

  4. Brian Ogilvie on 06 Mar 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    I agree with Historiann. I’d be irritated if my department offered a job to someone who accepted, signed a contract, and then backed out a few months later. But I wouldn’t think it was in my department’s or university’s interests to sue for breach of contract. That would make us look petty and ridiculous.

    And things do come up. Last year we offered a job to someone who had a postdoc for 2010-11 and negotiated to start the job in September 2011. This spring we found out that she had accepted a job at the institution where she had a postdoc. I’m not at all irritated with her. A lot can happen in a year.

    Hypothetically, someone who has accepted a job at University A and then got an offer two months later from University B might negotiate with B to start the job after spending a year at A, in order not to leave A in the lurch. But that would be weird too. “Hi, I’m your new colleague, but I’ll be leaving next summer to move to Really Great University. Wanna have lunch?”

  5. Dr. Crazy on 06 Mar 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    FWIW, H’Ann, I do see where you’re coming from, and again, I can understand how such a situation could possibly happen. I suppose one question I would ask, though, is why the person applied for the job in the first place if he or she knew that it wouldn’t work for his or her partner? I mean, we all know where the jobs to which we apply are located. I’ve certainly not applied to jobs based solely on location, and I don’t even have a partner in tow. But anyway, that’s a tangent.

    I suppose I think the best any candidate can do is to treat the situation as professionally as possible and to be as candid as possible with the chair of the hiring department about his/her situation. In other words, where I think people get upset is when the candidate is all “you’re my top choice!” “I can’t wait to start!” “You’re the greatest!” and then a few months down the road pulls the rug out from under the hiring department, long after they’ve lost the other candidates whom they brought for campus visits. And, in these times of tightening budgets, it may be that the department can’t just re-run the search the next year or invite other people to campus. Indeed, a department might lose the line forever. *That’s* where I think people can end up doing more to hurt their reputations by backing out of an offer for a “better” one – if the department feels like the person was shady from the beginning.

    There aren’t easy answers for this, and again, people do have to do what is best for them. But at the same time, I also think that people should realize that backing out after the contract is signed isn’t the done thing, it can ultimately reflect badly on the candidate who does it, and it is something that deserves some careful thought. (Not in the least because that “better” job might not end up being so great after all, and the person may end up back out on the market in a year or two anyway. If word gets around that they bit the hand that fed them their first time around on the market, that could negatively affect their chances on subsequent job search attempts.)

  6. Dr. Crazy on 06 Mar 2011 at 1:01 pm #

    Oh, and I agree that suing for breach of contract about this would be ludicrous. Things do happen to people, and the job search process is complex. I’m thinking less about the legalities of this than about the interpersonal consequences.

    I mean, let’s turn the situation around. Let’s say my department makes an offer to Candidate A, and candidate A can’t give us a yes or a no. We then make an offer to candidate B, and candidate B signs the contract. Yay, we’re so excited. But then, lo and behold, Candidate A gives us a call and says, “hey! guess what! I’d like to accept your offer!” We like candidate A better, and, you know, candidate A is a better fit for us and job searches are complicated. Would it be ethical for us to back out of our offer with candidate B? Because, you know, it’s better for us, and that contract didn’t really mean anything anyway?

  7. Pennamiriel on 06 Mar 2011 at 1:08 pm #

    This issue is very sensitive for me right now. I just returned from an on-campus at an R1 that I think went very well. However, I have an offer in hand for a prestigious one-year research fellowship next year. The research fellowship is probably going to require me to make a decision before the R1 can make a decision – I already negotiated for an extended deadline in order to be able to make the campus visit without a signed contract in hand. The possible outcomes?
    1) I accept the research fellowship and do not get an offer from the R1 – fine.
    2) I accept the research fellowship, get an offer from the R1, and attempt to negotiate a year later start date.
    2a) They say no. What do I do then?
    2ai) Turn down the R1 job (in this market?!??!!?).
    2aii) Break the contract for the research fellowship, upsetting some very important people in my field who got me the fellowship and with whom I’d be working next year
    2b) They say yes – AWESOME!

    It seems to me that only 2 of these possible outcomes are good for me: 1) and 2b).

    Obviously, this is not the same as competing tenure-track offers. But the academic hiring season now stretches over so much of the year that it’s almost inevitable that these sorts of things will happen. Given the contingency of lines for many jobs, isn’t it inevitable that instability on the hiring side will be met by instability on the candidates’ end?

  8. Flavia on 06 Mar 2011 at 1:27 pm #

    Dr. Crazy said more or less what I would have. I think it would be ridiculous to sue for breach of contract, or to force anyone to accept a job he or she really didn’t want. And as I said at my own place, I certainly do not believe that faculty — whether newly hired or long-established — “owe” their institution a ton of loyalty.

    I’m sympathetic to the genuine time constraints that the hiring season puts on the process, and I can even imagine situations in which I’d recommend that a friend who was legitimately caught in a bind consider breaking his or her early-accepted contract with one institution in order to accept a better, but late-arriving offer.

    Look: we all do things, from time to time, whose ethics we feel bad or uncertain about. And sometimes we’re forced to choose from among a bunch of bad options. But that doesn’t make the behavior itself less dodgy.

    I think as a profession we benefit from making clear what practices are generally inappropriate–even if we acknowledge that we don’t live in an ideal world, and that job candidates are sometimes responding to bad or unethical treatment themselves.

  9. Freckles on 06 Mar 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    There are a lot of people out there, myself included, who have few to no options. In this economy, a dearth of opportunities does not necessarily signal an inferior candidate.

    It’s hard sometimes for me to not resent the hell out of people who game the system by accepting multiple offers in order to get the best possible arrangement. Some people fail to realize that by doing this, they’re hurting a lot of people. (Maybe they realize and just don’t care.) I just wish that institutions were more flexible in their hiring procedures, so that this scenario does not then leave an entire department in the lurch for an entire year.

  10. rustonite on 06 Mar 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    I had something like this come up earlier this year. I got a part-time teaching gig, which turned out to not fit well with my other duties. It wasn’t that they had misrepresented the position; it was just that I hadn’t realized how much time it would take, and how badly it would interfere with more important things.

    So I quit. No notice, no nothing. Just called and said I wouldn’t be coming back. And they were upset, trying to demand I give them two weeks, trying to say I had some obligation to them or my students or whatever, basically attempting to generate an emotional response in (“but what about the children!”). F*** that noise.

    Imagine if the tables were turned. What if the money for the position dried up, or you discovered the person were a complete douche? Wouldn’t an employer do everything possible to dump the new hire? Everything legal, of course, or at least what you could get away with- firing if you can, making life uncomfortable if you can’t.

    It’s just good business, on both sides, to accept the position that offers the best salary, benefits, environment, whatever, and to chuck a less beneficial one. As long as it’s legal, I wouldn’t think twice about quitting a job I’d signed a contract for, and I don’t see anything unethical about it. In a business deal, each side is responsible for their own interests. Being sympathetic to the other side is a sure way to lose ground.

    I think the reason people find this sort of thing objectionable is that it’s a reversal of the usual power dynamic. Usually, the employer sets the terms and makes the offers, and the employees are passive recipients. For an employee to pull a power move like this is unusual, and therefore upsetting. Flavia doesn’t say, but wouldn’t anyone care to wager whether this candidate was a women/minority? Cause I’m willing to bet that if it were a white dude, everyone would be talking about how desirable a candidate he must be to pull this off, and how big his balls are.

  11. Didion on 06 Mar 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    rustonite: WORD.

  12. Bardiac on 06 Mar 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    My university had a verbal contract with a candidate a couple of years ago, and then froze all hirings. We pulled the contract we’d verbally agreed to.

    My state has given its employees a furlough, effectively giving us a 3% paycut for the past two years, despite our contracts saying we were getting paid our salary.

