Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Some of the comments on the last post bring up interesting related points: whether an interviewee is ‘serious’ about a position, and the role that a Significant Other (S.O.) has in the decision to accept or decline an offer of a faculty position.

When you get an invitation to interview, you might not know in advance if you want to be in that department or live in that area. When you visit, meet people, and learn about the area, you are checking the place out as much as they are checking you out. It can also be difficult to know in advance whether an academic setting is a good place for your S.O.; this is why many places invite the candidate and their S.O. (± other family) for a second (post-offer) visit.

What I have trouble understanding, however, is the situation in which someone goes through the time and effort of an interview, consuming lots of time and money by the interviewing department, but apparently does not know that their S.O. will never agree to move to the vicinity of the university or college that is conducting the interview.

From talking to colleagues over the years, I have heard of the following My- S.O.-Won’t-Let-Me reasons given for not accepting an offer of a faculty position:

1 – My S.O. doesn’t want to leave Our State/City. I always assume that this means that a certain really important conversation that ideally would have taken place before the interview didn’t actually occur until after the offer was made. The S.O. may well have good reasons for not wanting to move no matter how great the other place is, but if so, it would be best if that were worked out before so many people invested time and money in the interview process.

2 – My S.O. doesn’t want to live in such a [insert obvious physical characteristic that is known even before the interview: e.g., big city, rural area, Midwestern place, southern place, west/east coastal place, cold place, warm place]. Again, this is something that ideally would be discussed in advance, before getting on the plane to interview at the defective place, though I suppose it is always possible that someone could be geographically challenged or not realize that they have a cow phobia or cactus allergy, or something.

I know that this issue can be more complex than I am portraying it. Your S.O. might not really want to move to a place that is so X, but their reluctance might be overcome after a visit. That's something you might not know before the interview. In that case, it would be better to use reason #3 instead:

3 – Your U/City/State is not a good place for my S.O. to live/work, and we didn’t know this until I/we visited. This is a good reason. I think everyone can understand this reason, even if it can be disappointing. The other two I think are obnoxious reasons.

It is difficult to know whether any of these reasons for declining an offer are sincere – perhaps some people think that blaming their S.O. is a polite way to turn down an offer. If reasons #1 or #2 are sincere, though, I think that the candidates and their S.O. have some issues they need to work out and/or that they must not have given much – if any - thought to the people whose time they wasted by going through a process that had no chance of success. Perhaps you have to be on the other (search committee) side to be selfish enough to think about your own wasted time and effort. Even so, most of us accept the randomness and risk that comes along with a search process and know that the interview process is complicated and stressful for everyone, resulting in some less than mature behavior (on both sides).

Does any of this matter? I think so. I have seen the negative feelings generated by a perceived lack of 'seriousness' (commonly caused by Lame Reasons #1-2 for declining a job offer) linger and affect how someone is viewed within the scientific community.


Cherish said...

Actually, I'm guessing that some of these people do feel guilty about it. But it's also easier to push the blame onto a spouse (who isn't there to defend themself) than to say what they really think, which perhaps they don't feel they can do tactfully. They may also be worried someone will argue with them about their reasons for not wanting to take an offer.

Anonymous said...

Negotiating career compromises and decisions requires a great deal from people who are usually young, often relatively newly partnered, and feeling very pressured, so I don't find it at all surprising that this happens.

It's also possible that the SO said "I won't go there" and the candidate applied anyway. My husband did that during his postdoc, and I found out when his chair mentioned something in front of me at a party. Had he gotten an interview, I doubt I would have been able to dissuade him from going for the interview; had he gotten an offer, I don't know what would have happened.

Looking back on this episode after nearly 20 years, I recognize that his intense anxiety about getting a job made him unable to really hear what I said, but at the time I didn't understand that and he couldn't explain it. That job, when he got it, was going to justify everything he'd ever done and validate who he was. It was the only thing that mattered to him at the time.

cookingwithsolvents said...

I wholeheartedly agree with the above sentiment; the "I don't know where I can get a faculty position so I'll apply even to places where my SO can't/won't go and worry about that if I even get an interview" Perhaps the applicant didn't think they would get an offer from the school. Maybe they really, REALLY WANT the position but blink when faced with *THAT* talk with the SO, offer in hand. After spending 4-6(+?) years as a grad student and perhaps another 1-5(+?) years as a postdoc many people want the best "payoff" in terms of a faculty position and honestly worry about all the "secondary" things much later. After all, didn't the applicant just spend all this time disregarding a large amount of the "secondary concerns" like geography, climate, etc? However, even given the above scenarios it is a sign of immaturity and/or bad advising to not realize that being offered a second interview (or a position!) is a tremendous vote of confidence by your [i]peers[/i] and turning down such an offer should be done with the utmost respect and care.

