Job Market Horror Stories, Part I: The Rescinded Offer

This is another guest post by a reader who shall remain anonymous.  This reader kindly wrote in response to my request for stories about “rescinded offers.”  The stories here are alarming, although in this reader’s case, they have a happy ending.

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This past year, when I was on the job market, academic colleagues would often ask me how the search was going. When with friends, I often replied that I was having a terrible time on the market. But when they pressed me for details, and I admitted that I had had several on campus visits that led to offers, they often withdrew, their faces expressing disbelief and irritation. How could that possibly constitute a ‘terrible’ time on the market?

For me, it wasn’t the applications or the interviews, or even the grinding anxiety and looming sense of despair I felt about the possibility of not securing an academic position—any academic position. Instead, ironically, for me the worst part of the overall experience was what happened after I received offers for positions.

While I did ultimately receive—and happily accept—an offer from an institution that could not have been more honest, open, generous, or gracious in its dealings with me, I also experienced an astounding degree of dishonesty in my post-offer interactions with others. My hope is that I emerged the wiser—and much more cautious—and that my experiences can serve as cautionary tales and lessons for others who are on the market or advising current job seekers.

My first on-campus interview was at a major research university where I was in the midst of a one-year postdoctoral fellowship in an affiliated program. There had been open anticipation in the department and program for several months that a line for a TT position in my field would open up that year (and that I might be hired for it) and so I had a substantial amount of time to ponder what I thought of as my dream job.

I was fortunate enough to receive a request for an on-campus interview and did so along with several other candidates. Several weeks later, to my great delight, I was offered the position in person by the department Chair. I was assured at the time that the offer had the support of the Dean of the College—and that an offer in writing would follow within a certain (very short) number of business days. In the same meeting, I was encouraged to immediately generate and submit my requests for a start up package, salary, and even a spousal hire, but explicitly told to not tell anyone about the offer.

In hindsight, I realize that this should have been my first hint that this much desired offer might not be as firm as I thought. Indeed, a few days later, when I returned as scheduled to receive the offer in writing and engage in formal negotiations, I was told by the teary-eyed Chair, without any preface, that the Dean had reconsidered, re-evaluated the other applicants, and in light of my comparatively lower qualifications (I had received my doctorate very recently and several of the other candidates were tenure track faculty at other institutions), decided to rescind the offer. In fact, an offer had already been made to one of the other candidates, while I was still ecstatically pricing supplies for my start up.

For me the trial wasn’t quite over yet, though. As a so-called “inside candidate”, my feelings of humiliation and disbelief weren’t allowed to recede in the anonymity of a far off department. Instead, I got to hear, second hand, about how negotiations with the second candidate were proceeding. None of the faculty ever mentioned the subject again, but as I was currently teaching in the department, every day of the next few months brought strained, vague but sympathy-filled interactions or averted eyes and outright avoidance, and conversations that ended abruptly when I walked in the door.

In the end, months after the offer had presumably been negotiated with the second candidate, I received an impersonal form letter informing me that the position had been successfully offered to another; someone had used a pen to correct the letter to reflect that I had been on the short list.

A request for an on-campus interview at another, smaller university quickly followed my cataclysmic meeting with the Chair and provided a much needed distraction. I had a very successful, warmth-filled on-campus interview, and spent almost two months hoping for an offer.

After sending a feeler e-mail to the Chair, I was delighted to hear, by e-mail, that an offer was in the works. But when the Chair called with the specifics a few days later, I was deeply underwhelmed by the offer, which included a salary and start-up that were profoundly below disciplinary, regional, and even university-level averages.

The written version, which followed quickly afterwards, was even more inauspicious; it failed to state that the position was tenure track (as advertised), offered only a one year contract, supplied vague statements about the teaching load, and indicated that the offer was “tentative.” My request for a slightly increased salary and start up were met with a statement from the Dean, communicated through the Chair, that they refused to negotiate unless I could supply a print copy of a competing offer from another university. Only a day before I was required to respond to the offer, I received an e-mail from the Chair offering minor adjustments, but providing dramatic clarifications on the teaching load: that only a nine month contract was being offered but teaching summer sessions was mandatory (and thus unpaid), that the course load for the academic year was much higher than previously stated…and that I now needed to respond to the offer hours before the previously specified deadline.

