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I am a Ph.D. student in mathematics, and I'm supposed to finish this year. I've been looking for a position next year (not so much in the USA, but mainly in Germany and the UK). While I haven't exhausted all my options, I do feel that maybe it would be a good idea to have a backup plan.

Since I can afford it, I was thinking about taking myself somewhere "productive" and living there off my savings for a year, whilst working with the research group in that university to produce new results. In the meantime, to continue to apply to positions and hope for the best.

My advisor said that this is not a very good idea, but at the same time mentioned one or two people from our field who had done something like that (albeit in the 1970s or 1980s).

How bad of an idea is this? And what sort of strategy I should be considering if I want to move forward with a plan like that?

The alternative, of course, is to go out to the industry for a year or two until I find a position. But leaving and coming back seems like an even worse idea to me.

(I have money for a year in a reasonable place, maybe two if I also work a bit during that time. I also don't have an American, Canadian, British or European citizenship; although my passport is versatile enough that I can move around.)

Clarification. While the question is somewhat general, my field is mathematics. I don't think that not having an affiliation will cause me to be inaccessible to my current network of peers. I have seen several people who did not have an affiliation with any mathematical establishment, but nevertheless continued to collaborate with professors, students and all in all conduct interesting research.

As far as my personal case goes, I also don't think there are others from my field of research who got the positions "and might feel nervous if I'm around". More than implausible, it sounds unlikely.

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    Is there a specific research group that has indicated to you that you would be welcome working with them at their university while you are self funding? Will they give you an office? An official institutional affiliation/title that you can put on your CV/webpage? If there isn't such a group, consider the possibility that your idea is purely hypothetical at this point, as it is not at all obvious to me whether many research groups would be inclined to want to spend their time and professional credibility working with someone they have not selected to offer a funded postdoc position to. – Dan Romik Feb 19 '17 at 5:02
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    @Dan: There are several options. Nothing I discussed with people, but for the most part, the lack of position comes from lack of money, rather than the lack of willingness. – Ink blot Feb 19 '17 at 6:44
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    "I have seen several people who did not have an affiliation with any mathematical establishment, but nevertheless continued to collaborate with professors, students and all in all conduct interesting research." Me too; in fact, I have published math papers with two such people. However, neither of them now has an academic job. By the way, I have been involved in the hiring of mathematical personnel dozens of times and looked at thousands of applications. I cannot remember ever giving consideration to someone without a current academic affiliation. – Pete L. Clark Feb 20 '17 at 19:11
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    @aparente: To answer your question: it is not a fixed percentage but truly depends on how many candidates are of significant interest to the faculty. (Unlike, say, a principalship, we are not required to fill a tenure-track line in a given academic year, although we would like to. If we feel that we have exhausted all suitable candidates, we don't try to hire an unsuitable candidate.) For a tenure track line we usually get around 300 applications, and maybe 15-30 will get considered. We're not looking for people to cut, we're looking for people to interview, maybe 3-5 per line. – Pete L. Clark Feb 21 '17 at 17:54
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    I can offer a related example more recent than the 80s: In 2015/16 I spent a bit over a year as an 'independent researcher', and am now a post-doc again, with a 3-year research grant coming up. I did it very differently to what you are proposing, though. I travelled a lot and spent not much more than a month in total at universities. Also, I already had 4.5 years' postdoc experience, which makes my situation quite different to yours. I had already been collaborating with people in different countries, had plenty of projects going on and no need of a mentor. – Tara B Feb 23 '17 at 1:48
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The job market is extremely competitive, and not having had an official position will not help your CV. This is not the 70s or 80s. Academia is a very different place to what it was then. You should be aware that there is a high chance you won't be able to continue in academia, whatever you do with the next year. Would you be comfortable with running down your savings and then finding you have to change course anyway? If you want to do so, I would strongly advise talking to some tenure-track and newly-tenured professors (or equivalent) about what it is really like. I know some people now are deciding that academia in its current state isn't worth the effort.

For a strategy if you do decide to self-fund: You need your CV to show the benefit of your extra year. However, applying for maths positions, you don't actually have an extra year, because of the length of the application cycle. To some extent that will help you - you'll roughly still be applying as a new PhD. But you should be looking to have a longer list of good papers. Since getting anything published in that timeframe is basically impossible, I would suggest getting work up on the arXiv, and finding a well-respected researcher in your field as a referee, who feels able to say that they think the paper is of the standard of X journal (or words to that effect). I don't think that's massively easy though.

In addition, I would suggest getting at least one more 'thing' on your CV beyond its current state: organising a conference, writing a grant application, or some solid teaching experience.

The relative merits of going into industry instead will depend on what your field is. For pure mathematics is unlikely you'd be able to move back from industry to academia. In statistics or some applied maths, you can still be seen as a credible researcher on the basis of work in industry. The difficulty is being able to demonstrate your personal contribution to the results. Also, many potential positions will want someone who can teach as well as do research. Demonstrating that would be difficult, but I think not impossible (eg. by supporting colleagues or by tutoring as a part-time job).

