On Second Thought

“Barbara” was excited to receive an offer for an on-campus interview, her first since going on the market as a very advanced A.B.D. candidate. She dazzled the host department and found the campus to be buzzing with a positive spirit. When the dean called her to offer her the position, she was, frankly, dumbfounded that she had landed a position the first time out of the gate.

A week later, the actual contract arrived by registered mail, her signature being the only remaining part of the process. When she looked at it and saw the institution’s president’s blue-inked scrawl on the last page, along with all of the minutia of the contract language, she broke out into a cold sweat. Her mind raced: “What if I can get an even better job?” “Do I really want to move to another state?” “Do I even want this job?” Her cold feet suddenly paralyzed her and she let the contract languish on her desk for several days until the dean called her to make sure she had received it. She gave a handy excuse about her dissertation defense and signed the papers, concluding the process and starting her official career.

Over the years, I have heard this story on more than one occasion. I know of candidates who bailed at the last minute over all sorts of second thoughts. I know one whose spouse finally refused to relocate. I know several couples who could not find second positions and decided to reject their offers at the last minute. Others just had second thoughts and decided that the institution/location/reputation just was not going to be a good fit and therefore determined to pass. The bottom line is that a position is not filled until the contract is returned (and sometimes even then it can be torn up by a candidate with a new offer).

Is there a graceful way for a new hire to back out of a contract with wet ink? How long can an offer be reasonably held without being returned before the person is labeled as high maintenance?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Victor1558.]

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