In an instance of incredible luck, I received an offer from my present employer just hours before the new deadline and was able to politely refuse this second offer.

Since then, from a position of safety, I’ve learned through limited conversations with colleagues and months of fervent late night browsing of posts on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website, the Academic Jobs Wiki, and numerous other academic blogs run by professors and graduate students alike that my experiences are not exactly the norm but certainly not solitary anomalies. Academic job seekers increasingly find themselves in a ‘buyer’s market’ for academic positions. University administrators and department chairs are under intensifying pressure to justify every new addition to the faculty and to get the most ‘bang for their buck’ in research output and grant acquisitions from these hires.

In these environs, my experiences—and those I have learned of from others—have taught me a few lessons that I hope may be of use to others.

First, don’t believe anything until you have it in writing. By this, I mean a formal offer letter, such as from the Dean, not an e-mail. This may seem like a tired trope, but when you’ve been dragging it out on the job market for months—or years—a hint of an offer over the phone or by e-mail from the Chair can seem like a tremendous relief. Keep in mind though, that only when you have an offer in writing, for example, do you have a legally defensible position should anything go awry in the proceedings. Promised benefits, teaching loads, and other aspects of the position can and may change between the conversations you had with the Chair and the Dean during your interview, and the specifics of the offer when it actually arrives.

(Note of advice: keep written notes on your conversations during your interview (and let them see you doing it), and save every single e-mail. A paper trail can be critical for navigating the potentially tortuous route of negotiations).

Chairs and search committees select their preferred candidate and recommend them to the Dean. At this point, I have learned that many optimistic (or potentially imprudent) Chairs may alert the candidate that an offer is in the works. But that this is merely a recommendation is the key point.

The great majority of Deans do accept the choice of the department, trusting that their faculty know best how to evaluate their peers. But some Deans do not, perhaps because of internal politics, conflicts, or feuds that exist between the Dean, the Provost, the Chair, or even the department itself. These pressures can exert an influence on the acceptance of a candidate, the leeway given to negotiate, and other aspects of the process, that you have no way of anticipating (even if you are an “inside candidate”).

Some universities have developed a reputation for recalcitrant Deans, but the experience is obviously not uniform, even there. A thorough searching of chat rooms, blogs, and advice columns for academic job seekers will reveal the occasional traumatized soul who, like myself, had what seemed like a such a sure thing over the phone or by e-mail ripped out from under them. Stay on your guard; only when a formal, signed offer letter has arrived should you breathe anything resembling a sigh of relief.

Second, don’t believe it necessarily even when you have it in writing. As a job candidate, you may be fortunate enough to be selected by a school that is honest, gracious, transparent, and highly communicative, as I was with the institution where I now work. However, many of us are not, or have experiences with less than professional entities along their career trajectory. As I learned with my second offer, not all offer letters are alike. While the second university’s offer letter looked ambiguous to me, I certainly didn’t have the experience to know just how many loopholes and gaps it actually presented. Be cautious and considerate as to whom you show the letter to—you don’t necessarily know whom the other candidates for the job might be—but make sure to show the offer letter to your adviser, other seasoned faculty members, and your current Chair if you can (who is likely to be very well versed in the language of hiring and negotiations).

Negotiations are extremely intimidating (especially for women, as many studies have shown), and yet they really are the sole opportunity you have to clarify every aspect of the position you are about to legally commit to (I’ve heard stories from senior faculty of candidates who, eager to play the odds or fighting for time while waiting for another offer, will sign and return an offer letter only to refuse the position when a better offer arrives, but remember, once it’s in writing (and signed), both sides are technically legally bound to the agreement).

In addition to the excitement of negotiating for start up funds or course release, make sure that you understand and agree with all of the technicalities of the position (teaching load can be especially slippery as multiple sections of a given course can hide behind that simple semester to semester ratio, and summer teaching responsibilities can slip in unnoticed sometimes). Make sure all ambiguities are resolved and that everything is specified to the letter because there won’t really be opportunities to alter the contract later (unless you land an external offer). This is it, and you have to make sure that you will be able to live on the salary, manage the teaching load, and afford the time and costs necessary for research. Give yourself time to do this as well.

