Withdrawing From a Job You've Accepted

Brian Taylor

March 07, 2012

I was lucky. I got a tenure-track job in the sciences before the recession hit. Back then, there seemed to be an abundance of positions for which I was well qualified as a newly minted Ph.D. I was even picky, applying only to those locations that matched my desired lifestyle.

Having strategized with my adviser and learned from the previous year's follies (a couple interviews, but no offers), I was well prepared for my first phone interview in September of that year. It went well, but I wasn't holding my breath. Making the shortlist for a tenure-track gig only means the rest of the process is a crapshoot—you never really know what the hiring committee wants.

But the phone interview must have gone really well because a few weeks later I was flying over the Appalachian Mountains on my way to a campus interview at Small New England University. Certainly the desert where I was coming from was vibrant and charming in the spring, but to see miles and miles of honey-hued and rust-colored leaves was nearly overwhelming. I was enchanted.

During an intense three-day interview, I connected strongly with everyone I met, they seemed to like my ideas, and I nailed my teaching demonstrations. Moreover, I was enamored with the place. In the evenings I walked along the town streets and admired the charming shops. I reveled in the early-morning mist left over from a late-night drizzle. I chose an academic career because I love teaching, and that chance to teach at a small institution in a quaint New England town was certainly appealing.

When the university called with an offer, I was not too surprised, and I was ready to negotiate. After some deliberation, the provost and I agreed on terms (though not everything I had hoped for), and he said I would be receiving a letter soon. "I've done it," I thought, "I secured a tenure-track gig at a place where people dream of retiring!" Now I could polish my dissertation without worry.

Before the offer letter arrived, however, I had three more phone interviews—which I took part in at the behest of my adviser. He said I should not count on any position until I had "letter in hand." But the letter took longer to arrive than I expected, and by the time it did, the phone interviews had become invites for campus interviews.

Once the offer letter came, I followed what I thought was the ethical path: I called the chairs of all three searches and withdrew my candidacy, letting them know I was grateful for their consideration. Each one gave me a "we are sorry we won't get to interview you" type of response. I was reluctant to withdraw from some of the searches, since they would have been excellent matches for me, too, and potentially more conducive to my long-term career goals.

"But," I thought, "withdrawing is the ethical thing to do. I'm not going to pit them against each other."

I successfully defended my dissertation the following spring, leaving me ample time to get ready for the move to New England. I made housing contacts in the town. I began putting together syllabi for my coming courses. I saved enough of my fellowship money to buy a plane ticket to the university so I could secure a place to live.

But then something peculiar happened. Western Research University—one of the places from which I had withdrawn—e-mailed me with an unusual request: Would I be willing to fly out and visit the campus so that members of the department could show me what it had to offer? They knew I had already accepted the New England job, but the committee felt like it "had to ask me one more time."

Perplexed, I met with my adviser. Over dinner he said he had heard of such situations, but had never been involved firsthand. He suggested I consult other faculty members. I did, and every response was ultimately the same: In the end, you have to do what's best for you.

After a bit of soul-searching, I thought, "What could it hurt to interview"? After all, it wasn't like the department was really going to offer me the position. It probably just had to fill a quota of on-campus candidates. So, a little hesitantly, I accepted WRU's request.

The people I met, the program, the facilities, the direction of the university—all of it impressed me. I had a great time chatting with faculty members, touring the campus, and meeting students who reacted well to my guest lecture. On the flight home, I began to mull the wonderful possibilities: "If only they had been faster on the draw. ... What a great setup they have. ... Maybe I shouldn't have been so quick to jump at the New England job. ... It's not like they're going to call with an offer."

A few days later the search chair from Western Research U called me with an initial offer. Amazed, I asked for the weekend to think about it. I met with my adviser (again), and we discussed what I really wanted to do in academe. The job at New England was primarily a teaching position; I would teach four courses a semester and have limited time to do research. Is that what I wanted? What was I really worth? What did I truly want to do with my career?

And, most important to me, what was the right thing to do? Could I really, ethically, "resign" from the New England university before I even began?

I decided on a stratagem. "Maybe," I thought, "if I countered Western Research U with excessive demands, I'll seem too 'rich' for them, and the crisis will be solved." And if the department gave me what I wanted, then why not take it? So I called the search chair and asked for, what seemed to me, the moon. He never balked and said he would get back to me. And he did. That evening.

While the department couldn't offer me the moon, it could get me close to it. I told him I wasn't going to jeopardize my other position until I had the offer in writing. He said he would immediately put the wheels in motion, and a few days later, I was holding Western Research U's fantastic offer letter signed by the provost—stunned at what had just occurred.

And now what? On one hand, I had signed an offer letter saying I was going to New England. I could certainly be happy there and make a good life. On the other hand, Western's offer was exceptionally attractive, and the opportunities available along the way would be greater for me.

I decided to do what was best for me. With a dreadful feeling in the pit of my stomach, I called the New England university to tender my resignation. After I explained the situation to the department chair, he was, quite literally, speechless. "This is highly irregular," he finally managed. "I thought we had a good marriage. We built our course schedule around you." I felt guilty and repeatedly stressed how sorry I was. He was a very good person, and we had "clicked." I needed to call the provost, he said.

As soon as the provost said "hello" on the phone, I could tell from the timbre of his voice that he was upset. I was taken aback. He ranted about how we had a "contract," how my resignation was unethical, and how he thought my adviser would have taught me better. I apologized profusely throughout the verbal lashings, biting my tongue when I wanted to retort. I, too, would have been disappointed and frustrated if I were in his position. Yet throughout our conversation, he made not one attempt at reconciliation—just threats about repercussions until he finally admitted that he wouldn't want someone coming to his campus if it really wasn't what that person wanted.

Following the phone call, I contacted my adviser. He said the provost had behaved unprofessionally, and that that should only solidify my choice. The chair at Western met my explanation of events with, "I thought they might react that way. We have been 'sniped' like that a few times in the past several years and it's upsetting. But the truth is, it happens. We are just very happy to get you!"

His comments made me feel better about my decision, but I still felt guilty for abandoning the New England university. It was a difficult decision to make. But the bottom line, for me, is: In the hunt for your first tenure-track position, the seemingly best choice may not be all you think it is. And if you have a chance at something better, take it.

There is no rule book. Or if there is, it's a personal one. Ethics on the academic job market seems to mean different things to different people at different times. And the ethical decision is situation-dependent. The right choice is the best one for you.

I've been at my campus a few years now, and I could not have made a better choice. As someone told me along the way: Watch out for yourself, because no one else will. I would add: And be prepared to live with the consequences.

Phillip Sullivan is the pseudonym of an assistant professor in the sciences at a public research university in the West.