I've seen similar questions on here before so I'm sorry if it's a duplicate or anything.

Frequently, I find myself in despair at my postdoc prospects as a result of the reputation of the university at which I am doing a PhD. It's ranked around 30-40th in the UK and, in some places, worse than 350th in the world.

I study Mathematics. In particular, I study a less popular version of group theory than average. So postdoctoral research fellowships are hard to come by as it is.

I could have gone to The University of St. Andrews for my PhD and in an area I prefer over my current one, had I not had a panic attack during my last exam in 2015. I kick myself over it most of the time. I still got the First required, only it was awarded the year later and the position had to start in 2015.

Compared to St. Andrews, my current university looks lame.

Sometimes, although mostly for my mental health, I have considered dropping out then applying to some other university, perhaps St. Andrews again, I don't know.

What's my question?

Well, this is not so much a question so far as it is a lament, I admit.

What I want to ask is this:

What do I do to become a marketable mathematician? How do I get a postdoc?

Also . . .

How do I let go of the "once in a lifetime" PhD position I could have had?

Any advice would be appreciated.

  • There's no guarantee you'll get another PhD position if you drop out.
    – Shaun
    Sep 3, 2019 at 0:20
  • 4
    Are you publishing well? Or able to get decent publications out? Publications does outrank uni. Dropping out of a lower ranked uni would likely make it harder to get into a higher ranked uni I say
    – Poidah
    Sep 3, 2019 at 1:13
  • 3
    You might be interested: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/9039/…
    – Allure
    Sep 3, 2019 at 3:04
  • Let me help you to redeem at least one of your regrets: The University of St. Andrews is not a top university either. Reputable, like any other university out there.
    – Dilworth
    Sep 3, 2019 at 18:30

1 Answer 1


How do I let go of the "once in a lifetime" PhD position I could have had?

This is far beyond the scope of mere academics. Life is full of choices, some of them will be bad. Some of it is in our control (in retrospect, hindsight is 20/20 always) and some if it is not.

I think that apart from going back in time - there is nothing that you can do. What you can do about your situation now though, is talk to someone.

You are not alone in this.

I had suffered (and perhaps still am suffering) from impostor syndrome at times, and I know that I could've done much better if I had made better choices.

It's good to have someone to talk to about these things. This could be a trusted friend, a loved one, or a trained professional. There is no shame in seeking help! Universities often have excellent mental health services, and graduate students are a vulnerable population in terms of mental health (not alone, remember?).

What do I do to become a marketable mathematician? How do I get a postdoc?

The academic world has very clear rules on what could make you a marketable academic: publish good papers or preprints, impress some well-known people in your field, present your work at respectable venues, get amazing teaching evaluations that'll land you a lectureship, be an active member of your research community and so on.

If you feel like your current (unmarketable) field is not sufficiently exciting, and you aren't making progress, switch. I have done so twice in my career (and I would like to think that I'm not incredibly old!), and many others I know have as well. What were papers that you read that made you really curious and excited? What skills have you acquired that may help you along the way?

In the professional realm, again: seek advice and help. What does your advisor say? I'm assuming that your relationship with them is not at 100% (else you wouldn't be asking this question here), can you try to make it better? Are there mentors in your department that you look up to?

If you are dead set on staying in academia, the reality is that you'll have to extend your time to accumulate a better portfolio (especially if you want to switch fields). Either extend your PhD if possible, or get a temporary research position. I don't know the postdoc culture in mathematics, but perhaps a lower-tier research assistantship would be within reach?

Good luck!

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