I finished my PhD a while ago but, long story short, got screwed over by my department and wound up entering industry rather than continuing my academic career as I had wanted. My degree and background are in pure math, which industry really doesn't care about (and I'm not interested in the NSA or finance), and thus I don't see any way of moving from industry into academia. I've considered getting a second PhD, but that raises the obvious question of why the first one wasn't enough, and I'm unlikely to get into as good a program coming in from industry as I had immediately after undergrad. (My argument would be that I would have done fine if I had had a different department or even advisor, but there's really no way of proving that, or even politely discussing it, in any sort of application.) What I want is a place where I can do research and churn out papers in my field to build up a nice CV for future things, and that idea doesn't seem feasible outside of a postdoc or grad school. I can't get the former, so my thought was that I could go through grad school a second time.

So, here's my question: Can I somehow revoke or renounce my degree? It's not useful to me; and in retrospect, I should have quit or transferred instead of finishing. (I did try to transfer at one point but wasn't able to arrange anything useful.) It seems easier to go from industry to grad school than from grad school to industry back to something academic again, and it certainly looks weird to apply for a second doctorate a substantial amount of time after the first. Obviously I don't want to lie and claim that I never got a PhD in the first place, so is there some way of officially getting rid of it and forgetting it ever happened? What I want at this point is to start over from scratch, and I'm not sure how to arrange that.

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    The admissions committees are run by people, not computer code. So, "renouncing" a degree just does not work. It is just not possible to rewrite history. So, you should instead focus on making a believable case that you can succeed in your newly chosen field. There is something that makes you believe that you can do well --- just tell committee what that is. If you find your own case unconvincing, so will the others.
    – Boris Bukh
    Feb 19 '16 at 0:15
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    Many institutions, as a matter of policy, will not admit someone to a graduate program who already has a similar degree. I don't think that "renouncing" as a way of circumventing such a policy would be likely to fly. Feb 19 '16 at 0:17
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    I think that's a bad idea, but an interesting question... Feb 19 '16 at 0:19
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    @gnometorule: Oh, it's a horrible idea. But all of my other options are horrible too, and I want to find the least bad one. :)
    – anomaly
    Feb 19 '16 at 0:20
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    You just stick to facts (especially if they are documented in some way; e.g. confirmed by a recommendation letter), and let people draw their own conclusions. It does not sound like you have much choice here, unfortunately. (Perhaps, you can get better advice if you disclose the nature of the problems you had in your first PhD.) (You will also need a convincing case that you are still are capable and motivated of learning and doing science; that is hard to make such a case for someone that is so many years out of school, but that is a separate issue).
    – Boris Bukh
    Feb 19 '16 at 0:22

Don't throw out something you already have. If your goal is to do research and write some papers, then you can in essence do that in your spare time. If you're good, people will want to collaborate with you and mentor you whether you're a graduate student or not. In other words, I don't see the reason why you want to go through graduate school a second time -- having to take all of the classes again, take qualifying exams again, etc. All of that doesn't help you in your goal, for which you are already qualified because of your previous PhD.

Of course, it may be that you want to go back to be a grad student because it usually also includes a stipend, health insurance, etc. But you can get that from other sources as well: You could do research in your spare time, or simply have a part-time job so you have more time for research. A good part-time job may in fact pay no less than a grad student salary.

A particularly useful choice for a part-time position would, of course, be within a math department itself. For example, you could seek to be a lecturer in a math department, where you teach let's say half of the usual load, for half the salary, leaving you the other half of your time for research and paper writing. This would also give you access to professors with whom you may want to work, and you would likely be able to audit courses for free if you're already a member of the department.

