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As faculty or postdoc positions at top schools are getting hard to land, should Ph.D. students interested with research continue to work as research assistants and publish more, or try to get a teaching position or work in industry and then try to move to a research position?

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  • What do you mean by "continue to work as research assistants"? The term research assistant is generally used for graduate students. Are you talking about remaining in grad school longer to try to build up a better track record before graduating, or are you talking about jobs after grad school (such as postdoctoral positions, in which case "research assistant" is not a good description)? Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 3:18
  • About "remaining in grad school longer to try to build up a better track record before graduating"
    – Thomas Lee
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 3:30
  • You're not going to have any luck trying to go back into academia from industry. Stay in grad school until you have a way of exiting it that will further your career.
    – anomaly
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 17:25
  • @anomaly some jobs asks specifically for industry experience
    – Thomas Lee
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 17:47
  • @AnonymousMathematician, in the last two countries where I lived, a research assistant was a paid position for people who were a bit beyond bachelor's studies, i.e. who have some research experience, but not much. It can be combined with master's studies, but can be a full-time job as well.
    – Ana
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 19:02

3 Answers 3

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I have seen some cases where PhD students remain for 7, 10 and 12 years, and it seems that they are cheaper labor than postdocs, so advisers in general would like students to stay as long as they have enough funds to pay their tuition. Would long period in a PhD program and good publication record be a positive or negative for a hiring committee?

How long it's appropriate to stay in graduate school depends on the field and the country. For mathematics in the U.S., staying too long quickly becomes a bad idea. (I'm counting time spent actually working, not time off with a good excuse.) Five years is considered a reasonable and normal amount of time to take. Seven years looks too long, and it will give hiring committees the impression that something went wrong and you were unable to graduate in the usual timeframe. Ten years is a major problem: I don't think most math grad schools would even allow ten years of full-time enrollment, and it would look terrible if someone spent ten years in grad school, even if they accomplished a lot along the way. The best-case scenario is that it would look really eccentric, and people aren't likely to look at it so charitably.

I imagine that most academic fields work similarly, but with different timeframes. To estimate how it works in your case, you could look at how long other students in your department spend in grad school and what becomes of them afterwards.

As faculty or postdoc positions at top schools are getting hard to land, should Ph.D. students interested with research continue to work as research assistants and publish more, or try to get a teaching position or work in industry and then try to move to a research position?

It's occasionally a good idea to spend another year in grad school even when you could already graduate. For example, if you have almost completed a particularly exciting project, your advisor may recommend that you'd do much better applying for jobs after it's complete rather than before. However, these sorts of situations are uncommon. At least in math in the U.S., things typically work roughly as follows:

If you've spent a normal amount of time in grad school and are ready to graduate, but you don't feel you're competitive for a top postdoc, then your chances of getting such a postdoc probably won't go up much next year and they might go down. You're generally better off taking the best postdoc you can get and then trying to do your best work in that postdoc, rather than sitting in a holding pattern in grad school.

Getting a teaching position could be a good career move in itself, but it's not the best way to position yourself for a research-oriented job in the future. Whether an industrial job is depends heavily on your field and on what sort of industrial job you have in mind.

If you can't get a research postdoc at all, and your only options are a teaching job or a non-research-related industrial job, then you should keep in mind that moving to a research university later may be very difficult. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's impossible, but it will be an uphill battle that is unlikely to be successful. It could still be worth trying if it really matters to you, but you shouldn't view this as a routine or straightforward path to a job in a research university.

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There is a delicate balance here: in certain situations, it may make sense to be strategic about your graduation date, especially in order to align yourself better with hiring cycles. If you start stretching out your thesis work significantly, however, it will likely be noticeable and not to your benefit.

More to the point, any such delaying tactic will almost certainly require the consent and participation of your advisor in order to be effective: otherwise, you are likely to be pissing them off and making your chances worse rather than better. Have a discussion with your advisor to see what their assessment of the tactical situation is, and their recommendation.

Finally, with your advisor's consent there is another option worth considering: a "transitional postdoc" in your current location. In many institutions and/or fields (especially private institutions or expensive lab fields), the cost of a postdoc is not significantly different than a graduate student, since the higher salary is offset by the lack of tuition or made less significant by laboratory materials costs. For a transitional postdoc, you graduate but you stay briefly as a postdoc (no more than a year or so) while you continuing working in your more independent role to increase your profile and position yourself for an external postdoc or long-term hire elsewhere.

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  • I have seen some cases where PhD students remain for 7, 10 and 12 years, and it seems that they are cheaper labor than postdocs, so advisers in general would like students to stay as long as they have enough funds to pay their tuition. Would long period in a PhD program and good publication record be a positive or negative for a hiring committee?
    – Thomas Lee
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 16:14
  • @ThomasLee Hard to say without a specific case: if you're generally doing well and it just takes a long time, I'd see the positive publication record as a good thing. If you seem to be just postponing graduation, I'd have questions about why.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 20:03
  • In certain locations extending it is impossible. Australia requires one to finish after 4 years max, and PhD candidates have to pay a tuition fee (provided they don't have scholarships). So any 'extension' would cost the candidate dearly, which is why the question might refer to RA instead of extensions.
    – DoubleYou
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 22:44
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I wouldn't want to see you treading water for several years. How about a postdoc at a medium-level institution?

Also, what are your feelings about academia? Could you see yourself happy doing R&D for a company long term, if it came to that? What I mean is, going to industry might mean staying in industry. Would that be an acceptable outcome for you?

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  • This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 12:03

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