Thursday, January 23, 2014

When is an job offer irrevocable? A series of hypothetical ethical dilemmas

Is that your final, final answer? 
Let's say that it's December 13, 2013, you're going to be a new graduate in chemistry and you have an offer from Company A to start on March 17, 2014. You accept that offer gratefully; you've accepted no money for relocation. Let's even say that you've signed something saying that you've accepted the offer (but again, no money has changed hands.) Presumably, Company A has begun to set aside a desk for you, and they're expecting you to show up. You're pleased as punch to be working at Company A, since it will mean that you will not be unemployed. 

Let's say that one day in January, say, January 6, you get a request from Company B for a phone interview. It's common knowledge that Company B pays much better (20%+) than Company A; both are major U.S. corporations of similar size. 

So, dear reader, a series of questions:
  1. Is it ethical to accept the phone interview? 
  2. Is it ethical to accept an on-site interview? 
  3. Company B invites you for an on-site on February 3rd; it goes swimmingly. On February 11, they call you and offer the position. You think it's a much better fit. Should you take it? 
  4. What are your ethical obligations to Company A? 
  5. What would happen if Company B called you with the offer on March 10, 2014? How would your ethical obligations to Company A change? 
  6. What happens if you've accepted relocation help? What happened if you took a signing bonus? 
My answers are: 1. Yes 2. Yes 3. Yes 4. To tell Company A as soon as you've made the decision 5. Still a good decision to take the offer from Company B, (changes urgency of informing Company A). 6a. Pay it back (get Company B to help?), 6b. Pay it back (you're on your own for this one.) 

I assume (perhaps wrongly) that most readers would agree with me. Has anyone been in a similar situation? What went well? What went poorly? I'd love to hear your stories. 

50 comments:

  1. We live in a culture of at-will employment and if you, at any time, feel that a company is no longer a good fit for you it is better to make an exit before you waste everyone's time. It should be done with professionalism and grace of course, but as long as a stink weren't raised on either end then there should be no problem.
    The pessimist in my head has to raise another point- the company also hires you on at will and can (generally) release you at any time so it's good to keep in mind that the road goes both ways. Then again, if they're spending money to relocate you and add a signing bonus, then that situation isn't likely.

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    1. Agreed. Modern chemical companies display no loyalty to their own employees. No one, even the dumbest HR drones, expect loyalty in return, especially from someone who hasn't even joined the company yet.

      My advice to this young chemist: Take the higher pay. No question about it, unless there is some wild difference in cost-of-living. This will be the base from which all your future salary negotations will commence.

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  2. I agree with you on all points. Managers and scientists in the industry for the most part enjoy loyalty from their employees, but don't expect it. If you get a better offer, so be it. Especially when you haven't even started the position yet.

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  3. Who are these people getting two job offers immediately after graduation with a chem degree?

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    1. Did I mention that they have a side gig in grooming unicorns at the local unicorn stable?

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    2. Is this the one off Lollipop Lane, near where the rainbows end?

      Also, your answers above are correct.

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  4. May I ask one further ethical question? What if Company B called you with an offer March 24th, after a week of work?

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    1. Good question. I say take it, but I dunno.

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    2. If you're an at-will employee (that is, did not sign a n-year contract), then it's "see ya." If you received some kind of sign-on bonus or relocation from company A then you should consider paying back a pro-rated portion to A, even if it were not stated in the contract.

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  5. If you go to B, you've probably permanently burned your bridges with A. (They'll have you in their database and it will always be there. And then the NSA will know about it too...)

    Are bonuses really paid out ahead of time? I've not never gotten one, but someone I know who is in the "T" part of STEM had one. It was paid in 2 parts over a month AFTER he showed up for work

    @Anonymous 12:47 - I've worked at a place where a new hire quit on the 3rd day. She called the manager that morning and said she had a new and better offer elsewhere, and since there was no point in training her in for the standard "2 weeks notice",

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    1. My one and only signing bonus was paid ahead of time; I think it was 1) an inducement to sign and 2) money for poor college kids to get a nice set of clothes.

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    2. My signing bonus was for relocation. Some of it was paid before starting work, but there was a multi-year golden handcuff clause which included expensive moving trucks I would not have picked on my own. Got laid off during the pay-back period, but did not have to pay it back.

