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I am currently finishing up my doctorate in Europe and will start a post-doc next year. My understanding is that a lot of people end up doing post-doc after post-doc (easily till around their 40s), without ever getting a permanent contract at a university.

My question is: What are the options are for someone who leaves "academia" after one or some post-docs, and is age is a factor?

This is related to What post PhD path alternatives are there?, however I would like more of a focus on the extent to which age is a factor. I have often heard that if one is beyond a certain age, then it is difficult to convince someone in the "industry" to hire you. The idea being something like "you can't teach an old dog new tricks". Any personal experience and statistical studies on this question are welcome!

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    National Labs and industry hire PhDs, do research, publish, etc. The thought that the only place to work is academia is extremely short sighted.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 13, 2022 at 14:07
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    Are you willing to do work that doesn't relate to serious physics? Sep 13, 2022 at 17:02
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    Long ago, I wrote this answer: mathoverflow.net/questions/105495/… in response to a question from a mathematician, but the answer is completely independent of what you're studying and applies equally to physics PhDs. Sep 13, 2022 at 22:36
  • You are usually not that old (in relation to your qualifications) when you complete your first post-doc and even if you are, industry has a lot of demand right now. However, personally, I recommend getting a project position at a research institute. If you are good, you have a higher chance to get a permanent position there than at a university. In Germany, I would suggest PTB, Fraunhofer or Max-Planck institutes to a physicist. There are probably even more options (depending on your subfield).
    – user9482
    Sep 14, 2022 at 5:35
  • You will find contracts are rarely permanent outside academia too. Permanent contracts are a historical anomaly, not normality. No contract will protect you if your employer is unable to pay you. Sep 14, 2022 at 22:05

2 Answers 2

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In principle, for most employers, age should not matter. That's because age discrimination is usually frowned upon and many employers want to say that they don't discriminate for that reason. Example.

Integrity is a core part of our culture, and LinkedIn is committed to equal employment opportunity for all qualified individuals - regardless of race, color, religion, creed, gender, national origin, age, disability, veteran status, marital status, pregnancy, sex, gender expression or identity, sexual orientation, citizenship, or any other legally protected class. This commitment applies across all of our employment policies and practices, from recruiting and hiring to training and career development.

However, if you seek such a career move, there'll be questions you need to answer:

  • Why are you seeking a career change?
  • What can you actually do?

The first should be straightforward to answer. The second is not so simple. Considering the age, you are probably also seeking a more senior role (or at least you want to be paid more). That means you are competing against other people who have had several years of experience in whatever position you're applying for. Why should they hire you? Can you demonstrate that your experience in academia allows you to exceed what your competitors offer? "I can learn it quickly" might be true, but it's also not sufficient.

Example: say you're interested in data science, which is certainly something that many physics PhDs go on to do. Here's an example of a job advertisement in that domain (nothing special about this advertisement, it's simply the first one that popped up when I did a search). Note the requirements:

Requirements:

  • 6-8 years of experience in data science; preferably in B2B industry
  • Excellent modelling experience including but not limited to deep learning and natural language processing
  • Familiar in handling time series data, machine learning framework and in-depth understanding of data processing and feature engineering techniques
  • Strong knowledge in Python and SQL
  • Excellent communications and interpersonal skills
  • Ability to interact positively and professionally at all levels

As a postdoc you definitely do not have experience in the B2B industry, immediately putting you at a disadvantage. The advertisement also asks for 6-8 years of experience as a data scientist, which some of your competitors definitely will have. You might have it too, if you've been working on data science projects in physics for 6-8 years (have you?). If you haven't, then it becomes very difficult for you to get this job.

If you do have the 6-8 years experience, then there's the next hurdle. The advertisement asks for experience in deep learning and natural language processing. Did your data science projects include these topics? I can see deep learning, but NLP seems rather unlikely in physics. Again, that puts you at a disadvantage. Even if you can learn it quickly, you don't have any examples of delivered projects you can cite at an interview.

As you can see, it's not easy to get a job in data science, but it's not because you're old. It's because you probably don't have the experience that your competitors do. It's not dissimilar to how it's hard to get a job in particle physics when your entire physics career has been in condensed matter physics.

Having said that, there will be jobs where the ability to "do physics" is a key part, and for those jobs your physics PhD will be squarely relevant. Offhand, the first one that comes to mind is teaching, both as a school teacher or as a private tutor.

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I realize that this might not qualify as a literal answer, but just some career advice from someone who has completed theirs.

Don't give up if you really want a career in academia.

Times are hard now for entry into permanent positions, hence the prevalence of postdocs. If you get a post doc, don't consider it as a respite, but as an opportunity. Use the postdoc to do three things.

First, don't give up your search for a permanent position. Don't wait until near the end to start applying.

Second, use the postdoc for what it is intended to do: improve your CV by publishing. Grant writing is also possible.

Third, develop collaborative relationships, not only for research but for for general career advancement. Try to attend good conferences. Use the time there to meet people with common interests and explore collaborations. Those people can help you in your search for a permanent position in many ways.

Not quite on the same scale, but continuously reevaluate your goals. That isn't the same as giving them up, but rethinking them is good as you learn more from your current academic situation. In the US, there are a lot of good (really good) colleges and universities that aren't primarily research institutions. Teaching is more important, though usually not all important. And a tenurable/tenured position at a good liberal arts college will still give you opportunities for research, especially if you have developed those collaborative relationships and maintain them. If a postdoc gives you teaching experience as well, it can be a plus for such things.

And, age is probably somewhat less of a factor in academic hiring than in industrial. A former spouse started their academic career after age 40 and did very well. You just need something valuable to offer.

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