Backing Out of a Postdoc Offer for a Better One

Dear Dora: Backing Out of a Postdoc Offer for a Better OneDear Dora,

Some time ago I was offered a postdoc position. The conditions were very poor (1-year contract with a salary commensurable with a PhD student stipend) but I accepted the offer since there was no other reasonable choice and I had to support my family. I signed a contract and applied for a visa and a work permit, which were granted on the basis of decision of competent authorities. The job should start in September.

Somewhat later I was surprised to learn that I got a very competitive fellowship for which I applied 7 months ago and which includes funding for 2 years (excellent salary+monthly mobility allowance). I am inclined to choose the fellowship because: 1) it is based on my own project, which is devoted to my favorite research topic; 2) the term is 2 years vs. 1 year; 3) the salary is much higher; 4) it includes mobility allowance; 5) as the remuneration is higher, I will be able not only support myself but also help my mother who recently left her job due to serious health crisis. The worst aspect of this situation is that PI who offered me a postdoc position and the other PI with whom I applied for individual fellowship are from the same country.

So, I will probably need to cancel the first visa and work permit and then apply again. The aspect is that these PIs may know each other and I risk to spoil relations with both of them. In your opinion, what should I do in this situation if I clearly prefer choosing the fellowship? If I make the choice, how should I explain this situation to the 1st PI and in the Embassy of that country? Does my possible refusal from postdoc position involve ethical issues and can damage my reputation?

– In a bind, grad student


Hi In a bind,

Thank you for contacting me. I agree that this is a difficult situation. Unfortunately, it happens to many graduate students that the dream job offer comes once you have already accepted a previous offer. In general, it is not advisable to withdraw once you have accepted an offer, because it could damage your reputation. There could also be legal consequences if you have signed a contract. There are several options, and I wonder whether you have explored any of them.

1) Is there a possibility of delaying your fellowship for one year?

2) Since the two PI’s are in the same country (and presumable the same field), can you establish a collaboration? This might sound like a long-shot if the research is not similar. If it is similar, then you could potentially start a project in your first position and then transfer to the 2nd PI.

3) If neither of these options is viable, then I would recommend calling your second PI, the one you won the fellowship with. It is in his or her best interest that you win the fellowship and do research with them. He or she might be able to advise you on how to proceed so that it is in the best interest for your career and your visa situation. In either event, you will feel much better after you discuss the situation honestly, and hopefully you can come up with a creative solution.

4) If there is a chance that you can establish collaboration you can inquire at the Embassy what this would entail in terms of a work permit and visa.


Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to [email protected] and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!


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