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I am a finishing graduate student after, what I personally would say, a rather mediocre PhD (mathematics).

There has been some personal issues (mental health issues) and so I could not perform to the utmost of my abilities. The PhD will, however, still very likely be finished. The mental health issues have improved.

Regarding the question of continuing with research my supervisor has claimed that there is an agreement with another university to trade finishing PhD-students for post-docs and my impression was that a post-doc was essentially a guarantee. (However other faculty members do not seem to believe that I am cut out for this and the argument would be that my supervisor, having had no prior graduate students before me, is not experienced enough to accurately decide this).

So I ask:

When is it not a good idea to continue with research after the PhD? Are there any traditional red-flags?

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    What are your career goals?
    – Buffy
    Feb 3, 2023 at 23:21
  • The dream is to get some permanent position and to do research. But as I mentioned in the post, I simply do not quite believe myself to be good/talented enough. But this could change after the papers are finished/published. Also, there has been some friction between me and my supervisor (not claiming neither side to have been perfect in that relationship).
    – Vertex
    Feb 3, 2023 at 23:27
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    After reading through your post history, I kinda feel like you've been just going with the flow, without a plan for the future. Back to your question, "When is it not a good idea to continue with research after the PhD? Are there any traditional red-flags?" I think the answer is when you don't want to do it or have enough motivation.
    – Michael
    Dec 1, 2023 at 17:06
  • @Michael Is this based on this post alone, or collectively on the other ones?
    – Vertex
    Dec 2, 2023 at 14:25

4 Answers 4

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I'd say the traditional red flags are:

  • Poor performance in PhD
  • Discouragement from supervisor (or anyone more experienced than you are and are familiar with your work)

While these are obvious, I'd also add:

  • Unfamiliarity with the non-academic job market

If you pursue postdocs while unfamiliar with the non-academic job market, it could be a sign that you are doing postdocs without having really thought about it, and you are avoiding the "real world" not because it is unsuitable, but because you don't know what it's like.

See also the answer I wrote to a related question.

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  • My supervisor has, if anything, been encouraging not understanding why I was so pessimistic about getting a post-doc. Also, I know another PhD who went on to post-doc with significantly less research-results than me. But he lasted only some three or four years before moving out into the industry.
    – Vertex
    Feb 5, 2023 at 19:58
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I suggest that you don't consider a postdoc as an end in itself. It isn't a career. It is a useful stepping stone for many who want an academic career and need to both stay relevant and increase their productivity while they seek a permanent position.

I also suggest that you try for permanent positions and see what might be available to you, considering the overall life of an academic, both teaching and research. But also, follow up on postdoc opportunities in case the job hunt is difficult, as it is for many at the moment.

Don't turn down a postdoc leaving you with nothing, however. If you wan to stay in academia then it is a good and potentially productive interim step. But the real goal is a permanent, tenure track, position (or the equivalent if this isn't the US).

When the job market is tough, people have to make some compromises in the short term so that they can continue to work toward long term goals.


And if you want an industrial position instead, search in that market and use a postdoc as a filler.

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First, here's hoping your mental health issues can be improved. Best wishes.

You should think about the post doc as a stepping stone to an academic career. If you are keen on being an academic of some kind then pursue it.

If you are thinking that academia and you have spent enough time together, there is no shame in it. If that's the case, seek a job outside academia. There are lots of PhDs in math working in various industries. From finance to aircraft design to pharmaceuticals to you name it. Your PhD will be proof that you can handle complicated ideas and produce creative solutions. It won't be a "snap" to get a job, but it is certainly possible.

This is not necessarily an easy decision. But consider. If you do switch to industry of some kind, then a year or two in a post doc position means that amount of time you could have spent getting experience outside academia. You could be making contacts, learning the new context, etc. And quite likely earning a paycheck at least as large as the typical post doc.

So the decision is, stay in academia or leave academia. Inside, look for a post doc. Outside, look for a job that will make use of your talents and skills.

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  • I still have mixed feelings after how my PhD has gone so far. But apparently this is not too uncommon and should things look better after the first paper is published (a rather extensive result, and will be read and cited by many people in the field) these negative feelings might pass over. I do have some experience with work outside of the academia having both had them before the Bachelor's and between the Master's and the PhD. I do not believe that I have too little experience /knowledge of the options outside of academia.
    – Vertex
    Feb 5, 2023 at 19:57
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First of all, a postdoc position is not the only way to continue research. There are many research institutes except universities that can contribute to your CV even more than a postdoc.

As for your question, I think it is not a good idea to start as a postdoc if

  • The lab is too small. For instance, if it is only two postdocs and the supervisor, of course depending on the area, the productivity might not be what you expect.
  • The collaboration histroy of the lab is not rich. If the previous postdocs have a portfolio of publications only with the lab, then chances are you won't have collaboration and networking opportunities.
  • The university is a lower-ranked university. This might be a bit controversial but it is what it is. If a university is not very high-ranked researchwise, then the chances are you will not find many opportunities to improve yourself during your postdoc.
  • The supervisor's publication record is subpar. I think the main reason to work as a postdoc is doing research, and the output of the research is published papers. Considering that, if your supervisor has a subpar publication record, then they either do more teaching than research or they simply cannot obtain good results. In both cases, your postdoc won't be as productive as it should be.

I also want to note that postdoc is a risky position. It is generally considered as a mere internship position. The longer you continue to be a postdoc, the lower your chances to land a permanent job. So, if you are not absolutely sure that your postdoc will benefit your career dearly, then it is better to avoid it.

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