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Finding your next job: Handling offers

August 8, 2012, 3:33 pm

The panel discussion on Issues for Early-Career Mathematicians in Academia went very well at MathFest last week. We had a small crowd with good questions, and I enjoyed getting to know and hear from Rick Cleary and Jennifer Quinn, who spoke on how to get tenure (from the department chair’s point of view) and how to get involved in the mathematical community. This blog series, which was an incubator for my part of the panel, has a couple more posts left in it, both having to do with what might happen at the end of a search for the next job.

On the one hand, absolutely nothing might happen at the end. You may go through the soul-searching of understanding your motivations and balancing your stakeholders’ needs, spend hours research schools and putting together your materials, and spend days going to interviews — and nothing may come of it. You get no offers. If that’s the case, life is both simple and difficult at the same time. The main goal is to make peace with the notion that you’re going to stay where you are for at least another year. How you do that is not something I’m going to write about here, although this is what happened to me in 2008 when I did a nationwide search and came up empty.

Instead, let’s look at what happens if you do get an offer. Things get complicated quickly. There can be a feeling of: “Oh ####, now what do I do?” We set out on job searches half-thinking that nothing will happen; it seems like a fantasy with a slight amount of tangibility. When the offer comes in, things get real. So what do you do?

Let me offer my nerd opinion on this by way of a flowchart.

If you get an offer, you have to go back to the very first part of the search. Check with your stakholders and get their thoughts about it. And go back to where you filled in the blank with what you want from your work, and honestly evaluate whether the new offer of work looks like it will deliver. Then you ask the most important question in this entire process: Does accepting this offer represent a net win for all stakeholders involved? If not, then you can try to negotiate a more favorable offer; but if it’s not going anywhere, you have to turn it down. You can’t just move to be moving. If you’re not sure, go back and check again. If you’re sure: Take the plunge.

I really do mean a net win for all stakeholders — not just yourself. This can lead to some tough choices. When I was mulling over the offer I received from GVSU in 2011, for me, taking the job was 95% win. The only downside was that I’d have to sell my house in a dismal economy. But otherwise, if it were just me, I’d be accepting the offer in a moment. It was that good all-around. However, and crucially, I am not the only player in this process. The other five stakeholders had less clear outcomes.

  • My wife would have to quit her job, where she had a great salary and benefits package, and uproot from her entire social network to live in a brand new place. But she also obviously has a role to play in our financial life, and there was evidence that we’d be better off financially in Michigan even if she didn’t work. And she wouldn’t have to live with a husband unhappy with his work. I’d call that a slight net loss.
  • My oldest kid, in first grade at the time and who is very social, would have to leave her friends behind. But she makes friends quickly — so call it a draw.
  • My youngest two kids (2 and 5 at the time) were young enough not to be affected so much by a big move, and I felt that the area to which we would be moving was beneficial to their growth, with lots of natural beauty and chances to explore and do neat things. So that’s a modest net win.
  • My mother-in-law would be the big loser. She wouldn’t be able to visit as often, and it would involve a 6-hour drive (as opposed to a 90-minute drive) if she did. She basically gets nothing out of the move at all.

So those are the feelings and needs I had to consider and balance. There’s no math to this — it’s a judgment call that you can only make if you’ve been attentive to the needs of your stakeholders the entire time. Obviously in the end I took the offer — but it was not a clear-cut decision. Certainly not nearly as clearly-cut as if I had only been thinking of myself.

And there are definitely situations where you might be all for accepting a new job, but you say “no” because your stakeholders would suffer massive loss. If this happens to you, remember that just as your move brings massive change into your stakeholders’ lives, change in their lives will bring similar change in yours. In other words, if you take a job because you want it but your family hates it, you’ll end up hating the job too eventually. So don’t ignore your stakeholders.

If the offer is a net win, then take it and don’t look back. Move on to the final item about finding a next job: Being gracious when you exit. That’s the next (and final) post in this series.

How about you? Got any stories to share about how you went about handling offers?

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