What’s the hurry with the job offer?

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Last week, I had a conversation with someone who was mildly cheesed off about how some universities make tenure-track job offers that expire within a couple weeks. If you don’t really understand how and why this goes down, please let me explain.

But if you don’t want the explanation, I’ll spare you the cognitive load: If you don’t want to be in a position where you might have to accept or decline a job offer in a window of a couple weeks, just save everybody the trouble and don’t apply for tenure-track positions at universities that are not highly ranked.

I should be clear up front that this post has nothing to do with any of the searches I’ve been involved in recently. It’s about this scenario in general, and I’m writing about it now because this is job offer season. If you imagine that this is about anybody in particular, it’s not.

For a bit of context, I wrote about the ethics of juggling the prospect of multiple tenure-track job offers back when you probably were not reading this site. I just re-read the piece, and I think it mostly holds up, I’m not sure I really disagree with anything I’ve said back then. The upshot was that it might be unwise to hold yourself to more stringent ethical standards than universities use in employment practices. What’s evolved since that time, though, I that I’ve been promoted to full, I’ve served on and chaired more search committees. I’ve also interviewed for a couple academic positions in that time frame too, though nowadays in the comfortable position of knowing I could stay very happily employed if the new job wasn’t right for all parties. So I now have some more experience, and it’s more time has gone past since 2007, when I was last on the job market and extremely anxious about my prospects. That last post was primarily from the point of view of the job-seeker, and this one is primarily about the point of view of the hiring department.

Before getting into it, I’d like to set straight a bit of vocabulary that I regularly hear being misused. Let’s say you get a job offer and they tell you that you have one week to make a decision. After the week passes, and you haven’t told them that you want the job. When they tell you they’ve moved on to another candidate, this is not “rescinding” the job offer. This simply means that you decided to not accept the job under the terms that were offered. (I’m not thinking about any single person when I’m pointing this out. I’ve heard a lot of people say this. I mean, many people.) When an offer is made with an deadline, it’s not an offer after the expiration date. (I mean, sometimes people do rescind offers during negotiations, and that’s often really messed up, but that’s not what I’m talking about.) If someone gives you a container of cottage cheese, you can eat it. But if you wait so long that the cottage cheese goes bad, nobody took the cottage cheese away from you. It just passed its expiration date. It’s the same for a job offer.

I’m not saying it’s wonderful that a lot of universities only give us a couple weeks to make a massive life decision. I’m just saying it makes sense, and it’s not an unfair practice, and it’s not unethical.

As for norms in the world of employment, I think it’s pretty standard to respond to a job offer within a couple weeks. Let’s say I applied for a position that advertised for a junior level PhD scientist at a place like Boeing or Facebook or Los Alamos National Lab or Genentech or Thermo Fisher or Macmillan. If I ask them for a few months to negotiate the position so that I can make a decision, would I be correct in supposing that they would just laugh? But then again, what do I know? I’ve been working in higher ed my whole life. I do know that whenever my spouse, who doesn’t work in higher ed, gets a job offer, they needed to know quite promptly. Even when it involved moving a long distance. It’s not weird to ask someone to make a prompt decision about a job offer. What’s weird is expecting an employer to wait several months for you to make up your mind. I do understand that tenure-track positions are potentially ones that last for several decades, but in my realm, they are jobs with 1-year or maybe 2-year contracts and do not constitute a lifelong commitment by either party. While we really want to hire people who will stay, we don’t have the luxury of giving people months to figure that out after making an offer.

Some people have remarked that it’s unreasonable to expect someone to make such a massive life decision to uproot themselves and family members on such short notice. I agree that this is often a difficult situation for job candidates when facing the actuality or the possibility of multiple offers. However, I will dispute the notion that job candidates and their families can only think about the move after getting the job offer. When we send applications off into the ether with a low probability of good luck, we initially get a bite with the preliminary phone/video interview. At this point, I don’t get hopes up, but I can look at the situation, and imagine that the probability of an offer is about 10%. If I get an on-campus interview, depending on the number of candidates, the odds then jump up to 20-33%. I imagine that candidates with on-site interviews scheduled are thinking seriously about the prospect of moving, as soon as we get the invitation for an on-site interview. Usually, these happen with at least a few weeks of notice, right? And the job offer often takes a while after the interview, especially if I’m not the last candidate. Which means that when I get the phone call with the job offer (or once, I got an email, actually), it’s not out of the blue. I might have been hoping for it, or anxious about it, but it can’t really come as a total surprise. If you get a two week window to make a decision, it’s not as if you haven’t had a chance to think about this, talk with your family, and explore the possibilities associated with moving, and saying that you only have to weeks to think about the move sounds, at least to me, a bit disingenuous.

