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I am doing my first postdoc in pure mathematics, which will come to an end in four months. I have been applying for numerous positions, of course, but to no avail. It is about time (has been some time?) that I considered a contingency plan.

Now a rule of thumb is, I hear, that once you get an industry job, you do not simply get back into academia. Even outside of the US (which I am).

I am interested in applying for jobs in the next application cycle in case I am not offered any job this time. Given the rule of thumb, would I be more likely to be offered an academic position if I stayed unemployed (except for odd jobs, if need be) after the termination of the current contract than I would if I got a full-time job in industry?

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    Taking a "gap year" is only useful if you had a reasonable expectation that the outcome of your job applications would be different next year than this year. How are you going to make sure that that is the case? Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 20:49
  • This discussion about Einstein and other topics has been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 23:38
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    What about a part-time job in industry leaving time to writing papers or doing research?
    – Rainald62
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 21:35

6 Answers 6

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once you get an industry job, you do not simply get back into academia

I think you're missing the causal structure of this concept. The issue is not that having an industry job is somehow disqualifying for academic ones, but rather that it's extremely difficult to produce the work that is valued in academia (in particular, publishing research) while not employed in academia.

Can you improve the pace at which you publish in academia while being unemployed relative to when you were a post doc, enough to get another job in academia? Maybe you think you can, but I think it's very low probability. There's also the practical issue that being unemployed means you don't have a paycheck to pay for the things you need.

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    It's also worth considering the other possible causal structure. No post-doc role in academia will pay more than a small fraction of what you can earn by taking those skills into industry and being able to apply them. The biggest disqualifying factor is developing a lifestyle which academia could never support. (And that "lifestyle" merely needs to include one of a car, house, partner or child to potentially be beyond an academic salary.)
    – Graham
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 14:00
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    @Graham: "No post-doc role in academia will pay more than a small fraction of [...]": I hear similar claims quite often, but would seriously advise some caution here. After a first postdoc I worked in automotive industry for one and a half years and then came back to academia for another postdoc. The postdoc salary was indeed lower than what I was paid in the industry, but it was much more than "a small fraction". The postdoc position also happened to be in a much cheaper city, so the difference in lifestyle was essentially zero. Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 21:51
  • Depending on the local there might be unemployment benefits available which will enable the OP to keep working without a significant hit to his lifestyle. (He says he is outside the US so that makes it more likely). I know people who have worked on research on unemployment benefits for a year. (This might come with some annoying obligations of applying for jobs you are never going to get anyway. Or even worse being required to apply for jobs you might actually get and don't want.)
    – Kvothe
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 1:55
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It is not a matter of you not being offered jobs after going to industry. It is more that people who went to industry don't want to go back to academia. So, don't worry. Take a job if you get an offer and see what the appeal is. That is better than being unemployed.

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    +1 for “It is more that people who went to industry don't want to go back to academia.”
    – mhdadk
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 13:46
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    People who go into industry generally find they like earning money more than the pittance you get in acadaemia Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 17:51
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    @ScottishTapWater: There is also the fact that, at least in some industries, you can "publish" things without going through the rigmarole of external, third-party peer review, and other people in industry will take your "publications" seriously even if academics don't. Google in particular has been doing this for years.
    – Kevin
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 8:07
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    Yes, isn't it sad that the typically better good-work life balance in industry in combination with better pay (in some fields) and not having to do so much committee work can be so addictive that many PhD holders can't find the willpower to go back to academia?
    – DCTLib
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 12:48
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    @DCTLib There are problems in academia and (different) problems in industry. Why should all PhD holders value these the same way? Let each do what is best for them, without attaching a value judgement like lack of willpower to such choices. Academia is not the only or best way to do some good. Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 13:11
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I wonder whether you have really considered all of your options. If your job search has been focused too narrowly it is harder to get any position. If you are willing to teach, primarily, rather than do research there are many more options (in the US, at least). Nearly every US college needs math faculty since even non-math majors take some math courses. And many, while small, still have active faculty.

So, broaden your job search if you think it is a bit narrow.

But if you do leave the academic market for a while it is harder to get back for (at least) two reasons. In industry you make much more money than academics and it can be hard to give that up once you get used to it and raise your cost of living. The other reason is that it is difficult, in most industry positions, even research, to do things that are relevant to academia. Much industry research is product focused, not knowledge based.

One option, if you can afford to do it is to take on some academically relevant project to fill a gap year. Writing a book is a possibility for many. It could be a textbook or something more focused on your research area. Among other things, it gives a reason for a gap.

And, keeping contact with potential collaborators is also possible.