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  6. Just wanted to point out that the inverse situation sometimes occurs as well. I was a fresh PhD with an accepted job offer from a major pharma. Two months before my employment was scheduled to start, I received notification that the division I was hired into was shutting down, and that I was out of a job.

    On the bright side, the company did behave in a very above-board fashion. I received a severance package of about 2 months pay, and my graduate advisor was willing to let me stick around while I frantically searched for a postdoc position (there was really no option of finding a different position at that point).

    In all, open and clear communication with the invested parties is key.

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    1. Someone I went to grad school with had a similar dilemma. He accepted a job offer and when time came to start, the company didn't remember (they had been bought by a larger company). It was a scramble but the big company found a position for him but not in the location he thought he was going to. His wife had to find another position in the new city.

      So, my advice is to keep in touch with the people who have hired you, especially since finishing up sometimes takes longer than you expect.

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  7. I agree with your thoughts. At will employment for both sides unless you have an employment contract (usually only for executive levels).

    Here's one that actually happened years ago at a major pharma:
    A young female chemist with a B.A. was interviewed for a full time bench position by at least ten potential supervisors, colleagues, etc. All agreed she had no bench experience, did not have a strong knowledge of organic chem, would not be appropriate for the position, and recommended not to hire. All of a sudden, a month later she was hired. It was obvious, her race being African-American, that she was hired to help with diversity. Her supervisor accepted the challenge and immediately started to train her in all standard techniques, including use of air-sensitive reagents, flash chromatography, vacuum distillation, and the like (her technical education consisted of one recrystallization experiment in a non-ACS qualified program).

    After two weeks at the bench, she announced that she was 4-months pregnant and asked to be given a non-bench position, which also was the company policy at the time. Because of her lack of knowledge it was difficult to find even the most menial work, but she was being paid a full B.S. salary. She then went out on paid maternity leave and paid short-term disability for a couple of months. After finally back in the lab and reasonably trained for six months, she announced she was pregnant again; and again she went off the bench for essentially a year.

    After a total of 3 years, she had prepared only a handful of simple analogs, and soon left the company.

    The question is whether she should have told the company during the hiring process that she could not perform the duties she was hired to carry out?

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    1. The company's actions were not ethical. Qualified candidates should not be passed up for an un-qualified candidate based on the color of their skin. Such actions not only hurt non-diversity candidates, they hurt the perceptions of qualified diversity candidates.

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  8. Although I understand the impulse I disagree that your responses would be truly ethical. Accepting an offer is making a commitment, and this becomes more binding if has been signed (and well may have legal implications however unlikely to be pursued), so without more dramatic change of circumstances than getting a better offer I would favor continued course with Company A. I would contact to decline and apologize to Company B explaining the reason of prior accepted offer, while at the same time attempting to get sufficient contact info for possible future use as there may be a revisit to the question under situation that it would be unencumbered by a specific obligation. I recognize this may not match to present non-Loyalty of most organizations and there might be regrets but would argue would feel more honest about myself.

    What happens if you end up at Company B and they find out you reneged on Company A after acceptance? Chemistry can be a small world and chances are there are people at Company A that know people at Company B so word will get around and would likely you would be viewed with suspicion and lack of trustworthiness that would impact your career.

    Call me Old Fashioned

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    1. You're old fashioned, but I like your thought process.

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    2. ...and I consider your proposed actions to be above-board and honorable. Very interesting thoughts, Anon. Well done.

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    3. Anon: Interesting and very honorable suggestions to speak of loyalty. However, can a non-breathing entity possess loyalty?

      Unfortunately we no longer live in an employment environment where loyalty is rewarded from either side. We should never assume that an employer owes you anything more than a paycheck every X weeks.

      Yes, accepting an offer is making a commitment, but there are other commitments that must be equally considered, such as the Employee's commitment to his/her family. I would never fault an employee (or prospective employee) to do better for themselves. Never. When I see a resume with 6 jobs in 5 years, that's a warning flag that the prospective employee is a job hopper. Loyalty in personal relationships is a virtue. Loyalty to a non-breathing entity, I'm not so sure.

      Will word "get around?" Maybe, maybe not. And then again - would anyone at B really care? That has to be gauged on an individual basis.

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    4. I think the guiding ethical principle here is "do unto others as the bast*rds would do unto you, given half a chance". Should word get out that one had done this, I think the effect on perception would be positive- a strong-willed, assertive employee in this day and age is no bad thing, surely?