Translating between the Dean, the Provost, the Chair, and you can take days, let alone when you need to truly negotiate and a counter-offer has to be produced. Also, while I didn’t have this particular experience, keep in mind that the vaults of the internet occasionally yield a truly awful tale of a print, in hand offer letter being rescinded by the Dean in the midst of negotiations. This is your time to secure the details of your future position, but make sure to not let confidence override your sense of caution. The administration and the department have their own objectives and needs, and deafly or blindly pushing too hard might not just yield a hostile resentment from your colleagues when you arrive for you start date, it might also, in our buyer’s market, yield a rescinded offer. Be cautious and do not fall into overconfidence.

Lastly (and this may be the hardest to swallow for the most recession-weary and embittered job seekers) inside candidates don’t necessarily receive copious advantages, nor are they the certain recipient of the position. Conversations preserved on the Academic Jobs Wiki show the flurry of anger and pessimism that often arise when it is revealed that there is an inside candidate at the school offering an advertised job position. The advantages of being ‘on the inside’ have been discussed at length elsewhere and I won’t repeat them. The disadvantages are often brought up to the counter them—namely that you don’t have the appealing glimmer of novelty and your history with the department and the search committee may not be uniformly positive and collegial.

The disadvantage not often discussed is that as an inside candidate, especially in the gossip-filled, incestuous little world of academic departments, you will be witness to every single step of the hiring process. You will see—or at least hear of—the other candidates when they come to interview, and the angst of this will likely be heightened by the fact that if your field is small, you are likely to know them as colleagues, if not as friends. In most situations, especially as the inside candidate is unlikely to have a nepotistic relationship with the Dean or Provost, all of the candidates have a roughly equal chance at the position before the interviews occur—it’s why you made it onto the short list, after all.

Be optimistic, but overall be cautious. The toughness and unpredictability of the job market doesn’t grind to a halt when the offer arrives.

 


Comments

Job Market Horror Stories, Part I: The Rescinded Offer — 25 Comments

  1. Pingback: How To Negotiate Your Tenure Track Offer |

  2. I hope an anon comment is okay, but I wanted to share this story of woe and would rather not reveal too much. I was an internal candidate for a job this year, and after a full search, the department and dean both recommended me for the position. That was the situation on a Monday during finals week. On Tuesday, the dean and provost held an emergency meeting with the faculty and voided the search. I have no idea why, nor can anyone legally tell me. I do know that the chair of the search had a pet candidate (a woefully under-qualified pet candidate who nonetheless made the top three) and was aggressively hostile with me in my faculty interview, but I knew that was coming and handled his hostility pretty well. I’ve been offered another year of VAP with the search to be repeated in the fall. I haven’t made a decision yet. This gives Professor Butthead more time to have his pet students misrepresent things that happen in my classroom. This gives the whole faculty more opportunity to realize that no, I’m not perfect (not that anyone is), but on the other hand, knowing the dept. and dean were behind me says maybe I should stick it out for another year. I told the chair I’d think about it for a week or two and look into other opportunities, but at the moment I am pretty much livid and never want to lay eyes on Professor Butthead again, unless I am running over him in the parking lot. (just kidding. sort of.)

    • Well, if you don’t have other options then yes, stay there as a VAP. You don’t know whether P.B. will be around to sabotage the search next year; he could be on sabbat, or sick, or having a torrid affair with a grad student, and otherwise engaged. So, sure, a small chance is better than no chance, which is what you’ll have if you leave.

  3. Hello, Karen,
    I just received an administrative job offer. It’s my first job offer, and most of my preparation has been for tt jobs. I’m sure I want to take the administrative route and am excited about the position. Is there anything different about negotiating a 12-month administrative position? Thanks!

    • congrats! most of the things you negotiate for on the TT will not apply—-research funds, leave time, summer salary, and the like. The main thing to focus on would be salary, funds to cover a trip out there to look at houses and schools, perhaps conference travel if relevant to the position (ie administrators’ conferences), and spousal position if necessary.

      • I want to add my experience, and am requesting to do so anonymously, as I am still on the job market, and my field is very small. I had an interview at a large state school this past spring. The interview went well, and about a month later, I received a phone call telling me an offer was in the works. Two weeks later I received the written offer. Negotiations went well, and the signed offer was in place less than a week later. Six weeks later — six weeks after the negotiated offer was signed by me, the department chair, and the program chair — I received a phone call from the department chair notifying me that the university administration had not approved the contract as agreed to. The department chair sent me a new contract with different terms than we had agreed to. This new offer showed up just a few weeks before the semester was to start, and I felt like I was being pressured into agreeing to take less than I agreed to six weeks earlier. I turned down the offer. I have a question for those of you who have experienced problems with offers. Have any of you consulted an attorney about the situation? For any attorneys reading this, I am wondering if these academic offers have any legal credibility, once signed. They don’t seem to be worth the paper they are written on, frankly, given the stories I’ve read here and on other fora.