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    What is the benefit of having a teaching job instead of an industry job? Both leave little time for research. (Unfortunately, for the reasons I sketched in my comments above, and lack of recent teaching experience, I don't know if the former is feasible.)
    – Confused
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 20:44
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    Few recent doctorates have much teaching experience, actually.
    – Buffy
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 20:49
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    @Confused It's a question of human environment really. The small college environment is much closer to that of a large university: you'll feel better around a congenial milieu - don't discount this. With other fields of research you can well say teaching in a small college with limited lab + library facilities would afford you little chance to advance your publishing record. But you say that you are in pure math . . . You have no need of labs. You can make do with online journals access in the small college library - if not, get external membership of the nearest large university library.
    – Trunk
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 17:05
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    @Buffy I'm not sure if "few recent doctorates have much teaching experience" can really be applied across the board. I know many, from those at Stanford to those at state schools in the U.S., who are required to devise syllabi and teaching prior to graduating with the PhD.
    – Parrever
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 15:37
  • @Parever All graduates or just all those taking the Math Teaching modules ? Link to syllabus, please ?
    – Trunk
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 12:51
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In addition to the answers already given, I would like to point out that there is at least one other option.

If you can afford to be unemployed for a year, you might be able to obtain some sort of "affiliate" status with your current university that can allow you to effectively have an additional year of unpaid postdoc in your current position.

This isn't a very good solution (and a terrible precedent), so you definitely shouldn't do it for more than one year. It's worth considering, however, within the space of possibilities.

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  • This of course depends on OP having either: (1) enough scope to extend the work on his current fellowship topic and get additional publications from it; or (2) have another juicy topic on his back-burner that he can bring successfully to the boil within ~ 10 months. I am not sure OP has either. But even so, this is bound to raise eyebrows and bristle whiskers by future HoDs: this man is either an idler or a fool who will work for nothing . . . Not the impression one wants to give, is it ?
    – Trunk
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 21:16
  • @Trunk Agreed. And yet, for some people, that may still be better than the other alternatives.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 4:12
  • Is an alternative of doing a decent and paying job in industry, government service or some small college that bad to freewheeling along on welfare or lumping off their wife ? Who can these people be ? What really is their outlook on life and work ?
    – Trunk
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 15:41
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    @Trunk—I believe the issue, as other commenters have described, is that a full-time government or college teaching job will typically leave no time for research that academic hiring committees will value, making it impossible to improve one's application prospects for the next cycle.
    – Vectornaut
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 16:41
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    @Trunk—My impression is that many teaching-track positions come with few or no research expectations, and accordingly demand full- or nearly full-time teaching. I've never had a teaching-track position at a university, though, so I can't speak from experience.
    – Vectornaut
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 1:43
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I was in exactly your position nine months ago (applied math rather than pure math). I was geographically limited by where I looked for faculty positions, and while I got interviews, they never led to offers.

As mathematicians we have an advantage compared to other sciences: our research is often not limited by a lack of funding. Not sure what side of pure math you do, but my guess is that to get work done all you need is pencil, paper and laptop. Get yourself a day job, and treat math as a hobby. Work on hard problems that you were too afraid to work on before, perhaps for lack of progress or a perception that "this problem is for people with job security". Publish as unaffiliated or, if you don't want to list your home address as your institution, incorporate and register a non-profit research centre that only exists on paper (I'm looking to do this right now, if only because it's an adventure in its own right). Or, as others have suggested here, try to get a job where publication is expected.

If a professor position is your dream, that's fine. But don't let the dream tie you down. You might find, like I did, that there are plenty of interesting careers outside of academia, many of which pay more (either initially, or have a longer runway of earnings potential), allow great work-life balance and provide superior benefits. And besides, there's no rule saying that you can't go back later. Industry experience is valuable, and depending on the industry you enter and the role you get, you might find that what you do is transferable if you decide to throw your hat in the ring for a tenure track job along the line.

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Working in a company provides you with useful experience, not just in terms of CV, but of personal growth too. You get to see problems and situations from a different perspective. If you want to learn about leadership and effective management, a company job may help you a lot and turn out to be useful even if you decide to go back to academia. Moreover ...

@Buffy "The other reason is that it is difficult, in most industry positions, even research, to do things that are relevant to academia. Much industry research is product focused, not knowledge based." Yes, but that depends on the irrelevance of a lot of academmic research. Experiencing how mathematics or physics or whatever are actually used in practice gives sense for which problems and techniques are actually relevant, as well as providing insight into their deep motivation, beyond the formalism. Often deep, new results emerge from concrete problems , rather than from academic ruminations.

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