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Disclaimer: My PhD supervisor, while not a bad person, is a bad mentor and has given me bad advice in the past. So discussing this with him isn't really productive. I have talked to other people in real life about this, and the opinion of this community would also be welcome.

I'm set to finish my PhD in theoretical physics in September 2020. I applied to several postdocs, got three interviews, and in one I was rated among the top choices but, in the end, I didn't secure any position.

I don't know how similar this is to the fields, but for context I'll explain how postdoc appointments work in (edit: high energy) theoretical physics. In my field, postdoc applications run in cycles. The majority have roughly the same application periods and deadlines (around November), most offers are made at the same time (early January following year) and they all start roughly at the same time (September). There's the occasional outlier, but that's the basic pattern. This means that it's more or less hopeless that I can continue looking for a position, ask professors, etc, for September 2020. If I wanted to stay in academia, I would need to look for a postdoc in the next cycle, starting September 2021.

I am unsure how realistic it is for me to try again or if I should simply throw the towel and quit academia.

  • First, there's the issue of staying one year academically idle (obviously not professionally idle, that would be insane). I could work on leftover projects from my PhD on my free time, but between finishing my PhD in September 2020 and the deadline for the next cycle on November 2020, that leaves very little time to do so.
  • Second, how do I even explain the gap in my cover letter? If I flat out say I failed the previous application cycle, it's a guaranteed trip to the garbage can. Some people have recommended me just lying in vague terms, like I didn't pursue a postdoc immediately after completing my PhD due to "health concerns that have since been resolved". I'm unsure if this is a good idea...

If anyone has any other advice regarding my situation besides these two concerns I've raised, that would be welcome too. Basically, I would like to stay in academia as a first preference, but I have no desire to bang my head against the wall against something that, at this point, might be very close to impossible. I don't have any preference for country to work in, so feel free to give country-specific advice.

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    Suppose Alma College (a real school, but used only as a hypothetical example here) was looking for someone to replace their theoretical physicist going on sabbatical for a year. It would involve teaching three courses per semester, including both a calc-based and a non-calc based intro physics, and including running the labs (no TAs). Would you take that job? (And would you be reasonably competent at it?) – Alexander Woo Apr 5 at 19:38
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    I doubt that all countries follow the same pattern in postdoc recruitment. For example, two countries I am most familiar with (Russia and UK) don't follow it. I see some postdocs (Research Fellow) posts advertised now with the starting date 1 May or a later date. – Dmitry Savostyanov Apr 5 at 20:30
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    @DmitrySavostyanov There's an international agreement to follow a communal cycle. In any case, this discussion is neither here nor there. If I find positions advertised outside the cycle, I will apply to it. Consider the question I posted under the assumption I won't. – Ingobo Apr 5 at 20:39
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    "There's an international agreement to follow a communal cycle" That certainly is not true of all theoretical physics. Could you provide a link to this agreement? – Anonymous Physicist Apr 5 at 23:11
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I should've specified high energy physics. Here's the agreement. Even if an institute hasn't signed it, in practice most follow the same pattern: deadline November, interviews in December, offers on January 7. I would say no more than 15% of positions I applied to deviated from this. In any case, this is a digression: if I find positions outside the cycle, I will apply to them, but realistically I should assume I won't. – Ingobo Apr 6 at 10:19
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1) First the bad news: The job situation (tenure track) in theoretical high energy physics is not good, covid will not help, having a hard time to get a first postdoc is not a good sign. Having difficulty to get a postdoc is probably not your fault. There are many possible reasons, such as field not a good match, advisor not helpful, institution not a good match. However, it is not clear that the situation will be different next year.

2) In the past it has been quite uncommon for people to work in the private sector and then return to academia. If it is just a year then you can probably finish another paper or two from your graduate work, and describe your stint as gaining real world experience. I don't think it is true that people will just discard your application, but it does not improve it, either.

3) The good news is that suddenly there does appear to be a new track. If you are interested in machine learning or quantum information then you can try to get a private sector job in this area, and that does leave open the possibility of returning to academia after you have gained some experience (after two years, for example, or even later than that).

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One option possibly available to you are academic jobs that are more teaching-oriented. While (in the US and Canada) hiring for permanent teaching-oriented jobs is mostly over at this point, there is still hiring going on for temporary positions, both full-time and part-time, both at four-year universities and community colleges.

Such a position maintains an academic affiliation. Not being a physicist, I do not know how taking such a job would be perceived if you apply for research-oriented jobs in the future. I expect these positions (especially full-time ones) would be viewed positively in applications for permanent, teaching-oriented jobs.

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