A doctoral student recently called me with good news and bad news: She had been offered a tenure-track position but it was at a mediocre department. In fact, we agreed that none of her career aspirations would be met there. To complicate matters, she was in the midst of doing three other campus interviews, including one she’d just had at her "dream destination." Only half-jokingly, she said, "I feel more stress now than when I was jobless!"
What to do? Take the sure thing? Or wait for a better offer and risk ending up with nothing?
In this series on the "what could go wrong" aspects of the academic job hunt so far we have surveyed fake searches, bad fits, inappropriate questions, scheduling challenges, interview mix-ups, and contract-negotiation woes. Now we turn to the enviable but not always enjoyable situation of either having more than one offer or hoping you will. Confusion and doubt may gnaw at you, but you should consider your next steps very carefully.
Don’t say yes right away. Stall tactfully. In a scene from a biopic about the comedian W.C. Fields, the entertainer — deftly played by Rod Steiger — stands in the office of a movie producer, almost in tears, pleading for a role on screen. The exec relents and offers him a part, whereupon Fields, instantly dry-eyed and confident, boldly begins hardball negotiations. I have witnessed a similar phenomenon repeatedly in academic hiring.
Academic Job Hunts From Hell
In a continuing series, David D. Perlmutter explores the less-than-pleasant aspects of the faculty job hunt for candidates.
On the other hand, avoid becoming officious and arrogant. You should express genuine thanks for the offer, convey your continued interest, and essentially close up the initial conversation with a request for relevant details and time to discuss the situation with family and your adviser. Then determine how long the administrator is giving you to make a decision.
Do not, under any circumstances, sound like you are taking the offer for granted. Moreover, as I will outline below, you may legitimately bring up other pending offers — but only when you officially have them in hand. It may well be the case that you are the top candidate for this position, but no one in our business is truly indispensable. The department can give up on you and pull out if you demand too much or simply infuriate them.
Inform your other prospects immediately. Academic forums and message boards are full of the plaintive cries of candidates wondering whether to tell a prospective department about other job offers they’ve received (or are likely to receive). The answer is always yes. If you have an offer in hand — a true, firm offer — you want to immediately notify every place to which you have applied that you have received an offer and the deadline for your response to it.
A lot of candidates struggle with the wording of that note. Should you reveal who made the offer? Should you outline its terms? How should you specify a deadline?
Unless you are already fielding multiple offers, there is no reason to get into details, unless the department asks. Simply notify the search-committee chair that you were offered a position elsewhere. Provide the response deadline, indicate your continuing interest in the current search, and politely inquire about the status of the latter.
And then see what happens.
If you hear nothing or receive an impersonal note indicating that the department is "still reviewing applications," it may be the end that trail. But if you are subsequently invited for a hurried campus visit, the possibilities widen.
Or … seek a senior intervention. Ideally you will never navigate the job market alone. You should have trusted advisers who will strategize with you about every aspect of your search, including the multiple-offers conundrum. Here too, though, may loom some tricky politics. A professor friend of mine had an advisee who had received a job offer, but a very poor one. The adviser decided to "help" more aggressively. He called friends in other departments where the student had applied to see if he could "goose them along."
The intervention was a bust. His contacts, while not quite rude, declined to interfere. My friend also learned, to his chagrin, that his advisee had not interviewed well at the other departments and was not an A-lister for any of the search committees. Unwilling to hurt his advisee’s feelings and reveal what he had gleaned, he encouraged her to take the first offer.
Alternately, assistance can be effective if the circumstances align. In the case of the doctoral student I mentioned earlier who called me worried about accepting an offer she didn’t really want, I happened to be career-long friends with the dean of her "dream destination." Both of us respect each other too much to try to foist off just any old candidate. So my query to him was not, "Can you speed up the search process to give her an answer?" It was: "Here’s the situation. She has a week to give her answer to the first school. But she loves your school because [listed reasons]."
Fortunately, the stage was set for happiness. My friend disclosed that the committee and faculty members had rated her their top choice. Normally, the offer-generation mechanism might take a couple of weeks, but he felt sure enough of university approval that he could now say, "I will make the offer in a week." I knew his word was good so, short of his being hit by a bus, she would indeed get that second offer. She decided to gamble (a low-risk bet), turned down the first offer, and accepted the one that came a few days later. She is now heading for her dream school in the fall.
Don’t withdraw from a search until you have to. But neither party in the job hunt should be rude or scheming about that.
Candidates: Please don’t keep us waiting three weeks if you had no intention whatsoever of even considering our offer. No one appreciates being a bargaining chip. I still remember with jaw-clenched indignation the job candidate who, on receiving my official offer letter, stated aloud, "Thanks so much. This will really help me in my negotiations with [the school I really want]."
Departments: If you tell the candidate that he or she has two weeks to consider your offer then — if you are an honest participant in a fair negotiation — two weeks is two weeks. If candidates have multiple offers or think other offers might appear, they have a right to take some time to consider their options. So don’t push for a quick decision.
Make sure you know what the offer really is. One of the biggest problems I have seen in dealing with multiple offers is miscommunication. Here is a typical scenario: You receive an offer from Department A but have not yet heard from Departments B through D and, in your heart of hearts, B remains the dream location, institution, and position. You are so excited, but also rushed, that A’s offer comes in as a blur and, rather than pause to understand the details, you start phoning the other institutions.
Then B says it’s very interested in you and will accelerate its hiring process to bring you in for an interview. The chair asks for details about A’s offer. You describe the salary, start-up, and so on. His mood seems to temper; he indicates a probable inability to meet that start-up amount. You try to score points by saying, "I am interested in your position for many reasons, and plus or minus some start-up will not influence my decision."
But — and here I am citing an actual case from a graduate student on the job market — maybe you didn’t read the details of A’s offer very carefully and the total start-up figure mentioned was only a minimum. Department A was actually going to be offering much more. But by that point, you’ve unwittingly low-balled your own prospects. Read the fine print, and then read it again before you try to use it as leverage.
Identify what you really want. In this market, it’s all too easy to get fixated on just getting a tenure-track job — any tenure-track job — at the expense of a clear vision of what you want that job to fulfill in your life and career. Some candidates are quite shrewd and know just what to ask for, but not a few seem to be confused about what makes one tenure-track position more attractive than another.
Even identical items or dollar amounts may not mean the same thing at different institutions and locales. The same starting salary at universities in Denver and Lubbock is going to go a lot further in Lubbock. Likewise for the moving allowance and even the subsidy to run a lab or conduct other types of research.
For example, my school happens to have a very large psychophysiology research lab. Faculty members we hire face much lower costs per individual project (and conclude their work faster) than they would if they were hired by an institution with a small lab and less equipment. Alternately, I know of a sociologist who accepted an excellent offer from an institution that was located far from the population he wanted to study. The problem seemed minor before he started work. It was only afterward, when he was spending more and more of his research money on travel, that he realized his misjudgment.
The moment you get a job offer you have to right to rejoice. You have fared better than many of your cohort on the market. At the same time, don’t get complacent. A terminal clock is ticking and you have no time to waste. If you are hoping another offer will come in or that you might be invited to a campus visit that might lead to another offer, hours count. If you have more than one offer, time and details matter. You must be as careful, thoughtful, and thorough as you were in prepping for and executing your job search. A great prize looms before you, but you still have to make sure it is what it appears to be and its comparative value is worth negotiating for.