What I suspect folks mean when they say, “only have to weeks to decide whether it would be a good move” means “only have two weeks to compare their options among other actual or possible offers” or “only have two weeks to wait for other offers to come in and choose the one that you prefer more” or “don’t have enough time to go on other interviews and decide what you want the most.” I mean: when folks talk about a “good decision,” is that relative to one’s current employment situation, or or relative to other options that one might have in the near future?

If you need a long time to decide whether you want the job based on what you learned about the interview, the need for that long time isn’t needed to access the inherent suitability of the job, but instead, to assess it relative to other positions that you might want. And it’s not the job of an employer to extend a job offer contingent on a candidate’s assessment of the working conditions provided by another employer.

There is one simple reason why universities like mine don’t give candidates an extended period of time to make a decision about tenure-track job offers: this approach results in failed searches, and failed searches are bad.

Here’s the reasoning about why giving additional time to candidates is inadvisable for campuses like ours. If the candidate indubitably wants the job, then they’ll take the job. There are a few common reasons that a candidate would more time to make a decision. They might view the current offer as a backup. They might not be sure if they’ll prefer another job and want the opportunity to find out. They also might not want the job at all, but want the offer in hand to use as leverage for another offer that they hope to receive. Regardless, these various motives for extending the timeline have one thing in common: they increase the probability that the search will fail.

If there’s a second and perhaps a third strong candidate waiting in the wings, it’s a really bad idea to give the first candidate a long period of time, because there’s a very good chance that the first candidate probably won’t take the job anyway (because if they did want to, they already would have), and in the meantime, you lose the second and third candidates as they take positions elsewhere. No search committee and no dean wants to have a search fail because they lost one good candidate while another good candidate was stringing them along.

But if you force someone to sign a contract in a short period of time, doesn’t that increase the probability that they’ll reneg on the contract? Well, let’s get vocabulary straight again, because word choice matters. Nobody is being forced to sign a job contact! It’s literally an offer. Not like a movie mobster offer-you-can’t-refuse. It’s just a regular offer. You can walk away. I understand that a candidate might feel compelled by circumstances to sign for a job that they don’t really want because they’d prefer that job over not having a job, and then would feel prepared to ditch that job once they get a better one, but that’s not a situation where anybody is being forced to do anything. Anyhow, now that we’ve got the vocabulary right, does a short time frame increase the probability of a renege? Sure, yeah, but I think that probability is a lot lower than the probability of a failed search from giving more time. And if the person eventually signs and then reneges when they get another offer, then that still gives as much time to make an offer to candidate #2 as you’d have if you just gave candidate #1 the time anyway.

But what about the idea that you want to make sure that you attract the best talent out there? And that once you identify the person you want, that you want to treat them with a lot of deference and give them an opportunity to explore all options, to make sure that they really want your department over other ones? Well, yeah, I suppose it would be nice if someone deeply wanted to join our department over any other job they applied for. And after they interview, I really would hope they’d feel that way. But I’m a realist here at CSU Dominguez Hills. We know that candidates are wholly reasonable to be interested in working elsewhere, and we also realize that there is a massive surplus of qualified people who will kick ass in the job, and there’s no need to get hung up on any particular candidate. It’s a buyer’s market. This is no excuse for treating candidates unfairly or unreasonably, of course, but giving someone two weeks to decide whether or not they want the job is totally normal. If someone takes longer, that’s a pretty strong signal that they might not sign, and that you might fail the search, and maybe lose the faculty line in the department. An extra month or two of deference isn’t worth risking losing that faculty line.

