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I am currently out of academia but I would like to return to university and start as a postdoc.

It is more than 5 years ago when I finished my PhD in mathematics (algebraic geometry) at a very weak British university. Despite my efforts, I was not able to find a postdoc position. From the beginning of my PhD, I did not like my research. Furthermore, the area my PhD thesis belongs to is quite isolated. I made one publication in a journal which is rather at a medium level.

Now I have a very interesting research topic I can work on together with another professor, but in a completely different field. It lies in the area of mathematical physics. I must add that there is no financial support for this project, so I have to invest a lot of my personal time into it. My questions are: Does it make sense to start working on my research topic and later at some point (for example, when I have enough results with one publication) start to apply for a postdoc position? Is it reallistic to get a postdoc position a few years after the PhD but with a research topic different from the PhD thesis?

I am concerned because of the folllowing things: my main concern is my age. I am nearly 40 years old. There are universities which take this issue into consideration although officially they would never admit it. In particular, German universities do so. Secondly, my PhD degree from a weak university does not favor an application for postdoc positions not to mention a permanent position. Thirdly, I expect that universities will reject postdocs who have such a big gap in their CV.

Here is some background: I did my undergraduate degree in Germany with an excellent grade. Unfortunately, I could not find a PhD position in Germany, so I applied to some British universities. At that time, I did not know that the British university system is completely different from the German one. So it happened, that I arrived at a weak university. I was not able to leave it because I could not get any recommendation letters to start new applications. Although my PhD advisor knew that I do not fit into this university he did not warn me. Moreover, he was telling me a lot of lies to make me stay there. It was unbearable. I would have left this university if I could.

After my PhD, he did not help me to find a postdoc position. The only thing that he did was telling me that there are no postdoc positions and that students who graduated from strong universities like Cambridge have better chances on the academic market. This was very frustrating.

I applied to many universities, even outside Europe but not a single application was successful. Even my applications for different kinds of fellowships failed. It was very difficult (and still is) for me to figure out what are the important things for a succesfull application for someone who is in my situation.

Any advice is welcome.

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I have been in a very similar situation for quite some time. Sadly, I don't think there is a way out, or rather 'back in' - without the right connections. Unlike me, you seem to have at least one connection, the professor you mention.

You have not given any details of that possible project (and how it would be financed). You should be able to talk to that professor and evaluate the chances for a (later) postdoc position from there. Again, this critically depends on his connections.

If you are really passionate for this research topic, I think you should take a shot. If you are OK with not being a researcher, an ordinary job would of course be the safer route.

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    There is no financial support for this mathematical physics project and one of my applications for a postdoc position at this professor's university was not succesfull. They have a very competitive program. I will have to put some effort into this project from my own time and this will be very hard for me. – Theoretical Physics Apr 1 at 18:02
  • Again, it is my understanding, that an application for postdoc can only be successful if there is a strong, direct personal recommendation of a professor, (as long as one is not already in the top 10-20% w.r.t. publications) . --- Part-time did not work out for me, despite a lot of passion. Maybe there is the possibility to apply for a DFG grant by (or together with) your 'contact' professor? Theoretical physics looks rather dead to me, sadly, w.r.t. funding. My PhD professor, for example, after retiring, was just replaced by a nano-technology chair. – user122119 Apr 2 at 10:54
  • This professor works in France, so a DFG grant is not possible. But I applied for something similar, namely a Marie Curie fellowship. Unfortunately, my application failed and the main reason was that I am not an expert in this specific area. From my point of view, there is only one option: a regular postdoc position. Fellowships such as DFG or Marie Curie or JSPS (for Japan) have too strict requirements. Succes here, is based rather on luck. Even if I were an expert, it would be still too hard or almost impossible to get such a fellowship. Currently, I do not have strong recommendation letters – Theoretical Physics Apr 2 at 19:04
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The UK might be an exception because there is a plan for a significant increase in research funding for mathematics (though who knows how national research budgets will change in the next few months), but you should assume that there are no academic jobs with a significant research component for mathematicians who do not have multiple papers that are or are likely to be published in good journals (the top specialist journal(s) in your subfield or a reasonably good generalist journal). (This isn't quite true, but it's close - in particular, some subsubfields of mathematical physics are known for very long and substantial papers, so one very good paper may do.)

In particular, the job market now is more competitive than it was five years ago.

I wouldn't worry about the age factor or the time after PhD, but do consider the chance that the research will actually result in two very good papers.

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