    Sure, it would be great if every candidate got just one perfect offer. But it doesn’t work that way, and a candidate is responsible for his/her own happiness. No one else is going to look out for the candidate.

    (I’m sounding more and more bitter, alas.)

  13. Historiann on 06 Mar 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    Many of you seem to assume that the scheming candidate who will eventually throw over accepted job offer #1 already knows that there’s a job offer #2 waiting in the wings. This is silly!

    I also don’t think that having accepted a job interview on campus means that the candidate can’t legitimately refuse a job offer down the road. I would encourage everyone to take whatever job interviews they’re offered, if given what you know already you’d seriously entertain a job offer. But the purpose of job interviews is not just so that hiring departments can evaluate candidates–it’s so candidates can learn more about the hiring department, institution, and location to assess their strengths and weaknesses. I once went on a job interview and then withdrew from the search as soon as I got home, because it was clear that I would never in a million years take the job. But that’s what the job interview is for! (FWIW, there was no screening interview–it was a straight-to-campus deal.)

    Most of us need to earn money to live. Most of us are really thrilled to get one job offer, let alone two. I just don’t understand the assumption here that someone who ends up backing out of a job offer is “gam[ing] the system. . . in order to get the best possible arrangement.” Clearly, the best possible time to have two job offers is SIMULTANEOUSLY, when one can play one offer against another in order to get the best out of both jobs and then decide. People who’ve already signed a contract are negotiating with just one job and one employer. And in any case: it’s only possible to actually HAVE one job at a time! (Someone else will be the late-season beneficiary of the job offer that was inked and then backed out of.)

    I agree with Flavia when she writes, “I think as a profession we benefit from making clear what practices are generally inappropriate.” Right on! But Didion is also correct to say that “taking the wider view of the real power dynamics, let’s be gracious and recognize that we search committees still have most of the control in this situation.” And I would add: most of the power, and lots more money than individual candidates.

    Pennamiriel: good luck to you. I would take the one-year postdoc, no question. It’s just one year, and if your possible future employer is really an R-1 and acts like it, they’ll be thrilled on your behalf and happy to let you defer your employment by a year. (I have heard of two instances in which people who won postdocs were NOT permitted to delay taking a TT job offer. Interestingly, both were women, although the assy institutions were not R-1s.) I think it’s better to accept the one-year now to ensure that you’ve got something, and hope that it all works out.

  14. Another Damned Medievalist on 06 Mar 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    I can see both sides of this, and SLAC has had this happen to it more than once. In one case, we ended up doing a late season hire that really didn’t work out well. In another, we ended up with someone who is just awesome. But it still made a lot of work for people and a lot of hard feelings. In talking to colleagues about it, people are pretty understanding if the reasons make sense. For example, if someone was offered a job at an R1, or that offered a better teaching load, more money, or any of the stuff we’d like ourselves and would likely leave SLAC for, people are pretty cool. The attitude is, ‘yeah, it sucks for us, but we just can’t compete with that.’ But people who handle it badly — like not letting us know till two weeks before the semester starts? Bastards, and we will let our friends know about you. People who decide they can’t afford/don’t want to live in Dabbaville? Very little sympathy. In those cases, it’s more, “Seriously? what kind of idiot doesn’t check into those things? what kind of idiot doesn’t get hir spouse’s buy-in? you couldn’t show up for a year so we could do another search?” NO sympathy.

  15. Historiann on 06 Mar 2011 at 2:12 pm #

    But people who handle it badly — like not letting us know till two weeks before the semester starts? Bastards, and we will let our friends know about you. People who decide they can’t afford/don’t want to live in Dabbaville? Very little sympathy. In those cases, it’s more, “Seriously? what kind of idiot doesn’t check into those things? what kind of idiot doesn’t get hir spouse’s buy-in? you couldn’t show up for a year so we could do another search?” NO sympathy.

    Agreed, ADM. (Those are pretty extreme examples!) You don’t want to work with someone whose decision-making skills are that weak.

  16. Comrade PhysioProf on 06 Mar 2011 at 2:47 pm #

    I realize I’m alone here in defending the interests of individual job candidates[.]

    I’m 100% in agreement with you, Historiann. However, I would go further and state that it is not just in the interest of individual job candidates for departments to take this kind of thing gracefully and in stride. The people who refuse job offers–whether early or late in the process and regardless of whether “contracts” have been signed–are our colleagues, and will remain so for a long time.

    Why create ill feelings about your department and its faculty in someone who might at some point be in a position to perform collegial actions that could be to your benefit, just out of pique? Being a douche about it isn’t gonna lead to a better outcome anyway, so much better to be as accommodating as possible and have the situation end with the candidate as a future ally, and not an enemy.

  17. Historiann on 06 Mar 2011 at 3:04 pm #

    That’s really interesting–and it makes sense to me. I’ve always assumed that more friends = better for me as an individual, but I think you’re right that we can extend that logic to a whole department.

    There probably are some real $hitheads who do this, but their $hitheaddery can’t just be in the field of accepting then ditching job offers alone. Whereas I can imagine lots of scenarios in which perfectly decent people who have interviewed and accepted a job in good faith might find hirself in a situation like the one I’ve outlined above, or the like the one pennamiriel describes.

    It seems like consulting several (not just one) trusted mentor in these situations is good advice. Most of us can see the problem from both sides, and many of us might be able to help an individual get what ze wants without unnecessarily pi$$ing off or inconveniencing anyone else. (And not resigning until two weeks before the term begins definitely counts as an unnecessary and wasteful provocation.)

  18. Dr. Crazy on 06 Mar 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    I thought of something as I was out and about. Institutions that refuse to grant extensions to candidates who need more time (and at least in my experience, by the time we get to the point of making offers, the search committee has little to no power over the process – we don’t even get to select the candidate who receives the offer; we make a recommendation but the *decision* is made by administrators and any flexibility in the offer is up to administrators outside our department) to some extent bring this on themselves. That is no excuse for the bad behavior that ADM describes (and that is really the sort of thing I was thinking about in my previous comments, which from what I know isn’t all that extreme or rare in the land of regional comprehensives or non-elite slacs), but it is an explanation for why candidates might have no other recourse but to formally accept and then to back out of an offer.

  19. Flavia on 06 Mar 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    It’s hard sometimes for me to not resent the hell out of people who game the system by accepting multiple offers in order to get the best possible arrangement. Some people fail to realize that by doing this, they’re hurting a lot of people.

    Actually, I want to take Freckles’s side here, and ADM’s: at least the one case I know about of someone renegging on a signed contract involved an extremely competitive candidate leaving one fairly prestigious institution in the lurch for a more or less equally prestigious (but very different) institution. And this happened in May or over the summer.

    On the one hand, Institution #1 will have no trouble finding someone to fill that spot, though they’re shit out of luck in the short term. But what about the runner-up candidates for that job, who either wound up with nothing at all, or who themselves took significantly inferior jobs?

    Because — this isn’t just about the power differential between job candidates and hiring institutions. It’s about the power differential among job candidates.

    We have a responsibility to look out for our own interests and those of our spouses, partners, children, etc. But we also have some responsibility to the larger profession — whose members are, as Dr. Crazy reminds us, our colleagues too, whether or not we actually work in the same department.

  20. Historiann on 06 Mar 2011 at 3:15 pm #

    Dr. Crazy–great point. I believe the AHA’s guidelines say that a candidate should have 2 weeks to consider a job offer before giving an answer, but this is dreamland. I’ve never heard of *anyone* being given more than a week to decide.

    I’m sure it’s galling when you’re running a job search to hear from a candidate, “Thanks, but I’m still waiting to hear about another job,” but I can’t see how it’s in anyone’s interest to rush a decision.