I think about these things often as I think about my own upcoming application process. I have been paying attention to these life issues as events during my PhD made me particularly cognizant of how important a healthy personal life is to the human condition. (and also your professional success..)

Drugmonkey said...

and sometimes the interviewee is seeking being 'shortlisted' or receiving an offer as leverage somewhere else. life is tough sometimes. searching departments do all kinds of tea leaf reading about how "serious" an applicant is as well. going so far as to not offer the job or interview to someone they really like but feel quite strongly would never come to their department. there are going to be errors made there too. i think the whole idea of giving someone a bad rep because they didn't take your job offer for what you find to be unacceptable reasons is a bit juvenile myself.

James Annan said...

I bet in many cases the perceived "lack of seriousness" is really because they have considered their SO at all in the process. Anyone who does that is obviously too weak-willed to be a proper academic.

Excuse 3 looks just like 1 and 2, wih "but we didn't know before we visited" tacked on in an attempt at justification. It's not that hard to do a spot of googling and work out what the area is like beforehand.

Is it better to say "your offer was not good enough for me" or "I don't like you"? I'd like to know how to avoid being considered not "serious" in any future situations.

Female Science Professor said...

drugmonkey, that's a different issue. Candidates with several offers can pick the one that is best for them and their family, and that's fine. If someone interviews even though there is no chance they will accept the offer no matter how great, then I have a problem with that.

Female Science Professor said...

james - I disagree. Considering your S.O. does not make you appear weak. Blaming your S.O.'s geographical lack of flexibility or lack of awareness is weak, especially if this comes up after the interview/offer process.

Reason #3 is different because it includes factors that can't be inferred prior to a visit. For example, if you didn't realize Chicago or Houston were big cities before you visit, that's not good (that would be Reason #2). However, if you didn't realize what the job opportunities would be like for your spouse, what the childcare situation would be, or whatever, that's understandable not to know in advance.

If you say "your offer was not good enough for me because I need a bigger startup package and your facilities are lousy", so be it. If you say "The offer is great but my wife doesn't want to live in a city", that is not good. That last one is a real example.

Drugmonkey said...

i think you overlook the degree to which an applicant is motivated to get an offer, any offer first and worry about choosing later. also the degree to which it is "no chance". there is always a chance. it is likely the very rare case where someone starts off in full knowledge that they are never going to take a given job and in those cases they may have strategic reasons for doing so. using your department? heck yeah. but there is enough suckage in the whole academic job seeking process to go around. being offended or whatever that, gasp, someone might be doing that to your department just seems a bit naive to me. i'm not saying it is right. I'm just saying it is perfectly understandable. as is a department not interviewing a great candidate because they have decided that person will never come and they would be wasting their time. but suppose they were wrong, should one conclude they were acting in bad faith and all that? or conclude they were pursuing their interests as best they could?

Female Science Professor said...

I hate it when faculty in my department decide in advance whether a candidate is serious. How do they know? What if they are wrong? I prefer to think that everyone who applies is serious. Maybe that's why it bothers me so much when I am wrong about someone.

Mr. B. said...


It is not unheard of for senior faculty to play footsie with other institutions in order to get a raise or better working conditions at home.

And having an offer from place X usually makes a person more attractive to place Y for reasons related to keeping up with the Joneses.

And, as has been pointed out, it is always easier to lay blame on the SO when turning down an offer.

As for hurting your career in the future, I am skeptical. Some folks actually seem to admire academic gamesmanship.



Female Science Professor said...

That's true for senior hires, but the examples I used were all from assistant professor-level searches.

Anonymous said...

I think that as long as the probability of accepting isn't 0% you can't blame people for going through the process and then deciding they can't go. As long as people are breathing, nothing's ever certain. My suspicion is that folks just don't know how to write the rejection properly, rather than they knew that they couldn't accept the position.

The other point being brought up here is using offers to get leverage for other offers. That seems to be pretty standard practice. Is that only OK when you would accept that offer if no others ones came up? Or are you wasting people's time if you decide, when nothing else comes up, that you'd rather be a barista at Starbucks than accept the position?

Anonymous said...

What I don't understand about academic jobs is why the negotiation for a job becomes such a personal reflection on a candidate. Of course, it is frustrating from a departmental point of view to woo a candidate and then have them decline the offer for trivial reasons. But academics no longer resides in an ivory tower. Many universities are run like businesses and treat their faculty accordingly. Why shouldn't faculty do the same and approach any job prospect from that point of view? As a candidate I have a right to accept any interview I am granted. I have earned it and am qualified for the job. And there is no way I can evaluate whether I would take it unless I go there and visit. It is true that some geographical areas are more attractive to me than others, but that just means that the less desirable places would have to work harder to get me. In my years of watching the fancy people wheel and deal, that's how it works. It's nothing personal. It's just business.

