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I just graduated with my Ph.D. in Physics from a highly reputed (although not top 10) university in the U.S. My dissertation research was in optics and photonics. I am currently looking for jobs and postdocs. My current long term goal is to find a faculty position (if I can manage that in this job market...)

I'm in a bit of a tricky work-life situation right now.

  • For a variety of reasons that I won't get into, I wasn't able to start looking for postdoc positions until 2-3 months ago, and given how "random" the timing of academic postdoc openings can be, I likely haven't given myself enough time to get multiple decent options to choose from. Fortunately, it looks like I will very likely get an offer soon from a well reputed group at a top university (located on the east coast of the U.S.)
  • However, my partner recently relocated to the Bay Area for a really good term-limited but prestigious job that she landed, and I'm really happy for her. Ideally, I was hoping to find a postdoc position at one of the universities there so I could be with her, but given that I only gave myself 2-3 months for this process, I haven't succeeded in finding anything in that geographical area for now.

As a result, one option I'm considering is to take up an industry position for 1-2 years while my partner finishes up her appointment, and I want to look for postdoc positions after that to continue with my original goal of finding a faculty position. Taking this "break" might would allow me enough time to do a more thorough search.

Here is my question: Assuming that after 1-2 years in the industry I'd still want to return to academia, would I be considered "less desirable" for postdoc positions at very active research groups than I am now? Or am I better off going with the postdoc position that I'll have (i.e. on the east coast) instead? Of course, I know that this is ultimately a personal decision, but I'm wondering to what degree my academic prospects would be hurt if I "take a break" from it at this stage in my career.

TL;DR: Would spending 2 years in the industry right after graduation hurt my chances of landing good postdoc positions later on?

Additional info:

  • I'm currently 27, soon to be 28, years old, if that matters
  • My research is in photonics, and there are a number of good photonics companies in the Bay Area now, so I'm sure I'll get to do good technical (albeit not publishable) work

Thanks in advance for your time!

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    Not directly related to the question, but looking further ahead another thing to consider is that many postdoc and fellowship funding opportunities for early career researchers are time limited starting from the time you gained your PhD (in Europe at least), and so even if you have no trouble getting your first postdoc you may find your options limited later. Aug 2 at 9:37
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    @Noah I can't see what this would do for OP except portray him as a man of appearances rather than substance. There is nothing odd about the decision he is contemplating making and if he applies to a university with a strong applied photonics group, he'd be a strong candidate.
    – Trunk
    Aug 2 at 15:15
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    @JackAidley that is true! From what I've seen in the U.S. though, many (but not all) postdoc fellowships seem to limit applications based on the number of postdoc years you have under your belt, as opposed to just the number of years after graduation.
    – optnon
    Aug 2 at 15:28
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    @Trunk: It sounds like photonics may be genuinely different from fields that I'm familiar with, so maybe it's fine. In math, you'd absolutely do better on the postdoc market if you delay graduating, rather than graduating and then having a gap where you have no academic position. All the clocks run on PhD date, and you're just not going to get a postdoc if you're two years out of PhD without a lot of publications to show for it. Aug 2 at 16:02
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    @Noah I see. Yes, I suppose pure math is different from physical sciences in that regard.
    – Trunk
    Aug 2 at 18:02

7 Answers 7

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It could be a problem, but you have some control over the outcome. If you are doing research in such a position, research that academia might value, it would be a plus.

But you also need to keep in contact with your advisor and any other collaborators you have in academia. If you are forgotten in a couple of years it will be much harder to get good letters. And research oriented contacts are best. And watch out for the fact that most companies doing research are involved in product-oriented studies, which really isn't like academic research.

A potential negative, however, is if you get used to a big salary and make financial commitments that make a return to a more modest lifestyle harder.

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    I think my advisors (PI + collaborators) from my Ph.D. years have liked me/my work ethic etc. enough that they'd give me a good recommendation in the future too, but what you said about doing research that academia might value makes a lot of sense. Luckily in my sub-topic in photonics, there seem to be a decent number of such opportunities in the industry. I'll keep that in mind, thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    – optnon
    Aug 1 at 23:31
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    +1 Good point about the big salary and the financial commitments undertaken by young researchers limiting them economically from academia.
    – Trunk
    Aug 2 at 15:17
  • There's also a certain appeal to industry work aside from the financial, which may be difficult to see or understand until you've left academia Aug 4 at 5:05
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Your worry will be non-disclosure clauses. Basically, you might not be able to directly leverage your industry experience in the near future especially if you go for a postdoc after leaving industry. You will still learn valuable techniques in industry, but will likely not be able to continue any of the projects you worked on with your employer. The NDA may extend for some years after you leave, simply because your employer would not want you to “steal” any of their ideas or projects.

On the other hand, there is an advantage in going from industry direct to academia: your former employer could become a partner and underwrite some of your research or some of your students, and you will understand the more applied side of research (v.g. what “delivering a product” really entails). In this scheme, your former employers see you as an academic doing the risky stuff, in part using government grants, and they scoop up the good students who will have worked under someone they know.

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    That makes sense. So long as I can leverage the skills that I'd acquire while in the industry to make a good case to a potential future academic PI to hire me, I'm not too worried about wanting to continue working on those projects. Your point about knowing what "delivering a product" entails is valuable, especially as I do have inclinations toward applied research. I hadn't thought of it before.Thanks for sharing your perspective!
    – optnon
    Aug 1 at 23:27
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General answer: no.

In fact...

You may pick up skills and knowledge and contacts during those few years that make you even more desirable.