    And of course, all of this frenzy is driven by scarcity–and not just for job candidates. If departments knew that there were more TT searches coming up for them, then each search would be less pressured, less omigod-if-we-don’t-hire-someone-who-can-be-tenured-we-lose-this-line!!!ZOMG no more searches forevah!!!

  21. wini on 06 Mar 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    One of my colleagues, also an assistant professor, was almost in this situation. My school offered her the job after she’d accepted another position. (And this wasn’t a surprise, she told them what was going on.) She kept the first job but still ended up here after a couple years. It was agony for my department–three years of failed searches–and extremely inconvenient for her family, and a very long story. Looking back on it, I don’t think she regrets taking the first job any more than she regrets leaving it (our pastures are greener). I would have made the same choice, that’s how my moral compass works.

    That said, I also think that is kinda bullshit. I agree with Historiann, we have so little power, and the institutions have so much.

    I feel strongly that one should apply to any and all jobs out there, within reason. It’s time consuming enough to research the schools and departments, much less figuring out if your partner can find work. That point should happen once an interview is scheduled. I’m also a little sensitive to this, since the same pattern seems to repeat itself with my cohort:

    heterosexual woman turns down/neglects to apply for positions where her partner won’t have great employment opportunities.
    Later, heterosexual woman finds herself adjuncting for 1 class a quarter in the middle of nowhere after her partner took a job in an area with no other employment opportunities.

    Granted, I wouldn’t make the above decisions. But that doesn’t erase the gender dynamics of these situations.

  22. Historiann on 06 Mar 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    Flavia–in the case you describe, it’s hard not to feel bad for the candidates who didn’t get the offer. But–there might have been good reasons they didn’t get the first rank, too! (Maybe they weren’t even ranked at all?)

    You’re right that it’s about “the power differential among job candidates.” That’s pretty much what a job market is–and universities and colleges rate and rank candidates accordingly. Now, I have never been the selected “golden child” in my field who turns down more interviews than ze goes on and gets all of the job offers anyway. But–that’s because I’m not as good as they are! I hold my own and I think I’ve published a slightly better-than-average monograph–but I’m no Superstar. All of the children cannot by definition be “above average,” a la Lake Woebegone.

  23. Dr. Crazy on 06 Mar 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    H’Ann, The MLA guidelines are two weeks, and we *always* insist on giving candidates that in my department, but anything beyond that (like, say, the candidate had a campus visit elsewhere and the other campus’s timeline for offers is one week beyond our deadline) is totally arbitrary. Once, a candidate had wowed the dean and that person did get a bit of an extension beyond the two weeks. In a couple other cases that I recall, candidates were told to, as my mother would put it, shit or get off the pot. Personally, I’d prefer we give a candidate an extra week or two rather than bullying them into a decision, but, sadly, I don’t rule the world :)

  24. Historiann on 06 Mar 2011 at 3:33 pm #

    Crazy–I wonder if our different reactions to Flavia’s original post are due to the fact that your department gives candidates TWICE the amount of time to accept or reject an offer than I’ve ever seen in a History Department!

    Two weeks seems like enough time to make up one’s mind about a job (suss out partner employment issues, real estate, workload, etc.) One week seems almost like a stickup. (OK, bad analogy, but maybe it sorta works?)

    Wini’s points are worth considering. How does gender work in all of this? In my department, the partnered people who accepted job offers seem to have spouses who already had a plan or strategy in place for relocating to follow the academic spouse/partner. And in my department, all but two of those people have been men (myself and one other woman with a male partner included). Coincidence? Hellz no.

  25. Dr. Crazy on 06 Mar 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    H’Ann – Hold the phone – do you really think that lower ranked candidates are *necessarily* less qualified than the top-ranked candidate? SERIOUSLY? Maybe your hiring pools are different from ours, but I can only say that in the past 4 or 5 searches we’ve done we could have legitimately made the offer to any of the candidates who were brought to campus (And, in more than one case, we DID make the offer to multiple candidates). The rankings of the top three are totally not about who is a superstar and who isn’t – or even about cv’s usually. Yes, there are reasons for how candidates end up being ranked, but those reasons typically have little to nothing to do with merit.

  26. Historiann on 06 Mar 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    Of the candidates we interview on campus, their qualifications are fine, but there are research projects that are more or less interesting, more or less ambitious, their journal articles in more or less prestigious journals. There have been some dramatically different searches in my department, in which our final rankings of our candidates don’t indicate much. We have (for example) ranked candidates unacceptable after interviewing them on campus. We also have had to rank a candidate #2 when ze got 1 vote less than the candidate we ranked #1. One vote!!!

    My point is that no one outside a hiring department can know what was going through their heads, or where the other candidates stood in relation to the person who got the job offer first.

  27. Comrade PhysioProf on 06 Mar 2011 at 3:46 pm #

    In the biomedical sciences, every year there is a small subset of applicants who hoover up the vast majority of interview invitations and job offers. This is because of a combination of outstanding qualifications and being positioned to pursue a research program in a trendy area. It is fucken stupid for less attractive candidates to “resent” those fortunate few.

  28. Dr. Crazy on 06 Mar 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    CPP, I think that this might be one of those situations where the glutted job market in the humanities is a factor that you’re not considering. In English, people talk about candidates who get just *five* convention interviews as being convention darlings. FIVE. Getting just one campus visit – just one – is like winning the lottery. The resentment, in that case, I think is totally understandable and human, even if it is stupid.

  29. New Kid on the Hallway on 06 Mar 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    Yeah, what Dr. Crazy said. I came in second once for a job to a woman who had taught high school before going to grad school. That was literally the only difference between us – they liked us both equally, but had to choose one, and that person had an edge in advising secondary ed majors. But just because I didn’t have that one thing that led the school to choose the other candidate didn’t mean I wasn’t just as qualified, in the grand scheme of things, as she was. That one school’s preference for such a qualification wasn’t a commentary on either candidate’s merit.

    The way the job market is today, almost everyone who even GETS a campus interview is a golden child. Sure, some golden children show up on campus and blow the interview, but there are lots of searches where a school is faced with two or three candidates who are equally meritorious and the school has to find *some* grounds for distinguishing between them. The difference is *not* usually about merit. There are also lots of times when the first choice person turns a job down and the school happily hires the 2nd choice, 3rd choice, or even ultimately 4th choice candidate, which, if you think ranking is purely about merit, shouldn’t actually happen. (Sure, there are times where if the first choice turns down a job, the school tanks the search and tries again later because the lower-ranked candidates are held to be unacceptable. But that’s not the only way it happens and I suspect it’s uncommon.)

    Addressing the original post – I actually agree with Historiann that if someone gets a better offer, they have the prerogative to take it. That said, I think it’s a little uncool actively to *apply* for another position *after* signing a contract. And it also seems like courtesy to withdraw from other searches once you’ve accepted a job. But if you are in one of those weird situations where your first choice school’s timeline gets dragged on and on, and you get another offer before the first choice is going to be able to tell you anything and you can’t get an extension, well, I’m not going to tell someone what to do in that situation. (And I guess if your dream job in the WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD got advertised the day after you signed a contract, well, who am I to say what you should do? I guess I just see that as unlikely given the way the pecking order in desirable jobs usually works – it’s not very common for the really really good really really prestigious really really well-paying jobs to appear late in the hiring season. I suppose it’s more like a location/second-body issue, if a job opens up in your partner’s current town. But still.)

  30. New Kid on the Hallway on 06 Mar 2011 at 4:03 pm #

    (It’s true that one doesn’t *know* that the non-first-choice candidates would have been offered a position if the first choice turned it down – it’s true that sometimes the school won’t go past that first choice. But I’m with Dr. Crazy – I think that’s less common in the glutted humanities market, and I’m very reluctant to assume that candidates who didn’t come in first were ranked that way based on their own merits, rather than on the particular needs and quirks of the given department.)

