If a student, soon to complete a PhD, is not ready to enter academia is a year of travel a good option? Assuming that academic route is still interesting after the year will post-doc positions (leading to tenure-track) still be a viable option?

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    Why not travel and study? As in do a post doc in another part of the world. – Stephen Tierney Sep 10 '13 at 3:19
  • Looks to be a duplicate of this which has already been closed for being too broad. This is, too. – EnergyNumbers Sep 10 '13 at 12:52
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    I disagree that this question is too broad to be beyond salvage. The "A-vs-B" formulation is not optimal, I admit, but it's very valid and relevant question to those who are close to the dissertation. I will try to reformulate for the sake of saving the question – posdef Sep 11 '13 at 11:28
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    Start submitting to conferences in foreign countries. – Fomite Oct 14 '13 at 15:04
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    I took a decade between high school and college to travel the world with a backpack. While I don't necessarily condone that long of a break, I am a big fan of taking a breather between academic steps. For me, the traveling shaped my character and allowed me to see what I truly was passionate about. And today I am still pursuing that passion. – Jonathan Landrum Oct 15 '13 at 20:09

Although I envy a PhD graduate who has the funds left after obtaining a doctorate to pursue a year of travel, I don't think this is a good idea (unless your degree is in anthropology, in which case it's probably a great idea!) Some thoughts:

  1. You are at a tenuous position in your career -- you've reached a peak (not necessarily the top-most peak), and you are very prepared for academia (although possibly not mentally, as you allude). Your degree has a half-life of sorts -- others will continue to do research in your field while you jet-set the world, and your own work will start to get stale. Now is the best chance you're going to have to convince people who may want to hire you that you're a candidate at the tip of the spear, so to speak.

  2. While a year is not too long, your letter-writers aren't going to have as fresh a picture of you from which to paint their glowing recommendations. You can mitigate this by asking for letters now, but you'll want them to review the letters a year from now (and change the date!) when they do submit them for applications.

  3. Academia can be a fierce environment, as you've probably learned during your candidate years, and possibly why you don't feel you're ready. But, removing yourself from the process for a year doesn't help your case in academia, except to possibly calm your spirits in order to be reinvigorated in a year. Although not universal, the people working the hardest get the best jobs.

All of that said: do what you feel is best for you. If you're not ready for academia, by all means remove yourself from the process for as much time as you need. Better to have a harder time getting a post-doc in a year than to spend a year burning out on something you're not prepared to do.

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    Good balanced answer, but I have one addition; in some cases money for postdoc funding is limited to PhD degrees not older than e.g. 3 or 4 years, so by taking a year off you decrease your application period for those by one year. – fileunderwater Sep 10 '13 at 9:02
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    Many "clocks/counters" will not stop just because you're "taking a break". In effect, one would be giving all one's competitors a year's head start, etc. – paul garrett Sep 11 '13 at 12:38

Maybe this is a difference between fields (my experience is math in the US) but this sounds like a totally insane thing to do. Having a year with no job or affiliation your resume looks terrible, and it doesn't matter if you tell people that traveling unemployed was your choice, no one will believe you. Actually, it's probably better if they don't because if they do believe you, it will just make you look like more of a flake.

It sounds like an especially bad plan, since there's an obviously superior option, which is wait another year to get your degree; I'm not sure I recommend this either (it depends a lot on whether it will annoy your advisor), but in general taking a year off before graduating is much better than taking a year off afterwards. When you complete your degree is your timestamp; it will stick with you for the rest of your career.

  • 1
    Absolutely. It's not as though one can "do a time-out". – paul garrett Sep 12 '13 at 0:40
  • What about a one year baby break? Does that also look insane on a (maths) CV geared towards tenure track? – Matt N. Nov 28 '14 at 6:14
  • @MattN. That's easier to justify; I admit I've never seen such a thing before, so I can't say how people react to it. This is going sound horrible (I want to emphasize that this is strategic advice, not a statement about how the world should be), but I think if you're a man, you can probably get away with it. That said, I think it would be much better if you remain officially in your Ph.D. program another year. Often you can do things like not registering for classes (this assumes you're OK not getting paid for a year, but I assume that was built into your assumption from the start). – Ben Webster Nov 28 '14 at 7:33
  • I'm not even sure an entire year is really necessary, I have no experience in having children. So you reckon a woman can't "get away with it"? Thanks for the advice with remaining in my PhD program. I'm not sure though whether it would look worse: isn't a really short PhD time a sign of a good student? Adding a year would make me look less clever. – Matt N. Nov 28 '14 at 7:40
  • @MattN. Lots of studies suggest that mens' careers are boosted by having children, and womens' are harmed. I think there's a lot of (mostly unconscious) discrimination against mothers, and I think taking a year off would just draw attention to the issue (in a way that I don't necessarily think taking some kind of parental leave but still being officially employed would). Having a year missing on your CV will stick out like a sore thumb and people will pay disproportionate attention to whatever you were doing then. – Ben Webster Dec 5 '14 at 2:32

I am doing math, and I took a gap year last year. From a purely scientific viewpoint (I do not know about career/hiring committees/politics) I think sabbatical holidays are possible, and even advisable in some cases, if you have a solid and "marketable" research project, and if you can work alone.

