When you come to an intersection with a four-way stop, what are the rules of the road where you live? Some drivers’ manuals do not have clear-cut rules but note that common courtesy requires the initial driver to go first. In Wyoming, the manual states in capital letters, “If in doubt, yield to the driver on your right” and “Remember to never insist on the right of way at the risk of a crash.” If such an interaction is so simple yet has so many differing approaches, what hope is there to establish good rules and norms around more difficult questions, like employment?
Each year, I host a discussion forum on my blog for those who are seeking tenured academic employment in chemistry. Readers post more than 1,000 comments as job openings begin to show up in June and reach a steady pitch in September and October. These comments include the informative (“University X has begun phone interviews”) and the plaintive (“Has anyone heard from College Y after the on-site interviews?”). By December and January, the comments take on a painfully earnest tone, as candidates obsess over the “correct” way to accept an offer, reject an offer, or ask for more time.
One commenter posed an ethical question: “What downsides could result from accepting one of my two offers and then continuing to pursue one or two more schools?” When I posted this question on Twitter, there was near-unanimous agreement from established professors: this was a bad idea, and the candidate should not be tempted by it. Lisa McElwee-White, chair of the Chemistry Department at the University of Florida, tweeted her emphatic response: “Don’t. Even. Think. About. It. Tell me when and where else you’re interviewing and I’ll work with you on timing our offer. . . . No one needs enemies in a business that runs on anonymous peer review.”
Several chemists reached out to me privately with a different perspective. They felt that many sectors of the job market were large enough and the likely opportunities for retribution were low enough that candidates could get away with reneging on an offer. One early-career professor suggested that no one remembers faculty candidates 1 year later, and it was unlikely that search committee members were lying in wait to get revenge. A former industrial chemist argued that no employee should ever cease looking for a better employment situation and that signing an offer letter shouldn’t preclude a candidate from searching further or considering other offers.
I disagree. When you sign a letter of employment, it is both a written and unwritten statement that “I have accepted your position, and I do not intend to search further.” Rather than misleading employers by signing an offer letter with the intention of potentially reneging, ask for more time to consider the offer. Most employers expect that there will be a negotiation period after an offer is made. For academics, this includes negotiating on start-up packages and teaching expectations; for industrial positions, there are often discussions around salary or relocation packages.
It’s also important to be frank with one’s future employer. Don’t be afraid to make reasonable requests, like, “Please let me visit these next two schools so that I can make a more informed decision.” If the employer pulls the offer, would you really want to work there?
Good communities thrive by establishing norms for both employer and employee. If we expect candidates to be bound by offer letters, then employers should be as well. These rules of the road can help us better navigate the job search, avoid inadvertent crashes, and get where we want to go.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.