  31. Historiann on 06 Mar 2011 at 4:03 pm #

    It always seems like a similar dynamic to the one CPP describes in each subfield happens on the History job market. Maybe not as dramatic, but similar.

  32. Pennamiriel on 06 Mar 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    I do think we all have ethical responsibilities to other candidates, but that sort of thinking can only go so far. (And thanks for the words of encouragement above!) I turned down an on-campus interview with another institution for one of those “oh we really hope this will turn tenure-track but there’s no guarantee” jobs in part because I thought perhaps friends of mine who had also applied, would get an invite (and I knew that I would reject an offer, if made). As several have said above, though, this is the only time and situation in which the job seeker has any power. I myself would not apply for a job after signing a contract unless it were to solve my two-body problem. But that’s an individual decision. I certainly can’t lay that down as a rule for someone else – because again (kind of like with the mortgage industry) making these issues too much about ethics and not enough about power/knowledge disparities is a problem.

  33. Susan on 06 Mar 2011 at 4:19 pm #

    I understand (and support) people taking the time over the offer. That’s cool. But the ethics of the market are generally that when you have accepted a job, you tell all the other places for which you are a candidate, “I am withdrawing my application because I have accepted a position at X”. If the alternate position is so terrific, you could say, “I have already accepted a job at X for next year, but would love to join you the year after next.” So what we are talking about is accepting a position with your fingers crossed. (I heard of one person back in the 60s who accepted a job with a paid leave in the first year, who accepted another position before teaching at the place that gave the leave: that’s chutzpah.)

    And I suppose I’m thinking as a search chair: we don’t send rejections until we have a signed contract. Then we close the search. Once we’ve done that, though, we’re talking about an entirely new search, and we may lose the line altogether. So while I agree that in general, the hiring institution is in the driver’s seat, the *department* may not be.

  34. Flavia on 06 Mar 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    Just singing backup to Dr. C., as usual:

    1. My department/institution has always given candidates the full two weeks, and so has my partner’s. The MLA standard may not be followed by everyone, but I don’t think they’re flouted with abandon (or maybe it has to do with the kind of institutions that we’re at, which see it as in their interests to give attractive candidates more time; I’ve heard about some bad behavior at fancier schools that want you NOW, or not at all).

    2. Some candidates are ultra-competitive, for legitimate and less legitimate reasons (perceived trendiness/timeliness of research)–I know a few people who had 10-15 MLA interviews. But I also know of “stars” who, because of the vagaries of the job market in one particular year, had interviews at one Almost Ivy and two Boondocks U, and may have been lucky to be a runner-up at Almost Ivy.

    MAYBE at the very top, you can tell who’s the best — at that present moment. But in the high middle, I’m not at all sure that you can, especially when the candidates are fresh from grad school.

  35. e.j. on 06 Mar 2011 at 6:23 pm #

    As someone in a department that has run 12 searches in 9 years (3 of these were repeats), I side with Flavia. Maybe if ours was a big department, it would be less of an issue. But with 11 t/t faculty on a good day, searching is exhausting. And if someone is still on the market when they sign the contract, I would prefer to know that.

    I think this type of scenario is more of a problem for institutions like mine, which do, in fact, have a difficult time filling positions because of issues like teaching load and location and low salaries. If someone says yes and then bails later, we can’t always go down the list to the next person. They are gone. And we can’t always get permission to fill the position the next year with anything but adjuncts, and we can’t always re-search it.

    Does this run of the risk of having someone in the job who doesn’t view it as their dream job? Sure. But how many people are working at their dream job? I know I’m not.

  36. koshem Bos on 06 Mar 2011 at 6:44 pm #

    Some late context: “breaking” a hiring contract is uncommon. Our hirees go to extreme to extend deadlines of offer to avoid messy conflicts.

    Contract breaking is now a big fake issue involving underwater houses where repaying mortgages is pointless. Even simple foreclosures in recourse states cause horrible financial repercussions to former owner, while the banks are living high on the hog with the foreclosed people’s taxes.

    Since abiding by contracts is partial, we have no standing to demand otherwise.

  37. wini on 06 Mar 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    My field has golden children (we’re too small to have real sub fields). Right now there are 3 Ivy-level jobs. There are the same 3-6 people interviewing at all of them. All but one already has a TT job. We all know roughly who they are, and the (credible) rumor is that one of them has been offered more than one of the jobs. It’s a combination of talent, the right adviser, and the not-too-conservative-but-not-too-out-there sub-field.

    At the same time, it’s basically like Dr. Crazy describes it. All but 3-6 of us are almost as wonderfully qualified as the golden children and getting a job is a huge crap shoot. [I actually got this job offer because one of the wunderkind dropped out of the search right after his interview.]

  38. Z on 06 Mar 2011 at 8:22 pm #

    I think that with markets being what they are, and institutions being what they are, job candidates should do what they can to get the best situation they can.

    It’s normal to check with the other places you’ve applied / been interviewed before signing a contract, yes. It’s normal to honor contracts, yes. But these things can be negotiated. One must be collegial, but this does not mean one must short change oneself or always put the convenience of an institution before one’s own interests and well being.

    It seems to me that we are always asked to consider everyone else – various institutions, the students, the peer reviewers, so many ‘shoulds’. At the same time, we are told to ‘protect our time’ and ‘put research first’ and ‘remember we have a family’ and ‘put the program first’ and … on, and on.

    Everything is important except what one wants for oneself, what one knows one needs to have in order to make the best possible contribution to the field.

  39. Historiann on 06 Mar 2011 at 8:27 pm #

    ej–size of department is important. I feel your pain–but in the cases you mention, two out of three were people who resigned after working in your department for a few years. Only one was someone who “resigned” before showing up. and that was someone on a postdoc who applied the following year for another job and got it.

    But–what remedy do you propose? I just don’t think there are any kind of realistic penalties hiring departments can enact, even if it were desirable. I suppose the academic job market–such as it is–could potentially work more like the “match” system that Med students enter in order to find a residency program. Med students interview at various residency programs, and they and the programs themselves assemble their lists of preferred programs in ranked order. The “match” program then reads everyone’s list of preferences, and the highest place on the list where both the candidate and the residency program meet–there you go. You might get your first choice program, but then again you might not. If you ranked Cleveland or Pierre at all, you’d better be prepared to go to Cleveland or Pierre. Some people don’t match at all, and have to “scramble”–that is, apply on the double to programs who also didn’t get their needed number of residents. (And don’t those sound like happy marriages?)

    But I don’t think that any of us would find that either desirable or workable. Matching for a residency, which lasts usually just 3-4 years at an early career stage, is one thing. Matching for a career is quite another!

  40. Historiann on 06 Mar 2011 at 8:39 pm #

    “It’s normal to check with the other places you’ve applied / been interviewed before signing a contract, yes. It’s normal to honor contracts, yes. But these things can be negotiated. One must be collegial, but this does not mean one must short change oneself or always put the convenience of an institution before one’s own interests and well being.

    It seems to me that we are always asked to consider everyone else – various institutions, the students, the peer reviewers, so many ’shoulds’. At the same time, we are told to ‘protect our time’ and ‘put research first’ and ‘remember we have a family’ and ‘put the program first’ and … on, and on.”

    Z, this is so well put. I think this is exactly right: everyone in searches should strive for courteousness and honesty, but the timing is such that this is not always absolutely achieveable. And I like the point you make connecting the pressure on candidates back to your lessons about taking care of oneself rather than everyone else first.

    I think this all goes back to scarcity and the (warranted) perception that TT lines and jobs are precious jewels worthy of veneration. I think this market is distorting our expectations both of candidates and of hiring departments (to say nothing of the jobs themselves!)

  41. Z on 06 Mar 2011 at 9:01 pm #

    @e.j. I have your situation. I don’t wish it on anyone else. I don’t begrudge anything to candidates who slip through our hands and to better places.

