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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Delay for a Postdoc

Suppose you have a tenure track offer at the University of Southern North Dakota and a postdoc offer at MIT. Tenure track jobs are hard to get so you want to accept the USND position but before you spend your life in Hoople you'd like some more time in a top research place.

So you ask the CS chair at USND if you can spend the next year as a MIT postdoc before going to USND. The chair needs you to teach algorithms that spring. Also if you don't take the job, he may lose the position to the music department. What are his choices?

  1. Say no, that you have to start this fall or not come at all. This runs the risk that you will not accept the USND position.
  2. Say yes and find someone else to cover algorithms. This has a different risk, that you might find some other job and not come to USND at all.
Is it ethical for you to say you are coming to USND in a year and send out new applications in the fall? What if you don't go outright looking for a job but Michigan asks you to apply? Is it ethical for Michigan to pursue you if it knows about your promise to USND? What if you fall in love with someone in Ann Arbor?

Someone I know (not CS) turned down an academic job she had promised to take. The school sent her a bill for $12,000 to cover the expenses of finding someone else to cover the classes. She didn't pay.

One economic solution: The chair agrees to the postdoc but requires you to pony up $12,000 now which you will get with interest when you start at USND. Trouble is most grad students don't have $12,000 to pony up and probably would walk away from a school making this offer.

This would be much easier if universities worked like baseball teams. In order to get you, Michigan could offer USND Seth Pettie and a grad student to be named later.

22 comments:

  1. I wouldn't ask the student to pony up $12,000 up front. But there might be a way to include a penalty clause in the offer letter.

    But if we're talking about what's easiest for the chair, USND would probably be okay to play hardball and say "no" to the postdoc. The risk of being turned down and having to go with their #2 choice is probably not a big deal, given how deep application pools are right now.

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  2. Is it ethical for you to say you are coming to USND in a year and send out new applications in the fall?

    No. You owe USND at least one year after your postdoc.

    What if you don't go outright looking for a job but Michigan asks you to apply?

    No. You owe USND at least a year.

    Is it ethical for Michigan to pursue you if it knows about your promise to USND?

    Yes, as long as they're willing to wait a year.

    What if you fall in love with someone in Ann Arbor?

    Assuming he doesn't want to move to Hoople, he can wait one year.

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  3. 6 years before free agency ≈ 6 years before tenure?

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  4. I agree with the first commenter regarding the depth of the applicant pool. A no-name school is probably mostly concerned with just getting somebody reasonable who can teach algorithms the next year. So, they are probably best off playing hardball and, if needed, going for the second best candidate.

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  5. The "But we will lose the position" is not legitimate. They can always hire you now and let you go on leave in your first year to do the postdoc.

    Also, nobody should be that desperate to base a multiyear hiring decision on one year of algorithms teaching. If USND is that short-sighted, and if you are good enough to get the MIT postdoc, you should skip the job and go on the market next year to get something better. As I was told when I was hired, there is a lot value to the department long term for you to do the postdoc and USND ought to see that.

    The only reason that makes sense is if USND is legitimately paranoid of exactly the kind of Michigan scenario you describe. But for this to be true there has to be some other circumstance to justify the feeling that this is legitimate.

    Finally, what if Michigan comes calling next year after you have agreed to the job at USND and you are doing the postdoc? It is certainly not kosher to have applied for such a position, unsought but I suppose it is OK to talk to Michigan if they come calling. After that postdoc year you owe USND something between that $12K and one year of service for breaking the verbal contract.

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  6. It seems pretty clear that the story is from the point of view of someone bragging about having two offers.

    What a sad situation to be in. :)

    I'm not sure why it's not obvious that you shouldn't string anyone along -- applicant or department.

    Just be strong and be willing to make the choice when it's presented. Free up the other position for one of your peers.

    Sheesh.

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  7. In many ways the academic job market is set against job applicants. Therefore you shouldn't be ashamed of playing the game for your own benefit.

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  8. After that postdoc year you owe USND something between that $12K and one year of service for breaking the verbal contract.

    Verbal contract?

    My earlier "No!" answer assumes that you have officially agreed to an official job offer by actually signing a paper contract. A verbal job offer is not an actual job offer, and verbal agreement-in-principle to a verbal job offer is not a commitment.

    In particular, if USND is unwilling to sign a written contract to start your employment after your one-year postdoc, they haven't made you a real job offer; you're a free agent.

