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I finished my PhD one month ago. I applied to post-docs and I received three firm offers. Those offers are interesting but are (i) not in the field I would ideally like working on, (ii) are not the most strategic choice for my academic career.

What I would be more interested in, and what would be better for my career, is in another domain where the offers are harder to find (but not impossible, I already applied to two of them and I am awaiting their response).

How long can I be unemployed before it looks bad on my academic curriculum? What if, in the worst case, I am without job for one year? Important info: in the meantime I would continue working (I have to finish publishing 3 papers from my PhD). Also, money is not a real problem (the state is giving me money while I find a new job).

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    Are you sure your payments continue if you turn down offers? Some places they won't. After all, you did apply for them.
    – Buffy
    Nov 19, 2021 at 17:06
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    @Freemp3 It's possible to commit fraud that has a low chance of resulting in any consequences, but it's still fraud. It's certainly possible that the unemployment payments in your locality are not contingent on being unable to find suitable work (suitable by their definition, not yours), but if they are then the worst case (even if it is unlikely) could involve criminal penalties. This wouldn't be something on-topic on this particular site, but it's an important thing for you to clarify for yourself on your own.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 19, 2021 at 20:40
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    Of course you apply for jobs that you may not accept after all. It's a great way to practice and eventually you might even like one more than you would have expected (or have an option to take in the end if the ones you wanted badly didn't work out).
    – erc
    Nov 22, 2021 at 7:34
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    @BryanKrause, jumping to the conclusion that this would be fraud is both pretty highly charged and fairly toxic commentary on a relatively innocuous question. Nov 22, 2021 at 10:35
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I am not applying to job I don't expect to accept... It would be a bad thing to apply to only the ideal postdoc. You need safety for the future. I applied for "many" (i.e about 8) post doc I could be interested in but (i) you realize some "hidden" things behind the offer the moment the contract is given to you (for instance its short duration), and (ii) if you have positive answer to the ones that are at the bottom of your list (in term of preferences) initially it is tricky to know if you should take them right away. Nov 22, 2021 at 13:37

6 Answers 6

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There is no max, really, but the longer you stay out, the harder it gets to get back in. If you skills get cold/old, if you lose contact with recommenders, if the market changes, then all is uncertain.

You seem to be letting the perfect be the enemy of the good here. Another thing is that you have three "birds" in the hand, but wanting the one in the bush. The old saying works the other way round.

There is nothing that prevents you from changing areas after you have a secure position. But hoping for the perfect outcome in this employment market seems a bit optimistic.

But it is your assessment of risk that matters here.


Edited to add a couple of points.

In the current market, upset due to COVID, and other constraints, I think people would be more willing than in normal times to accept a longer gap. But everyone reading an application makes their own decision. If you aren't doing anything during the gap to increase you skills it will harm you.

Also note that most academic jobs are on an academic year schedule, so a one month gap could actually end up being a year, or half a year anyway.

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  • Also just in general, long gaps become a red flag in hiring decisions, at least in industry (assuming the same is true of academia?). For me a gap is starting to become long as it exceeds 6 months, and is definitely long if it is measured in years not months.
    – bob
    Nov 22, 2021 at 16:06
  • @bob, yes, but it can also depend on what you do with that time, even if it isn't employed work. Keeping skills and contacts can help a lot.
    – Buffy
    Nov 22, 2021 at 16:26
  • I agree. I think the key is having an explanation that can allay the concerns of the hiring manager if the gap is a long one, though if it's long enough you may not even get to the interview stage (e.g. a 2 year gap).
    – bob
    Nov 22, 2021 at 17:55
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I don't know your field, but at least in my area (chemistry):

  1. Postdocs almost exclusively last two years or less. Some are for as little as 6 months. Even the two year postdocs are often phrased as "one year, with the option for two if mutually agreed upon".
  2. On the academic track, it is expected to do multiple postdocs before trying to get, say, a tenure track position.

With these in mind, my response would be "why not do both?". Take one of these less related post-docs if it is a short enough stint and continue applying for more relevant post-docs.

It depends how certain you are that you can secure an offer in a short amount of time. If you think it will take 1-2 extra months to get this more relevant post-doc, its probably better to wait. If takes 6 or more extra months, you probably would have been better off taking the less relevant post-doc during that stretch.

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  • Thank you for your answer. I am waiting for three answers on those other post-doc and I might get them in January so it is not very far from now. But again there is a chance I don't get the position. About your remark: my PhD was very multidisciplinary and now is the time for me to get specialized. I think it is important that I start to get really focused on a topic in order to get a strong expertise. Especially because the topics in question are quite technical and require a good investment to be understood properly. Nov 19, 2021 at 18:30
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    Good point. +1.To OP: I would like to add that if you are still working on your PhD results, in a way you are not really out of academia. In particular if you keep physical presence at your PhD institution. Every visitor will perceive you as an active member of the group, or you can probably go to conferences and meetings as before, etc. So a few months stop won't be seen as a stop in reality. For a prolonged period take almost every post doc you might get (logistic not taken into account, here).
    – Alchimista
    Nov 20, 2021 at 8:11
  • I think this is a good answer as the OP has only finished their PhD a month ago so there is no real pressure to decide right now and is specifically asking about time-frames.
    – Ivana
    Nov 22, 2021 at 10:17
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After finishing my PhD i had a six month contact with the lab next door to my PhD lab. I was unemployed for a year after finishing that, very much like you i published two papers (and a textbook chapter) during that time. I kept up with the field, keeping in contact with the lab i had a six month position with.

