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I finished my Ph.D. in mathematics in 2016 and then worked at the same university (in Germany) and under the same professor (now retired) as a postdoc for the next four years. I knew my contract would only last until the end of 2020, so I started applying for positions in academia around June last year without any success.

Late 2020, I eventually started applying for jobs outside of academia which worked better insofar that I am currently employed, working full-time providing for me and my partner.

In the meantime, I made several attempts to return to academia, prioritizing jobs with an emphasis on teaching in comparison to research, as I believe that I am more capable in teaching and I enjoy it a lot, in particular when it is teaching math students (especially undergraduates). Unfortunately, none of my applications landed me any interviews.

I struggle to believe that I am not qualified for the jobs I applied to, yet I get told repeatedly that the amount of applicants better suited for them is so large that I get cut prior to the interviews.

I am aware of several issues with my CV, but I am not sure how to overcome them:

  1. I have no real experience in obtaining funding.
  2. I have not published a lot.
  3. My research subjects seem to be not that popular nowadays (representation theory of finite groups and stuff).
  4. During my time in academia, I, unfortunately, did not bother building a network, becoming a visible part of the academic community and now lack connections (and consequently letters of reference).
  5. My contractual focus in academia was mainly on research, not teaching, and most of the teaching I did was not independent teaching, at least not on paper.

These are just the problems I am currently aware of but I do not know how relevant they actually are. All these points are definitely somewhat approachable while working in academia, but since I am now outside, how can I tackle them? Is there anything else I can do? Or do I have to just keep applying and hope for the best?


Added (28.08.): Given all the questions in the comments and answers (Thank you all for your input!), I guess I need to add a couple more issues to my list:

  1. My affinity towards programming, simulation, data science, optimization, and the like is small at best.
  2. I am currently employed in the finance industry (banking supervision) and am not going to have any leading role here in the foreseeable future.

From what you tell me, it seems that together, these points would make the 'Fachhochschule' path almost unattainable. Point 6. is also a reason for me to believe that it would be difficult to find something actually interesting outside of academia.

As to why I want to return to academia, the short answer is: Because I love teaching mathematics and there is no other place to do this properly.

But then again, I get your arguments and it is probably a good idea to stop dreaming and face reality.

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    There are lots of answers here with lots of different perspectives for OP. If others have covered your suggestions, you should upvote their answers and any others that seem useful to you. If not, the best place to put your views is in a new answer, or you can continue the conversation in the chat room.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 28 at 22:16
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    Are you aware of the German Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz? It limits your time as a PostDoc to six years. You already spent four of them, so you can only work at German Universities for two more years. To get new six years, you have to get your Habilitation.
    – derptank
    Aug 29 at 17:04
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    if your love of teaching math is your main motivator for this, did you consider a career as math high school teacher? There are much more positions and potentially more open positions... Aug 30 at 2:58
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    Unfortunately, in any situation where the supply far exceeds demand, people resort to arbitrary and often irrelevant criteria to cut down the number of choices. So it's likely that you're being prejudged less on your qualifications than on your nonconformity. Aug 30 at 3:48
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    @derptank: To those six years allowed for postdocs, you have to add another six years minus the times taken for your PhD, so in many cases you actually have more than six years as a postdoc. Apart from this, I don't understand your last sentence: I'm not aware that one would get "new six years" after habilitation, and I can't find information that supports this claim. Could you provide a source for it? Aug 30 at 16:27
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At the risk of being a downer, here is a perspective you are probably not too fond of. Given your long list of self-identified issues with your CV, you have two options:

  • You work on these issues so as to be able to better compete against others who have CVs without these holes. This might be difficult: Others at your age already have teaching experience, more publications, etc., and furthermore have a support network that can help them navigate the process of finding positions because they are currently in academia. In other words, you are fighting an uphill battle because -- empirically, based on your past experience applying for positions -- there are people out there who have better CVs than you at your age, and there will always be. In other words, you need to catch up, and you need to do that quickly because you are not getting younger and you don't want to compete with people who have the same CV as you but are five or eight years younger than you. In any case, as you have probably understood by now, continuing to apply with the CV you currently have is an exercise in futility and, given that it didn't work in the past, is unlikely going to work in the future if the basis for your applications does not substantially change -- so don't waste your time on applications until you think that you are in a place where that's actually worth your time, energy, and emotions.
  • You make your peace with the situation and put your energy into a career doing something you enjoy and are good at.

