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There have been previous questions related to mine; for instance, this one:

Losing faith in my PhD advisor?

I believe this new question is worth asking because of my specific proposal for action.

I am a PhD student in mathematics in the US in my final year. My advisor is not a competent mathematician, and does not really understand even the basics of the field he is supposedly working in. Please understand that I have come to this conclusion slowly and reluctantly; I am well aware that, for instance, people can say "dumb" things in the moment.

Anyway, I've been on my own as far as learning this field and producing some research. I feel like I've just gotten to the point where I know what I need to understand to work in this field, and if I had another year to actually learn it, I could start really doing research. Essentially, I feel like this is where I should have been a few months after working under my advisor, but it's been 2.5 years.

Unfortunately, I feel like it is probably too late to switch advisors or schools. Staying an extra year with this advisor may be an option, but would be difficult financially.

I think I will be able to produce a dissertation and graduate this year. My dissertation will not be a work I am proud of. My idea is that I could get a postdoc and make up for lost time there, really learning my field and establishing a decent research track record.

While this plan is very distasteful to me (of course I am not happy about producing work that embarrasses me), I want to ask about the practical aspects. What are the chances I could actually get a postdoc? My advisor seems to think this is very possible; but other people lead me to believe that as someone with no significant research results and no one with prestige to recommend me, it is unlikely. (I no longer trust my advisor's advice on anything.) Assuming I obtain a postdoc, is it likely I could establish a decent track record of research, given that I will be in some sense two years behind schedule as far as learning this field and establishing myself?

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    "I think I will be able to produce a dissertation and graduate this year. My dissertation will not be a work I am proud of". No. Just no. Especially, since you want to pursue a career in Academia – Alexandros Oct 17 '14 at 18:49
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    Does your advisor's work seem to be respected by others in his field? If yes, then maybe you should reconsider your opinion of his competence. If no, then his letter is not going to get you a postdoc, and your efforts had better be pointed toward doing better work and finding an outside mentor who can praise it convincingly. – Nate Eldredge Oct 17 '14 at 23:38
  • @NateEldredge : It took me an unfortunately long time to really make this determination, but no, my advisor's work is not taken seriously by others in his field. I would at least also have letters from people who are taken seriously -- although they are not giants in the field, and it's unclear both how highly they can praise me and how much weight their recommendation would hold. – Anonymous Mathematics Student Oct 18 '14 at 0:09
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    Do you have a co-supervisor? Have you discussed your concerns with your head of Department/Division/School? With your graduate advisor? – Nicholas Oct 18 '14 at 1:01
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    I don't know how feasible it would be, but are there any travel scholarships you could apply for that might allow you to spend time working with someone else (eg one of your reference writers) and also help somewhat with the financial situation? In my experience the chances of getting a post-doc full stop are not as high as you might like when applying, so the chances of doing so with a low-quality thesis won't be good (on average). – Jessica B Oct 18 '14 at 8:12
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What are the chances I could actually get a postdoc?

Of course there's no way to give a definitive answer without far more information, but here are some factors to consider.

First, how bad do you think your thesis would really be? It's possible to graduate with a thoroughly unimpressive thesis, good enough to qualify for a degree on the basis of hard work but not good enough to satisfy any employer who cares about research. If that's your situation, then the chances of a worthwhile postdoctoral position are negligible. On the other hand, perhaps your embarrassment is because you're writing a merely average or even good thesis rather than a truly noteworthy one. If that's the case, then you might be fine. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between these extremes, but we can't know where based on your question.

Have you had any feedback from third parties? For example, have you spoken to other mathematicians at conferences? What about visitors to your university or collaborators of your advisor's? If other mathematicians have heard of you and expressed seemingly genuine interest in your work, then that's a plus. If you've never interacted with anyone but your advisor, then you're in a much worse position to look for a postdoc.

What about letters of recommendation? You'll need several from people other than your advisor who can address your research accomplishments. Do you have letter writers in mind? If you can't think of anyone, then that's a major obstacle. If you can, then have you sounded them out on whether graduating is a good idea? If they are unenthusiastic about the idea, then you aren't likely to get compelling letters from them (and without such letters you won't get a decent job). If they are as enthusiastic as your advisor, then you should feel reassured.

Does your advisor have a track record of helping students get jobs? If so, then that's an excellent sign. If he has a track record of failing to help students get jobs, then that's a terrible sign. If he doesn't have a track record at all, then that's worrisome, and his views on the job market might not be well informed.

Assuming I obtain a postdoc, is it likely I could establish a decent track record of research, given that I will be in some sense two years behind schedule as far as learning this field and establishing myself?

If you can get a three-year postdoc, you'll be able to accomplish a lot in that period. You may not have time to achieve your full potential before going on the job market again, but you'll be in a much better position than you are now. If you get this chance, then it's worth taking it.

Incidentally, I don't think it's fruitful to count how many years you are behind schedule. There really aren't schedules or mileposts for research, and different people's research programs and abilities often develop in incomparable ways. Some mathematicians do their best work much later than others, for reasons that are not always apparent.

Staying an extra year with this advisor may be an option, but would be difficult financially.

Perhaps you could apply for jobs now but fall back on staying another year if your job search is unsuccessful. That's not ideal, but it might be your best option. If you really can't afford to stay another year, then your choices are far more constrained. You either apply for jobs this year or choose another career.

  • I will address the questions in this helpful answer. My expectation for my thesis is that it will not be entirely without merit, but well towards the unimpressive side. I have worked with a collaborator of my advisor's, and will be receiving a letter of rec from him and one other mathematician (with whom I have had less contact than would be ideal). My advisor has no track record with students. Your advice to apply but stay if necessary is probably best (and may be possible). – Anonymous Mathematics Student Oct 18 '14 at 1:56

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