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Next year I should finish my math PhD, with a (I guess) pretty good thesis. Not great, but not bad either. I had some ups and (many) downs on my path and more will surely come in the next few months. Last year I faced a very difficult situation (I discovered a result I had worked on had already been known, but neither I nor the advisor knew about it until later on) but luckily recouped quite well.

At the time I seriously thought of leaving academia after the PhD since my thesis would have been very bad anyway, but as I said luckily this shouldn't be the case.

Now I am looking for post docs, but a question keeps popping in my mind, and that's: are you sure you want to do this for the rest of your life? Of course you can't help me with this choice, but the idea of leaving academia for industry has never left me since last year. There are multiple reasons: a prospect of more stability, both economical and geographical (you know, I'd like to start a family at some point), clear and definite objectives, the fact that you don't take work at home with you, but have a fixed working schedule etc.

Of course I also like research, but I guess that I thought I would have loved it more. I know that the PhD can be very stressful and this feeling might be born from the prolonged period of stress it bears, but still.

Now the actual question. I still have some time (> 6 months) before the end of my PhD, and it may actually be more or less a year if I need some extension. I was planning to make up my mind during this time, maybe contacting some company that seems interesting to inquire about the work or even asking people who left academia to pursue a career in industry how they are doing and if they regret the decision (I know it's very personal and it varies for each person and each workplace, but hearing some stories is better than hearing none). By the way if you feel to share your experience, you're very welcome. I know I should have done this sooner, but I didn't. Stupid me, I know.

The problem is, if instead I wanted to land a post doc I should start sending applications now. There are some very good positions that, if continuing in academia, I'd surely regret not having applied to. So, if I end up getting accepted in some place, how long does it take from sending the application to signing some contract? And how are these generally written (in Europe, not US)? What generally happens if someone accepts an offer and then changes his/her mind? Do you face legal/economic consequences? I know it's not fair to apply (and worse accept) for a position you're not even so sure about, but I see no other options here.

P.S: I also thought of a "gap year" to try an outside-of-academia job between the PhD and a post doc, but it might considerably dampen my probabilities of getting accepted in some good place, if not some place at all.

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    An "industry" job for a math PhD is not like working on a production line 8-5 with an hour for lunch. It may not have 'clear and definite objectives' (and most likely won't). You need to find and talk to previous PhD graduates from your program who went into "industry" and find out what it is really like. Then compare. (And, "industry" may well like to see a post-doc on your resume).
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 29 at 13:05
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    Welcome to Academia SE! Some of your questions (postdoc response timelines, reneging on an offer) are already answered here: could you try to narrow down your query a bit? Commented May 29 at 13:29
  • @JonCuster: Spot-on advice. The old caricature lives on, yet prudent youngsters will look beyond and learn from what they’re seeing. Commented May 30 at 3:07
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    "I know it's not fair to apply (and worse accept) for a position you're not even so sure about, but I see no other options here." False. It's perfectly fine to apply to positions even if you're not sure whether you want to stay in academia. On the other hand, you should be decided whether you want to stay in academia at least for the next year by the time you get an offer. Putting off this decision until the very last possible moment is a bad idea. You don't want to be in a situation where you have a week to decide on industry vs. academia. Commented May 30 at 21:04

6 Answers 6

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No country I know of operates a legal system of slave or bonded labour, and you are free to terminate any contract of employment anytime you like. Typically contracts will have a notice period, but even that is more or less unenforceable, especially if you've not even started. The only real legal or financial consequences might be if you have moved to a new country and have a visa dependent on your job, you visa will likely be invalidated, any you might need a new visa tied to any new employer you decided to work for instead . It's possible you could be asked to repay any relocation allowance you've been paid.

As for social consequences... leaving during a postdoc happens all the time. Its the most common way for a postdoc to finish. Not starting is less common, but not unheard of, especially if there is a long lead time. Yes the PI will probably be pissed if you don't show, and will be unlikely to offer you another position, but that is almost certainly the limit of the social consequences.

That's not to say you should mess people around because you can. They're is an ethical angle to consider. But also consider that its probably better for everyone if you don't start a postdoc you are not interested in. So in some ways, you are doing everyone a favour if you change your mind and decide you are not interested.