Anonymous said...

Having been on both sides of the academic job search I have to say that I feel a great deal more sympathy for those who are as yet unemployed than I do for the already well-compensated faculty who have to run a search.

Not everyone is as lucky as you (or I) have apparently been. I was single when I applied for my job, and could afford to apply anywhere I wished. I did what every true academic hopeful does - I applied everywhere that advertised a position for me in that year (and, by the way, ended up in a place where I had sworn not to go, even if they made a great offer. The interview process changed my mind!).

Some prospective faculty who are not single use the same method; they apply to jobs because they apply to EVERY job, regardless of what their spouse might think. In the current academic market it would be insanity to do otherwise. Perhaps it is only when it comes down to a choice between academia and the spouse that some people finally realize that they won't be able to come to your university. I feel for such people. What a difficult choice to have to make! But I don't begrudge them their choice.

Anonymous said...

I agree with drugmonkey on this one. I was following my wife in our first search together. She only applied to cities where I could theoretically get a job. Some places I was employable, but it was not optimal.

Still, in her field, (academic, but not science) they recommend applying and flying to as many places as possible because it is leverage. First, saying "I can interview with you between my interviews with places A and B" makes it clear that you're a wanted person. Even at the initial hiring stage, saying you got an offer for $X with Y benefits from another contract can be used for negotiating a better deal. I was slightly horrified at the inefficiency of this system, but that was the hiring process was done.

That said, when one of her offers had lousy job prospects for me, my opinion was definitely taken into account.

Anonymous said...

I think FSP's point is that it's ok if the situation just isn't optimal or the applicant decides to go elsewhere. It's when the applicant says "Oh, well, this obvious fact is just something that my spouse will not accept" that it's annoying.

This response means one of three things:
1) The applicant did not discuss the job with their spouse before applying. Or the applicant ignored the spouse's objections and applied anyways.

2) The applicant never had any intention of accepting the position, but is unable to think of a good reason for that decision. In this case, the spouse is being used as a scapegoat.

3) The spouse did not voice these negative opinions in advance and only balked at the last minute.

Only point 3 does not reflect poorly on the applicant's decision making approach.

If a person decides that an opportunity does not fit their current needs, then they should just say so when they decline the offer. Doing this also brings in the benefit that if the applicant is a top choice and highly desired, then there is an opportunity for the university to sweeten the deal.

Female Science Professor said...

Yes! That's it exactly. Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

There's also the option that the couple does not do in depth research of every possible interview location when mailing out job applications. In my case, I made a first cut based on very general knowledge of each area, but I only started detailed examinations of each location when interviews were scheduled.
The flip side is should someone either do detailed research of 30+ towns where applications are being sent or should the interviewee turn down an interview a moderate search by the spouse finds nothing.

Option 4 is the spouse thought there might be a possibility of job prospects, but it didn't exist after further research.

Anonymous said...

Option 4 is not different from saying "Sorry, but we discovered a new thing that makes this impossible." Which falls under the acceptable category of responses.

Some facts are obvious about a place before you have to fly in for a visit. Like, is this place too rural? If it's a two-hour drive from the airport, then odds are good that it isn't a urban center. Or is it going to be too cold in the winter? And I should certainly hope that everyone can tell whether or not going to a new place would require moving out of state.

Really, I think you guys aren't getting the point of this post: show some respect for the interviewing institution and for your spouse. Saying that a blatantly obvious fact such as geographical location is the reason an offer is being declined is insulting. The only useful thing about using that as a reason is that the university can't change it and negotiations have to be concluded.

Of course, what FSP really needs someone to say is "I'm sorry, but I don't feel that I could be colleagues with The Troll due to his belligerence and obvious disrespect for other professors in the department."

Janus Professor said...

On the flip side, when I was interviewing (as part of a two-body entity), I felt that many universities didn't take me seriously because they assumed that I would rather stay near my husband. I frequently had to emphasize that my husband was movable, too. I had applied to only schools that he and I had agreed upon.

Some schools later told me that they didn't interview me at all because of my two-body problem. They had assumed that I was geographically confined by my husband. What they were forgetting was that my husband could move with me. It is not right to make preconceived judgments about a couple; the situation can often be more complex than what any application package can describe.

Anonymous said...

I realize this is an old discussion, but it's relevant to me now. Another possibility is that, despite lengthy discussions with one's spouse, one's spouse might not be honest about whether s/he would be willing to move to x y or z location. For my spouse it wasn't "real" until I had accepted an offer and once the paper was signed said spouse was suddenly very negative about future job prospects and location etc. Until the papers were signed, my spouse said all the supporting things that partners are supposed to say...