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  9. Hmm. This magical student must have invented the cure for all cancers during school, otherwise there would be no offers.

    In which case - They should strike out on their own, either sell the patent or license the manufacture of said cure and retire young. Forget all this company A/company B stuff

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  10. I was in a similar situation. In the last few months of graduate school I applied for an industrial postdoc position. The interview went well and I accepted their offer. One week later I got an offer for a telephone interview for a full-time position at a reputable company. I felt guilty even about giving the phone interview and to this day I think it was a bad decision; I have little doubt that I would have received an offer if I had gone ahead. I enjoyed doing the temporary postdoc but I basically gave it up for a permanent position.

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  11. On a similar note, how long is too long to delay accepting/rejecting an offer if you are waiting to hear on another position?

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  12. My ethical dilemma:

    I am just finishing up a plush, multi-year ex-pat assignment. I've had a great time abroad, stashed fat cash from my COLA, and presumably significantly increased my value to my company, all thanks to their ~half million dollar investment in me. However, the competition knows this and I get pinged by recruiters all the time. How long must I remain with my current company before leaving without being greedy / tacky / dishonest?

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    1. Unless the employer made you sign a pay-back retention clause, their investment is sunk cost. If your employer is not paying you at your current value, you owe them no loyalty.

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    2. Legally, that is the case. But it is often legal to be a complete bleep. If I were to land in the US, lap up ~$20k in relocation fees, and then turn around and hand in my two week's notice, that would not just be burning the bridge, but lobbing a nuke on it. There are really two issues at stake.

      1: What goes around comes around. If I do something that bleepheaded, it won't look good and people will find out about it.

      2: Honor. Unlike the headline case, my company has put lots of time, effort, and money into me. I really do owe them something in a personal sense, even if it is not written down in a contract. I believe in returning favors, even if my partner is a faceless corporation.

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    3. This is where you go to the boss, explain the reality of the situation, and ask for pay commensurate with your experience. If the company is willing to pay, then you stay. After sinking that much money, I bet they're willing to pay you what you're worth. If not, then they made a bad investment, and have only themselves to blame for the results.

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  13. If the person is up front with Company B from the start, and tells them that he/she has already accepted a job with Company A, and B still pursues the person, then I do think it is fine to interview with B. Especially if the position with B is a better fit, if B is located in an area that is more preferable than where A is, and especially if there are family/spouse/cost of living considerations that make the B position more favorable. On the other hand, B better move fast, and not string the person along.

    This all brings to mind a conversation I once had with an older chemist 30 years ago, back when I was 23 years old and had my first job as a product development chemist at a large chemical company. I had been there a year and had gotten a phone call from a recruiter about a job opening nearer to my home town. I politely told the recruiter that I wasn’t interested (though I was), because I thought that it was unethical to leave the company after such a short time. I very proudly told the older chemist about this incident, and his response was “Unethical! There’s a word I want to thinks about and that word is ‘Business’ (with his honeyed Alabama accent, it sounded like ‘Bidness’). We are not here to be ethical. We are in the business world, and you have to take advantage of any opportunity that comes your way, if it is good for your career. There is nothing unethical about this. It is simply business.”

    Looking back on it, he saw what I was too naïve to see – that the man who had hired me had moved on to another division, that the original program that I had been hired for had been cancelled, and that the second chemist I was assigned to was not cut out to manage any sort of program, let alone an inexperienced chemist. I see now that I should have seriously considered that other job, given these facts. But I was too busy being ethical.

    As for employment contracts – I know a mid-career biologist who went to work two years ago for the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, doing government contract work for the CDC in Atlanta, well below an executive level. She had to sign a 23-page employment contract, in which she had to commit to working for the company for a minimum of two years. However, in the same contract the company made it clear in writing that they could terminate her employment at any time for any reason.

    That’s today’s ethics at work.

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  14. Here is a question about the ethics of an employer....

    Employer A offers pay and titles well below average. However, they offer good education benefits. They recruit a new employee by offering to pay for a degree which contains no retention clauses or pay-back periods. They state that employee should not be concerned about pay or title because large raises and rapid promotions are possible. Employee accepts and starts school after settling into the job for about a year. Employee performs well above average for their level.

    When the employee is about half way through a degree (to which they devoted a large amount of their personal time and some money), employer changes the policy. Employee must finish degree quickly, or the amount of tuition covered drastically decreases. Additionally, employer adds a retroactive payback clause. Raises are 1/4 to 1/2 the amount described in the interview. Promotions past a glass ceiling are near impossible. Job responsibilities and duties are much more remedial than the job described in the interview.

