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I'm currently in my first postdoctoral research position at a European university, in pure maths. I'm considering changing to software development. In case I would rather like to return to academia, how hard is it, as compared to trying to stay in academia right away?

The two scenarios I'd like to compare are:

  1. Finishing my current postdoc and apply for new postdocs (let's assume that all relevant application deadlines are still in the future).

  2. Finishing my current postdoc, working n years in software development and then apply for new postdocs.

How big does n have to become such that the chances of application success in the second scenario are significantly lower?

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    This question was definitely asked by a mathematician. – SH7890 Feb 9 '18 at 23:16
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The possibility of getting a postdoc starts to drop rapidly as you become farther away from your PhD, regardless of what you are doing in the meantime. This goes double (or triple) if some of that time is spent without having publications.

What is your end goal? Certainly not to hop from postdoc to postdoc for the rest of your life. Answering this question will probably help you decide what to do. Take another postdoc if you are hoping to become a professor or academic researcher. Take a software development position if you are wanting to leave academia. Don't hold on to too much hope of being able to go back to academia in pure math after leaving for more than a year.

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    Yes, the point is not so much that you'd become incompetent, but that other people would probably have better-looking track records to compete for (the too-few-for-qualified-applicants) post-doc positions. As with other of these things, it's not about "being sufficiently qualified", because there are far too many sufficiently qualified people for all the spots. It's "being more qualified than the other people who are already well-qualified..." – paul garrett Feb 10 '18 at 1:17
  • "What is your end goal?" FWIW, I want to try software development in order to find out whether it suits me better. But since I have no experience in working as a software developer (only developed academically and as a hobby), I can't say for sure that I'll prefer it, and might want to switch back. – Turion Feb 10 '18 at 17:41
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    @Turion If you can get a software development position, it will certainly pay better and have a lot more job security than a postdoc. If you will want to keep your options open in terms of going back to academia, you should keep submitting publications and not let there be more than a one year gap in your (academic) CV. – Morgan Rodgers Feb 10 '18 at 20:57
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I think this would be effectively impossible with n>1. Many postdoc positions in math have a formal requirement that applicants have completed their PhDs within the last k years, with k usually equal to 3 or 4. Even when this is not a formal condition, the culture in math postdoc hiring makes it very unlikely that you will be seen as a competitive candidate for another postdoc after 2 or more years away from academia, unless perhaps your record is so strong already that you can be considered seriously for tenure track positions even now (in which case you should apply for those positions and not postdoc positions anyway).

With n=1 I think you may have a realistic chance, especially if you can offer a convincing explanation of what you were trying to achieve with the software development “gap year”, and especially if you take care to maintain visibility in your research community during your year in industry by continuing to publish and/or going to conferences.

Disclaimer: the above represents my opinion only and I cannot vouch for its accuracy. You should seek opinions from multiple sources before reaching a decision, including trustworthy senior people who are more familiar with your personal situation and goals. Anyway, good luck!

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So, you basically want to leave the academia for N years and then to return back. While this is possible, mind that you would have a publication gap of N years that might affect your standing greatly.

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