In math, most of your value is derived from the theorems that you proved, not from the places you spent your time.

Do you think that Perelman would have solved the Poincare conjecture if he took a postdoc (or some other position in academia)? Postdocs would have been harmful for him: teaching loads, seminars, academic responsabilities, annoying colleagues...

I obtained my best papers during my gap year (almost solved an open problem). My productivity is skyrocketing, and this is why I will take a second gap year this year (I turned off "good" postdoc offers, with good money, but in quite boring countries, which I would have had to leave after 1-2 years anyway, no opportunity to settle, waste of time). No teaching, no seminars, no interferences. Supervisors can sometimes give bad advice, try to disturb you, and I have a good research project, I prefer to work on my own (but I come back every 3-6 months to my advisors at home to show him my new theorems, and I am going to spend 1 month at a university in the US, to get recommendation letters, and meet people).

If you cannot get a post-doc at Princeton, NJ (which is probably a boring place anyway), I think the second best working conditions are probably in Pattaya, Thailand (or some other place of your dreams), you will find inspiration and a stimulating environment (notice that math conferences are always organized in touristic places, for this reason). You will be happy, and therefore, inspired and scientifically ambitious.

There are universities almost anywhere in the world, with smart and educated people, so if you can give some lectures at the local university, they will be happy to meet a foreigner, a fellow scientist, and even sometimes, give you unexpected job opportunities (not competitive for the 'global academic market', but still decent for local life, and probably still better than being a high school teacher in your home country). Local scientists are probably as useful as colleagues of your postdoc: it is like doing a "non-paid" postdoc.

So besides traveling to countries I like, discover cultures and people that I like, develop myself as a person, in countries where life is amazingly cheap, meet some people happy (and others not so happy) with less than $200/month, I think I can also develop my research projects, and even broaden my job opportunities.

Mentally speaking, 1 year of holidays, doing nothing, is too much anyway (I cannot take more than 2-3 months of holidays in a row), so you will need some kind of intellectual activity, do something of your day (if no distraction is around), and you will naturally get back to your scientific pursuits.

Postdocs are short-term contracts anyway (it is not as crazy as dumping a permanent position), they are used as disposable commodities by senior mentors for their own scientific interests.

Postdoc traps are denounced by everyone, so I prefer to fall in my own 'holiday' trap. There will certainly be gaps in my CV (filled with great papers anyway), some hiring committees will not appreciate (probably out of jealousy), but it puts even more pressure to do good work (to justify my "holidays", to my consicence at least). Hiring committees are very random anyway, so they are not worth sacrificing my happiness: it is now or never.

  • 4
    "Do you think that Perelman would have solved the Poincare conjecture if he took a postdoc (or some other position in academia)?" Yes. This is not a counterfactual question: Perelman did take a postdoc at Courant, and he was employed at the Steklov Institute for many years. I believe this employment covers most or all of his work on the Poincare Conjecture. – Pete L. Clark Feb 16 '14 at 18:10
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    By the way, as the years roll by, it would be helpful for people trying to evaluate the worth of this nontraditional advice if you identified yourself. – Pete L. Clark Feb 16 '14 at 18:11
  • Does it need to be a whole year?

  • Maybe a certain creativity and a good grasp of when there is a chance to take a longer break helps:

    • After graduation (Diplom/master) I went abroad to work for half a year, and then took off 2 more months for traveling before returning to my old institute. My professor made me sign the contract for afterwards before I left for those 8 months.
      Maybe you could apply for a postdoc, but put the possible start of the affiliation some months later.
    • Later, I managed to get one free month when changing positions. Took quite hard negotiations (the new institute actually wanted me to start 4 months earlier, i.e. 3 months before the end of the old contract).
    • One other time, I negotiated for a similar break, but it didn't work out that way.

    • A postdoc colleague of mine managed to get 3 free months between two projects.

  • Obviously this depends very much on how strong your position in the negotiations actually is.

  • What about putting a bunch of visits to other groups into the travel schedule? Enough, so that you also get a bunch of research stays and a whole lot of networking out of that year. In my field, few people object to visitors who come on their own money and sincerely try to start collaborations.


I can answer your question because I was at the similar situation.

  1. It all depends on the type of your field, and how well you did during your PhD. For example, you did your PhD in electronics, and your supervisor is a well known researcher in this field. In this case I would say do not take one year off and look for a job/postdoc.

  2. However, if you did your PhD in a okish manner, your supervisor is kind of well known, and you didn't publish high rank papers and journals, DO NOT do a postdoc right away. This is because most definitely you will not get a good postdoc position from a high rank supervisor and you will waste your time running around trying to please your postdoc boss (saw many cases like this). In this case you MUST take a year off, and think about your life in general. Doing a postdoc is not the solution for a person with a weak background in his/her field. It is much better to do a 9 to 5 job in industry than to do a postdoc with uncertain future.

Be honest with yourself and choose between these two!

Good luck

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