I think one relevant difference between the universities that give candidates a couple weeks, and the huge R1s that often give more time, is the size of the startup and the depth of negotiations involved. While our startups can hit the low six figures, they’re not going to be anywhere near the huge startups at universities that are much better endowed. We might be negotiating teaching load, equipment, space, salary, moving expenses, but we’re not negotiating over hiring postdocs and PhD students, spousal hires aren’t likely to complicate matters (because at least here, that’s not going to be possible), we’re not sorting out many hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, we’re not going to remodel an entire research lab for you based on your specifications, and such. Unless it’s a weird situation, then principled negotiation about salary, equipment, and usually can be settled rather promptly. And if it takes a long time, that’s usually because the candidate is trying to stretch it out. And there’s no way to stretch it out without giving the impression that you’re trying to buy time because you’re waiting for other opportunities to come in. Which is what it is.

I think job candidates and institutions need to look out for their own interests. You definitely need to look out for yourself because you can’t count on the university to do that, that’s for sure. I am deeply convinced that, at the level of my own department, that we’re looking out for the interests of our students when we’re hiring faculty to the tenure-track. That’s what I mean when I say we’re looking out for institutional interests, because our raison d’être is our students. Because we have “tenure density” problems, we can’t afford to fail a search. And we can’t afford to hire someone who sees the gig as a “starter” position. It turns out that attempting to stretch out the time to decision is a hallmark of someone who sees our department as a stepping stone. I think it’s entirely fine for job candidates to want to do that. But it’s also in our best interest to avoid that situation. We can’t look into the hearts and minds of job candidates, nor do I think we should try to infer intentions from behavior. It might be possible that someone else is stretching for time for other reasons, but if we’ve got another strong candidate waiting, our students stand to lose out if we don’t make a hire. A job offer will only go out to someone when we’re confident that they’re well positioned to succeed when provided the appropriate support. If we make an offer to one such person and they’re not prepared to seize that opportunity, then we should make an offer to the next person who is prepared to seize that opportunity. To do anything less than that would be a disservice to our students, because we can’t afford to not hire someone.

I think a lot of folks are surprised by the short time frame because they’re not looking at the perspective of the affected parties when they get a job offer. Which is a bummer, because principled negotiations are all about understanding the capacity and needs of the other party. So if a job candidate doesn’t really want to understand why we are advertising early and push to get an offer out ASAP, then they’re not really working to understand the constraints, pressures, and concerns facing our department and our students.

So, yes, it totally sucks when you get an offer for a job that you might want, but you’re hoping that another one might be better and you’re waiting to find out. I get this. But also, it totally sucks when we try to hire someone and that person strings us along, ends up taking another job, and we lose the second candidate because they already took another job. Actually, this hasn’t happened to my current department as far as I am aware. But that’s because we don’t let that happen to us. Frankly, it’s not our job to make sure that job candidates find the job that brings them the most joy, it’s our job to fill a position with a faculty member who will be the best for our students. Which means we actually need to fill the position.

4 thoughts on “What’s the hurry with the job offer?

  1. Your earlier post (https://smallpondscience.com/2013/08/14/on-the-ethics-of-juggling-job-offers/) mentions that the candidate shouldn’t drop out of other interviews until they get a contract to sign. From the perspective of the search committee, how would you feel if a candidate accepted an offer by email or verbally, continued to interview, and signed another contract before your university got the official contract to them? Does the search committee then believe that the candidate accepted the offer (verbally or by email) in bad faith or do they see that as an unfortunate but understandable action on the candidate’s part?

    • I think it’s a grey area. I think a wise candidate will not make a firm email or verbal commitment to sign a written contract that they have yet to see. If a person says they will sign, and then they do not, then that seems to be bad faith negotiation. But on the other hand, it’s quite possible for a negotiation to be made, but then the terms in the contract or different, or perhaps the contract never arrives at all! (I know of at least a few cases where a line has actually been pulled from higher up after the dean negotiates a position, and the contract doesn’t just never gets sent out.) So it’s unwise to drop out until you get an actual contract. An offer isn’t really an offer until it’s a contract. If the person negotiating with me is asking me to make a verbal or email commitment to sign a contract without actually seeing a contract, then I’ll say, I can’t promise I’ll sign a legal document without reviewing it first.

      • Thanks for the explanation. Have you ever been on a search committee where a candidate has said something along the lines of “I accept but I have to see the contract”? And if so, did that come across to anyone in the search committee like the candidate wasn’t enthusiastic about the position?

        • At that point in the process, the search committee isn’t usually involved, it’s just whoever is negotiating the position (chair or head or dean). I would nobody would see it as cause to pull an offer. I mean, an offer isn’t really an offer until it’s in writing and signed.

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