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You're facing some big decisions, so remember to take care of yourself. My view is that applying for postdocs and being honest about your desire and intentions if/when offers come in is the best policy. I have personal experience in this regard that may help you. I was offered and accepted a postdoc at a highly prestigious unit in my field. The offer required me to relocate overseas. I was very excited and everything was in place. Then my Father was diagnosed with terminal cancer with a 6-12 month life expectancy. He and I were very close. I agonised over what to do. Dad told me to go. I communicated with my pending institution and they gave me some time. In the end I couldn't leave my Father and I couldn't string my postdoc position along (there was government funding involved etc). I declined the position, explaining my reasons why. I was worried that I'd suffer reputational damage. The opposite was true. The team I was to work with were all understanding and supportive. I do not regret my decision to stay with my Father. I look back on that time with sadness but also with the comfort that I did the right thing. What I'm trying to say is look to your future but be clear about what is truly important to you and communicate clearly and early as required. All the best my friend 😊

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In my US-based experience, postdoc employers typically give you 1-2 weeks to sit with an offer. It's similar for faculty jobs-- this time is lost to them if you end up declining an offer.

There are no direct monetary repercussions for leaving after accepting this type of job in the US typically. The contracts vary in length, but are often particularly short for postdocs since the positions are time-limited by default. There are huge social repercussions, but you presumably know that.

You sound to me to be wildly underestimating the amount of time and effort typically required to find an adequate job outside of academia. That's especially true if you don't have decent coding skills. Even if you do, the tech industry is in a period of lower demand for labor right now that ripples through most other associated sectors. Those sectors are the ones that hire math people. Certainly that doesn't mean you'll be unable to find a job, but it can easily take several months of a full daily schedule worth of searching.

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  • "There are huge social repercussions, but you presumably know that." That is if you terminate the postdoc contract unilaterally and by brute force. As far as I understand it, like any other contract, it can be terminated at any time by the mutual amicable agreement of all involved parties. In that case there are no consequences to you beyond the formal history of an uncompleted postdoc on your CV if you have started it at all, but reaching such an agreement may require some effort, especially if some duties like teaching that cannot be easily abandoned on a short notice are involved.
    – fedja
    Commented May 29 at 22:02
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    @fedja Sure? The most frequent outcome in the US, however, is that an accepted-then-declined offer has wasted so much search time for the employer that they will have a difficult if not impossible time finding a suitable replacement due to the regularity of the academic hiring schedule.
    – user176372
    Commented May 29 at 22:08
  • I'm sure. What you said is absolutely true but if the termination is properly negotiated instead of being just forced upon the employer, one is fine. I just recently tried to hire a research associate from my grant myself. All papers up to I9 have been signed when she suddenly got a much better offer from another place. I just let her go and since I'm fine with it and she is fine with it, it is nobody's else business what was or wasn't in the initial contract. But, as I said, making an employer fine with the sudden termination requires some effort and good will, no questions here.
    – fedja
    Commented May 29 at 22:20
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    @user176372 exactly what "social" repercussions are you thinking of? You'll probably never meet the PI ever again. Even if the PI remembers your name a year later (which is probably unlikely) other members of the hiring committee definitely won't. I doubt anyone is really bitter enough to go around actively telling others about you. Believe me, this has happened to me more than once when I've been hiring. Its happened to me three years running with graduate students. Although I remember the occasions, I couldn't for the life of me tell you who the postdocs in question were. Commented May 30 at 7:42
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it is not something good, but if you decided that you no longer want the offer, please let the PI know as soon as possible, so that they can find new people.

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On the formal side, getting a postdoc is like getting a job - before you signed the job contract, you have no obligations. Whether you can quite after signing contract and the related penalties depend on what is written in the contracts, and to some extent can be negotiated. E.g., I have known people who took post-doc, while looking for jobs in industry, and quit in the middle of postdoc appointment (giving the advanced notice, as specified by the employment contract.)

What may be more tricky is handling the relational issues - which are more important in academia than in industry. People offering you a postdoctoral appointment may be deceived, if you bail out, while the candidate in their list coming after you might have already found another place. People writing the recommendation letters for you are aware of this as well, and might prefer not to recommend you to their friends/collaborators. Or they may be less enthusiastic in supporting your future applications.

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Take the job. If you change your mind, resign.

Any fallout will not be your problem.

Academia either will evolve or die. If they cannot keep workforce, it is their problem, not yours.

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