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I had a postdoc offer from a great research group at a US university towards the end of my PhD in April 2018. Around that time, a family member became severely ill. The nature of the illness was such that the doctors told me that they had to wait a few months to get a clear diagnosis and know whether it was going to be a long term condition or a one-off event. This put me in a dilemma - should I find a full time job that would let me relocate close to my family overseas if need be or should I stay in academia and hope it was just a one-off event? I decided to buy some time and wait a few months and never got back to the professor about the offer - I was very embarrassed to mention the illness as it's a highly stigmatized one. Morever, the professor wanted me to join immediately after my PhD and did not seem to be very flexible about my joining date. He never got back in touch after not hearing from me - I suppose he retracted the offer a few weeks after he made it.

I ultimately ended up delaying my PhD defense by a few months and found a corporate software job after that and started in February this year. My mental health has been slowly declining due to the fast-paced, extremely profit-driven nature of the corporate work environment and I am actually thinking of quitting and going back to a postdoc (my parents have decided to look after the sick family member so the illness is not as immediate a concern as it previously was). I apologized to the professor in March about my non-response regarding his postdoc offer and told him about the illness and that I have moved on to the industry and he was very understanding and wished me all the best.

Here is my question: I know he is still looking for postdocs. How do I even begin the conversation with him on joining his group? I am also a bit concerned that the 1 year gap on my academic CV will be looked down upon negatively in future job searches.

If it is important to this question at all, I am 27 yrs old.

  • Why do you wish to return to the postdoc now? Explain that to your prof. – Captain Emacs Sep 29 at 14:30
  • The main problem is not rejecting his offer but not replying at all. How long after he made the offer did you “apologise to the professor for not responding”? – electrique Sep 29 at 23:02
  • I got back to him 10 months later – jonah done Oct 3 at 6:10
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Start the conversation by being honest: describe what had happened, and assure them that it's only because of personal reasons that you could not accept their offer, not just the industry offer. You did the right thing by emailing them in March to keep them in the loop. However, I would emphasize that the reason that you didn't email them sooner was because of the personal stuff.

The same reasoning goes for your 1 year gap: if you do amazing work in your postdoc all will be forgiven. You need to convince the advisor that they can trust you to do well despite the initial setback (which was not something you could control), and the only way I can think of doing this is by telling them the truth.

I had a collaborator (not a postdoc) who left academia for personal reasons and returned to work with me (their story is somewhat similar to what you're describing, though the personal circumstances are different). I was very happy with them and was understanding regarding their situation. I'd like to think that I'm not an exception: most reasonable people understand that their students/postdocs have a life outside academia, and this particular advisor sounds like they should be as well.

Your age is not a major factor in this equation. I'd say that 27 is relatively young (I started my PhD at the ripe old age of 28).

  • Thanks, this gives me a bit of courage. I forgot to mention this in my post (now added) but I did mention in March while apologizing that the illness was the reason for my move to the industry (I told him what the illness was too and he was very understanding). For more context, he made this offer in April last year. I guess I need to convince him that I can do well. – jonah done Sep 26 at 7:40
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When hiring postdocs, professors will try their best to estimate if a candidate will be productive after starting. Personal communication of course plays a role in this, because a potential postdoc who doesn't communicate well is a risk to the professor.

However, if he is still (actively) looking for postdocs, you will have to convince that you would be a productive member of his research group for the postdoc period. So the first step is to prepare answers to the following questions:

  • Why would you be productive when hired?
  • Do you have the means to communicate professionally and can you be relied on?

Your previous interaction with him may cast some doubt on the latter, so think about an answer that is both true (not a lie) and that would convince yourself if you were in his position. Then you are prepared to reach out. You write that the illness is stigmatized. Ok, that's fine - can you prepare an answer that conveys the necessary information to make the professor understand why you had to make the previous decisions without revealing information that you do not want to reveal?

As far as the 1 year gap is concerned: you gained some industry experience! Even though you didn't like working there, can you still extract some experience from it that helps you with your future research career? This would be something to reply to anyone concerned about that in your future job searches. But I suggest not ruling out switching back to industry later at all because all companies are different. There may actually be some that you like working for, and academic careers do not always work out, so you need a plan B.

  • Thanks for your response. I forgot to mention this in my original post (now edited) that I explained why I decided to quit and told him about the illness as well (he was very understanding and wished me all the best, so I guess that's a good thing). – jonah done Sep 26 at 7:44
  • Regarding the 1 year gap, I was in the field of climate science running computer climate models and the job I work in now is not very related although my experience in a well known company could be construed as me possessing strong programming skills. Re switching back to industry: I have visa issues that prevent me from doing that after a postdoc, so I would be diving in without a plan B (atleast for the US). If academia doesn't workout after postdoc, I would most likely need to return to my home country and start career afresh in programming or some quantitative field. – jonah done Sep 26 at 7:53
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Three comments.

(1) There is no real disadvantage to approaching the professor. If you don't approach him, then you'll probably never have much interaction with him going forward. If you approach him and he says no, same thing. So, you have nothing to lose: either everything stays the same, or it works out as you hope.

(2) I would either send a brief e-mail or ask for a visit (e.g., lunch). If a physical meeting is possible, and the professor is sociable, you may do well to ask for an in-person meeting to catch up, during which you can float the idea about re-applying. If this is impractical or awkward, you could just send a brief e-mail during which you express your interest in re-applying for the open position, acknowledge the unusual situation, and ask how to proceed.

(3) I am concerned about your motivation. You have had one negative experience in industry; it seems like a significant over-reaction to run back to the university. There are other jobs, and mental health professionals that can help you adjust. As you doubtless know, only a tiny fraction of post-docs convert into faculty jobs. You should therefore objectively assess whether you wouldn't be better served by looking for a permanent position that is a better match.

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