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First a bit of chronological background:

PhD in pure math (2 publications, 1 preprint), 1 year of postdoc in pure math (unproductive) 2 years of postdoc in computational medical imaging (1 publication each, and one of these postdocs were in application of differential geometry and machine learning for medical imaging), 1 year of postdoc in computer vision (unproductive, as I was partially spending my time to move to industry - I accept the blame here, mostly as a data scientist or machine learning researcher), 2 years of failed industry experience (4 jobs, all permanent, all let go within the first 4-5 months in the respective trial periods). So in essence, 4 years of postdoc, partially productive and 2 years of failed industry experience after PhD.

What's going on now:

I've a strong realization that the traditional industrial positions are not from me, and I'm planning to go back to academia, as well as on my way to obtain my freelance status, so I'd be able to consult on the side. But since I worked 2 years in industry immediate prior, I feel I need to get a long (at least a year and a half) project to get back to the full research mode, find a line of projects and use that to get a permanent position. These projects wouldn't be in pure math, but rather in theoretical machine learning, statistics or applications of differential geometry/topology to solve data analysis problem.

Immediate next - a potential answer to a question I might be facing during my next hiring:

I'll be having a few interviews, and I'm sure some postdoctoral advisors would ask me why I'm not looking for a permanent position, since I'm already 6 years past my PhD. My honest answer would be: "Initially I thought that the academia wasn't for me, that the stakes of getting a permanent position are pretty low, and even then, I thought it wasn't rewarding enough, me being based in Europe and not planning to move. So I wanted to move to industry but in R&D and I thought I'd be doing almost fundamental research; but I was wrong - the industry mindset and environment I found to be very different than the academic one, and hence I'm realizing my mistake only now, and trace my way back into academia."

My question(s):

But if I do give that honest answer as I wrote above, will it hurt my chance to get into postdoc positions that I'd want to get into? I don't want to paint a wrong image of myself to my future academic employers, but I fear that if I tell them that I moved into industry as I thought I wasn't good enough for academia and it was not rewarding enough, then my potential academic employers might think that I'm coming back to academia as a second choice and not out of passion. But the thing is that I had to go through a two year period of self-realization, and yes I did make a career mistake, which I'm planning to rectify. So how do I convey this truth in a manner that doesn't make me look like I wanted to run away from fundamental research (in fact I didn't, I planned to do it, but outside the scope of academia, which did fail and seemed almost non-existent) and work against me in an academic hiring process?

If you want more details about the reasons for being let go:

They're mentioned as comments to the answer by @jerlich.

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    Mate, your prospective employer will ask why you can't stick with a job for more than a couple months. 7 jobs in 4-5 years is the thing that would jump off the page at me. Don't worry about the other stuff till you can answer that. – user128815 Sep 12 '20 at 14:46
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    @CJRD Well for the postdocs, I really didn't have a choice - they were lilted time (mostly a year or two) and that time ran out on its own (as it often happens for postdocs), I didn't get fired or quit. So the real problem started back in 2018, which is when I decided to transition into industry, and hopefully finished in last June, when I was let go from my previous industrial employment. So in essence, I'd have to answer for these four industrial jobs in 2018-2020. – Science Man Sep 12 '20 at 19:29
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    @ScienceMan Yes, you're going to need a really good explanation of how you ended up in four jobs in two years, and let go from all of them. Having this happen once should be totally understandable, but after the second time, it might look as if you were bashing your head against the same brick wall well past when it should have been clear that something needed to change dramatically. – Kevin Arlin Sep 12 '20 at 19:38
  • @KevinArlin Thanks for your comment - I agree that I learnt my lesson late - two years too late. I'm however showing two of these positions in my CV (I tend to think there's anything wrong with it - I'm also not showing I went to high school in my CV), and if asked in more detail about if I had more jobs, say that I had two more jobs which met the same fate. But the thing I'm a bit concerned about is how a potential academic employer (postdoc for now, but permanent academic positions for later) is going to view these unstable part of my career that was all spent in industry? – Science Man Sep 12 '20 at 19:43
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    @ScienceMan I agree with other commenters that having spent two years in industry, not found it satisfactory, and moved back to academia, should be no problem at all. It's the extended iteration of "get job, quickly get fired" that's concerning. I was going to say that you should never leave a job off your CV, but upon investigating it's apparently totally fine to leave quite short-term positions off, so this may actually make you look considerably better--it'll look like you spent a while looking for the second job, but that's common enough. – Kevin Arlin Sep 12 '20 at 19:51
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I think the answer you have now isn't so bad. But you could be painting yourself in better light. Rather than saying jobs in academia in the pay range and stability you aspired to were too competitive, say you preferred the higher pay and stability you could access in industry. It's the same sentiment but doesn't point to you somehow failing. Many good people get bad luck and don't make it to tenure, and we all know industry offers a wider range of people a better material life in many aspects.

So for example I would tweak this to: "Initially I wanted to move into industry for (better reasons to reference: higher pay and a more stable lifestyle, choosing where you get to live, etc). So I moved to industry. In R&D and I thought I'd be doing almost fundamental research; but I was wrong - the industry mindset and environment I found to be very different than the academic one, and hence I'm realizing my mistake only now, and trace my way back into academia."

And then maybe say that you've realized it's important to you to be doing fundamental research, so important that the pros of getting back on the academic track now outweigh the cons for you.

Caveat: I'm not in mathematics but in my field your publication record doesn't justify looking for a permanent position, and that would be immediately known to people interviewing you for a postdoc. They may instead phrase this question more like "what have you been up to?" Or maybe even directly ask, "why did you leave industry?"

