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For example, if I do a postdoc and then leave for a year and then decide I want to go back to academia, is it possible, or will researchers look at my file, say, "Oh, a year not in academia," and throw my application away? My experience in grad school is that academics are very social-status oriented and consider any non-academic job as "low-status." My own adviser once said, "I don't know why anyone would go into industry." I know grad students who wouldn't tell their advisor that they were considering non-academic jobs, because they were worried their advisor wouldn't take them seriously. Should I do whatever I can to stick to a very linear career path?

Edit: I'm in pure math but this question applies to all fields.

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    While the question might apply to all fields, the answers might not. Aug 1 at 22:16
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    This might vary by country and depend a lot on what sort of industrial research is done there. It would also depend on what you do for that year. If you do this, don't lose contact with academics as potential letter writers.
    – Buffy
    Aug 1 at 22:26
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    While I do share a certain academic arrogance, in my honest opinion, a year or two doing actual, useful work should be mandatory... Science for science's sake alone is philosophy. Aug 2 at 9:12
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    It depends - basically, it is country dependent. (And may even depend on the institution.) In the UK it may be more accepted than at a traditional German or (possibly also) French University. Then again, Germany has "Fachhochschulen" (plural spelling) where I believe industry experience is appreciated. So I do not think there is a blanket answer. The discipline may matter as well: someone coming back from a large engineering firm will potentially bring along useful connections.
    – DetlevCM
    Aug 2 at 11:24
  • 7
    A few years outside of academia, and you might not want to go back... Aug 2 at 23:03
42

No, it's not looked down on. It rarely happens, but that is because switching from a nonacademic job to an academic job is usually a poor economic choice.

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    ...although sometimes a good life one :) Aug 1 at 22:16
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    If it’s a poor economic choice to switch from a nonacademic job to an academic job then it’s equally a poor choice to take an academic job in the first place (instead of taking a nonacademic job), so your logic would seem to suggest that only very few people should prefer an academic job to an industry job. And yet, aren’t you yourself a person with an academic job? Hmm…
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 2 at 8:05
  • 10
    @DanRomik That isn't implied; entry-level positions tend to have similar pay, but the difference becomes significant once you have experience and aren't applying for entry-level jobs. And once you do have some work experience, you can switch from academia to industry if you do want to ("lecturer" doesn't look bad on a resume!). Also, an entry-level academic job may well give you more opportunity to develop knowledge and skills that improve your earning potential than an entry-level job in industry. So taking an academic job in the first place isn't necessarily a poor economic choice.
    – kaya3
    Aug 2 at 8:52
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    @DanRomik I would note that decisions are not always entirely rational, and are based on experience. People get used to higher salaries. It is one thing to choose a lower-paying job in the first place; it's another thing to go from a higher-paying job to a lower-paying job.
    – Stef
    Aug 2 at 13:08
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    @DanRomik Yes, I make poor economic choices. Aug 2 at 18:01
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The difficulty is that academic positions are determined by your recent work. If you have left pure math academia then unless you have been publishing pure math papers on the side then you don't have any recent work to merit a new appointment.

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    This would not make much difference if the gap was only a year. Aug 1 at 22:10
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    I was in pure math academia until a few years ago. The year I got my PhD there were 2000 phd grads + returning postdocs competing for 200 post doc positions in the US. So, sure, I'm not questioning OP's qualifications based on a gap year, but the competitiveness is questionable in light of things. My recommendation to OP is to get a day job and to work on math nights and weekends, it's what I do and I find it much more enjoyable. Aug 1 at 22:33
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    @Kimball My figures are based on AMS data. It's easy to compute with a few key figures: 1. Look at how many ph d s are graduated each year. (In the past 15 years this has gone from about 1000 to 2000 in the US) 2. The AMS also surveys phd grads on what their intentions are (industry, academic, teaching). Academic Research intentioned students start at 50% (until reality hits them later at least). 3. Look at MathJobs for how many PostDoc positions are available. Be sure to read them because sometimes they are advertising 1-3 positions at once. (continued...) Aug 2 at 16:16
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    @John_Krampf Last year may have been an anomaly, but I got rejected from a postdoc last year and they said, "Sorry. We had over 500 applications for 6 spots." Meaning that 494 out of 500 did not get a position there.
    – Mehta
    Aug 2 at 16:43
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    @Mehta That's not an anomaly, same thing was happening back in mid 2010s when myself and a lot of friends were in the same market. Aug 2 at 16:48
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In general, my impression is that people overplay the idea that non-academic jobs carry some sort of stain to professors. Professors do like the idea of their ex-students staying in academia, but much more for practical reasons (continued collaborations, etc.) than because a student going into industry is seen as a failure of some sort.

