On the ethics of juggling job offers


The academic job market is tilted towards the side of the supplier. As any postdoc can tell you, there is way more supply than demand for professors (who are not employed as adjunct serfs). So, universities don’t need to give much leeway to job candidates. There’s always somebody good waiting in the wings, right?

As a job candidate, it is useful to remember that departments and universities have problems when a faculty search fails. Only a few candidates are interviewed – I’ve never heard of more than five. There is pressure on the department and dean to make sure that among these interviewees, a desirable candidate takes the job, because reopening the search is usually a mess for a variety of reasons.

Universities also know that good candidates may get multiple interviews, and multiple offers. They can’t give good candidates the leeway to get away, so candidates are usually given a brief window of time to come to a decision, in the midst of a long job season.

This results in a set of dilemmas in the realm of game theory reasoning. The stakes of bet-hedging, and how one regards a bird in the hand, are incredibly high.

Once you get a good job offer or offers, at what stage do you pull yourself from the job market? This presents set of logistical and ethical questions.

Let’s say you get a job offer from your dream job, the one that you are sure you want over all others. That’s a no-brainer. Once you sign a contract you can pull yourself from the other searches.

Let’s be clear: you should keep looking for a job until you have a signed contract. At some institutions, this could take days. At others, it can take months. However, without a signed contract, no matter what anybody might say, you don’t have a job. When campuses are in times of tight funding, the faculty line might get pulled in the gap between the email conversations and the presentation of an actual contract. I know of a few circumstances in which someone has received a job offer verbally or by email, but the contract never arrived because the position was pulled higher up the administrative line. This stuff actually does happen.

The dream job is a convegence of geography, institution type, and the specifics of the institution. This is a rarity. Let’s say you are offered a job that you foresee enjoying, but you also other jobs pending that you see as more attractive. What do you do?

Here are some possibilities:

  1. Ask for more time from the place offering you’re the job (useless)
  2. Pull yourself from other job searches when you commit verbally or by email (a little unwise)
  3. Pull yourself from other job searches when you sign a written contract (makes sense)
  4. Keep actively searching for a job even after you’ve signed a contract (not necessarily evil)

Let’s size up each these options in more detail.

If you ask for more time, that might actually result in less time. Once you hint that you need more time for a decision, your negotiating partner will want you to sign quickly. If you need more time for your spouse to size up the location, then that might be received differently, but all of this will happen on a short clock regardless of the circumstances. Keep in mind that you need to be negotiating the position (salary, startup, moving expenses, resources, reassigned time, and so on) after you receive an initial offer. These negotiations usually take a couple days, maybe a couple weeks at most.

You’re not going to see a formal contract until you’ve already committed to the job verbally or by email. When you do commit your intentions, it should be entirely clear to both you and the university that you are intending to take the job. Also, it should be clear that, without a contract, that you are unable to wholly commit 100%. For a full commitment, you should have a contract. You can say that you’re excited for the position, but the only tangible commitment on both sides is a signed contract.

As soon as you agree to take the job verbally, the folks offering you the job will be happier if you drop out of all other searches, because you might find and take a better job. However, unless you’ve been presented with a signed and legally binding contract, the other university should have no reasonable expectation for you to withdraw from searching for other jobs.

How badly should you feel if you verbally/email commit to Job X, and get a better offer for Job Y before the contract for Job X shows up? You shouldn’t feel too bad. The institution offering Job X can’t reasonably expect you to commit without a genuine contract. They can’t sue you, surely.

Here is a principle for the academic job search process: Don’t hold yourself to any ethical guidelines that are also not being followed by the academic institutions involved in the search. To hold yourself to higher ethical standards than the ones your prospective employers is unfair to you, and leaves you at a structural disadvantage in the job search and negotiation process.

If chair or dean makes an offer, and then the position is later pulled by an administrator higher up the line, then they’d feel badly that you didn’t get the job but there’s nothing that they or you could do about it. Likewise, if the institution doesn’t get you a contract, and you find a better job before they get you a contract, there’s nothing that they can do about it, and of course you should take the better job.

So, what do you do if you’ve already signed on the dotted line on your official legally binding contract, and then you find out that you have interviews – or offers – from other more potentially attractive jobs? This is where I think people have strong and differing opinions. For what it’s worth, here are my opinions, though I don’t hold strongly to them.

I think it’s important to honor a contract that has been signed. I also recognize that universities typically do not look out for the welfare of their employees any more than any other employer; this is especially true for adjuncts. Universities in the US, as a class, aren’t well known for having transparent and fair labor practices. So, professors need to look out for their own interests. (That’s why we many of us have joined together in the process of collective bargaining.)

When a contract is signed, you need to have complete and specific plans for carrying out the contract. This, however, does not preclude being involved in other job interviews. Interviewing for a job doesn’t mean that you’re breaking a contract. All different kinds of things can occur on an interview. If another university calls you out to interview, you do owe it to yourself, and your family, to work to find the best job for you. Interviewing for a job even though you’re committed to someone else for the next year isn’t dishonest, unless you choose to be dishonest in the process.

Why would you go on an interview for a job at University Y if you’ve already committed to a different job at University X? Here are some things to consider. First, you only signed a contract for a single year of employment with University X. In some cases, University Y might wait a year for you if they really like you; you won’t know this unless you interview. Second, if you do get a job offer from University Y, you could indicate to them that you need to work out your relationship with University X. Then, if you approach you University X and told them that you plan to leave for University Y after one year, I am mighty confident that they would release you from your contract. Especially in the sciences, which involves startup expenses, why waste the funds on someone who is guaranteed to leave in a year? They would be downright bothered if not mad, but it’s an option available to you. I’ve been on the nasty end of the stick when it comes to university employment practices, and have seen all kinds of even worse stuff. So I’m relatively inured to the idea that someone might not choose to announce a brief term of employment before starting.

I don’t think I’d be happy telling one job that I want out of a contract once I’ve gotten a better offer, but I’ve also never been in the position in which I’ve chosen an acceptable job, and then got an offer for one that is much better for myself and my family. If I do ever move on to a different job than the one that I’m in, then I’m quite sure that when I sign a contract, that’s probably a job I’ll keep until retirement. But, my circumstances are different from a postdoc or young assistant professor with different needs.

When I’m on a search committee at University X, it’s my job to figure out if a job candidate really wants to work there for at least a decade. If the person doesn’t, then they probably aren’t a good choice.

It’s stuff like this that leads search committees from non-highly-ranked institutions to be wary of applications from awesome job candidates. Nobody wants to waste an interview slot on a person who is likely to get a better offer elsewhere. This is why “fit” matters so much in the application vetting process – because you want to pick someone who will build their career at a place, because a talented experienced professor on a particular campus is very valuable to the students and the institution as a whole.

So, this isn’t an advice post. It’s simply a reflection on the different ways that one can handle the prospect of getting multiple job offers. I’m not an ethicist by training, and morals are quite different from ethics. So, your mileage may vary.