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I finished my PhD five years ago in computer science, and left academia for industry. I had a decent but not spectacular publication record when I defended, but my research subfield has basically died out since then. I've worked in more of an applied research / data science / research engineer role, in which I've been a co-author on a handful of second-tier papers.

I'm now interested in doing a post-doc, either so I can pursue a career in academia or get a more research-focused job in industry at a better company. To that end, I recently did my own independent research project in my free time, which was recently accepted in a first-tier venue. I've also narrowed down on this as being the subfield I want to work on.

But I'm quite lost as to how to get a post-doc, partly stemming from a bad PhD experience. Even though I went to a top-10 CS program in the US, I was only one of two students to successfully finish their PhD under my advisor. My advisor not only did not get tenure, but he is now unemployed, so a recommendation from him wouldn't be very prestigious. Furthermore, for a variety of reasons I doubt my advisor would write me a positive rec letter. (He frequently criticized his other PhD students to me; he sometimes told me to quit; and as I was writing my dissertation was questioning whether I had enough material to qualify. At the time, this led to imposter syndrome; since then, I've regained confidence in my own research abilities.) Also, my advisor also didn't let PhD students do research internships and collaborations, so I have no one else to recommend me from my time as a PhD student.

How should I go about obtaining rec letters, and more generally, how do I build a network that will allow me to restart a research / academic career?

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  • Just for clarification, when you wrote 'recently accepted in a first-tier venue' do you mean you have a paper accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal? Or an invitation to speak at a conference? Or something else?
    – quarague
    Dec 18, 2023 at 13:46
  • What sort of career are you hoping for? Primarily research, or teaching, or what, exactly. I'm assuming this is for the US, also. Are you happy to stay in Seattle?
    – Buffy
    Dec 18, 2023 at 13:48
  • @quarague, a peer-reviewed journal. Dec 18, 2023 at 14:37
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    It is a huge accomplishment that you managed to publish a paper in your free time. If possible, could you talk more about that part? Were you single authored? Also, I feel that you could collaborate with others and find recommenders at the same time. Dec 18, 2023 at 14:39
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    I would argue that you do not need to (nor should you) take a postdoc role - you have already demonstrated your ability to perform independent work. So, what you seem to be wanting to do, is apply for professor positions. Now, that may require a few more papers to be competitive...
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 18, 2023 at 16:22

4 Answers 4

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First of all, you can be proud to have finished your PhD despite(!) your apparently bad supervisor. Second, it is impressive that you managed to get accepted into a top-tier venue while not working full-time in research. Both are great accomplishments.

Your situation is why I do not like the recommendation letter system for getting a position in academia. Still, here are a few ideas:

  • ask some (senior) co-workers from your current industry job (if somewhat related to the position you are applying to)
  • try to use your most recent work to get in contact with others and try to establish a collaboration (assuming that you will present your work at a conference). Otherwise, you can try to contact other researchers working in this field and try to collaborate. Even if they are not research group leaders e.g. PhD students or Postdocs, collaborating with them may result in a publication with the supervisor's name on it and thus will give you a possible candidate for a recommendation letter. However, this may take some time and thus is not optimal.

I wish you all the best!

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First, other than the fact that you can't get a decent letter from your advisor, I'd ignore the fact of the bad experience in the doctoral program. It is irrelevant now and to any employer.

Second, you need letters that can predict your success in whatever position you are looking for, a post-doc in this case. That means people with some relevant experience in that as well as knowledge of you and your work. Perhaps you have some professors other than your advisor who can vouch for you. Perhaps some of your co-workers fit the bill, but that isn't generally the case.

But third, a postdoc and going through the normal application process might not be your best path to academia. You have at least two good universities in your area (UW and SeattleU). Consider making a visit to them and speaking with department chairs about what might be your options. Adjunct teaching probably isn't what you want, unless you can develop a special relationship. But you might be able to convince someone that you have skills that would be useful to them.

I know a few people who are employed by industry in research positions who do adjunct teaching of upper level courses aligned with their interests. They use the positions to integrate themselves into the faculty, going to meetings and such. This gives them the opportunity for obtaining letters if it were to be the case that they wanted to change jobs (which they don't actually, as they are well paid and have good positions). There is a bit less opportunity for research due to IP restrictions on what they can do outside their regular jobs, but they can participate in some ways.

Something like that might be part of a long term plan to move into academia, whereas the standard path might be somewhat closed off, at least in the short term.

Another possibility, depending on your flexibility, is to attend some CS conferences and use the time there to meet people and discuss ideas. I once built a large circle of collaboration this way. The people you meet can speak for you after you work with them for a while.

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Besides your current contacts, ask your former department head to write a letter for you. They can help explain the difficult situation you're in (and were in).

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Just email someone you are interested in working for, link your paper, and explain your situation. Then offer to give 3 recommendations with coworkers and bosses that explain that you're a good guy to work with.

Also maybe don't focus too much on blaming your advisor for your situation.

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