I just got my PhD 2 weeks ago. Last April a professor offered me a position on her team pending a certain project's acceptance.

The project got accepted in July, and we had agreed that I would start work around the beginning of December. Since September I sent 3 emails asking about signing an actual contract. I was always told that we could proceed at any time, but she never got back to me when I expressed my desire to do so.

Two days before my PhD defense she suddenly asked me to start the employment procedures, which take around 3 weeks. While all this was happening she also asked me to begin work on some minor aspects of the project, which I did without compensation, simply out of a desire to maintain a positive relationship with her.

However, having been delayed to sign a contract for 3 months I was unsure as to her intentions and applied to a few other opportunities. I have received two much better offers and I'm not sure how to proceed.

I already discussed my situation to her on the phone and she was not happy with me at all. She said that I have already committed to working with her (even though I haven't signed a contract).

I really don't want to burn any bridges, but the other offers are simply better. What am I risking by refusing her and moving on those other opportunities? Is there a way of doing so without offending?

  • Is this offer for fulltime work? or at a University?
    – enderland
    Dec 16, 2015 at 12:48
  • Thanks for answering. It's a postdoc offer, full-time, in a university. The other offers I received are at R&D in a company.
    – Dina
    Dec 16, 2015 at 12:58
  • 2
    So, you said you verbally accepted to start at the beginning of December. It is well past that now. When was your defense? If the hiring professor, knowing that the hiring process would take at least 3 weeks, didn't start early enough to get you working beginning of December and was unresponsive to earlier emails asking to get the process going, I don't see any problem with the way you handled things.
    – mikeazo
    Dec 16, 2015 at 14:29
  • 2
    Considering that this is about academia, you might want to consult academia.stackexchange.com, because in the world of academia the rules and etiquette seem to be quite different than in the world of business.
    – Philipp
    Dec 16, 2015 at 15:08
  • 1
    Yes you did commit verbally and she failed to execute a contract. I think she is the one that failed to commit.
    – paparazzo
    Dec 16, 2015 at 15:27

3 Answers 3


This professor is clearly watching out for her own interests with little to no regard for your own. You have a much better offer on the table, and should be following her example.

You'll want to be very polite about declining her as you never know when your paths may cross again, but don't feel too bad: all you had to go on for months was a promise, with nothing to back it up. She most likely kept you in limbo until she herself got certain assurances. You owe this person nothing.

Good luck!

Note: You made a mistake by telling her that you have other offers on the table. You may consider also asking this question on Academia SE . They may be able to better help you analyze the implications of you refusing her, and how to best approach her.

  • 1
    +1 for suggesting Acadamia SE. Academic etiquette and norms can be quite different from typical businesses.
    – Myles
    Dec 16, 2015 at 16:17
  • Yeah really sounds like the issue is that she is burning bridges, not the OP.
    – user42272
    Dec 16, 2015 at 19:15
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    @djechlin - in all honesty that prof sounds like a spoiled brat. Perfectly willing to hang the OP to dry, but throwing a hissy fit if her interests are threatened. I wouldn't bat an eye at refusing her offer. However. In the academic world you never know who is buddy-buddy with whom, and if having this person angry at you might come back to bite you in the behind. I think fellow academics might be able to better advise.
    – AndreiROM
    Dec 16, 2015 at 19:19

In my opinion, you should decide based on what is the best for you. The employers do the same when hiring. Imagine your professor gets an application from another guy who has significantly more experience and publications than you have. I am pretty much sure that your professor would go for the applicant with more experience.

Even when you sign a contract, you will have a notice period and you can leave the job after the notice period. Of course you will not work for the same professor for the whole your life so you should not feel moral obligation to do a job in spite of your interests.

Finally, If you plan to get a job in a university in the future, it is better to stay in the university and do a postdoc but if you are thinking of doing a job outside university, I would strongly suggest moving out of university ASAP.


Given your explanation of the timelines, I suspect she felt no rush to start the paperwork until closer to your defense as it likely could not be finalized until after your defense. This was probably why she was lax in getting the process started and in communicating updates to you. This was probably not intentional on her part. She was likely busy with typical teaching duties and kicking off the new project.

The fact that the professor did not communicate better with you about what was going on with the process was a major failure on her part. Even if, as I suspect, she could not formally complete the process with you until after your defense, she should have made this clear and given you any necessary assurances that the process would start immediately after your defense. By telling her you have other offers, you have shown her that she has made a potentially serious mistake and may now need to find other suitable candidates. It's natural for her to be upset by this, and there's a small possibility you have burned the bridge with her.

You mention in your comments that your other offers are in industry rather than academia. You should be aware that it is typical to get a much better compensation package in industry than in academia. The work, work environment and long term career tracks are also very different between industry and academia.

Given your current situation, I see two potential choices:

  • Decide to stay in academia for now and accept the position with the professor. You will have to accept that financial compensation will not be what it is in industry but you may find that the non-financial aspects are sufficient to compensate for you. You will need to mend fences with the professor if you take this option. You will need to accept the offer as soon as possible. You will also have to show her that you are committed to the project. Part of this will involve explaining away the fact that you were looking at other offers as you needing certainty for after your defense and you did not understand enough about why the process was taking so long. Even after you start the position, you would need to continue to impress upon her that you are dedicated and not just waiting for the first best opportunity to move on.
  • Abandon academia for a role in industry. I would recommend trying to speak with former PhD students from your group who found positions in industry and get their insights on what the work is like and how well they like it. If it sounds appealing (and it seems like the better pay is appealing to you), then you should reject the position in academia as gracefully as you can and move into industry. You will not likely cross paths with the professor again any time soon if you go into industry so burning bridges is not the end of the world. Still, you should make an effort to help the professor understand her own mistakes that led you to look for the other offers and understand that the certainty after graduation was critical.

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