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 This reader kindly wrote in response to my request for stories about “rescinded offers.”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.
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.