    @Susan, on the person back in the 60s who accepted a job with a paid leave in the first year, who accepted another position before teaching at the place that gave the leave–

    That was my dissertation director – in the 70s, though. Years later the institution that gave hir the leave hired me, which is how I know the story.

    Yes this behavior is dishonest and manipulative and perhaps bad for karma, and I am not brash enough to do it.

    But: it did catapult said person into a really good position I do not think they would have gotten otherwise.

    And: the person they hired in hir place is a much better fit and is still there, coming out with a new book, etc.

    I think the whole way hiring is done breeds all of this, and I really do notice that nice guys finish last. I am not saying that’s good or that it is how it should be.

  42. Leslie M-B on 06 Mar 2011 at 10:07 pm #

    Lots of food for thought here. A few things on my mind now:

    If the top candidate takes too long to decide not to accept the offer, a department might lose candidates #2 and #3 while waiting for candidate #1′s response.

    The department may not get money in that case to fly in candidate #4, especially if–as happened to be the case in this year’s (thank god happily completed) search in my department–most of the top candidates are from abroad.

    During my department’s search for my position last year and again in this year’s search, it was made very clear to candidates that because the state legislature was in session, funding for the university could be cut at any time and, as a result, the entire line might be lost. I felt a lot of pressure, therefore, to be prepared to make a quick decision–though we were informed of this possibility during our campus visits, not at the moment the offer was made, so we would have time to check in with other open searches.

    If we lost a line, that would suck. And it would be hard for us not to blame the dawdling candidate (though it’s not entirely her fault) for the loss of the tenured line if the budget folks intervened between our offers to candidate #1 and the next candidate still available.

  43. Z on 07 Mar 2011 at 12:14 am #

    “And it would be hard for us not to blame the dawdling candidate”

    But that problem was not created by the candidate. Is it “dawdling” to actually take the time allotted to make a major decision?

    I have a very difficult hiring situation and I know what it is to lose all candidates due to legislative actions or inaction, administrative slowness, and so on, to have lines “frozen” for years, and so on. Still: worst case scenario for me is, we limp along another year and run another search. Worst case scenario for candidate is, they lock themselves into something they shouldn’t.

    Candidates should also note also that between the time you say yes and the contract is actually generated, the position can disappear as well. You should never close out your other searches until you’re absolutely sure all ink is dry.

  44. Dr. Crazy on 07 Mar 2011 at 12:53 am #

    Z- I don’t disagree with anything you write above. But Flavia’s post, and the topic of Historiann’s post, is people backing out AFTER the ink is dry. People renegging on done deals. It’s true, Leslie M-B characterized candidate #1 as a “dawdling” candidate. But the reality is that “dawdling” isn’t actually part of the process. A department makes an offer, with a deadline. The candidate either responds within that deadline, or the candidate asks for an extension, which is granted or not. The crux of this issue is what happens from the time of the offer. Let’s say the candidate has 2 weeks from the initial offer. Let’s say the hiring institution says that deadline is firm. A candidate has a choice: accept the offer, or decline. Some candidates accept, and they inform any other potential hiring institutions that they have done so. Some say no. Other candidates try to negotiate for an extension.

    The issue is with still other candidates who accept but they still keep their other searches open, or even, apply for more jobs. It’s not dawdling to take the time to take a major decision. You’re right. But if a candidate accepts, takes some time to make a decision after accepting, and then backs out, and if the budget situation has changed because that candidate took that course of action, that’s *wrong*. That is #1 candidate screwing over his or her other competitors. That is #1 candidate screwing over the department that wooed him or her and #1 candidate screwing over the institution that agreed to the hire.

    Look, I get that there are extenuating circumstances that come up in the search process, and I get that everything isn’t so neat in real life as we’d like it to be in an ideal world. At the same time, just because real life is complicated, that complexity doesn’t justify or excuse behavior that isn’t above board.

    Yes, candidates shouldn’t close out other searches until the ink is dry. But Flavia’s point was that *once the ink is dry, it is only ethical to close out other searches and to stop searching*. Is that really so controversial? Is that really up for debate?

  45. Z on 07 Mar 2011 at 2:06 am #

    @Dr. C – no, I just agree with Historiann’s caveats.

    Informing my views is that we can fire new faculty on 3 months’ notice. We’ve also just limited the meaning of tenure. And we don’t offer much – no high salary, no startup funding, no course reductions, poor library holdings, no travel funding. At present there are also no summer research grants and no sabbaticals. It’s still better to work for us than as an adjunct somewhere, but I can totally see the wisdom of dumping us for a place that won’t put up so many obstacles to progress.

    I get a lot more irritated when superstars pull this kind of act than when new assistant professors do. The superstars with this behavior are *really* just searching for the very best deal, no matter how many people they inconvenience, whereas the assistant professors are just desperately trying to find a position where circumstances won’t be too destructive.

  46. Comrade PhysioProf on 07 Mar 2011 at 4:03 am #

    One must be collegial, but this does not mean one must short change oneself or always put the convenience of an institution before one’s own interests and well being.

    Absolutely, and as much smoke as hiring institutions blow uppe your asse about what a magical wagical snowflake you are and what a unique contributor you will be as a member of their faculty, really junior faculty are viewed as pretty much fungible. If we don’t get *you*, we’re not gonna lose a minutes sleep. Junior faculty need to look out for themselves, because no one else is going to do so.

    This means ultimately taking the position that is going to afford the best opportunity to successfuly pursue one’s research (and teaching, if that is germane) goals. Period.

  47. Mary Anne Mohanraj on 07 Mar 2011 at 4:40 am #

    As someone said up above, I would feel far more strongly about employees honoring contracts if we could trust employers to do that same. Speaking as someone who took a significant furlough cut this past year, which seems pretty damn close to a breach of contract to me, however the university chooses to try to spin it.

    I do think it’s all a little odd, the way some folks react to the timing of this. After all, normally, if you take a job, you can quit, yes? If someone took the job, showed up, hated it, and quit three months later, would you be complaining about how unprofessional they are, and how you’ll never trust them or want to work with them again? Or would you pity their misery, wish them luck, hire an adjunct for spring semester, and get on with things? In the “real world”, people quit jobs all the time. If they’re going to quit, the sooner they figure it out, the better, no?

    In publishing, when publishers back out of a contract, they generally pay writers a ‘kill fee’ of 10% of the original contracted payment, compensation for time and trouble to date. Writers who back out aren’t usually expected to pay their publishers anything.

    Authors don’t even pay back advances; industry standard is that we get paid 1/4 – 1/3 on signing, and if we fail to produce a manuscript the publisher is happy with within the allotted timetable (sometimes with extensions), we keep that original payment and everybody walks away. It’s all set up as an acknowledgement that authors have the least power and the most to lose by a publishig opportunity not working out, it seems? It seems fair to me, speaking as an author who was in that position, and who was devastated when the book didn’t work out, and I had to walk away.

  48. jim on 07 Mar 2011 at 4:57 am #

    That this debate exists is (yet another) sign that academic hiring is broken. I don’t know how to fix it; it may not be fixable. But candidates should not be held responsible for the pathologies of the process.

  49. e.j. on 07 Mar 2011 at 5:16 am #

    @ H-ann. I’m not saying this has ever happened to my department. Even the postdoc was totally on the level, and we knew there was a good chance he would never actually teach at our institution. But it was so late in the game, it was that or a failed search, and we wanted to keep the t/t line, so we said okay.

    I’m just saying that with all the time, effort and energy we invest in t/t searches as a matter of course, having someone say yes and then go back on the market seems irritating at best, deceptive at worst. But maybe I’ve just been on the wrong side of job searches for too long. But I also think of the people who were two number two or three in competitive fields and could have gotten the offer and been extremely happy with the prospect of employment, but are now out of luck, and by the time the department knows, it is too late to do anything about it. Seems like a huge waste to me.

