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I have been offered a postdoc position at Cambridge University. That's great, because two years ago I wanted to go back to academia and went to see my PhD supervisor (I finished my PhD in engineering in 2007) to ask if he might have or know of a postdoc position I'd be suitable for. The answer was no, so a few months later I got a job as a structural engineer in Tokyo and wrote the whole thing off.

Last year I quit the Tokyo gig and moved back to Europe, because I couldn't keep up with the working hours in Japan anymore. I was looking for a job again, when out of the blue, my PhD supervisor contacted me, saying that he now had a postdoc position. I applied, and I got an offer, although I don't know yet how much I will be paid.

Of course, as things always seem to go, I also got an offer to work as a programmer for an airline company, right here where I live. The pay is similar, and the training will be very good.

In my heart of hearts I would like to take the Postdoc, but I am very worried about what will happen after the three years are over.

I am 35, nearly 36 now, have worked as a structural engineer and programmer in the past. I have a family (two small kids) and need to be able to look after them all. Fortunately I have enough savings to be able to take a (small) hit on the salary whilst doing my postdoc, but... what I don't want is ending up doing the postdoc, and then being stuck.

The plan was to do the postdoc, then get a lecturing position. But I have read many articles lamenting how difficult it is for the majority of postdocs to find a long-term position. I could have done that in my twenties, maybe, but approaching forty that is pretty scary. From a material point of view, I am already significantly behind my peers who went to work straight after they finished their masters degree and don't really want to fall so far behind that I'll never catch up.

My question is, how true are the reports of PostDocs being forced to move from PostDoc to PostDoc (especially in the UK)? Does anybody know of somebody who did something similar to what I am planning to do (and did it successfully)?

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    Do you have publications? Work experience? Do you aim to get a lecturer position at the very best universities at the end, or are you ready to compromise on rank? Are you obsessed with science, or is it just an option amongst two? – Captain Emacs Jan 17 '16 at 21:47
  • I have some publications from when I was doing my PhD and one I published whilst I was working in Japan. I have three four years experience as a structural engineer and three as a .NET programmer. I'm not particularly fussed about where I get a lecturer position, as long as I do and as long as it isn't a dead end (otherwise I might as well work in a post office or similar place). Whilst I enjoyed working on complex buildings I didn't find it near as challenging or interesting as the research I did during my PhD. I am an engineer, so I'm not that interested in pure science, but I really... – user643192 Jan 17 '16 at 23:41
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    related answer: academia.stackexchange.com/a/17462/19607 – Kimball Jan 18 '16 at 0:09
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    @Olorun yes, I have and knowing him from doing my PhD I know that he is overly optimistic as far as academic prospects go. – user643192 Jan 18 '16 at 8:16
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    I would only caution you to be aware that employment situations are highly field and region specific. From what I understand, if you were in social science or the humanities you would be being overly optimistic, and your thought that you'd be in the same place you are now after 3 years would likely be true (at best). On the other hand, in "science" (STEM) - and especially in technology fields, though I don't know how structural engineering is fairing now a days - things do not seem nearly so grim. With a family, if you can have a good plan B, you can afford a more ambitious plan A. – BrianH Jan 19 '16 at 15:13
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I am currently a postdoc in the UK. My situation is similar to yours: in my thirties, have a family and little children. This is my first postdoc, which I took in my thirties. I also wish to pursue a career in academia. But unlike yours, I have no industrial experience and I am not from the EU. Cost wise, if you and your family are non-EU nationals, you will need to pay a lot more so that your family can stay in the UK with you. Still, regardless of your nationality, it can be a bit hard to support the family if you are the sole breadwinner, but it is not impossible.

Do you intend to continue living in the UK, or are you open to moving to another country at the end of your postdoc? Your experience of living in different countries plus your industrial experience are an advantage should you find that there are no suitable academic opportunities in the UK after your postdoc.

What I would think is more important is to have an understanding and support from your wife. As a postdoc, you might have more freedom and flexibility over how you manage your time at work, but the pressure to publish may be high. It is important to know your limitations now that you have a family. It is likewise important for your wife to know what to expect. Having said this, considering you experienced Japanese working culture, what I have just said might not be a problem for you.

All in all, it looks to me that there is nothing for you to worry about going back to do a postdoc in the UK at 35, at least not from the technical aspects above. The deciding factors could be something more practical or personal, but it could be that I have said this from my own limited perspective.

  • That was a great answer, thank you! If I may ask: what field is your postdoc in and are you managing to balance work and family life to your satisfaction? – user643192 Jan 20 '16 at 20:18
  • @user643192 My field is engineering. I had several papers and two children during my PhD. As a postdoc so far I had fewer papers and only one more child. Clearly there is not only an imbalance but also a deterioration in performance! – adipro Jan 21 '16 at 11:37
  • I should add that there is not only work and family life to balance, but also social life with friends, neighbours, and extended families. Sometimes you can get the first two to balance, but the latter may suffer. – adipro Jan 21 '16 at 11:40
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For guys with PhD who pursuing academic career the age they should worry about is their 'PhD' age (number of years since PhD graduation), not their biological age. So, in your particular case the real problem is not starting first (it would be first, right?) postdoc at 35 but starting the first postdoc when you are already 10 years PhD old. To put simply, the concern (that many of your potential academic peers would have when evaluating your job applications, funding proposals, etc.) is as follows: why did this guy move back to academia in 10 years after obtaining his PhD? In essence (as I see it), if you know the legit answer to that in your mind and heart (and, you hope, that this answer has at least some sense to the others in academia :) then go for postdoc.

Speaking more practically, while considering a postdoc option it is a good idea to do the following:

  • Talk with your PhD supervisor (and expected postdoc boss; btw, while it depends doing postdoc at the same place where you did PhD is not great career-wise) about your career in academia. I.e. in his/her opinion, what are your perspectives after finishing a postdoc period with him? Ideally, there should be some 'career development' plan for your postdoc period prepared before your start date: i.e., participate in these projects, publish that many publications, apply at this number of funding opportunities, contribute to that many ongoing/expected research proposals, apply to that many UK lecturer (or elsewhere) long-term positions, etc.
  • You are PhD with a significant industrial experience. Typically, academia-wise, it is not that interesting since academia is all about publications and, much more importantly, funding. However, in your particular case (and in your particular area and within your research directions) it might be somewhat different. E.g. will you have good chances to bring more funding to your/your research group because of your industry understanding and experience, contacts, etc? Will you be able to come up with feasible collaborative projects, etc? The point here is that just another postdoc (doing research, publishing papers, ...) is not that interesting to anyone as there are plenty of those and most of them are expectedly 'better' than you (younger, with no interruptions and hence more on the research edge, etc). At the same time, a postdoc who can bring value (in terms of collaborations, funding from companies, etc.) based on his industrial experience is much more interesting (and, in fact, rather rare).

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