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I'm in the following situation: In 3 months, I'll finish my PhD in theoretical physics, and I'm certain that I want to pursue an academic career. However, I'm just as certain that my PhD research is a dead end. (My advisor doesn't think so, but I disagree with him.) Thus, I seek to change the direction of my research, but I need a few months to obtain the necessary skills. Anyway, I missed the main application period for post-doc positions (in the US).

Given the following options (feel free to expand this list), which do you think provides the best perspective of leading me to a interesting post-doc position?

  1. Finish my PhD. Get any post-doc position. Do the work I'm required to do there. Work hard in my spare time to teach myself the stuff I want to. After 1-2 years, find a post-doc position I'm really interested in.
  2. Finish my PhD. Get a well-paying job in the software industry. Do the work I'm required to do there. Work hard in my spare time to teach myself the stuff I want to. Work harder to keep publishing papers. After one year, find a post-doc position I'm really interested in.
  3. Abort my current work. Find a new subject and a new PhD advisor.
  4. Live on unemployment money as long as possible. Work hard in my spare time to teach myself the stuff I want to. Work harder to keep publishing papers. After one year, find a post-doc position I'm really interested in.

Pros:

  1. Get the PhD title sooner. Stay in the scientific community.
  2. Get the PhD title sooner. Earn lots of money (6 figure). In a 9-to-5 job, have more spare time for private research than on a post-doc position, where work is never finished. Go to a foreign country.
  3. It's what I should've done 2 years ago. I'll have the education I want when I finish my PhD, not later (but be older anyway).
  4. No immediate advantages over the other options.

Cons:

  1. If a logical continuation of my PhD work, I'll suffer from demotivation. My next advisor will not want me to work on other topics that I'm not paid for. Might have to stay for 2 years.
  2. I'll move out of the scientific community for some time. I know it's hard to get back in.
  3. I'll be even older when I finally get my PhD. Not sure if I would find another advisor. Open fight with my current advisor.
  4. I don't want to live on unemployment money for long.

A particular question concerning the options above: Does being out of academia for a year kill your prospects of obtaining a postdoc position later?

I do have some collaborators who will help me to keep publishing, provided that I put enough work into my research. Also, I'm willing to familiarize myself with other topics on my own (a prerequisite for an academic career anyway).

The next application period will be from October to December 2013, which isn't far away. I'm sure I'll have most of the skills I want by then (and a paper published proving that), but still would have to work until summer 2014 wherever I am applying now.

Please give me honest answers, even if they hurt. I'll provide more information as soon as possible, if anyone has questions.

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Depending on your department's policies, it seems that there is a fifth option: Delay graduation until next year without changing thesis topics; use the additional year to expand your skill set and to apply to the post-doc positions you really want in next year's application season. –  Jeff Feb 14 '13 at 15:54
    
Hi, and welcome to Academia. Note that Academia SE is a Q&A site, not an arbitrary forum. Therefore I suggest to state more clearly: What exactly is your question? –  gerrit Feb 14 '13 at 16:12
    
My department certainly allows delaying graduation. My advisor does not. It's been a fight with him anyway, which I'm losing. –  user1586001 Feb 14 '13 at 16:56
    
why does your advisor insist you graduate ? is it a funding issue ? –  Suresh Feb 14 '13 at 18:28
    
My funding runs out, and he has a strict policy of how long a PhD may take. –  user1586001 Feb 14 '13 at 20:38
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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

As one of my advisors once told me,

The best dissertation is one that is written.

Tounge-and-cheek as it may be, I would strongly advise finishing up your PhD first, especially if you can do it in three months. If you have doubts about whether your committee will approve your work, then you should be having that conversation very frequently (at least once a week, if not more) with the committee members that you think will have an issue with the work.

If you are indeed "certain [you] want to pursue an academic career," choice (2) may be the hardest path. I've known a number of people who were certain they wanted to move back into academia after working in industry, but they didn't publish enough once they had a full-time non-academic job, and they weren't competitive for future academic positions.

Choice (3) would be a soul-killer if I were in that position. To see the finish line three months away and then scrap it for 2-3 more years of work? Not for me.

Choice (4) would probably be the worst decision -- every day you stay unemployed lessens the chance someone would eventually hire you (although maybe there are a ton of post-docs in your field). Proving that you've learned these things on your own is difficult, although you would have more time to publish (but will you have a university association still?).

Tough choices all around, but I suggest finishing up the PhD at least.

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Thank you for your motivating answer! I don't have any doubts that the committee will approve my graduation. (3) is a soul killer for me, too. (4) means more time (assuming I keep publishing), but lots of other problems. (1) and (2) both mean little time for my own interests. During my PhD, it has been hard for me to clearly draw a line between work and spare time. That might be easier with option (2), but I definitely see that (1) makes it easier to stay in touch with researchers. Anyway, it's become clear to me that changing fields will be double work in any case. –  user1586001 Feb 15 '13 at 16:38
    
@user1586001 Good luck with the decision! Breaking into academia is tough, and you may have to continue to work on things other than your own interests for the time being. –  Chris Gregg Feb 15 '13 at 18:18
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In my experience, when you start a post-doc, you will start working on a topic that is rather different from what you did in your PhD. This is often simply the case because you will be working for someone new who has different research objectives. Some shifting of topic is not only permitted, it is required.

For example, in computer science, if you did your PhD on programming languages you could continue your post-doc research on another aspect of programming languages, though it would be less likely that you could do a post-doc in machine learning.

Think broadly about what your skill set is and be willing to learn new skills on the job when you start a post-doc. Your new boss will expect that you know how to perform research (at a high level), though s/he will generally not expect that you know every single detail about the research you will be employed to do.

Regarding the application position for post-doc positions. In Europe, for example, these are heavily tied to various funding bodies, and in my experience, these are available (at different places) pretty much all year round. The season(s) for each country will vary.

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Programming languages vs. machine learning: This describes pretty well the magnitude of the change I'm planning. –  user1586001 Feb 14 '13 at 16:52
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Some postdoctoral advisors have a policy of intentionally making their postdocs do something radically different from their previous experience. I know that was certainly the case with my postdoc—I had to start on a brand new technique and a completely different problem than the one I was expecting to work on!

So, there really is no problem with jumping into a new field, if you find the right advisor. I also don't believe that there's an absolute "window"—some people may still have spots available; it's a question of being the right fit for the right project with the right advisor.

You might also have some other options available to you at your current department—is it possible that they can keep you on as an instructor? That way, you could have a little bit more of a cushion to look for your postdoctoral position, while not having to worry about having to take a job out of total desperation.

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I believe you that jumping into a new field isn't a problem with the right advisor. The trouble is to find the right advisor. I'm a bit under pressure to find a position (few months left, but can't wait for a year). –  user1586001 Feb 15 '13 at 16:40
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