  50. polisciprof on 07 Mar 2011 at 6:40 am #

    Do job candidates know how small the academy really is? Sure, take the better job. The school you jobbed can’t/won’t do anything about it. However, you also ticked off (potential) colleagues and they WILL talk. “Oh, I hear you hired so-and-so. You know what ze did to us?”

    The offender will be discussed at conferences and in departments (as a cautionary tale) for years to come. Perhaps the offender doesn’t care about professional reputation, but you never know when a stunt like this will come back to bite.

  51. Perpetua on 07 Mar 2011 at 6:59 am #

    I’m late to the conversation, but I just want to add that I agree with the main points that Historiann and Z have made, in particular. I sympathize with the search committees and departments who get jerked around, especially if it ends in the loss of a line or a total failed search (although really a failed search is a failed search, whether it fails in January or April, whether it’s a reneged contract or the top candidates just decline). (And rightly or wrongly, many departments are unwilling or feel they are unable to go down a list past 1-3, even sometimes 2, if #1 says no.) I’ve been on search committees; I’ve experienced that side of those situations. And I completely agree with the comment (by Z?) about superstars vs new assistants. It’s true that there are some in academia who have many options and offers – they are the select golden children (the majority of whom are obviously white men) and they often game the system to get as much as they can. I’ve seen people who think that a good job at a flagship state with a 2-2 still isn’t ‘good enough’ for them because they don’t like the location or it’s not prestigious enough. It makes me grit my teeth, too. (Although honestly, would you really recommend that someone NOT take a job at Yale/Princeton/Michigan if they stumbled into one?) But the majority of us are just trying to do the best we can. It’s hard for me to talk about sometimes, I admit, because I’m one of those poor schlobs who lives hundred and hundreds of miles away from her partner; we’ve been commuting for years and years, have tried negotiating every which way and would do almost anything to end our situation. It’s never worked. University says: We don’t have the money for a spousal accommodation. Then department x wants to hire a Senior Person with a Partner – suddenly, pots and pots of money appear as if from nowhere! As CPP notes, assistant professors are very often treated as expendable & no one is looking after their interests, and if you (anyone) expects the university to have your best interests at heart then you are living in a fantasy land, no matter how well-intention and fabulous your department/chair/colleagues might be. Especially in this climate of furloughs and freezes and skyrocketing insurance costs and rising teaching loads. Sometimes departments or administrators act as though the negotiations are personal, or as though the employee *owes them something*, or they get offended if the candidate is angling for a better situation for hirself, more $$ etc (as someone who has experienced a university rescinding an offer in what I can only describe as a fit of pique I can attend that this does happen, though it is very rare). But we are professionals and we have to look out for our professional lives and futures, as well as our personal lives. The university powers that be are not going to do that for us. I’ve been pushed into considering all kinds of things, and now I definitely think that I would go back on a signed contract if I got a position that promised to resolve my commuting situation. Ethics are important to me. I don’t think reneging is unethical. I think it’s not preferable, and should be avoided at all costs. But a lot of universities tighten the time frame in which to make a decision (and threaten to expire the offer if you don’t make it within the frame – I’ve heard of as little as 24 hours) in an effort to force a candidate’s hand.

    (I apologize if I got a little ranty. I thought about editing, then decided to let it be.)

  52. Historiann on 07 Mar 2011 at 7:06 am #

    Polisciprof: that’s what I’ve always heard–that a candidate will get a “reputation.” But I’ve never actually heard anyone gossiped about this way, which makes me think that 1) backing out of a signed contract doesn’t actually happen that often, and/or 2) it’s not that big of a deal.

    I will say that applying for a late-advertised job after accepting one is dodgy. Flavia’s original post mentioned this as a possibility, which I didn’t address. My post was motivated by an experience with a candidate who was just offered a job ze had applied for in the regular cycle at a very late date, after accepting our offer. Maybe she withdrew from the search, maybe she didn’t–I agree with those who say candidates should check in with any searches in which they’re still theoretically active to see where they are and/or to withdraw from the search once they’ve accepted a job. But–I won’t condemn someone for holding out hope for a “dream job.”

    Mary Anne Mohanraj and jim above are right. Why so much anger at a (theoretical) job candidate who actually had choices? To repeat jim’s comment, “candidates should not be held responsible for the pathologies of the process.”

  53. Chris on 07 Mar 2011 at 7:11 am #

    I agree with rustomite — scroll back a long ways. It’s a business, get over it. As for the notion that somehow leaving a signed deal for a better one will follow one throughout their career, please. Collective memories are short, life goes on, faculty have classes to teach, papers to write, groceries to buy, stuff to do. Only someone with way too much time on their hands is going to seriously hold this kind of grudge. And as for the candidate who bails, hell, why should they care about the department they dumped? They got what they wanted.

  54. GayProf on 07 Mar 2011 at 8:40 am #

    I had a good friend who once backed out of a job after having negotiated and signed the acceptance letter. It was a tough choice and obviously less than ideal, but there was also no question the second offer (which arrived quite late) was a better match for hir career path.

    It seems to me that institutions have no loyalty to the individual. So I am always skeptical that we should be giving loyalty to them.

  55. Ruth on 07 Mar 2011 at 9:10 am #

    There are three parties here: the candidate, the university (which as GayProf says has no loyalty to the individual, and to which the individual doesn’t owe a thing) and the hiring department, which is part of the institution but is made up of individuals. When I am one of these people in the hiring department, and someone does something like this to us, I get annoyed, we all do. It’s really inconvenient. We had a failed search once bcause the candidate had a book about the come out and negotiated for hire with tenure, it took us months to go through that process and then the candidate turned around and used our tenured offer to get early tenure from hir previous institution. Were we pissed off? Yes. Would any one of us have done the same thing in hir place? Probably.

    It’s a job, and the job seeker has to do what ze has to do, but it would be good if ze would keep in mind that the hiring department is composed of individuals with their own concerns, like finding the best possible colleague before the university pulls the funding. If they have treated you well, try to treat them with the maximum of courtesy that’s compatible with what you need to do.

    In the early 90s I was offered a position at Large Urban University. I had a fellowship for the coming year and I asked if my start date could be postponed by a year and if I could have the fellowship paid via the university so I would be eligible for health insurance. They frowned. It turned out that Really Famous Historian had recently been in the same situation with them, and after the fellowship year had taken another position. I think I was more annoyed at hir than they were, because ze had ruined it for me–but ultimately I persuaded them of my sincerity and they let me have the year and the benefits.

  56. Flavia on 07 Mar 2011 at 10:20 am #

    I agree completely with Ruth. As I said at my place, I’m a little frustrated by how this conversation seems to be becoming one about how theoretical future bad behavior on the part of an institution (not that we know anything about any such behavior by the actual hiring institution — but we know that many institution do behave badly!) excuses unethical behavior by individuals to other individuals.

    No question: a job candidate should get all the information he or she can about the health of the hiring institution, the state budget, etc. And there’s nothing wrong with making a decision to decline a job (though ideally before signing a contract) if his or her information or spidey-sense is saying, “run away!”

    But to me that’s a separate issue and a separate conversation. I believe that a job candidate has a personal, ethical obligation to the specific department and specific individuals he or she interacted with — the people who hosted and went out to dinner with him or her, and are very much hoping that he or she will come. We shouldn’t fetishize good behavior for its own sake, but the presumption should always be in favor of treating courteously the actual people who have treated you courteously.