  • I have a very solid teaching experience (I was the instructor of a course), I already organized (as a chair of the committee) a conference, and my list of paper is not short, and the next semester it will get a couple more entries to it. I know what it's like to be a professor, and I know that this is more or less the only thing that I want to do with myself. As for finding a reputable researcher to "endorse" the unpublished work, I think that I can actually manage to find a couple of people. But thanks for the answer, it is helpful! – Ink blot Feb 19 '17 at 9:06
  • It may be then that you are in a good position to get jobs next time round, even without having a paid position. I would agree with Jason's advice to find some sort of position, even if it's just a title. Another thing that would be good to have on your CV is supervision of project students, but that would likely be tricky without a proper job. – Jessica B Feb 19 '17 at 11:58
  • Thanks. Supervising is a bit difficult, since it doesn't really happen around here. Only faculty supervise grad level degrees. So that means incorporating this into a relocation, which seems even harder without a paid position. But sure, that's a good idea. Thanks! – Ink blot Feb 19 '17 at 12:28
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I think it's a bad idea. I think you should try and arrange something with your institution. For example, perhaps your advisor could create a temporary postdoc position for you with minimal or no funding.

It also depends on how competitive you are, which is something your advisor and yourself can assess. If you think you have little chance of getting a position (admittedly hard to assess!) then it might be worthwhile to extend your PhD for one year with minimal or no funding (since that's already taken care of) and just publish more papers and attend conferences.

Finally, look for positions in any place where the standard of living is acceptable. Just UK and Germany sounds way too restrictive with regard to getting an academic position in math.

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    I can, in theory, stay in my own institution. I just really don't want to do that. I really feel that I need to move right now. As for extending my PhD, that is literally impossible at this point (barring some act of god which includes a coma for the better part of six months). – Ink blot Feb 19 '17 at 9:07
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In theory, this is not a terrible idea, since you could get yourself to anywhere you wanted, which might allow you to add the name of a prestigious institution on your CV.

But I'm concerned, because you would not have an official mentor. The thing about being a postdoc is that someone cares about you enough to get you one of the very limited positions within the university, so someone is very interested in advancing your career, and working with you. By showing up to an institution by yourself, you would be given minimal support from the institution (you might get an office if you're lucky, but it's also possible that people will think that you're a crazy and shun you; I've seen both cases happen), and no one is obligated to work with you, which might mean that there was no point to moving there in the first place.

So I would follow your suggested course of action only if there's someone who feels strongly about having you around (although this will be hard to distinguish from someone just being polite!) I actually think it might be better to try to aim for some of the teaching postdocs at good universities in the US (some are still accepting applications), because at least you're there on an official capacity, and you'll likely be treated better than just showing up to a place on your own dime.

  • "aim for some of the teaching postdocs at good universities in the US" - unfortunately, OP has been trying to get hired, and so far has not landed anything. Competition is keen. This answer sounds a little bit like "Let them eat cake." – aparente001 Feb 19 '17 at 5:51
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    @aparente001 actually, many mathematicians look only for research postdocs, and it is almost always possible to get hired as a lecturer last minute, if you're not being too picky. Different disciplines operate differently, I'm afraid. – Sana Feb 19 '17 at 6:29
  • Well, of course I am not going to just randomly show up in places looking to get a semi-official and unpaid office space. As far as teaching positions, I would be very happy to teach in my own field (which often has intro-level courses), and less happy to teach calculus or linear algebra to economics or engineering. I know the latter is probably inevitable at some point, but postponing it for now seems like a good idea. This is one of the reasons I am reluctant to go to the USA and happier with a European choice. – Ink blot Feb 19 '17 at 6:47
  • @inkblot yes, just make sure that you have someone very interested in working with you (and also note that while the "lack of money" is often a legitimate reason why someone is not hired as a postdoc, it could also be a very convenient excuse not to hire someone, so you definitely want to make that distinction. One way to do that is to go to a place where you were shortlisted.) – Sana Feb 19 '17 at 6:53
  • @Inkblot - Going where you were shortlisted could be a good fit, but do visit first to feel it out. Sometimes tension occurs with the person who beat you out for the position, who may feel threatened by your presence. I've seen this happen. – aparente001 Feb 20 '17 at 15:39
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In my view, you need to explain why you would rather move somewhere else for a single year than stay at your current institution. As others have said, the way the academic job market works, you would have to apply for jobs within a couple of months of your arrival, so there is essentially no time for the intellectual benefits of your visit to positively influence your application. However, your lack of formal institutional affiliation at the time of applying could be a real negative. Perhaps you could arrange to visit some other institution for a couple of months while still keeping an employment at your home institution. That would look much better.

