I got a PhD in mathematics three years ago, and am currently a post-doc. My appointment is due to finish this August, so I am now looking for a new job.

My dream job would be a permanent faculty position in my home country. The problem is that in my home country, the recruitment calendar is considerably later than the international average: if an offer comes, it could be in mid- to late May (most likely) or possibly even June (if I have to wait for people above me in the shortlist to step aside). Also, the competition is very tough; even though my CV (as far as I can judge) seems fairly good, there is a real possibility that I will not get any such position this year.

If I cannot get a permanent position, I would like to do a second post-doc (somewhere in Europe). But the calendar for post-docs, on the other hand, is much earlier: based on my experience so far, it seems that the vast majority of offers that I could get would have a reply deadline somewhere in February.

All of this puts me in a tight spot:

  • either I could sit idle until the permanent position interviews; and only if I fail all of them, start looking for a post-doc. But the chances of finding, in June, a post-doc to start in September seem fairly slim. If I did this, I am genuinely scared I would end up as a high-school teacher.
  • or I could apply to post-docs now, and accept one of the offers without telling them anything; then quietly go to the permanent position interviews, and if I pass one of them, renege on the post-doc I had already accepted and take the permanent position instead. But this raises obvious ethical issues.

Of course backing out of a commitment on a job A to take a better offer B is usually frowned upon. However I think I heard people saying that the case when A is a post-doc and B is a permanent position is exceptional, and that in this case such behaviour can be forgiven. Still, I would feel more comfortable if I had more opinions about this. If you were in this situation, what would you do?

Anticipating some objections:

  • Applying to post-docs now, all while being upfront with them about my parallel permanent position search, seems more or less equivalent to not applying at all. In fact there is already a post-doc position that I failed to get for this very reason (this position actually was in my home country, so I could not hide anything from them).
  • From what I have heard, requests to postpone the permanent position's starting date by a year so that I could do my post-doc are usually not granted (since they need someone to teach their classes).

(This question: Accepted post-doc and have subsequently received offers for full time faculty position - quandary is similar, but their exact situation seems somewhat different.)

  • Have you talked to other people from your country who must have gone through the same situation? Is it extremely unusual for people from your country to do postdocs abroad? Jan 22, 2018 at 21:27
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    One option is accepting another postdoc and still applying. Often, many permanent posts are happy pushing the start date back a year. You could do one year at the new postdoc and then start the permanent position the following year?
    – T K
    Jan 22, 2018 at 22:29
  • @Noah Snyder: Yes I have talked to some of them, though not a lot. Doing postdocs abroad is certainly common; only exceptionally strong or exceptionally lucky people can get a position right after completing their PhD. I have gotten the impression that the standard procedure is to apply anyway, then back out as needed. But I would like to hear an opinion on this from the post-doc employers' perspective. @T K: from what I have heard, among the permanent positions I am applying to, most do not accept such requests. Apparently they cannot afford to have an unfilled teaching role for a year. Jan 22, 2018 at 22:48
  • One of the points to bear in mind is that you'll be forcing the person who would have gotten the post-doc in your stead to plan for not having the position - which might be quite difficult for them.
    – einpoklum
    Jan 22, 2018 at 22:53

3 Answers 3


Getting a permanent position is the goal of every post-doc. That a post-doc is applying for such positions and will leave as soon as an application is successful (which is a quite rare and lucky event) is expected. No need to delay applying for post-doc positions or telling anyone about your plans to apply for permanent positions. You also won't tell them about that lotto ticket you plan to buy, will you?


First of all, at least in my field (CS) there are no fixed or preferred dates for hiring post-docs or faculty members. Positions are open when someone retires (in case of faculty positions) or an institution recieves funding to finance a post-doc position. But it might be different in your home country and in mathematics. But let's take the situation description as given and proceed from that.

For every institution in academia it is clear, that post-doc positions are for further qualification (as long as you don't have many permanent post-doc positions), so it is very natural for post-docs to leave as soon as they are having a chance for a faculty position. In fact it is even a honour, if someone from your group recieves a faculty position.

On the other hand, there are things to do for a post-doc and it is not helpful, if someone leaves a few month after starting. I would assume that this will be a point in your interviews for post-doc positions! As I saif: people are aware of your situation.

So in my opinion, the best way would be to

  1. be honest about your intentions in the post-doc interviews. People want to hire people who want to achieve something and are eager to work hard for a goal - so your ambitions for a faculty position are a strong omtivator to do the job right!

  2. Give them a perspective which is longer then 3 month. Offer for example at least one year of your time, and try to postpone the start of the faculty position.

If the faculty position is not offering such flexibility, you will have to have a difficult conversation about why you want to quit earlier, but in the long run, everybody will understand.

  • Of course, I am not happy for myself if my postdoc leaves before starting. But, of course, if I am a sensible employer, I will be happy for them (and having confirmed to have a meritocratic interview process) Feb 1, 2018 at 12:38

I would not say it is a major issue to back up from a postdoc position for a permanent position. It is a job market after all. However, as pointed out above, you have to be honest with a prospective mentor that there may be a possibility that you get a more attractive offer that you would accept.

I was somehow in a similar position after I completed a Phd in mathematics in France. In France, offers for permanent positions are also made in May up to June. I started a two years postdoc in Austria in January, but got an offer for my dream position in May. So, I accepted the offer from France and backed up from the postdoc position in Austria after 6 months. There were no issues at all. They were able to use the remaining funds to hire a new postdoc. In my field, specially if the "postdoc money" comes from a grant, it is easy to reopen a position if a postdoc accepts another offer. However, if the money comes from the University, it may be more difficult for the mentor, hence the importance of being honest.

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