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  9. A similar issue was discussed at (heated) length by the math community here: http://quomodocumque.wordpress.com/2010/04/27/the-case-of-amanda-folsom/

    in an incident that involved a young mathematician reneging on an offer from Rutgers to take a job at Yale.

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  10. Is it realistic to think that someone whose best job offer was USND would get a postdoc at MIT?

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  11. "I'm not sure why it's not obvious that you shouldn't string anyone along -- applicant or department."

    But applicants get "strung along" all the time. There are countless positions to which I have applied to which I never received an answer.

    I don't see why it simply doesn't say something within the USND contract as to what one does if the contract is broken. Presumably, they have the right to fire you at any time if you do something they don't like. If it doesn't stipulate in your contract what you have to do if you want to break it, then you have the legal right to break it. If not, then they can treat you according to the law, but you have to treat them in an extra nice way outside of your legal responsibilities and this is not fair.

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  12. I find the "owing one year of service" strange. Probably better to ask them what they want. They may not want to pay for your moving expenses and then have you leave, i.e. they may prefer that you never came at all.

    In Europe, I have seen the situation where a university will only pay for your moving expenses if you stay at the university for at least 3 years. If you leave earlier, you have to pay that back. But I would say they have a much more applicant friendly job market, because people jump around all the time and I don't think anyone would question your right to leave if you have a better offer. In fact, in some places you need an outside offer for promotion.

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  13. "Is it realistic to think that someone whose best job offer was USND would get a postdoc at MIT?"

    This is very realistic!

    "I don't see why it simply doesn't say something within the USND contract as to what one does if the contract is broken."

    Maybe my own universities have always had bad lawyers, but I don't think most academic contracts do. You should still treat your employers with respect, and follow the golden rule.

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  14. >> Is it ethical for you to say you are coming to
    >> USND in a year and send out new applications
    >> in the fall?

    > No. You owe USND at least one year after your
    > postdoc.

    Why does the candidate "owe" USND at least one year? Why not six months? Why not two years? Does it make a difference if they leave USND to go to Michigan, to an industrial research lab, or for a job in finance? Or to an academic job in Europe?

    Seriously, if there is nothing in the contract, then I think nothing is implied.

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  15. 12,000 is not that much...

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  16. How often is it that when someone defers a faculty offer for a postdoc, they don't show up a year later? I can't think of any such cases.

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  17. Consider how often senior people look for jobs elsewhere just to get a raise locally. Consider how often they spring surprise moves. It is hypocritical to ask a junior person to behave better. Besides from a legal standpoint what stops them from accepting the job they promised to and then resigning on day 1?

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  18. I think something being overlooked here is *shame*.

    If you have no *shame*, then you deserve to be publicly shamed. And woe be to you if you think that word won't get around about your bad behavior.

    Treat your peers like your equals and don't hold anything open that you don't intend to take.

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  19. 1) Academia works on trust- if you agree to teach a course (as opposed to visiting another school) or to take a job people expect you to take it.
    And this really does work most of the time.
    While cases like those that mentioned in the post and comments DO happen, they are rare.

    2) As a society it is getting harder and harder to shame people. If someone was a complete asshole but brought in grant money and got out papers they would have no problem being hired.
    Even admired.

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  20. Some comments questioned the "one year". If you accepted the job, started it right away and found it unbearable, it would be OK to begin applying during that first year and you would be there one year anyway.

    There are also official rules under other circumstances that do include a "one academic year" return - the most typical is that after a sabbatical in which you get part pay (which is mostly a reward for prior work) you need to return to your home institution for one academic year or you need to repay that sabbatical year pay. It is not unusual for people to test the waters for a move during a sabbatical year so this condition really does come into play.

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  21. "Is it realistic to think that someone whose best offer was USND would get a postdoc at MIT?"

    This is very realistic!

    Well, that exclamation point sells me on the claim of this anonymous. While USND is famously ficticious, with a well-known department of Musicology, I would assume that in the context of this post it is assumed to be a very minor Computer Science department. Is the job market so bad that someone at MIT's level for a postdoc wouldn't be able to get a position higher than USND?

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  22. Yes, it is possible. It is partly because a postdoc is not yet a mandatory part of the CS job trajectory. The best candidates still get faculty jobs right out of grad school, and the best postdocs are not at MIT, but at more highly paid corporate research labs like Microsoft, or at centers with huge concentrations of postdocs like IAS.

    Even postdocs at top centers like IAS or MSR don't all even go on to get -any- faculty job offers.

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