I am a young theoretical physicist who's currently enrolled in his final year of masters studies and I've started searching for doctoral programs.

I've started applying to PhD programs which have a starting date after my graduation date. So far, I've gotten zero positive feedback which is disheartening to say the least - during the entire course of my studies, I've only ever had one grade which wasn't an "A" and I also participated in several workshops and even held two talks at different occasions.

I can't help shake the feeling that it's due to me coming from a relatively poor European country where there's five serious researchers in theoretical physics in total, one of them being my thesis advisor. As much as I love working with him, I am "afraid" that I'll get stuck in this country (not an issue) doing bad and irrelevant work (definitely an issue). I don't see anyone pushing any boundaries. I wouldn't be asking this question if I didn't hear multiple stories of and by people who decided to pursue a PhD here and either abandoned academia or are now just treating it as any old job, with zero interest or motivation. I live for this. I want to pursue, explore and uncover.

Can I hope that if I don't find a PhD within a year or two somewhere else, that I'll be able to do so with a Postdoc some 5 years from now? Are the criteria for post doctoral study even "stricter", or are PhD students "filtered out" and it becomes easier to end up somewhere prestigious?

Please refrain from motivational talk about how I can definitely find a PhD in a prestigious university if I push hard enough - I know this to be not true from almost first hand experience (unless you're an absolute born-once-every-1000-years-genius, but then one wouldn't even be asking this question).

How hard is it to get a "prestigious" Postdoc after a "mediocre" PhD?

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    I think you are currently in a Master’s program, and are looking at PhD programs right now. But it sounds like your question is about the transition from PhD to Post-Doc. Is this correct? It is a bit unclear in the text.
    – Dawn
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 18:44
  • Sorry for the misunderstandings! @BryanKrause Final year of graduate studies means "final year of masters program" - probably a mistake on my part, the two mean the same in my mother tongue. It is perfectly normal to not publish a thing during this time, as far as I'm aware. Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 18:52
  • @Dawn Yes - I am trying to find a PhD, but since my fate seems to be predetermined somewhat, I am also trying my hardest to think ahead and prepare myself for a Post-Doc. Naive and ambitious? Maybe. But I know I want it. Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 18:52
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    How hard is it to get a "prestigious" Postdoc after a "great" PhD? Hard. Very hard.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 19:19
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    Please clarify the first sentence of paragraph 4
    – Dawn
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 19:39

4 Answers 4


The most important is not really where you do your PhD but rather if you can publish some quality research papers during your PhD. I have a few post-doctoral researchers in my team, and I have hired them because they are somewhat close to my research area but mostly because they have shown that they can write and publish good papers during their PhD. This give me confidence that they will also do good research in my team as post-doctoral researcher. Thus, my recommendation is that if you choose to stay in your country, work hard to publish in top journals/conferences in your field, and also have international collaborations. If you have good papers, then people will recognize your research ability.


I think it would be wise to take one step at a time, and the next would be to secure a satisfying position as a PhD student. You seem to be willing to move and are also open for different countries. That is definitely a plus and your general approach makes sense as far as I can tell.

I am not sure what you mean by "PhD program". To me that sounds as if you were not contacting researchers directly. In my experience (from the natural sciences mainly, and in Germany) it is not uncommon that PhD students are hired after some personal contact with a potential supervisor without passing any official selection process. Often, positions are not even advertised and supervisors use their personal network to find PhD students. I do not doubt that you face some bias concerning your home country, but if you manage to find a way to some personal correspondence with a potential supervisor the bias might be less of an issue. Your supervisor might be able and willing to support you. Is he/she on a friendly basis with a potential supervisor? Then he/she could facilitate contact.

  • While this might be good advice, it does not answer the question.
    – user151413
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 21:01
  • The reason why I specified "PhD programs" is because contacting professors directly has resulted in constant failure so far and it hits even harder when you know that the rejection was written personally by someone rather than an automated machine that sent out 200 rejection mails, all of which start with "Dear applicant". The reason why I think that I will not be contacting them individually anymore and why I fear I'll get stuck in my country is because my friend went through the exact same (with the exact grade average) and all he got for 2 years straight were rejection letters. Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 21:50
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    Sorry to hear that. Did you get help from your supervisor or anybody else with a good network in the field? I can imagine it is rather hopeless to write to professors yourself. And @user151413 is right, I wasn't strictly answering your question... Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 22:05
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    "take it one step at a time" is really bad advice. Do not get a PhD without a plan for after your PhD. Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 23:09
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    I think you absolutely have to get better advice about your materials and approach to faculty. If you are a promising candidate you might still be getting a terrible response if your materials are not good. I have good students who write terrible PhD applications because they have no idea what faculty are looking for. How many people (preferably faculty) have you gone over your materials with?
    – Dawn
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 3:55

I know it may sound a bit crazy, but is it not an option for you to pursue a second master's in a foreign university and then apply from there for a phd? There are even some programs, where the master's takes only 1 year (I have heard about it in Germany). You could work as an intern at a lab during that time and could continue your phd at that lab.

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    This might be useful advice, but it doesn't answer the question.
    – user151413
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 21:00
  • Would I even be able to get a "second" degree if it's in the same field? And would this work for something broad like theoretical physics? Does a Post-Doc equivalent exist? Instead of applying for a Post-Doc, I get a second PhD from a place and then aim for a Post-Doc at that same institution? Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 21:51
  • No-one at a good institution who is clear in their mind would hire you for a PhD after you already did a PhD in the same field, unless you can make a very compelling point about that. In fact, at least in places where PhDs get paid reasonable salaries, the risk is much lower to hire someone as a postdoc.
    – user151413
    Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 21:54
  • @user151413 "In fact, at least in places where PhDs get paid reasonable salaries, the risk is much lower to hire someone as a postdoc." What do you mean? Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 22:00
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    @user151413 Thank you for the clarification. The bottom line seems to be that I don't have to despair over potentially staying in my country - I'll just do my best to publish the best articles the world has ever laid eyes on and I'll secure a good Post-Doc position with that. Many thanks! Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 22:07

Are the criteria for post doctoral study even "stricter"

The criteria for getting a postdoctoral position are not important. People who hire postdocs generally have to spend the money by a deadline. If they do not hire someone, they might have to return the money. They hire the best person they can, not every person who is qualified. The number of qualified people is always larger than the number of positions.

How hard is it?

There is stiff competition for jobs. Most physics PhDs do not get postdoc jobs. Many get industry jobs, which are often higher paying.


Other fields have even more competition.

Competition is based on how many papers you have published that are relevant to the job. Generally jobs are easier to find if your research is in experiment or in a topic currently popular with industry.

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