  4. Without official paper offer it’s not an offer.

    I’ve been told all kinds of crazy things during interviews, even after, like “you’re the best, we want you, we are moving forward, etc.” And then received form rejections as well.

    Hot air is hot air, not an offer, even from a high-up high-up, maybe especially from a head-in-the-clouds search chair who doesn’t understand the ins and out and nuances of the process.

  5. I am posting this anonymously – hope that’s ok. I just lost my dream position after receiving an initial verbal offer. They said they lost funding for the position. This is inconsistent with information from a colleague who was offered a different position in the same department. So, I have no idea what happened and am feeling devastated and embarrassed, as many friends, family, and colleagues know that I was getting an offer and intending to accept it. I do have one other offer and one more campus visit but the entire situation has left me feeling so distraught that I am not sure I was to stay in academia. Thanks for this website – it’s been helpful to know I am not alone.

    • Oh I’m so sorry to hear that. This is the worst thing that can happen on the job market. I hope that you are able to find out what happened, for your own peace of mind. I’m glad at least you have another offer. I’ve had 2 clients with rescinded offers and both of them, like you, had other offers, thank god.

      • Hello Karen,
        Were those two offers rescinded written offers or only verbal offers. I wonder if there are horror stories of rescinding written offers and what has happened then. I’ve heard of a rescinded offers in other countries, but not the US. I assume it would be legally problematic, but I wonder if people take them to court or do something

        • Nobody goes to court. The reason is that technically, if you ask for anything different than the original offer, you are “rejecting” the original offer. So the institution has no obligation then to honor it. While nobody thinks like this in real life, and also that just *asking questions* about the offer should not be taken as a rejection of it, I believe that does represent the letter of the law. I get that everybody is upset about this recent philosophy story, but the rescinded offer is not new. It’s a thing. It happens. And it’s increasing in the desperate buyers market now.

        • Still in pain but somehow reading through this post has made me feel better.
          I have had an official written job offer rescinded (stated salary, duties, benefits, conditions of employment etc signed by myself and employer). Obtained the offer several months before the starting date since I am a foreign national and required time to obtain the visa. Several months later got an email that it’s not possible for them to take me on because the grant ……….. I was shattered and to think that I had turned down several offers which were on the table when this one came up only made me feel worse. I had stopped applying for jobs after getting this post so I had nothing with only a short period to find another job or become unemployed since I had already resigned where I was working. I had read about such things on the internet but never imagined it would happen to me especially with one of the leading institutions in the US and I figured there was nothing I could do about it being a foreigner outside the US. They said if things changed they would contact me but there were no guarantees. So far, unemployed for a few months and searching.

          • I’m sorry to hear this, Billy Joel. I hope that they get back to you. But if you don’t, maybe after you are in a tenure track, we would all appreciate if you shared the name of the place in a way that did not identify you in the eyes of those who know the case.

          • Thanks Gabriel. To be honest, what happened made me no longer want to work at that institute anymore. I would rather go elsewhere.Maybe I will look back at this opportunity sometime in future and regret this decision but what happened brought humiliation, suffering and burdening of my wife with all the bills etc. Besides, I keep thinking what if they say all is well and then it happens again and they waste more of my time and I go through the same experience again. I might be wrong, but I think its better to go elsewhere.

  6. I found this website because I was looking to see if my experience had happened to anyone else. It’s interesting someone else posted just this week because perhaps rescinded offers are becoming a “new normal”?

    I was recently extended an offer from the department head. The verbal phone details included salary, teaching load, moving expenses, and PD funds. I asked when I might anticipate something in writing, but the chair said I would need to verbally accept the offer first. I said I would like to think about the details, and he agreed. About two days later, I wrote the chair with some questions about the offer, and he wrote back immediately but only to wish me good luck with the rest of my career. It was devastating. A few days later I contacted the search chair, and she had no knowledge that my offer had been rescinded. She assured me she would be back in touch, but a week later I’ve heard nothing. Apparently, a firewall has gone up, and I fear I will never know what I did “wrong.”

