My husband got a math PhD in 2009, and could not get a research post-doc in his chosen field. We had young children at that point, and he spent two years as a lecturer, applied for hundreds of jobs, and finally took a tenure-track job at a teaching university. Now, he honestly believes that a research position is impossible for him. He loves to teach, but hates the endless grind of "administrivia", the low pay, and the mental laziness of the students he's required to teach.
I have insisted on him getting counselling, but he refuses to take anyone's encouragement that other jobs are possible, saying things like, "You just don't know the academic world. If I go to the NSA, no one will hire me in an academic position. If I become an actuary (because we do need more money) then all of my time will be sucked into studying for exams, and I still won't be able to do research." In his mind, no one in our circle of loved ones has the authority or experience to give him accurate encouragement. Is a research position possible after spending time at a teaching university? Would he be able to get back into academia if he had to leave to do actuarial work/industry/something that helps pay the bills?


He spoke with a mentor of his from undergrad, and was given incredibly specific guidance on where to go from here. His teaching load is so heavy, (4/4 or 4/3) and the mentor gave him a few places to apply to in his field where the teaching load is more conducive to some research, but is not at a research-specific university. (3/3 or even 3/2!!!) He plans on speaking to his advisor, getting some glowing letters of recommendation, and starting a job search soon.

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    I am insisting on him getting counseling — Good for you.
    – JeffE
    Jun 2, 2013 at 9:09
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    What an interesting story! @guestwife Any update? What's his situation now? Feb 8, 2020 at 0:29

6 Answers 6


The situation you describe is unfortunately common. It is an unfortunate reality that the number of people well qualified for research jobs is greater than the number of jobs.

A few notes:

  • Hiring committees will be looking for good publications, and for recommendation letters coming from leaders in the field attesting to your husband's impact and further potential. If he continues to do good research, publish it in well-known venues, and speak about it at conferences, then he has a good chance. If not, then unfortunately he is competing with people who are.

  • Most of the complaints you mention are common at research jobs as well. I teach at a large state university, where we have our share of poorly prepared students, and/or students who are just going through the motions. Indeed a Harvard professor once quipped to me that "we have remedial classes here, too".

  • I do know people who have successfully moved from one teaching position to a different teaching position, and been much happier afterwards. Some departments have more motivated students, pay better, and/or do a better job of keeping the paperwork down, and your husband could look for one of these.

  • I know people who have taken a variety of non-academic mathematical jobs, and for the most part they are quite happy with them!

The bottom line is that your husband can probably get a research job if he can sustain a very strong research program during the interim. Otherwise, there are likely to be appealing alternatives as well.

Good luck!

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    Thank you! This is very helpful, specific, and encouraging.
    – guestwife
    Jun 2, 2013 at 0:21

Is a research position possible after spending time at a teaching university?

Yes, it's possible. There's a mild stigma to applying from a teaching university, since it advertises lack of success getting a research job in the past. Because of the high ratio of candidates to positions, academic hiring is often risk averse and the perception that nobody else wants a candidate will worry search committees. However, this can be overcome.

One thing to keep in mind is that the past difficulties could simply have been bad luck. Even very strong candidates typically do not get many job offers, and bad luck can easily change "a few" into "zero".

It's possible to strengthen one's application by writing additional papers, but this generally requires better papers or more papers per year, since search committees will normalize for time: if you've spent longer they will expect more. However, the focus is more on the future than the past. If you have a productive few years and show signs of maintaining that productivity in the future, it can make up for fallow periods in the past. If you quit publishing, then the chances of a research job will rapidly drop to zero until you resume publishing. (There are a lot of people who would like to do research but aren't prepared to actually do it, since they aren't up on the current research literature. You can't get a research job unless you demonstrate that you aren't one of these people.)

In an ideal world, search committees would also normalize for the applicants' circumstances. For example, research productivity at a teaching university would be viewed as evidence that the candidate would be even more productive at a research university. Unfortunately, in practice these effects are often underestimated or not taken into account at all.

One possibility is that there's something wrong with your husband's application. For example, maybe his research statement is not compelling, or one of his letter writers is insufficiently supportive, or maybe one of them does not know how to write an effective letter of recommendation. (You'd think that should never happen, but some well-established mathematicians simply do not know how to write effective recommendation letters. If his thesis advisor is one of them, and the other letter writers are less energetic since they assume the advisor will make a strong case, then it could be really bad for his job search.) I'd guess that 5-10% of job applicants have something seriously wrong with their application that they seem totally unaware of. This is a low fraction, so your husband probably isn't one of them, but if possible he should discuss all aspects of his application with a trusted mentor who has guided numerous students to the sort of job your husband would like. Sadly, he may not have such a mentor, but it's good to keep an eye out for one. For example, if he strikes up a conversation at a conference with a senior mathematician who seems approachable, it's worth asking for job search advice.

He thought a hiring committee would scoff at the lower output of papers done by someone in a teaching job vs. someone churning out problems in a research post-doc. He even wondered if not having "XYZ Awesome Post-Doc" on his CV would trump any research he did.

