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I feel like I am at dead end of my career, need some guidance to restart it. Here is my status:

  • Masters in Physics (2009)
  • Industry position (2009-2013)

In the industry position, I learnt machine learning for applications in biology. After four years of work experience, my career reached a saturation level since I was always at back-end due to field mismatch, even though I was excelling in my work, so I decided to pursue PhD in my own field, Physics, to give a boost to my career (not a wise choice I know). I was doing fine in my PhD and then my supervisor left the university for a better opportunity and I had to take up another project delaying my PhD by at least 2 years. During PhD, I have taken one year maternity break as well, followed by juggling between PhD work and baby. Now, somehow I have submitted a mediocre level thesis last month.

  • PhD in Physics (2013-present)

I am 34 years now, with no clarity on what I want to do in career and financially broke since my funding got over more than six months back. Neither I am good at machine learning, nor at my PhD work. I don't have any teaching experience as well to go to academia so I am not sure how will I perform there. Going for postdoc with a two year toddler and at this age also looks daunting. So I have no clue from where should I restart my career. My confidence is at all time low level.

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    Dear negative voter, if you are reading this, may I know the reason for negative vote? I have been following SE and have seen many people posting their issues, so it would be nicer if you can tell me the reason for voting down this question. If it is so off-topic I will remove it. Thanks for your help. – jojo1309 Apr 1 at 14:26
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    Hi sccaahu, it was a research oriented profile and people with PhDs were getting promotions and career growth. I tried for a part time PhD as well while continuing same works but they had tie-ups with only biology department where I was not eligible for admission. Hence, I planned to pursue PhD and move back to my core field. But it didn't work out as expected. – jojo1309 Apr 1 at 14:44
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    Some negative voters explain themselves as a matter of course. Others seldom do. But I've never noticed anyone responding to a plea to explain. It could be anything. Even a stray word. – Buffy Apr 1 at 14:59
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    Not the downvoter but you probably got a downvote because this sort of "what should I do or how should I choose" question is not typically well-received here. There are too many factors and mostly it comes down to "it depends on your circumstances and values." – Bryan Krause Apr 1 at 15:43
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    @Allure That's a terrible abuse of the voting system. I hope you also vote down to cancel out everyone's upvotes... – curiousdannii Apr 1 at 23:45
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You're in the lucky position of having both industry and academic experience. That gives you a much better view of what to do next, and you can use your experience to inform yourself about the better option.

If you go to industry, chances are you'll have a more stable life. You won't have to move as often (possibly never). This could be better not only for you, but also for your child/significant other. You'll be paid more. You'll deal with different kinds of problems. If you're considering this path, I wouldn't worry too much about you being "not good" at machine learning because you've already excelled at your previous role. The odds are also good that you'll have learned something transferable in the course of your PhD.

If you stay in academia, chances are you'll have to move, a lot. Postdocs are transient positions that don't usually last longer than a few years. You'll also usually be paid less - often substantially less - than in industry. On the other hand you'll get to think about blue-skies problems that you might enjoy more, you'll have more flexible hours, and you can often work from home quite easily.

So which option do you want? Only you can make that decision. I'll just suggest one more thing: compare the time you spent in industry (2009-2013) against the time you spent in the PhD (2013-present). If you were stuck in a time loop and had to relive those years again and again, which epoch would you rather relive? I would favour that option.

  • Thanks a lot Allure! This is a nice comparison of both industry and academia jobs. Really appreciate it. It would have been best if both my experiences were in same direction. But currently these are totally out of phase, with nothing common in both. Looks like I will have to let go of either of experience counting PhD years as just a degree. – jojo1309 Apr 2 at 9:19
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Look into getting a government job. DOE labs, NSA, NIH, NASA, etc. Depending on how it works out, can be interesting work. Pay is decent and job security high. Often in desirable cities as well.

I don't think the postdoc makes sense, given your situation. You can apply for industry jobs also, but even here, they may be looking for someone a little more eye of the tiger.

P.s. Don't sweat the mediocre thesis. Pass-fail. Just get the ball across the goal line. Doesn't matter how fancy as long as you get the Ph.D.

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While your path has been difficult, don't think that it leads to a dead end. Others have (and are) traversing similarly difficult situations. But it is probably a mistake to try to do too much on your own.

I'd first suggest that academia is probably a better option for a woman with a young kid. Schedules can be arranged. Universities can sometimes provide day care. Student helpers can be paid to babysit. Some companies have good records recognizing that people have families, but I think that is more rare.

Next, I'd suggest that you try to exploit your contacts as much as possible to find you a suitable position wherever it is. Your current advisor may be able and willing to help, but your previous advisor might also be a good resource, as you were doing well with her/him. People you have met at conferences and such may be able to support you. But try to build up such relationships in any case. Every young (yes, you included) needs a circle of associates with similar interests. Older researchers seem to have these but actually they were built up over time. Other faculty as well, both in your doctoral program and earlier education.

Your age is not an issue. My former spouse started her career at over 40 and did very well (retired now).

  • Thanks Buffy for the encouragement. Yes, I had good rapport with all of my advisors and my acad record have also been good. I have been a topper throughout my academic career, probably that's why it is more demoralizing to end up in such a situation. Liked your suggestion to build up contacts be it industry or academia. Thanks again! – jojo1309 Apr 1 at 16:11
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I'm going to assume your statements about mediocrity are true, though obviously it is difficult to judge oneself.

I would not pursue an academic career. As you are probably aware, academic careers are hyper-competitive. Even getting a post-doc in physics is surprisingly competitive these days. With your academic background, you may not be able to get a spot even if you try. Moreover, there is absolutely no value in doing a post-doc that does not lead to a permanent position. While you may find post-doc work to be fun, you will eventually find a good permanent career that is also fun -- it's a much more efficient use of both money and time to start down the road to a rewarding permanent career now rather than putting it off further. Even permanent spots teaching college are surprisingly competitive, and that does not seem to be a passion for you.

There are interesting jobs with your background. Companies will not view you as a failure -- you got your PhD (in physics, no less) and have some background knowledge in machine learning, which is very useful these days. You need to see yourself in this way as well. So start looking for jobs and doing some interviews -- you'll see a lot of boring stuff that's really depressing, but you'll also find some interesting stuff, and you can narrow your search from there.

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