  57. Perpetua on 07 Mar 2011 at 11:35 am #

    @Flavia: I agree that we should always treat people courteously, but for me that argument is a bit of a red herring. My point about the situation is this: while there might be situations in which the candidate who has signed a contract and reneges is behaving in a – let’s call it – douchey manner, there are also other circumstances in which the candidate’s behavior, while regrettable and disappointing to a search committee or a department, reflects real professional or personal pressures and needs on the part of the candidate. In the latter case, I do not believe it is unethical or discourteous to issue a “take back” on a signed contract. Obviously it is a less-than-ideal situation, and the person hired has every obligation to end the situation as quickly as possible. For me, it *is* possible to turn down a job, even after signing, in a courteous way. I would feel very badly if I did such a thing, but I would also not make a decision on which the future of my career and family might hinge based on whether or not some people took me out to dinner and were nice to me. I don’t mean to sound sarcastic – I understand this takes effort, and the people in question should not be treated rudely. But the presupposition here seems to be that the candidate in this situation acts always in bad faith, and I don’t think that’s how all those scenarios play out.

  58. Chris on 07 Mar 2011 at 11:45 am #

    Until actually hired and in the position, the members of the department are not “individuals.” They are part of the institution. Period. Sure, we go to dinner and chit-chat and act all friendly, Gemutlichkeit abounds, but that’s all just a part of the dance we dance to get the job — presumably on both sides of the hired/want-to-be-hired dividing line. Having dinner with candidates, hosting them, etc., umm, that’s part of the job description of those already hired, albeit a weird part for sure. Some here are making this personal when it isn’t personal at all.

    I agree that we shouldn’t fetishize good behavior for its own sake, as the poster above says. And I further agree that there should always be a presumption in favor of treating courteously the actual people who have treated you courteously. But all that means is that if and when a candidate calls to tell you they’ve taken a better offer, they should do it courteously. Maybe even throw in a heartfelt apology.

    All of this said, and at the risk verging on a rant, do you folks have any real idea of just how NOT-courteous the hiring process really is?

  59. Z on 07 Mar 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    Not courteous, it sure isn’t. It really is business, not a tea party, and all aspects of academic life are actually more collegial and pleasant when people recognize this.

    I agree strongly with Comrade PhysioProf’s comments in particular. I really don’t think anyone should turn down a good opportunity just to make my life more convenient, or my department’s. I’ve also never met a graduate student / assistant professor that wasn’t acting in good faith on these matters – even when they have (also) acted in self protective ways.

    As I say, I have often seen institutions fucke over new hires, and superstars or alleged superstars fucke over departments and institutions.

    Look, it’s March. If the candidate we’ve made an offer to turns us down or changes hir mind later, we won’t be able to hire now very easily.

    We could lose the line. We’d have to fight for it back, and then go through another search process, I know. But I can fucken handle it.

  60. Z on 07 Mar 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    P.S. Just because I hosted someone and took them to dinner and was nice to them, does not mean they owe me their life.
    What they owe me is a thank-you note and general professional courtesy. I repeat, that and that only – not their life.

  61. Another Damned Medievalist on 07 Mar 2011 at 8:03 pm #

    You know, I think I have to agree with Flavia here. I should also admit that, as an adjunct, I totally dumped on a department. Kinda. And they were great about it. But I think that that’s because it was an agreement to teach two adjunct classes, and I let them know as soon as I got a call for a late season interview for a FT visiting position. And I let them know as soon as I got the job. And I agreed to teach one of the two sections, because they couldn’t find someone to teach the night class. The department chair wasn’t thrilled, but she said I’d be an idiot not to take a two-year position.

    I am not thrilled with the fact that SLAC gives a week to decide. It sucks big time. On the other hand, by the time we are told we can search (the board meets pretty late), and that HR gets an ad into the places *they* think they should advertise, and then the search committees raise hell to get the ads looking like they should and in the right places, we are pretty late in the season.

    None of that is the candidate’s fault. And i do have some sympathy for someone who signs because they feel pressured to do so, even though they still have interviews set up. In those cases, as long as everybody is up front about their other options, I don’t even mind people reneging (much) if they find something that looks better. But I think it’s a real problem if we deny that a decision like the one Flavia describes has repercussions that affect a lot of people, often for many years.

  62. Z on 08 Mar 2011 at 12:19 am #

    Yes – I don’t think anyone doesn’t know the correct behavior and the reasons why it is correct.

    I’m just interested in the exceptions, and in the way in which the burden for doing right is placed on the junior candidates – who often have the fewest options, the least information, and so on.

    Also, every time I’ve hired allegedly To Save A Line, it hasn’t been the best possible move in retrospect. So I sometimes think I may have fetishized line saving unnecessarily sometimes.

    And, I am sort of blase at this point. I’m a faculty brat and I have also worked in several places, so I have seen a lot of shenanigans. The most destructive of these aren’t reneging assistant professor hires.

    Re candidate maneuverings hurting other candidates, I am not sure that’s how it works in a macro sense. It’s the markets and the administrative timelines that cause the real trouble.

  63. Comrade PhysioProf on 08 Mar 2011 at 5:37 am #

    Re candidate maneuverings hurting other candidates, I am not sure that’s how it works in a macro sense.

    It’s the same exact divisive bullshitte as “you were laid off from your factory jobbe because public employees are lazy union slobbes”.

  64. Meghan Roberts on 08 Mar 2011 at 8:11 am #

    I’d like to throw another log on the fire here — what about search committees/universities that deliberately accelerate their search timelines so that candidates have to accept or decline a job in, say, November? Although I recognize that there are legitimate reasons why a university might prefer to have a search closed by the end of the fall semester, I’m sure at least some are motivated by the notion that they can snap up candidates more quickly and easily if they just get there first. This is — at least as far as I’m able to judge these things — an increasingly common strategy. Does that change/complicate anyone’s opinion re: contract breach? It does for me. I’m not sure I would look unfavorably on a person who reneged on a contract that had been forced on them in this manner, and I certainly don’t think I would blacklist them from any fellowships/searches as a result of that decision. But I do seem to be in the minority!

  65. atty anony on 08 Mar 2011 at 8:32 am #

    Please, all, bear with my extended out-of-field metaphor:

    New law school graduates on the job market have a range of options:

    1) traditional big law firm hiring (accomplished on a highly structured universal timetable, with many hiring rules in place for both students and firms)

    2) ad hoc hiring process for small- and mid-sized firms

    3) public agency or nonprofit entry-level hiring

    4) judicial clerkship

    5) academic fellowship

    6) clinical or public interest fellowship

    Hiring for all of these positions, like any other employment, is done by an offer, followed by an acceptance. In other words, a contract.

    In NEARLY ALL of these positions, the process is (as you might imagine) done on paper with physical signatures.

    Because these are future attorneys, backing out of one’s contract is highly frowned upon.

    If you break your contract? As a lawyer? With a law firm? Nothing happens to you. At all.

    ALL of these jobs are still considered negotiable and a change of plans is not a horrible ordeal if circumstances are exigent enough, or the job offer one receives is of sufficient “extra” prestige.

    Except one.

    There is only ONE job you can accept as an attorney — not coincidentally, one that is almost exclusively pursued by baby lawyers — where you will lose significant professional credibility if you turn around and reject the offer: #4 up there – judicial clerkship. Because you turned your back on God, baby.

    So, a logic game:

    if judges are like God,

    and you can’t turn down a judge’s offer without “repercussions,”

    and you can’t withdraw acceptance of an academic offer without “repercussions” from certain faculty,

    what does this say about the self-image of those particular potentially-retributive faculty?

    Because I have to say, no matter how important one particular academic department might be, imagining it as weightier than:
    one of the world’s largest law firms plus
    one of the most crucial nonprofit service providers plus
    a state or federal government agency plus
    a LEGAL academic department plus
    an community legal fellowship honors program committee
    …is pretty funny.

    But now I know the rule:

    Only God, jurists, and tenured faculty have the right to sit in judgment of early-career professionals for seeking their own best interests!