It is objectively hard to switch from a non-academic into most academic roles. However, the reasons for this are similarly practical rather than ideological:

  • If you have not published during your stint in industry, your CV may have "fallen behind".
  • You may lack current references, or, more generally, connections in academia.
  • Your salary expectations may not match up with academic realities.
  • You may lack up-to-date "hive knowledge", e.g., how to write a good research or teaching statement, what to emphasize (and what to downplay) during interviews, or how to interpret a specific job posting, making it harder to write a strong application.

None of this is going to be a huge problem after only one year in industry, but taken together these factors make a return to academia increasingly unlikely the longer somebody stays in industry. You quickly reach a point where trading whatever career you have in industry for what you can realistically still get in academia is simply not attractive.

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    How do I acquire this "hive knowledge"?
    – Mehta
    Aug 2 at 13:10
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    @Mehta In my experience, the "water cooler" conversations in an academic context are good for this. Talking over lunch, in the pub, downtime at conferences, in the halls where you work, etc. Both conversations by others and those you start yourself. You hear a lot of people's experiences with different academic norms at different times from all sides. You get the same in industry, but those industry conversations will be focused on the equivalent industry norms.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 2 at 13:27
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    @Mehta As a fresh graduate: by talking to your advisor and your colleagues. As a person in industry, you largely don't have access to these resources (hence the problem).
    – xLeitix
    Aug 2 at 13:58
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Since the question applies across all fields...

There are many areas of engineering where the "state of the art" in academia is a long way behind industry. Industry has the context to make practical use of the technology, and where required, the resources to carry out the experimental work needed to push the boundaries.

Aviation is the obvious example here. If you're interested in any aspect of how to design a plane then academia is the place you learn how to do the basics, perhaps at most with a PhD, before you join Boeing, Airbus or wherever and start working with up-to-date technology. Staying in academia is a recipe for stagnation.

Speaking personally too, I currently work in nanopositioning. (FYI, a major application is focusing mechanisms, some for microscopes and some for particle accelerators. Also near-atomic resolution surface scanning.) We see a lot of academic papers stating as "fact" that nanopositioning systems can only be used for closed-loop positioning (reading back a position measurement and driving the actuator until it gets to where it wants to be) at speeds of up to 1-2% of the system bandwidth, and they get all excited about getting their speed up to 5% or maybe even 10% (usually with horrible effects on accuracy as a trade off). In fact the leaders in the field in industry have routinely been achieving 10% since the 1990s, and we're pushing 40% today. One of our current areas of interest is a feature of piezoelectric actuators which as far as we can tell hasn't even been spotted by academia yet, because academia focuses on slow movement or static positions, and this behaviour only happens when you're hammering it at high speed.

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    +1. I suspect this is the case in many academic fields which are studied and researched because they're useful in industry. I lectured for six years at an ex-polytechnic university where many of the courses had a vocational focus, and the culture there considered it as a good thing for an academic to have spent time in industry.
    – kaya3
    Aug 2 at 8:58
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    @kaya3 Certainly that was my experience when I went to uni to study engineering. The course was still very lacking, but there was no sense that industry was somehow "lesser".
    – Graham
    Aug 2 at 9:19
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    In applied Maths it is the opposite. Discontinous Galerkin methods are still not very common in industry and it took a decade to apply multi-grid methods at least for some applications. A computer scientist in industry usually just uses addition and multiplication and nothing learned in university - with exceptions in big data and AI applications.
    – usr1234567
    Aug 2 at 9:45
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    @usr1234567 Then the phrase "applied" is something of a misnomer. ;) I think that's very much the difference between highly theoretical subjects like maths, and more hands on subjects.
    – Graham
    Aug 2 at 10:00
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    @usr1234567 " Discontinuous Galerkin methods are still not very common in industry" - I don't know what part of industry you are referring to, but have you heard of Finite Element and Finite Volume methods? (But note there are often more insightful ways to formulate FE and FV methods than Galerkin, even if the formulation is identical)
    – alephzero
    Aug 2 at 11:11
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I know of quite a few examples of people who went into industry for several years after their Ph.D. in pure maths or after one or several postdocs, found the experience soul-crushing (albeit well paid), and successfully returned to academia, usually with renewed enthusiasm and ambition.