Lower productivity because of other duties is a serious factor here. The CV prestige issue is real but considerably less important: prestige might serve as a tie breaker but won't get anyone a job if their actual accomplishments aren't commensurate.

Letters of recommendation will be by far the most important factor. What your husband needs is really strong letters that address his circumstances, talk about how impressive his research is and why, and explicitly make the case that he belongs at a research university. Letter writers generally recycle letters from year to year with some updates to incorporate recent papers. If his letters are not updated to address the teaching/research university issue, then they will not help him. In particular, if they don't say in strong terms that he ought to be at a research university, then they'll be viewed as damning him with faint praise.

This is something he can discuss with each letter writer, along these lines: "As you know, I've been working at University X for the last couple of years. It's great to be in a tenure-track job, but I'd really like to work at a research university. To move to one, I'll need letters of recommendation that address this issue and make a strong case that I should be at a research university. Would you be comfortable writing such a letter for me? Of course I'll understand if you can't write one, since I know I'm asking a lot, but I'd rather ask someone else than waste everyone's time with an application that doesn't have the support it needs."

This is an awkward conversation, but it's much better to ask than to leave it to chance.

Would he be able to get back into academia if he had to leave to do actuarial work/industry/something that helps pay the bills?

It's possible he could get another teaching-oriented job, although it's by no means a sure thing. It would help a lot if he could spin the other work as informing his teaching. For example, he could teach actuarial mathematics or incorporate realistic industrial applications. In that case the non-academic experience could be an advantage; otherwise applying from outside academia would put him at a moderate disadvantage.

Unfortunately, the chances of getting a research-oriented academic job from industry are low (assuming the industrial job is not at a prestigious research lab like Bell Labs). There are people who have done it, but it's not likely or easy. Few people can maintain a high-quality research program on the side with no support while holding a full-time job, and this is necessary for returning to a research university. In particular, there's virtually no chance of returning based solely on having done research in the past, without having actively continued in the meantime.

The way it typically plays out is that you reluctantly go to industry intending to maintain your research and keep applying for academic jobs. For the first year or two, you complete and write up work you began in academia, and it feels like everything is going well, but your job applications don't do any better than they had before: you've got a more substantial research track record, but your industrial position emphasizes your inability to get a job in the past. Still, you figure that accumulating more papers will eventually tip the balance in your favor. Unfortunately, the next few years don't go as well. It's hard to find the time for research, you have few people to talk to or derive inspiration from, and progress is slow. However, you're gradually getting somewhere, so you figure it will just take a little longer. A few years after that, you start to lose your resolve to do research at all. Even if your applications were successful, would you really want to take a 50% pay cut, give up your job security, and move to another city to restart your career? And it's hard to keep your focus on an incredibly time-consuming hobby that seems like it may never lead anywhere professionally. You quit applying to anything but dream jobs you're pretty sure you won't get, and eventually you give up on them as well.

The good news is that this path doesn't generally end in depression, but rather the discovery that there are plenty of fulfilling life paths outside of research universities. It's by no means a bad outcome. However, leaving academia for industry can be really stressful if you want to return to a research university, since you have to either give up or work like hell to maintain your research program.

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    An absolutely fantastic answer! Everything you write really rings true to me. The answer is grounded in the hard realities -- but also encouraging. Anyway, I just wanted to post a note of appreciation for these words of wisdom.
    – D.W.
    Jun 2, 2013 at 18:15

I'm going to disagree a little bit with the other answers. This is a frustrating situation. Unfortunately, as Anonymous stated, the number of qualified mathematicians exceeds the number of academic research positions. This makes a difficult position.

I fear your husband might have accurately assessed the situation. While I appreciate the suggestion others made of continuing to do research on his own time, this is very difficult. If you have a full-time non-research position and a family, that doesn't leave a lot of time for research -- so it's very hard to sustain a level of research output that will be competitive with the competition. Also, others who do have a research faculty position may have students and collaborators, which further boosts their research output; your husband won't have that advantage. So, while in principle your husband could continue research on his own time to try to build a research portfolio in hopes that this leads to a tenure-track academic research position, in practice your husband is at a disadvantage. He would be climbing up a steep hill.

My suggestion would be for him to get advice from someone more senior who he respects. Is it worth his time for him to continue his research on his own time, and continue applying to hundreds of research positions each year for the next few years? Maybe, or maybe it's a waste of time.

Alternatively, perhaps he might consider other career alternatives. Rather than being entirely set on an academic research position, maybe he should consider other career paths. Even if he has his mind set on an academic research position right now, I suspect there are a number of other directions where he could be happy. Maybe he should consider the actuarial path, or consider a NSA job? Or consider Wall Street (a job in the financial sector)? Maybe he could teach himself computer programming on his own time and pursue a job in the computing industry? Perhaps there are other opportunities. This kind of change is scary and requires some courage, which is undoubtedly especially difficult when you are depressed: your support will undoubtedly be helpful to him.