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    With all due respect, I think your first paragraph is mostly incorrect. I can't do publication-quality original research that's good enough to secure a future academic career while holding a full-time (and rather demanding) industry job and without any useful contacts. I don't have the contacts and mentors that grad school is supposed to give you because I got screwed over by my department, and it's rather difficult to acquire them from the outside; math is more insular than, say, computer science. And while a PhD from a top-tier school normally is (among other things)...
    – anomaly
    Feb 19 '16 at 4:15
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    I think we all understand the objective is full time mathematics research, but part time research combined with a part time job may be a useful step towards that goal. Feb 19 '16 at 4:47
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    @scaaahu: Zhang's experience is extremely rare. I can't think of anyone else who had a similar leap back into academia, and he did so at the age of 60 on the strength of one brilliant paper. The rest of the comment is purely unsupported speculation on your part; my reasons are exactly the ones I gave above, and they're completely unrelated to salary (which somehow you've assumed is high).
    – anomaly
    Feb 19 '16 at 6:41
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    I am not arguing. I think a community college lecturer can let you have enough money to live with and in the mean time you are still in academia and do research. You can choose the community college to be close to a good university. It seems that a better way than going back to be graduate student again. You flatly reject this. I fail to understand why. I raised Zhang's example because he was able to have papers(not just one, please check this out) after he left Purdue. I do know some others produced papers when they are in industry. Again, no intention to argue.
    – scaaahu
    Feb 19 '16 at 7:03
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    @anomaly A dislike of teaching may be a reason to prefer industry to academia. If you went back as a graduate student or got a junior faculty job you would be quite likely to have to teach. In my experience, industry is better at allowing people to specialize in what they do well. However, the same idea of going part-time while doing part time research could be applied with other day jobs, if you decided it was worth it. Feb 19 '16 at 15:28

Can I somehow revoke or renounce my degree?

No, and no. By which I mean:

1) There is no honorable way to formally divest yourself of an academic degree.

The only way that academic degrees get revoked is through misconduct, usually academic misconduct. (As has come up on this site before, in theory an institution which discovers that a former student has not paid all their fees might try to revoke the degree. But I have never seen this happen, and anyway PhD students in mathematics rather usually receive money from their university.) Obviously this is not part of any sound plan to regain entry into academia.

2) Even if you somehow could get your degree "annulled," that would not have the intended effect: you would still (in my opinion, obviously) be obligated to divulge to all PhD programs your prior schooling, send them your transcripts, and so forth. Giving them all this information and then saying "But then I got my degree annulled" is not going to satisfy anyone. What you seem to be contemplating -- I think; it's the only thing that could work for you if it were kosher -- is to make some kind of formal arrangement between you and your PhD-granting institution that both parties can act as if the PhD there never happened. But this is basically an agreement with one party to lie (or mislead, at least) about your past to a bunch of other parties: in other words, it's inherently ethically suspect in a manner that could really push the buttons of the people who would be evaluating you.

Maybe it helps to think of it this way: when I say "I have a PhD in mathematics," I am not describing a present rank or title. I am calling attention to a past event. The past is, well, passed, so if you got a PhD at any point then you still have it. (Even if your PhD gets revoked for academic misconduct, I would like to say that you still have a PhD -- e.g. you still have a paper document that says that -- it's just been decided that you are not entitled to any of the favorable consequences of that degree.) To try an analogy: if I ask my date "Have you ever been married?" and she got married once and had the marriage annulled, the honest answers are "Yes." and "Yes, but it was annulled." To say "No" is deceptive: I am asking about her past, not her current legal status.

  • I think there's a missing "no" in 1). I tried to edit it in, but edits must be six characters. Feb 19 '16 at 15:02
  • I inserted that "no" and some spaces... Feb 19 '16 at 15:44
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    What I am saying is that when graduate admissions personnel ask for your previous academic record, we do so knowing that there are no circumstances under which we will regard a dishonest answer as "correct". In this case the people who are asking are the ones who are making the rules. Because the chance that you can keep a US mathematics PhD secret from the US math community is zero, this kind of approach is guaranteed to backfire. Feb 19 '16 at 23:44
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    From past experience I know you want only answers to your very specific questions, so I will keep it direct: what you are considering will never work. Even trying out the idea on your home institution will only be a detriment to your stated goals. Feb 19 '16 at 23:44
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    It feels like an arrest, but fair enough. :) (And it's not that I want only answers to the specific questions given; rather, I don't want to get into discussions about, say, whether I truly want to go into academia after all. I'm interested in the discussion modulo the underlying assumptions given, and I don't want to revisit those here.) Most importantly, thank you very much for your response.
    – anomaly
    Feb 19 '16 at 23:49

I think the broader questions here are "Why do you want to go into academia?" and "What exactly is it, within academia, that you want to do?" Are you interested in research, or teaching? Does the field matter to you? Both questions are potentially hugely important here.

For instance, if you want to go into academia to teach introductory math classes, then perhaps you should just try to get a job teaching in a local community college or high school.