If your industry background can get the lab you are applying to, to be the very first academic facility operating a funkumverdilerisorator, they may just be ecstatic.

I have known people who got offered a full professorship just because they came with a cool bit of kit. Absolutely true story.

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  • Thanks, that gives me some hope! Of course, what you said makes logical sense: someone that worked in the industry can indeed bring value to academia by way of unique skills/expertise, but it's a little intimidating nonetheless (at least for me) to weigh that against the "publish or perish" mentality. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    – optnon
    Aug 2 at 15:33
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I think that taking up an industry job will hurt your chances of finding a postdoc position down the line.

I also think that it will not hurt your chances of an academic career down the line.

I am not from the US nor have I performed research on the American continent so my view may not reflect all the quirks that the US system specifically has. However, where I have been there is only a relatively limited postdoc window (typically around five years after defence) and once you are past that window you are no longer considered a typical early-stage postdoc researcher. Instead, however, you would now qualify for the next step in the career ladder: junior professorship, tenure track or habilitation.

Of course, you would have to somehow remain connected with academia to be considered for these positions. However, industry experience is valued more. So for every position after postdoc, I think advantages and disadvantages of having worked in industry at least balance each other out if they aren't favourable to the industry side.

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Frankly, no one here can really judge this one as precisely as you can with all your knowledge of this technology, the associated industry and from scanning job opportunities in both that and academia. It seems that you were wise in taking up a research endeavor that has good activity in both industry and academia. Not every physics PhD will be so fortunate.

But your decision to earnestly seek a postdoc job in an East Coast university when your primary desire is to be with this woman could backfire on you if you really get this anticipated offer from them: nobody likes to be led along and researchers like to get their vacancies filled quickly.

I think the real issue here is the reality of a life as an academic couple and all the logistics that this will entail. You can't just treat this as a series of ad hoc situations: you made the circumstances here and you have to plot a viable path through it.

Previous posts have thrown up a lot of insights into this increasingly common scenario and how employing universities manage it. In some cases being part of an academic couple may actually provide you both with an advantage when job seeking in the same area.

But you both have to sit down and plan on this thing - not just talk around and around on it.

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    "I think the real issue here is the reality of a life as an academic couple and all the logistics that this will entail." You're absolutely right. You're also right that there's no fun way around this other than sitting and talking about it (which we're doing). Makes me a little sad though that academic couples have to jump through hoops just to stay together and have fulfilling jobs, but I suppose it is what it is!
    – optnon
    Aug 2 at 15:36
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    It's not as hard as you suggest any more. Since academic couples have become very common since the 1980s, universities - individually and as groups in the same region - have started to cooperate on this. You two aren't yet in the category of "spousal hires" although the constraints on your decisions are near the same. But so far things are going reasonably well for you both. Hopefully if you both get established on the West Coast making subsequent transfers in a coordinated way will be easier, at least if moving to an area of several universities. Buona fortuna.
    – Trunk
    Aug 2 at 17:01
  • I hope so as well. Thank you very much!
    – optnon
    Aug 2 at 18:37
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After I moved into industry and worked there for a few years, I was never able to get a scientific position again. There are some things in scientific culture I liked, so I wrote a number of applications, also do not minding a lower salary. I am under impression I was actually never considered as a possible candidate.

This is one of these "glass ceiling" things where kind of nothing is standing on the way but there are barriers that cannot be crossed. You will never be explained why and only learn by the experience. The other two similar barriers are that you cannot start the second PhD after you have one and you cannot continue through more that two or three post doctoral positions.

This may be EU specific, but as far as EU is concerned, this is true for all researchers I personally know.

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  • I’m sorry to hear that you weren’t able to get back into a scientific position again. I’ve heard from many people here in the U.S. too that leaving academia is mostly a one way door. It’s a real shame, and it is why I’m thinking so hard about this decision too.
    – optnon
    Aug 5 at 1:31
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Universities sell PhD's. It's the business they are in. In order to sell PhD's, they have to pretend that there are post-doc job opportunities. Post-doc job opportunities are for recent graduates, to add value to PhD programs. If you are several years post-doc, you aren't in that group of job-seekers.

Universities also do research to boost their research standing, allowing them to sell more PhD's. To get a job like that, you have to demonstrate that you are better than a recent graduate. Either by having research success, or by having relevant industry experience.

If you take time off after your PhD, you have to spend the time doing something that will make you more attractive as a post-doc.

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    If universities sell PhDs (to the PhD candidates, I assume?), then by which means do the PhD candidates pay the universities for it? Aug 3 at 6:17
  • By they hard work that is usually both underpaid and overtime, if to view it just as a job. In ETHZ Switzerland (biology) some years ago 50 % salary was the norm with very clear understanding that over 100 % of work commitment is expected. The idea is, a PhD student gets much more than just a job.
    – h22
    Aug 3 at 13:21
  • @h22: I see your point. But I don't see how this supports that claim that it were universities' business to sell PhDs. If it's A's business to sell B, this means that A gives B to customers and gets money from the customers in return. Universities give PhD's to PhD candidates, but they do not get money from the PhD candidates in return. They might get cheap labour from the candidates - but getting cheap labour in return for certificates cannot be a business on its own since it does not generate revenue on its own (and revenue is not even mention in david's answer). Aug 3 at 21:06
  • @JochenGlueck Surely there is revenue in papers, citations, visibility and associated fundings/grants. Whose benefits rank higher - the university's or the cheap employee's - is an interesting question I'm afraid is almost impossible to answer.
    – kricheli
    Aug 4 at 4:41

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