Nobody has ever questioned that one year gap in my CV. Perhaps it weighed against me in hiring decisions, who knows? But i always found a job when i needed one after that, so it can't have weighed too negatively.

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    Good there are positive examples, that one doesn't need to give up hope for an academic career just because of extended gaps of employment. In fact, if it's sufficient to only specify the starting and ending years and leave out the months, and the OP starts a postdoc a year from now (i.e., in November 2022), the CV will show PhD obtained in 2021 and postdoc start in 2022, i.e. no gap visible without further information.
    – Rolf
    Nov 21, 2021 at 21:56
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    Since the OP has three offers for postdoc positions and is considering to risk to be without academic employment, rather than being unemployed due to current lack of offers beyond the control of the OP, my advise for an academic career would be to follow @Buffy's advise and to be very cautious about rejecting offers when the future is uncertain.
    – Rolf
    Nov 21, 2021 at 22:03
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An additional point to consider: for an academic career, the publication output after the PhD is crucial. One of the typical measures of success a hiring committee will look at is how many publications there are in the years after the PhD (besides obviously the quality of the publications and if the candidate had a leading role, etc.) So if it's more than a few months break (say a year), it can already give a disadvantage in the competitive academic job market. The OP mentions three publications to be finalized from the PhD; that is good, but what really matters is the research output one is able to produce independently from the PhD advisors. That being said, "follow-up" postdocs to bridge time of up to a year at the PhD institution aren't uncommon (although not a good way to establish and demonstrate independence).

For job applications in general, anything more than a few months of gap in a CV typically would require some form of explanation. If there are many applicants for a competitive position, the hiring committee members can make their busy lives easier by sorting out CVs where something 'seems slightly off'.

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  • Thank you for your answer. But aren't the comittee looking at the time worked after the PhD: if you have a break of 3 months, then a contract of one year, for them they will consider that you only had this one year of contract to evaluate your experience. For instance I am aware that in France (my country), for permanent positions, they remove from considerations the un-employed periods, they only include in consideration the time where the person has actually be employed. But indeed I don't know if that is the case everywhere. Nov 21, 2021 at 13:57
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    I don't know the French system, but in others (USA and Germany, e.g.) it is often the years that have passed since the PhD that matter. This can apply both to hiring committee evaluations and cut-off dates for fellowships and award applications with such limitations (awards often within a few years to 10 max. after the PhD). Eligibility for positions under the German tenure track program from 2016, e.g., generally require the PhD degree not to be older than 4 years, and time taken off for childcare needs to be documented so that the 4 years can be extended.
    – Rolf
    Nov 21, 2021 at 18:17
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    In the context of the French academic system, this question could be relevant: is there a maximum age for assistant professorship applications? If so, being a year "out of the system" could be a big disadvantage due to fewer publications. @Freemp3, if you know more about the French system, your comments or answers to the linked question could be helpful.
    – Rolf
    Nov 21, 2021 at 18:30
  • Thank for the comment. Actually I agree with you I think we are just talking about different things. I am thinking about the evaluation of a committee of your performances (i.e paper published per year). From what I understood they only take into account the worked time (but information to be taken with some care). Now I agree with you that for fellowships or things like this they take the time since the PhD ended. Do you have any information regarding this first par of my comment or you indeed only thought about this second part of my comment ? Nov 22, 2021 at 13:40
  • I don't know if there are specific academic systems (as maybe the French one?), where paper output would be normalized by employed time for the purpose of identifying whom to hire from typically a huge pool of applicants to the few faculty positions out there. In practice (unless there are very specific rules that force the committee to basically give the candidate credit for time of unemployment for lack of publication output), one would pick the most productive and active candidate possible, and the only thing I know of (USA) that is taken into account is the age of the PhD.
    – Rolf
    Nov 22, 2021 at 18:25
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A three month gap between completing your PhD and your first postdoc does not look bad, especially because of the pandemic. Since there is no guarantee you will get an offer in January, I think it is a mistake to not accept one of your three current offers. A one year gap is certainly far worse than one year spent in a sub-optimal postdoc. You should expect your career and other areas of your life to have zigs and zags. It is never a straight line to your planned destination.

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How long can I be unemployed before it looks bad on my academic curriculum?

Two months will not look bad. More than six months is likely to look bad, assuming there is not a reason for unemployment which is beyond your control. In between two and six months is a matter of personal opinion.

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