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I currently have 6 years of teaching experience and a PhD (in mathematics if that helps). I am left wondering where to go next. I would like to try out industry and the private sector (they pay better), but I don't want to lose the ability to come back to academia in the future. Obviously, to stay in academia requires publishing and research on my part and maintained interest in a particular field (maintained contacts and joint papers).

So, assuming I am capable of doing research on my own time, should I do a postdoc and then a private sector job or just get a private sector type job?

In other words, several years down the road, what looks better for an academic position:

A = (6 years teaching) + (PhD) + (a dozen or so publications) + (2 year postdoc) + (2-6 years industry)

B = (6 years teaching) + (PhD) + (a dozen or so publications) + (4-8 years industry)

This is important in the sense that PostDocs (oddly in my opinion) require "fresh" PhDs. Many specifically require the PhD within the last 3-5 years. So it seems imperative to get one while you can. Right?

On the other hand, I have also heard the argument that people get PostDocs because "they are not quite ready to be on their own yet". Or PostDocs are used to gain more contacts and learn what it is to be a "professor". As such, any high paying, senior type position would look better than a PostDoc. Even an internship would look better than a PostDoc. Right?

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    I just want to say that "assuming I am capable of doing research on my own time" seems like a huge assumption. Many of the usual high-paying industry jobs for mathematicians (tech, finance, etc) tend to involve working well over 40 hours per week. So, answers you receive may turn out to be vacuous :-) – Nate Eldredge Feb 17 '15 at 3:40
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    Yes, you're absolutely right that it's more and more rare for new PhDs to go directly to good tenure-track jobs. But the jobs they get in between (postdocs, etc) usually have academic research as part of their assigned duties, and allow them sufficient time to publish good papers at a high rate. They may teach, but often at a fairly low load (2-3 courses per year) - nowhere near 40 hours per week, and with summers free for research. – Nate Eldredge Feb 17 '15 at 4:08
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    I would say it's misleading to lump together "teaching, conferences, private sector, travel". Conferences and travel, for an academic or postdoc, are usually part of research and (hopefully) increase your research productivity. Teaching will reduce your research productivity but usually is less than half your time. Private sector jobs will reduce your research productivity and are often full time or more. – Nate Eldredge Feb 17 '15 at 4:11
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    A postdoc is definitely a full time job, but much of that time is research that leads to publications! You don't have to do it on your own time. I guess I should also say that there are many kinds of tenure-track jobs. But I would say that of people who go on to research-intensive tenure-track jobs (i.e. R1) in mathematics, the (vast) majority will have done postdocs with light teaching loads in which research was the focus. As the contrapositive, people who take industry jobs, heavy-teaching postdocs, or other teaching positions, are unlikely to go on to get R1 tenure-track jobs. – Nate Eldredge Feb 17 '15 at 4:23
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    I guess I would summarize my opinion by saying: a postdoc isn't inherently necessary for a research-intensive tenure-track job. What is necessary is a strong research record, and a postdoc is likely to help with that. However, an industry job is likely to hinder it. By the way, could you clarify what kind of academic job interests you? (E.g. teaching university, R1, selective liberal arts, community college, ???) I think that will help you get appropriate answers. – Nate Eldredge Feb 17 '15 at 4:40
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So, assuming I am capable of doing research on my own time, should I do a postdoc and then a private sector job or just get a private sector type job?

The big danger for your future academic job prospects is that it's extremely difficult to maintain an impressive research track record in industry (assuming you don't have an industrial research job in which one of your main duties is publishing academic papers). It's not impossible, but many people try and few succeed. The easiest path back to academia is finding a job that aligns closely with your industrial work, for example teaching mathematical finance if you have worked on Wall Street, but even this path is far from guaranteed to work out. Successfully maintaining a research program unrelated to your industrial job and thereby landing a job at a research university years later is exceptionally rare, so you should recognize that there's a real risk that you won't be able to get such a job.

Eight years after your Ph.D., I doubt anyone really cares whether you did a postdoc first or went straight to industry, so the credential itself is unlikely to be important. On the other hand, the experience and connections could be invaluable in developing and maintaining your research program. The reason postdoctoral positions are so important is that almost all new Ph.D.s can benefit from more research experience and mentoring. The chances that you have truly reached your full potential in graduate school are slim, and you'll be competing against people who have the benefit of postdoctoral experience. There's no reason you have to do a postdoc, but not doing one may put you at a serious disadvantage.

On the other hand, I have also heard the argument that people get PostDocs because "they are not quite ready to be on their own yet". Or PostDocs are used to gain more contacts and learn what it is to be a "professor".

This is not completely wrong, but it makes a postdoctoral position sound too much like remedial education. Instead, even the most brilliant and successful mathematics students typically do postdocs, which help prepare them for even greater success.

As such, any high paying, senior type position would look better than a PostDoc. Even an internship would look better than a PostDoc. Right?

For a typical mathematics hiring committee, no industrial position will be considered relevant at all unless it's directly connected to the candidate's research or teaching. Anything else will basically fall into a black hole entitled "time spent away from mathematics". Being an executive might look slightly more impressive than being an intern, but neither one will help you get a faculty job.

Overall, I think the most important factor you need to consider is how much you care about keeping your academic options open. If this is a secondary consideration, and industrial jobs look more attractive to you, then going straight to industry could be your best bet. If you really want to be a professor someday and would be crushed if it didn't work out, and if the industrial jobs you have in mind aren't particularly relevant to your academic plans, then you should think hard about whether spending six to eight years in industry is the right approach.

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    +1. I am a math Ph.D. working in industry, and my jobtitle has "research" in it. Nevertheless, I publish almost nothing, because my research is supposed to benefit my employer, not the world at large. Consequently, line (B) in the question will more likely read "one or two publications", instead of "a dozen or so". – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Feb 17 '15 at 8:36
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    To add: postdocs exist for reasons beyond "remedial training" and that postdocs in math are somewhat different from postdocs in most other fields. Math tends to have less of a top-down hierarchy and postdocs often have great independence in research direction and initiative. – Willie Wong Feb 17 '15 at 13:55
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    Without risk of over emphasising the point: it seems very rare for people to work in industry and maintain a competitive theoretical research output. It's not impossible, but don't underestimate how competitive the current job market is. You'll be up against people who are doing research, giving talks, making contacts, and all the other stuff, full time. – P.Windridge Feb 18 '15 at 17:47

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