It is, however, not easy! These people are forced to compete with those who have been churning out papers in the meantime, learning new mathematics, developing new collaborations... Those who successfully return are usually quite brilliant.

9

I personally laid witness to my phd supervisor trashing another professor for going to a public sector/government position and then returning to the university faculty.

My phd supervisor is a small, petty person that would trash anyone at anytime for any reason (never to their face, of course). This is not specific to academia. Some people are just that way.

The best way for you to mitigate the worst in humanity --in any industry-- is to worry about your research/value first and foremost and hope that you are surrounding yourself with the people that are right for you. Personally, I would make exactly zero apologies for pursuing my own interest, but I dont fit in well in academia either :)

Your example of a postdoc-away-for-a-year would be much less subjected to your concerns, as this is generally a transitional period and not an established faculty member. Established academics would definitely encounter this more so than a recent postdoc.

edit: Heres the real question. Is your time away going to result in more funding or less? that is what actually matters.

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    Out of curiousity, what field was this in?
    – iammax
    Aug 2 at 21:18
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This is a story from the US, Electrical Engineering PhD. It can happen. I applied for a professorship after several years in 'industry' and I had to justify going to industry in the first place. At the time I graduated there were about 800 applicants per tenure-track opening, so I couldn't get one. [800 may be a bit high of a count, but there were dozens of applicants per job]. I went into industry to earn a living. To a certain extent, such industrial experience is 'valued', but they also want to know that a person wants to be in academia. This can be a hard circle to square. In my case, I wound up going back to industry and similar organizational work.

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    Indeed: if one's postdoc contract is about to come to an end or has already come to an end, one can't necessarily afford to be choosy about whether one's next job is in academia or in industry, nor to prioritize smooth long-term career progression over finding a way to meet next month's mortgage payment. Sadly, not every interviewer can grasp these things. Aug 2 at 19:48
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    800 applicants/opening sounds a bit much, especially for electrical engineering. Aug 3 at 1:38
  • I edited the post to reflect that 800 isn't intended as an exact number, just that it was very difficult to get an academic position at that time. Aug 3 at 12:39
0

Some academics look down on other academics who look down on applicants who leave academia and try to go back.

First, looking down on someone, even for unrelated reasons, is not academic in itself, as it distorts the meritocracy. Looking down on someone for leaving academia could be seen as someone leaving the meritocracy. But that means coming back means entering this meritocracy again. It is about the actions, not the person.

In this situation there is a very real reason to actually look up to the person, because he has experience outside academia.
That is of value almost by definition.

The best case is real world experience of the application of related science.

I have seen that as natural cause for genuine admiration.

Independent of that, the person demonstrates strong long term interest in the topic.

There is one problem in relation to hierarchy between scientists. Like with any other occupation to, you need some time to get up to speed, for many reasons.
That is obvious to your peers, and expected. Technically speaking, your level of competence dropped, and you in a meritocracy.

So, in the end, academics may indeed look down to the person. But for different reasons in a different way you may have worried about.

-1

Some of the best math in recent times was done by Mandelbrot on fractals while working in industry.

So this roughly corresponds to my current mission and trajectory:

  • Academia has a bloated job market that underappreciates the talent
  • Industry has a weakness in long-term thinking

Solution: Leave academia for industry to make both better

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    Got to say that this is one data point, and doesn't prove anything. Aug 3 at 15:21

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