  66. Z on 08 Mar 2011 at 9:13 am #

    @CPP – word.

    @Meghan – I don’t know, I think it really depends. It’s sort of like early decision college admissions – you settle for less than what you could potentially get, so as to be sure of having something that is at least reasonable.

    Re blacklisting — I think that’s an urban legend. Yes, if you’re a really prominent job candidate and you try to play Princeton and Duke off against each other or something like that, people will talk.

    At my first job, the junior faculty were under the impression that leaving at all (i.e. get a job offer elsewhere in March, and resign there) was breach of contract. They seemed to think we were indentured servants.
    I don’t know where they learned this.

  67. Comrade PhysioProf on 08 Mar 2011 at 10:09 am #

    The smarter departments at less-prestigious institutions do their searches, make their offers much earlier in the hiring season than the norm, and project strong “take it or leave it, right now” positions. This is so that they have a chance of hiring the more desirable candidates who have a good chance of securing better jobbes, but might take the early offer out of fear that they won’t get something better and then will be left with nothing. I was in this position during my own junior faculty jobbe search, and had to make second visits with PhysioWife in tow to places that I had almost zero chance of accepting their offer, just to keep the offers open and maintain my negotiating position. I ended up ultimately with an offer I was very happy with (from a prestigious institution that was way *late* in the hiring season with their interviews and offer), but I had little choice but to drag out the process. Conversely, we just had a candidate decline our invitation to interview for an assistant professor search we are currently running, because she had taken an offer at another (much less prestigious) institution. This is all part of the gamesmanship, and I am glad I didn’t let those less-desirable places bully me with their early offers.

  68. Historiann on 08 Mar 2011 at 10:54 am #

    But CPP–what’s “smart” about a department that tried to bully you into taking a job when it didn’t work? (Granted, it may have worked in the other case you noted.) I’ve heard of History departments doing this, but they usually get bunged up because their top candidates (like you in your story) know they have other options, so they end up dragging the process into the tradition timeframe anyway.

    Color me unconvinced that this is “smart.” I think searches run best when everyone’s clear what their other options are and it’s all on the table.

  69. Z on 08 Mar 2011 at 10:55 am #

    @atty anony I am with you on this.

    Once again, I do understand how inconvenient it will be if the person we just made an offer to accepts and renegs. It is extra inconvenient at my institution, in fact, since we can only seek authorization to bring in ONE candidate at a time.

    I still say all the deference to everyone’s needs but their own that is so strongly recommended to graduate students and assistant professors — in a context in which jobs are scarcer and research/teaching requirements are higher than before, and in which institutions have less and less loyalty to faculty — is misplaced.

    The person we hire will have moving expenses to pay and will also need first, last, and security deposit on an apartment. That means they must lay out maybe $5K in cash just to get here. We can then turn around and lay them off with 3 months’ notice.

    I just lack the chutzpah to tell someone to take us on those kinds of terms if they get a better deal.


    And speaking of ethics and morality: my main department does not like the fact that I am willing to answer nitty gritty questions from job candidates — as in about things like precise procedures and costs here for processing green cards — truthfully and in as much detail as is desired. I’ve seen people be vague and even deceptive at interviews, and then surprised when the candidate either doesn’t take the job or renegs when they find out they have been misinformed at the interview.

  70. Comrade PhysioProf on 08 Mar 2011 at 11:25 am #

    What’s “smart” is that sometimes they succeed in hiring better candidates than they would have otherwise.

  71. Historiann on 08 Mar 2011 at 11:32 am #

    Sometimes–but most of the time departments in my field when they try to hire in the preseason they end up dragged into the usual season.

    A friend of mine was once up for a job he was told was going to make an “early hire.” He was OK with it and would have taken it if offered, I think, but they offered the job to someone else in December before Xmas, and that person wanted to wait to hear what hir other options were, so ze didn’t end up making up her mind until late January or early Feb. (Ze took the job.)

    I guess the lesson is, make the hire and stick to your deadlines. But trying to hire “early” and then refusing to make a decision when a candidate dithers is pretty silly, in my view. (Or better yet, just go along with the usual timeline and give up the “early hire” fantasy.)

  72. Z on 09 Mar 2011 at 2:58 am #

    I’m waiting for my cat who looks like your cat to come home, and you’re my top referrer right now (!) so I am distracting myself with this.

    On candidate strategies and for their sake, I guess I’d say this: there are weak and strong ways to handle these shoals. Weak is to try to be underhanded. Strong is to be up front, but not put your own best interests second.

    I was socialized to think in terms of survival, politeness, deference, as opposed to thinking: I’ve got an interesting research program, how can I best nurture it? I think it’s possible to do the latter without being jerk-ly about it.

  73. Mr. Moo on 22 Sep 2011 at 7:42 am #

    A two body problem will always trump any job offer etiquette, period. If you want the candidate, offer their spouse a job too.

    There isn’t much reason for backing out aside from a two body problem, even superstar candidates only get a few job offers. If you’re so brilliant that you’re weighing offers from Harvard and MIT, well maybe people won’t mind you being an asshole. For everyone else, you must demonstrate that you’re a useful and pleasant member of a department.

  74. N on 18 Aug 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    While it is a totally wrong move on the candidate part to back out on a signed contract in the “last minute”, it is even worst of hir to come, put a notice for resignation and then leave 3 months later. Although not ideal, the candidate may actually doing the department a “favor” by cutting their lost at the first place, saving the already limited department’s resources and monies.

  75. Historiann on 18 Aug 2012 at 3:24 pm #

    Great point. I agree: it’s better not to come at all rather than let a uni spend all of that moving money & startup funds on someone who’s going to resign and leave anyway. Better to save the money and re-do the hire later.

  76. kunsthistoriker on 28 Jan 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    I came to this message board while pondering what i might do if I received job offers for the end of my pre-tenure sabbatical year next year. My current R2 employment contact states that I must return to campus for one year after being awarded a sabbatical. I was wondering if that was binding. I see now that it is highly improbable that any effort would be made to enforce it, unless I have an especially spiteful dean or department chair.

    I must say, however.. Since I was searching for legal advice, I was very surprised to find far more discussion of what amounts, essentially, to professional etiquette. To be sure, any community of colleagues benefits from good manners.

    Nevertheless, in this instance, some of those advancing their notion of what constitutes “good form” exhibit a sharp deficit of empathy and an apparent lack of awareness how their attitudes serve to maintain unhealthy institutional practices. The academic job market is dire. Given that the jobs only come about once every few years, how can we not expect every candidate to apply for any and everything, take whatever he/she can get and not even let on to potential employers that their institution is really not at all the kind of place he/she wants to be. Have any of those speaking out against those who would back-out of a contract, experienced what it is like to try to survive on adjunct “salaries?” Have they experienced what it means to have to wait another year? Look. The more and more we in the academy oversupply the job market and undersupply the jobs (and salaries), the less right we have to demand “respect” from the job candidates whose desperation we rely on to supply even the lowest-ranking institutions with overqualified faculty.

    I strongly encourage far less brow-beating on the part of those of us who are employed – particularly those out there who are tenured – however, unhappy you may be with your committee and its ability to retain the candidates you really want. Is it not possible that in a better job market, they wouldn’t bother applying to your position in the first place?

  77. vince on 10 Apr 2014 at 3:35 am #


    I have same situation at the moment, i already tender my resignation to my current employer and already agreed and signed LOI to show my intention to new company. But at the meantime my current company want me to stay because he want me to help him for project that just awarded to us.

    any sample letter please??



  78. Historiann on 10 Apr 2014 at 7:23 am #

    Vince: I’d say do what you want in the time you have before starting your new job. If you want to work for your soon-to-be former employer on this new project up until the moment you’re supposed to report for work at your new job, then do it. If you’d rather have some time off, then don’t.

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