This is not a forum for advice on personal issues, but I would nonetheless suggest that you take a closer look at that second option simply because the first, to me, sounds like a prescription for many years of unhappiness with uncertain (maybe unlikely) outcome. It is what it is, but you've now successfully landed in an industry job -- so make that work, find happiness in what you are doing there, and put your energy into something that you can see providing you with happiness. That may be being ambitious about your industry career, wanting to learn and grow. Or it may be considering your job a job, and finding happiness after 5pm when you come home, caring for a family or for your hobbies.

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    Agree on making peace. Maybe this also helps: It looks like you love doing slow paced research in mathematics (which I think is great); most positions you can apply to (next level) at university do not have this luxury. Most likely your job would be the one of an administrator in the sense of writing grant application, getting 60% rejected, getting the grants let some post doc do the work, look that the reports look shiny and play departmental politics. I believe you actually do not want that job. Enjoy your industry work and keep it as a hobby.
    – lalala
    Aug 28 at 9:50
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    I think this is invaluable advice that we don't give enough here. Academia is highly competitive. All anyone can do is give it their best shot. In many cases it won't work out, often due to factors outside of the applicant's control. The best advice advice then is to make peace with the fact that this particular life dream will remain unfulfilled, and move on.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 29 at 8:18
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    @xLeitix Indeed. Also that, with a perspective from a bit later in life, we see lots of people whose life has not unfolded along a straight line or along the planned trajectory, and is still full, joyful, and satisfying. There are many paths through life, and at each turn (planned or not), there is an opportunity that when seized can be fulfilling and satisfying. Aug 30 at 15:54
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One alternative might be a professorship at a Fachhochschule. In Germany, these professorships usually require at least three years of professional experience in industry.

The pool of suitable professors is small, hence chances to obtain a professorship are reasonable. Be warned of the requirements:

  • Proven track record in industry, which might be shown through industry publications, patents, leadership positions, cutting edge projects, working in R&D or similar.
  • Teaching experience. While most mathematicians have this experience from their graduate study, it helps to get a Lehrauftrag, i.e. doing some teaching while being employed in industry.
  • Experience in an applied research topic relevant for applied research done at Fachhochschulen. Think rather about simulation, data science, cryptography (which might get public funding for research) than finance or insurance.

It furthermore helps to:

  • Have a wide network in industry. You might try to connect in local organizations, be active in online communities, visit events or have a job with many contacts.
  • Be able to teach different subjects than math, e.g. in computer science or physics.
  • Make believable to be able to acquire third party funding for research, at Fachhochschulen usually from federal or state ministries or the EU. It helps to work in R&D or have a track record of customer acquisition while being employed in industry.
  • Have a track record in leadership capabilities for your future working group. This can be demonstrated by leading people (interns?) in industry or perhaps student teaching assistants at universities.
  • Publish while being employed in industry. It does not matter whether old topics form pure math or new topics stemming from your industry job. (You do have a jobs where math is involved?)
  • Have supervised many student theses (bachelor, master, PhD), either while being at university or while being in industry.
  • Have experience in academic self-government or at least show motivation to help your future department in constructively working in committees.
  • Know current teaching techniques (online, asynchronous, digital, inverted classroom, …), perhaps have experience in them, and have an idea which of those might be suitable for your courses.
  • Come across as motivated and motivating person. You need to be able to motivate both industry and students to do research with you. And you need intrinsic motivation to be motivated while working with failure in grant applications.

If you want to try this route, I would

  • Look at openings for suitable professorships (jobs.zeit.de) and see what is in need.
  • Look for a jobs that is suitable for current (or better: future) research trends. You see current trends at these openings.
  • Show excellent performance at your industry jobs.
  • Do things that are visible and connected to your jobs.
  • Build a network.
  • Try to understand funding structures for applied research.
  • Try to stay connected to academia.
  • Start applying after 2 years in industry, be it to gain experience.

Most of these suggestions are also excellent suggestions if you want to have a career in industry and similarly you should follow standard advice for having a career in industry on this path.

Feel free to ask further questions here. You should also know how to contact me.

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    That's long-term planning, I would say, start with a Lehrauftrag somewhere and then keep looking. Aug 29 at 14:06
  • Duale Hochschule or Berufsschule are an option as well. In Germany its even possible to teach at normals schools (you need to to a paedagogic course though) especially in areas where there is a shortage of teachers. If it is about the teaching irrelevant of university this could be a way to go.
    – JennyH
    Aug 30 at 8:48
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This is advice that probably only works for the US. Here, we have a few thousand, primarily undergraduate, primarily teaching institutions, all of which have a need for a few mathematicians. Most undergraduate programs here require at least a bit of math or statistics since they are more general in nature than in Germany. These colleges normally have a tenure track for faculty requiring a probation period of six or seven years. I got a strong foundation for graduate school at such a place, for example.

