I just finished a PhD in Math and I am starting my postdoc in September. I am currently just working on a few collaborations--working on projects that are follow-ups from my dissertation that are mainly strengthening my results or applying my results to interests of my collaborators. I hear a lot about the difficulty and stress in transitioning from PhD to postdoc and how the "clock starts."

I have a few questions about these statements:

  • What are some concrete changes that you experienced when you transitioned from PhD to postdoc? Bonus points for math-related experiences.
  • How real is this "clock starts" claim and what does it really mean? Math-related answers are more useful.
  • Are there any adjustments I can actively start to make now to make the transition better?
  • 1
    Perhaps the clock is referring to your options to remain in academia? After a few years as a postdoc you may find yourself less and less competitive to find a faculty position. If you were unable to find one after a few years, that might mean you were not a strong enough candidate. If someone is a postdoc for 5 years, for example, I would personally wonder why they have not yet moved on to develop their own completely independent research program.
    – Behacad
    Jun 4, 2014 at 18:31
  • @Behacad: If a math postdoc hasn't developed an independent research program after 5 years, that probably explains why they haven't moved on to a faculty position.
    – Henry
    Jun 4, 2014 at 20:54
  • 1
    Darn looks like I could have gotten away with an answer instead of a comment haha
    – Behacad
    Jun 5, 2014 at 13:21

2 Answers 2


The main difference I noticed when I began a math postdoc is that postdocs are expected to act much more independently than graduate students. Math postdocs are viewed as (young but) full members of the research community, not as apprentices. You will need to choose your own goals and set your own deadlines.

One important change to make quickly is to develop (additional) professional relations with established researchers from other institutions. Some of these relations may turn into research collaborations, but others may just be discussions at conferences that lead to other discussions or to invitations to speak at other conferences or departmental colloquia. Keep in mind that you will need to ask for letters of recommendation when you apply for jobs again, and that others in your field will be reviewing your grant applications when you submit them.

In terms of research, as a postdoc you should also expect to always have multiple research projects underway, whereas many grad students only work on their thesis. You should also aim for projects that have a high chance of giving positive results quickly. Don't spend too long on famous open problems or on results that would take a decade to complete. If you apply to research positions, you will be judged on your productivity in the time since you earned a PhD, and you only have a few years in your postdoc.

The "clock": in an important sense, your vita begins when you finish your PhD. If possible, decide what sort of employment you want to have after your postdoc is over. Find well established colleagues you respect who took the path you are interested in, ask them for advice, and try to emulate them. You want to leave your postdoc with a vita that will make you as competitive as possible for the type of job you plan to apply for. A generic vita is unlikely to be competitive in the current job market.


My understanding of the "clock" comment is that math postdocs are almost all time limited, and, if you're staying in academia, the quality of the next job you get depends heavily (not exclusively, of course) on the work you do as a postdoc. The extreme way to look at it is that you have about two and a half years to conceive, write, and get accepted the work that will justify your next job. This is a big contrast to most PhD programs in math which take "5 or so" years; if you're making decent progress but not done after year 5 (or, depending on the program, 6, or 7, or 8...) you can scrape things together to keep going. As a postdoc, on the other hand, the time limit is fixed---at the end of it you're back on the job market with whatever you've done, whether you're ready or not.

  • 2
    @DavidKetcheson: I mentioned that the 2.5 years has to include getting the paper accepted. It probably doesn't have to include actual publication; people are aware of the tight timeline and how long publishing a paper can take, so my sense is that papers accepted for publication are generally treated equivalently to ones which have actually been published.
    – Henry
    Jun 5, 2014 at 15:55

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