I am close to finishing my PhD and most likely will have 1 or 2 papers published. For personal reasons I have to take around 2 year break from academia, but I would like to come back for a postdoc. People around me keep telling me that if I get out, I can't come back in, especially because the groups I want to apply to are really good (I chose them for the subject, not prestige, but the point still stands). Is that true? I will still try, but in case that is accurate, does anybody have advice in how to make the transition or any strategies that worked for other people? I am afraid of wasting my hard work and sacrifices.
One problem with a break is that you might lose contact with those people who can best support your return. Coming back to academia might require good and honest letters of recommendation confirming your likelihood of success.
I recommend two things, though related.
Keep in contact with people, especially your advisor, but also other faculty members.
But, just as important, keep up with ideas in your field and spend some effort discussing them with others, such as those mentioned above. You don't want to be two years behind the curve when you reenter. I suggest keeping a notebook of ideas, especially those that might lead to future research. Read a few papers. Ask people to keep you informed of progress in the field.
The answer ranges from "mildly difficult" to "very difficult", but does not reach the extremes of "no consequences" or "impossible."
First what is your reason? If you are a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy, have to take care of elderly parents, etc., then do what you have to do and then come back to academia. It's not a fair system and things will be harder for you than for people who were working those two years, but far from impossible. This, of course, depends on the field. In some fields, you should be able to at least keep up with things by reading the journals, attending conferences virtually, and keeping up with colleagues. In other fields, e.g. in advanced laboratories, things change so quickly that by the time you read it in the journals, it's obsolete. Regardless, when you return, you can write on applications the reason for the hiatus (e.g. family medical situation), and explain that it's solved. Everyone wants to be understanding of past crises, but nobody wants to hire someone who is in the middle of one.
A lot of people take breaks from academia for reasons which are arguably optional: a "mental health break", a long-planned hiking or cycling trip across the continent, marriage, having kids, etc. And before everyone jumps in about how unfair this is and how it affects some groups more than others, etc., please take a second to notice that I am not advocating or justifying the system, but explaining to the OP how these reasons are in fact, usually seen as optional. You can make your own decision as to your life priorities. If taking a mental health break will save your live, by all means do it. If having children is more important than whatever consequences you reap from the break, by all means do it (on the latter, I'd agree with you.) And so on. If your reason for the break falls into what could be considered optional life choices, then make your decision based on that. Just don't expect it to be without consequences.
More clarification is needed here since this very much depends on the field you are in and what type of break you intend. In machine learning, it is not uncommon for people to go take on an industry position for a couple of years before returning to an academic position. The idea is that the industry position equips them better to tackle translation tasks or acquire skills in large-scale software engineering.
Other fields might be more or less malleable. A general recommendation from my side would be to not worry unduly. If your reasons are personal and important to you, would the knowledge that you may not get another position afterwards change the decision? If not, I'd just go ahead with it and see where it leads you.
Best of luck!
My situation is perhaps anecdotal and likely different, but shows that it is not impossible, though, as others have mentioned, this may depend on many factors such as field etc.
To make my contribution less anecdotal:
- Try to show you are still enthusiastic about research. At least: read. Better yet: try to publish; even if not very impactful or outside of the field you want to get back in. It shows general skills: you still have fresh ideas and can communicate them. A preprint or some blog posts can also suffice to showcase this. Get it out there.
- Retain your academic connections, establish new, or reestablish old ones.
- You may have to start a bit low on the ladder: less reputable lab, short-term position, etc. It will be easier to get in, and may require hard work, but try to work your way up from there if you cannot get into your preferred lab. I would not recommend it, but know of people who did a second PhD in a related field because they really wanted back in.
I obtained my PhD, then worked a research position for about 3 1/2 years at a government agency. The position turned out to be not very research-heavy: I learned a lot but did not do research and did not publish in the first 2 1/2 years. Then decided the research part really was an itch, and started looking for a post-doc. How did I manage to get back in?
First, it took me about a year to find a relevant position, though I did not want to move cities which was a very big limiting factor.
Second, the position is just for a year and in a lab headed by someone I knew from my PhD (not an advisor). As argued by others, connections matter. It is a rather young lab without a big reputation (yet), which means it might be easier to get in. Most importantly, the work is interesting and relevant. A recommendation letter from my former advisor (note, I did not hear anything from him for three years, but he was still happy to write a letter) was likely important.
Third, wanting to get back in, I published two manuscripts related to work I did in my government agency position, showing that I can still do the trick. This took some of my personal time though. They were not directly relevant for the position I hold now, but they were more or less in the same general field, and in good specialized journals.
It is possible to maintain an unpaid affiliation with a university. The length of time that the status can be maintained is dependent on the university and other circumstances. You can ask your advisor or the head of your department for an affiliation status. I would recommend to try to stay mildly involved in research projects during that time to maintain an authorship record.
Another suggestion is to ask to stay in the department as an adjunct instructor if possible. Doing one course a semester can be a light workload and a small amount of income and this will maintain an affiliation with the university. This is, again, something to discuss with your advisor or the head of your department.