On the other hand, if what you want is a career as a researcher, then you really need to decide which field you're passionate about--pure math, or something else. If it's pure math you love, then forget doing a second doctorate---just spend that time publishing and attending conferences. If it's something else that you love, perhaps you could craft a compelling rationale for why you need a second degree in order to pursue your new interest. I've seen that happen sometimes, but you need to have a very specific rationale for why you need this new degree in a new field to pull it off.

I worry though, from the tone of your post, that what you're really in love with is just some kind of abstract idea that academia > industry and that you think you'd really love the life of a career researcher. I think that's dangerous, because for the vast majority of full time faculty who make up academia, teaching and service obligations are much larger parts of the job than research. So, my advice is to first sit and think really hard about what exactly you want to do and why. Once you know the answers to those questions, your path will become much clearer.

  • With all due respect, the reason why I want to enter academia is precisely the reason I've said above: I want to spend my time researching pure math and learn from other people researching pure math, and that is not a thing that's available outside academia. Right now I'm spending most of my time on my day job and am mostly cut off from the current state of the art, and that's not a great situation. I don't have much to say about the tone of my post, but I'm afraid 'Find out what I really want' is not very helpful. I already know what I want; what I don't know is how to get it.
    – anomaly
    Feb 19 '16 at 23:25
  • If you want more specifics: I love working on math, and there are specific questions about my subfield that I want to answer with math. These are very hard questions that have no known solution yet, and I'd like to learn as much math as possible while I try to find an answer. I want to be in an environment where I can talk with other people who are very interested in and know a lot about math. I want to work on something significant and deep and challenging, and something that I find compelling. I inevitably think about math in my spare time, and I want to make that effort useful. And so on.
    – anomaly
    Feb 19 '16 at 23:29
  • Ok, suppose you get a PhD in biology, do a postdoc, get a tenure track job and spend 6 years teaching intro to biology and publishing bio papers in an effort to get tenure. How is that use of, say 12-15 years of your life, going to advance your math research? I think the better play is to spend every spare moment reading and writing math. If you can publish in important journals, you should be competitive for postdocs, and that should be the only transition back to academia you need. If your passion is math research you already have the only meaningful degree you need, IMO.
    – user10636
    Feb 19 '16 at 23:40
  • Presumably it would be in either a related field, like mathematical physics, or in a field that I like almost as much as mathematics. In that scenario, I'd content myself with being a bio professor. How am I supposed to come up with some result awesome enough to claw my way back from industry to academia if I'm just working alone in my spare time? The academic ladder is rough even for people who work on research full-time with the resources of a university at their disposal.
    – anomaly
    Feb 19 '16 at 23:44
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    I'd also say though that access to the resources of a first-rate university is neither necessary nor sufficient for research success. It is harder to do good work alone, but not impossible.
    – user10636
    Feb 20 '16 at 0:40

Yo, here's the thing I don't understand. A PhD is merely a research qualification. It qualifies you as a professional researcher. I have a Doctor of Philosophy - the major is in Resources Management, but essentially, I can research anything. It is a self directed apprenticeship.

My friend graduated from his doctorate majoring in Entomology. He spent 18+ months attempting to get any job. Nothing. A couple of promotions gigs and a waiting job. He volunteered at the entomology collection(4 days a week) until a postdoc position came up. And he got that postdoc! he's on a $350k grant, and travels the world collecting insects. If he had not volunteered he would never have got that position because he was "out" of the loop prior to that.

Secondly, just because your school "screwed you over" (whatever that means) does not mean that your research path is ruined. My school has done sweet FA to support me post-qualification. But I didn't expect them to! You know there's a whole world of universities and colleges out there to do research at, and while the research might not be exactly the right sub-field, that's life. Unless you write a successful grant application to fully fund the research you want to do, being in academia is exactly like any other job - doing research on things you are not actually interested in is par for the course!!! Don't imagine that because you have a freshly minted PhD that you can slide straight into a sweet-as research fellowship doing exactly the research that you want. Those grizzled old academics who pontificate on whatever comes into their heads spent a lot of time doing "grunt work" on projects they cared little for.

If what you want is to learn from the best, then do it. If you want to do research that is impactful and will get you a career, then do it. Don't pretend that a "second phd" will get you anywhere, because it wont. If anything it will push you further from your desired destination.

The reality is that you have a professional research qualification and a desire to do further research - pull your finger out and stop being a victim and go do the research wherever and however you can!

  • Cool, I didn't realize that getting a job in academia was just a matter of wanting it enough and being willing to work for it. I hope no one else figures out that secret!
    – anomaly
    Nov 27 '16 at 5:11

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