A third option is to find things to love in his current teaching position. I certainly sympathize with the trials; they are real, and a drag, to be sure. On the other hand, there's a lot to love about teaching, too. You get to help young students discover the beauty of mathematics: even if it's just one out of a class of 30 students who finds a real passion, that can be very satisfying and rewarding. Unfortunately, the administrivia and the laziness of students is a constant in academia and would probably be present even if he found a research position; the trick with dealing with them is to find other things in his life that are rewarding and satisfying, and focus on them. For instance, perhaps he might enjoy doing math research in his own time, not with the goal or any illusions that it will lead to any research position, but entirely for its own sake: for the love and pleasure and beauty of it. Or maybe he might offer to set up a special enrichment seminar or program for students who do love math to learn more: maybe run a program to prepare for the Putnam exam or Math Olympiad. If he offers to do this on his own time, as an overload, I imagine his department chair would jump at the opportunity, and it might provide a chance to do something rewarding and fulfilling for him and be a great inspiration to a few students. Or maybe he might find something else in his job that is rewarding and worth doing.

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    Very true on this point: administrivia and the laziness of students is a constant in academia - teachers often think it is only the students at this school who are lazy...yet many students are like this.
    – earthling
    Jun 2, 2013 at 7:41
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    He actually applied to the NSA and made it through a good deal of the rigor, before being offered a tenure-track job with a teaching university. The NSA and actuarial work are both options still on the table. When the post-doc didn't go through, his advisor offered to connect him to someone in the financial sector. The truth is that he does have lots of options. I think the worst thing he's had to deal with is a lack of credible information on whether the research option was dead or not. Thank you.
    – guestwife
    Jun 2, 2013 at 18:26

Yes. It is possible. Because I know this guy who had been in exactly the same situation except that he got his math Ph.D. a few years earlier than your husband, and got a job at a reputable research university. If he's somehow believing that a prestigious postdoc position is necessary, I know a person who ended up in a gratuitous position for a short while and then landed on a very prestigious postdoc job in math. In both cases, they had strong publication records and also convinced other researchers in the same fields that they are something.

Of course, there must be way more math Ph.D.'s who wanted jobs at research universities but got stuck somewhere else than those who succeeded. So, it's true that, statistically speaking, chances are very slim, especially if he himself doesn't think he can make it. But there are things he's in control of, and he can make the probability fatter. Do good research, publish it, and show others what you're made of.

Ah, I almost forgot. If he's looking for a job this year in combinatorics, information theory, coding theory or quantum information science, well, sorry, but he should wait another year. There is a talking duckling in California looking for that sort of job this year, and that duckling should get it. I know your kids are super cute, and they want their dad to be happy, too. But this duckling is even cuter. If your husband's field is different, then no problem. Kick his butt and tell him to apply to as many jobs as possible with his awesome publication list he's going to develop and strong recommendation letters he's going to get (unless his depression needs a professional help. In that case, that should be fixed first, I think). Good luck!

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    Ah, no, the duckling is definitely safe from competition from my hubby. :) Completely different fields. But that's a dadgum cute duckling, and may it find an awesome job.
    – guestwife
    Jun 2, 2013 at 2:15

I am in a very similar situation as your husband, as a high school teacher very much wishing to be in research. So, I can empathise with your husband's and your dilemma (as it definitely affects family and friends as well).

Everyone's situation is different, but I can tell you how I cope in general. Knowing that postdocs are few and far between, I cope by continuing my own research as much as I can in the spare time I have - getting papers published and continuing to build my research profile.

Research positions are indeed possible after teaching, but as an insurance I would advise still publishing work and developing his research profile.

I hope this helps (and I hope good luck finds you and your husband).

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    Thank you so much, and I hope your research pays off as well. :) It absolutely does help.
    – guestwife
    Jun 2, 2013 at 0:24

I've not read other opinions however here is mine,

Since your husband wants to do research in Math, he is lucky, because he does not require high end instruments to do his stuff. So he basically can do research wherever and whenever he wants, meaning, he need not be in a specific place to do his research. In the mean time he can get employed in a place where he can earn money using his skills.

So while his research is done at home, he can work elsewhere till he feels that his research has matured enough to require a lot of attention. Once his work is publicized I'm sure there will be a lot of people to come forward and assist. Some of us developers use and believe in open technology as the future, hence we publish whatever we do for the benefit of the world. He can create a blog to update the world about his research.

He can use social media to find and meet people with similar interests or even conduct teaching sessions to people whom he wants to teach for a fee or for free. Example Google hangouts. Using the internet will give him better exposure than the closed walls of any university.

I help my father with his automobile business and then follow my passion at home, I don't know if any of my work is worthy of being called research but bits of it I publicize is certainly helping people who wants to learn :) .

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    Once his work is publicized I'm sure there will be a lot of people to come forward and assist. — I think this is overly optimistic. Of course, if the work is a truly groundbreaking, then lots of people will come forward to collaborate (not "assist"). But very little research is truly groundbreaking, and people are busy.
    – JeffE
    Jun 2, 2013 at 21:28

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