At the other end of the scale, there are at least a few very top research institutions (Stanford, CMU, Duke, ...) that have a special category of faculty - Professor of the Practice or similar. These institutions have a large need for a lot of mathematicians for the same reason and the position is intended to free the research faculty from a lot of teaching duties. These tend not to be tenure track, but are quite secure and have long term contracts. The undergraduate program depends on high quality teaching from this faculty.

Both of the above sorts of positions normally require some research, but not at the same level as at a top research university's research faculty. It can make a nice life.

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    There are also many community colleges all of which also need mathematicians. It should be pointed out that all these jobs are also quite difficult to obtain, and most successful applicants for a permanent job of this sort have teaching experience from previous temporary positions. Aug 27 at 19:54
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    Yes, @AlexanderWoo, I counted only four year colleges. Note that the instruction at community colleges is only the lower level courses -- first two years of a four year BS/BA. Some of these are very high quality institutions.
    – Buffy
    Aug 27 at 20:19
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    This doesn't transfer to Germany at all.
    – Arno
    Aug 27 at 20:47
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    @Arno, yes, I know. A US only solution, but open to an immigrant. The systems are very different. But jobs are also hard to find here as well. Tough times for young academics.
    – Buffy
    Aug 27 at 20:49
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It is not a great time to look for academic jobs right now

My knowledge of this is only anecdotal, so take it with a grain of salt. However, my understanding is that the COVID pandemic has been financially damaging to many universities (due to loss of students) and so they are downsizing to cut costs. At my own university in Australia, there has been a pay-freeze for staff, a blanket rule of non-renewal of contract positions (other than grant-funded positions), plus voluntary redundancies for permanent staff. The flow-on result has been that there are a large number of academics seeking positions, and not many positions available to absorb them. Since labour supply is high, and labour demand is low, the universities are getting a surfeit of high-quality applications.

I do not know if the position in Germany is the same as in my own country, so it is hard for me to comment confidently on the job market there. In my own country, I have heard a rule-of-thumb that ---in the current academic job climate--- people are getting positions roughly one increment below their normal level (e.g., a full professor would get a position as associate professor, an associate professor as assistant professor, etc.). So for the positions you applied for, it wouldn't surprise me if there were applicants with many years of academic experience, probably even with good research records. From what you have described of your record, I would expect that they are accurate in stating that they had better applicants.

The present situation is not necessarily permanent. If the pandemic subsides (fingers crossed) and travel restrictions and lockdowns are eased, students will come back to the campus and some universities will then go back into an expansionary phase. (Though for a countervailing take on the matter, at least in the context of the US, see Reynolds 2015.) If this occurs then it is likely that there will be a period where the volume and quality of applications for academic positions subsides, due to higher demand relative to supply.

In terms of trying to make yourself competitive for academic jobs, while working outside academia, the main thing you can do is to try to use your industry work as a spring-board for research ideas, and then try to convert these ideas into published papers. If you can identify some research that would be likely to attract industry funding, all the better. This is difficult, since it is something that will probably end up occurring on top of your regular job, but if you can get some research published and open up some funding opportunities, that will help bolster your CV for future academic applications.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Most of these comments were about the funding situation in Germany and explaining that this answer likely doesn't apply there; it might not be a great fit for Germany but it still might be useful for other people besides OP with similar questions that find this one.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 28 at 22:14
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    That pretty much applies to the US as well. Thanks, your remarks allow me to make sense of my own job situation right now.
    – Ambicion
    Aug 29 at 8:50
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    +1, the current situation is not typical at all. I got more interviews in academia as an unpublished third year PhD student shooting for the moon in 2019 than I did as a PhD graduate with three published papers in 2020/21. However, while not typical, this doesn't mean that it won't last for many years. It could very well do so. Aug 29 at 20:13
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As you mentioned, it would be easier if you were in Academy, so one option that comes to mind is to come back to Academy as a researcher (Which is where you already have experience) and once you are in, start looking for opportunities to switch into teaching/lecturing. But this time make sure to work on what you described in point 4.

During my time in academia, I, unfortunately, did not bother building a network, becoming a visible part of the academic community and now lack connections (and consequently letters of reference).

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