    Employee asked for advancement to better match the employee’s skill level. Employee was told to quit if they do not like employer’s policies. Employee would have to pay back tuition for degree if they left.

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    1. First, I suggest that you document everything. If you manage to escape to a better opportunity, you may want to try to get your future employer to buy out the payback or, if that doesn't work, maybe even talk to a lawyer. The problem with the latter option, as employer A probably knows, is that that would cost you more money than the payback and they have deeper pockets than you do. Second, stay alert for new opportunities. Don't feel tied by the golden handcuffs. What if employer A changes the rules again?

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  15. Industrial chemistry is a lot smaller world than most people realize, and management moves around more than the rank and file. The hiring manager you burn today might be your R&D director tomorrow. I don't remember every great co-worker I've had, but somehow I remember each and every one of the screwballs and hucksters.

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  16. @ 11:20pm - Your logic is faulty. You are assuming that managers will move around, then hold grudges against those who also move around. Hypocritical managers may exist, but they are not the norm.

    The laziest, worst workers I've ever met in my life have one commonality. They are all those who are desperate to hang on to the position they have currently. Loyality is not loyality if it is based on fear of the knowledge that they are not competitive in the job market.

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    1. My, aren't we judgmental and smug.

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  17. I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the informal anti-competitive agreements that many of the big silicon valley companies have to prevent employee poaching.

    Considering the complete lack of loyalty that exists among chemist employers, I'm inclined to agree with Chemjobber to the extent that you're a free agent until you start your first day of work with Company A. If after starting work with Company A and Company B finally rolls around and offers a job with a 20+% pay bump, I would go to my manager and let him know and give Company A an opportunity to match the offer.

    If Company B has significant non-tangibles such as a more appealing location (Hawaii, if you like) or projects that better align with your interests then this becomes a personal choice. I would have a frank discussion with my manager about my personal preferences and be sure to let them know that this was not simply a 'business' decision.

    From my own personal experience, I had accepted an offer for a GOV postdoc doing some very interesting work. During the time between finishing my work in grad school, I wrote a proposal for the postdoc PI, but also had an interview and job offer for a permanent position with the GOV. The permanent position was in a much more desirable location and most importantly was permanent, so I took it. I told the postdoc PI to use what I had written as he liked to get funding, and apologized. While the chemistry world might be small, I haven't felt any repercussions going on 3 years later. I don't feel this was my shiniest moment, but I had to do what was best for myself and my family.

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  18. I had a professor offer me (and I accepted) a postdoctoral position in another country. I had already started filing the paperwork necessary to work there, booked a flight to find an apartment, and was getting quotes from movers when he emailed to say someone else applied for the position and she was such an outstanding candidate that he couldn't turn her down. Offer rescinded just like that.*

    No way would I ever feel obligated to work anywhere without a legally binding contract requiring me to perform some duties in exchange for money.

    * Dude emailed me a couple months later and said the girl took another job in industry, after she had signed all the paperwork to start for him, and the job was mine again if I wanted! (Holy karma!?) I didn't reply. This was back in 2008, but I still have all the emails. Let me know if you want copies for a post, chemjobber.

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  20. Wow. I am surprised and a bit disappointed but the post and comments. As a faculty member for almost twenty years, I haved advise my students not to accept interviews, phone or otherwise, after accepting an offer. My advice would be the acceptance is a two-year commitment. Ethics is not a set of rules to be followed or not, it is moral principle related to appropriate personal behavior. I agree that employers are not committed enough to their employees but that should not affect our personal moral actions. Recall, this situation began with you accepting presumably an offer to which you were happy/satisfied. Presumably, this was followed with all the people at Company A, associated with your position, shutting down their search process because they found the one.

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    1. "Ethics is not a set of rules to be followed or not, it is moral principle related to appropriate personal behavior.

      I find this statement to be deeply affecting, to the point of potentially changing my answers to questions 1 and 2. I have much more of a problem with calling those decisions "ethical" than I did before I read this comment.

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    2. RET--Yeah, it was a much different world twenty years ago. Maybe you could share with us the difficult decisions you had to make to survive during the recession of the early 90's.

      Or, maybe you just lucked into a sweet gig and have the gall to cast aspersions on others working under very difficult circumstances. People like you are famous for thinking they "would have" stood up to the Nazis, for instance.