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  • Thank you for your answer - I appreciate it! Yes I think the alternate formulation would put me in a better light and still convey almost the same sentiment, as you pointed out. I'd be curious to know what your field is though - also I'd guess normally for an academic permanent position, the publication record is always relevant. But you write it wasn't, so I'm curious. – Science Man Sep 12 '20 at 19:36
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    Sorry my writing was unclear. I meant your specific publication record wouldn't be strong enough to justify looking for a permanent position, not that in general publication record doesn't impact one's job prospects. – Well... Sep 13 '20 at 11:23
  • thanks for the clarification! You mean in academia (which is indeed my goal), not in industry, right (I was hired several times for permanent positions in industry)? Well, I actually have two other preprints (all statistical machine learning related), but yes they're definitely not published yet, and I'd like to take some time (at least 18 months) focusing on my next postdoc so that I can add say three more decent publications in statistics/machine learning to that, plus get the current preprints published. – Science Man Sep 13 '20 at 19:59
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    I would add to the script something you learnt in the industry jobs, so that you can turn those two years into a positive point rather than just neutral (even if you personally think it was all a big mistake). The classic examples would be "team player" or "respects client deadlines" (but you will need concrete examples to back that up). – UJM Sep 13 '20 at 21:50
  • @UJM Thanks! I did learn bit of Python and its libraries, and some topics on neural network. I also learnt that more clearly the difference between industrial R&D and academic R. The team player - yes, but in academic position, we're not dealing with clients though. – Science Man Sep 25 '20 at 21:39
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If I was considering hiring you, I would want to know more about why you were let go from 4 positions in 2 years. You said in the question that it wasn't for you. In my opinion a sign of professionalism is being able to do work, even if you are not intrinsically motivated to do it.

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  • Thanks for your answer. In response to your question my response would be: 1) three of the four companies I was fired from were small startups where I was working as a data scientist, and the I was told that I asked too many questions when it came to using softwares, and in the last company, which is a major international one, I was told that even though I obtained results, it was not applicable enough in machine learning. Well in my defense, in the first 3 startups, one of the following happened: 1) they didn't give me the data that I asked for, nor they understood its importance (contd) – Science Man Sep 13 '20 at 8:49
  • (contd) 2) Yes it's true that I asked few questions to a data scientist ex-colleague of mine, but I don't by any means appreciate his going behind my back to tell my manager about that, because I know my manager wasn't often present during these questions, 3) the hiring process of the startups didn't reflect properly the nature of the job, the take home tests and interviews didn't involve so much software stuff, 4) I felt strongly that everyone except myself in the company had a very low level of understanding fundamental math or stat, their incompetence was clear from our discussions (contd) – Science Man Sep 13 '20 at 8:54
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    Okay, reading through your responses to this comment has given me another piece of advice for you: Science Man, go to a mentor in academia. Work with her/him and figure out the way these four firings can be turned into a narrative that can be explained in an interview. What you have right now is too long, and again isn't painting you in the best light. A postdoc often needs to be able to work with other people, so make sure you aren't conveying too much trouble in that area. – Well... Sep 13 '20 at 11:50
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    @Well... thanks for that advice! But the question is: how do I find such a mentor in academia? Also note that all the firings happened in industry, not in academia. I've worked well with other groups before, and at least one of them (the second postdoc mentor in medical imaging) believed in my capability and will write a very good recommendation for me. He's aware of my situation and believed it'll improve although it'll take time, but I'm not sure he'll mentor me though. I simply can't ask anyone in academia this way - everyone is too busy! I just don't know whom to ask in this case. – Science Man Sep 13 '20 at 20:24
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    The set of people to choose from is: your PhD advisor, any senior coauthor, your PIs from previous postdocs, anyone you've gotten a LOR from, anyone who's ever given you advice about your career or shown interest in your next steps. From that group use your judgement about who to contact. Ask the person if they have time to meet with you and help you prep for a postdoc interview. People are busy in life in general, but still also many, many people do this. It's reasonable to at least ask. – Well... Sep 14 '20 at 7:35
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Permanent academic jobs almost always involve teaching and managerial tasks as significant components, whereas postdoc jobs can be almost entirely research-focused. Hence, if you like research better than teaching or management, that could be a valid reason to apply for a postdoc job rather than a permanent academic job at any stage of your career. (Although having once used that reason, it becomes trickier to justify applying for a permanent academic job later.)

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  • At any stage, really? I would be pretty shocked to see somebody, say, 20 years out of PhD applying for their sixth or tenth postdoc, and absolutely flabbergasted to see them get hired. – Kevin Arlin Sep 12 '20 at 19:40
  • @KevinArlin I said it could be a valid reason, not that it was commonplace, nor that there weren't certain difficulties in getting hired as a very experienced postdoc (principally that PIs persist in writing grant proposals in which they only budget enough to pay the salary of a postdoc right at the bottom of an experience-related pay scale). Nevertheless, on a hunch, I Googled two very talented former colleagues of mine who I thought might have gone down this road, and found that both of them have indeed now been postdocs for 24 years and still going strong. – Daniel Hatton Sep 12 '20 at 21:07
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    Which discipline is this, Daniel? Instinctively I find this more plausible for e.g. physics than for e.g. pure maths (although the OP has stated they are looking to move to different areas of maths than the one they originally trained in) – Yemon Choi Sep 14 '20 at 6:11
  • @YemonChoi Thanks for your comment. I'm no longer doing pure math as a mainstream research, it's mostly statistics/statistical machine learning these days with some application in mind - but also open to projects requiring differential geometry or topology backgrounds. – Science Man Sep 14 '20 at 7:35
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    @YemonChoi The two people in question are at an interdisciplinary institute that's a joint venture between several departments of the host university. I can't name the "several departments", because that would be sufficient information to identify the two people personally, and I don't have their permission to do that. – Daniel Hatton Sep 14 '20 at 13:56

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