    But it concerns me that, as professionals, this is the way we are treating one another. We are all colleagues, after all, and while I’m not particularly concerned about the “legality” of an offer being rescinded, I am concerned about the professionalism and ethics of it all. Shame on those who have power, who have tenure, who think they’re better than everyone else, to use their power in inhumane ways. Provosts, Deans, and Department Heads who treat any applicant this way need some education on manners. Thankfully, I know who I am and will overcome this temporary set-back.

    Here’s hoping none of you experience this time of frustration, but monitor your confidence. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, believe in yourself!

    • You’ll probably never make it back here, but I’m really curious to hear how your story turns out. Did anyone ever get in touch with you? Was it all a big misunderstanding?

      I’m sorry — totally unprofessional of them. Truly terrible (and just plain mean) behavior.

  7. Pingback: The Rescinded Offer: Who Is In the Wrong? | The Professor Is In

  8. I am also requesting to post anonymously, for similar reasons as listed above… I recently applied for a position at a well respected research institute within a large academic institution, at the request of one of the investigators who is familiar with my skills/ background. I was not actively looking for a new position but it seemed like a great fit and opportunity so I jumped at it. Now, this is a little bit of a different situation than a TT job but it seems like similar politics apply, as it employs the same caliber of academic professionals and is also an extreme “buyers market” for these jobs too. The interview went well and I was verbally told that I was “a perfect fit” for their needs and would be “a great addition to the team”. Two business days later I got an offer email. However, the proposed salary was a bit low for my field (about 10k less than usual) and even more so considering I live in one the most (if not THE most) expensive parts of the country. I wrote back, expressing my enthusiasm but stated my concerns about the salary. In an attempt to negotiate, I suggested a higher number (in retrospect, it was probably too high, rookie mistake) but made it clear that I was interested even if there were salary constraints. I asked for no other concessions or changes to what they proposed. I received an email back thanking me for my time, wishing me luck and said that I was clearly “looking for a different type of position” and thus was no longer a candidate for the job. I was floored and assumed I must have miscommunicated; I wrote back saying (again) that I was still interested even if the salary was fixed at their current number. I received the same polite response again; the offer was rescinded. I was/am totally mortified and taken aback. In grad school/postdoc/every career development seminar I attended, I was ALWAYS told to attempt to negotiate for what you need from a job. I was trying to “lean in”!!! An informal poll of my grad school friends revealed that a colleague from my graduating class had a nearly identical experience at a different institution a month ago, which is highly disconcerting.

  9. Pingback: An Open Letter to the Humanities (on getting their collective shit together) | slowlorisblog

  10. What happens if you want to negotiate for more money AFTER the contract has been signed by both parties? I have come to realize that I should have negotiated for more. I underestimated their cost of living and other financial aspects.

  11. I was wondering if you are at all familiar with a situation like this: I was offered a postdoctoral research position with a start date about a month later, never being told it was contingent on funding. The PI asked me to write a review article which was due just a few days after my ‘start date’. I was assured I would get a letter once I defended my thesis and gave the department my signed ‘ok by us’ faculty letter. After updating him to my progress, and informing him I would need to move later, he said that was fine. A week later, 10 days before I am moving out (he was aware that I had found an apartment) he informs me that the position is contingent on funding, which he didn’t get. He won’t answer any emails and I’ve tried to call him twice to no luck. Does this happen often? I am stuck with a lease and i turned down two other offers because I had accepted this position.

  12. So, I just received a call from the dean of the college at an R1 I interviewed at recently, offering me the TT job in question. He outlined the basics of the offer (salary, start-up range for offers made in the last 5 years, benefits, etc.), asked if these were generally acceptable, and if I had any other big items I wanted to talk about/negotiate. As he’d requested, I got back to him by email with my spouse’s CV, and in the email thanked him for the offer. He responded with an email that included the words “no formal offer has been made,” which immediately made me worry. Was I foolish to mention the spousal hire at this point? My spouse is awesome, with a stronger CV than me and great people skills, but there was no official offer letter in writing… I want to make sure that if I got the timing wrong on this reveal/ask, that I get it right next time. Thanks in advance for any advice!

  13. Pingback: How To Negotiate Your Tenure Track Offer | The Professor Is In

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