      Chemjobber, stick to your guns. I don't see any reason to doubt yourself because someone got on their high horse with you.

      RET, good luck to your advisees. Have any of them told you afterwards how it worked out for them?

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    3. Hmmmm... sort of similar to the difference of "do unto others as you would have them do to you" (RET) versus "do unto others as they do to you." (practically everybody else)

      I think with life is good (tenured faculty) it is easier to take the higher "new testament-ish" ground. If you are scrounging for a job and are treated like shit by your bosses, will then I can understand why you might go "old testament"

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    5. "Recall, this situation began with you accepting presumably an offer to which you were happy/satisfied."

      I've reluctantly accepted a couple of positions where they sent me a low offer and refused to negotiate on compensation. I presume they were playing hardball because they had a stack of candidates, and knew I had no other options. When you apply and apply for 15 months, you tend to grab on to whatever offer finally rolls in, however horrible it may be. I'm not going to stick with Company A because they feel they can exploit the horrible job market and cut compensation to well below any industry average.

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    6. @ Anon 12:45 pm

      Yeah, I'm in the same boat. I know a company can do this, but I don't understand how it expects quality work from its employees when it does...

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    7. Yeah - 20 years as a faculty member...
      I don't know if you are aware of this, but there's no tenure in the real world. The commitment of the company to the applicant doesn't extend 2 years, so why should the applicant be locked in for the same time? Yes, they have invested training in the individual and should have a reasonable expectation of ROI. Yes, the employee should be aware of the risk of being perceived as a job-hopper. However, if the company that agreed to hire the person hit a bump in the interval between the acceptance and the start date (an exceptionally long time in the original hypothetical), there would be nothing stopping them from pulling back on the offer. Worse, they could go ahead with the hire and then turn around in a few weeks and lay off the new employee. I know of a large pharmaceutical company that shut down a major operation in Michigan several years back. They were still moving people to Ann Arbor 3 weeks before the announcement that they were closing the operation! (The explanation offered was that they couldn't let the news of the impending shutdown leak out, so they had to proceed with standing offers as if nothing was wrong.) Tell ya what, professor, when corporate America begins to display ethics and respect, the rest of us can return the favor to them.

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  21. I appreciate the willingness to continue both sides of the discussion. It is a good one and I don't presume to know the best answer (in ethics there is not one). Yes I do have tenure and I consider it a sweet gig and could not be happier. But I also choose to feel that way about it. I have colleagues that don't and that is true everywhere including Company B.

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    1. From the perspective of an industrial chemist who went to graduate school, you do not look like an impartial party. As a tenured professor, your success depends on recruiting students. To recruit students, you must be able to place all the students you have in jobs. The chemistry world is small, so if one student in your group angers a potential employee, it may hurt your future students chances at landing jobs - and thus your future success.

      Your students should have the opportunity to look for their best interests. Once joining your group, they had no choice but to put your interests before their own until handed a piece of paper. At some point they must be free to think and act as individuals. What better opportunity to start than their first 'real' job?

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    2. Old Fashioned again: I think RET better articulated the point I made above as the questions were posed from an ethical response and therefore trigger evaluation and answers based on morals which granted are not always hard and fast and certainly I would argue have deteriorated in Western Culture but should come from an individuals internalized principles. I believe honesty and ethics go hand in hand and the scenario of accepting an offer then acting like it was not truly accepted is I feel dishonest. I realize that today's Business Ethics and dare I say certain Asian systems that the norm is definitely not "do unto others as you want them to do to you" so I well may be living in a fantasy however if I do not act that way myself why would I expect build trusting relationships with others. Many problems of today's companies are likely due to lack of trust which only helps the lawyers employment.

      Frankly, although would probably suggest generally only a 1 year commitment rather than 2, RETs advice appears as good attempt at lesson in ethics that hope are followed as believe would create a better reputation for his students than if they did act otherwise and thus create a positive view of his group. Ultimately the students do have to take responsibility for their life and decisions yet the best PIs not only provide sound technical skills but help mold a better individual that colleagues are excited and happy to collaborate with and not have to watch ones back,

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  22. Old thread, but I read an article the other day that in the last several years, the workers who switched companies relatively often had the most wage growth. There may be some selection bias in this, but it makes sense because starting a new job is when you have the most leverage to get compensation.

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