Also -- it seems to me that it is way too early to know that you don't have a job for next year. In the US alone there are hundreds of academic jobs that won't have been posted yet. These are temporary positions heavy in teaching and light in financial recompense -- but they are academic jobs, and I know people who have taken such jobs and thereby "stayed academically alive" because of them. I suspect that you are not looking nearly widely enough. It also sounds like you are in one of those unnamed countries that seem to be so popular among questions on this site. Well, you didn't name it so we don't know where you are, but indeed if you want to stay in academia you may have to move around. To my mind, applying for postdocs in the UK but not the US looks rather eccentric.

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    Oh, I didn't say that I know that I don't have a job. I am still applying places, and there are other venues to obtain a position for next year. But I like having backup plans from B to F. As for UK and not US, I did apply to the US, but this is more of a constraint from the field of research which is somewhat more active in Europe (or rather, more "densely active" in Europe), and the few places which might have been hiring in the US didn't want to take another postdoc from the field for next year. – Ink blot Feb 20 '17 at 5:35
  • As for justifying the move, well, let's just call it "personal needs". I could really use a change of venue. And while I'd be very happy to return later in my career (and I was asked to do a good job with my research, so I could return), I really feel that it would do me good to move away right now. – Ink blot Feb 20 '17 at 7:37
  • Pete, are you saying that OP should give a reason here, for the purposes of answering the question, or that OP should justify the move when applying for work next year? – aparente001 Feb 21 '17 at 17:15
  • @aparente: I intended the former, but indeed the OP should have in mind that potential hirers will have similar questions. – Pete L. Clark Feb 21 '17 at 17:30
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What you are describing is generally not a good idea, nor should you really call it a post-doc.

First, purely in terms of semantics, I wouldn't refer to what you are proposing as a post-doc so much as a gap year since your CV will not reflect a institutional affiliation. Remember that at the end of the day the intent of the post-doc is for you receive additional mentorship and training beyond your doctoral studies. In short, if your doctoral studies were considered to be an apprenticeship, then your post-doc is the beginning of your journeyman years.

Second, in terms of the academic career pipeline, this can put you at risk compared to your peers. Besides the remuneration that you should receive as a post-doc, you also have the advantage of having increased access to peers and an official affiliation. While you might be quite capable of completing the necessary work for the publications on your own, there is a difference between having a built-in support and peer network and needing to network to build your own.

If you are able to find a research group that is interested in working with you, I would work with them to see if there are any grants or other sources of funding with them you can acquire. Otherwise you are effectively proving them with additional labor at your own expense.

  • Frankly, it sounds from the several answers that I received here as if I will be ignored and shunned by others in my field just because I don't have an affiliation. I highly doubt that. – Ink blot Feb 20 '17 at 18:58
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    @Inkblot: You asked a bunch of disinterested internet academics "Is it a good idea to self-fund a postdoc for a year?" Most of them have responded with concern that a gap in academic affiliation could work against you in the current extremely competitive job market. You respond that you highly doubt that. But also your own PhD advisor advised you against this. You can of course think and do whatever you want, but I begin to wonder why you asked for advice at all. – Pete L. Clark Feb 20 '17 at 19:05
  • @Pete: I asked because I was trying to understand why this is a bad idea. I agree that the lack of academic affiliation is a problem in general for the future. But I don't know if it will be an actual problem. I recall one of your stories about how you walked to some university and got a "guest office". But certainly not having an affiliation is not the same as "not having access to my peers" or even "decreased access". – Ink blot Feb 20 '17 at 19:23
  • I got a guest office over the summer. The fact that I had just received my PhD at one institution and had a postdoc lined up at another was surely relevant: when I spoke in their seminar, they listed both of these affiliations. – Pete L. Clark Feb 20 '17 at 19:28
  • @Inkblot It's one thing if you are self-funding a PhD since you are being taught skills that are difficult to develop without teaching and mentor-ship. However, my biggest concern is that you are proposing to work with a research group effectively as a volunteer while you live off your own savings. Typically if a research group wants your services they will figure out a way to get you a remuneration, even if it is meager. The fact that they haven't would imply to me that they don't need your services, but aren't going to turn down a volunteer that is willing to help out for free. – anonymous Feb 20 '17 at 19:56
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Certainly, more publications would be feathers in your cap.

Trailing spouses do this with reasonable frequency (more often women than men but that's neither here nor there). It is not too hard to get an office at a department you have affinity with, even without a spouse connection.

You might be able to apply for some grant money yourself. I have seen some independent researchers do this.

It might be helpful, before deciding, to see what group you might visit, and test out the relationship a bit, ahead of time.

Also, you could shadow a couple of people in industry, as a career exploration project.

These two things can help you decide what feels right.

Have you asked your advisor why s/he doesn't think it's a very good idea?


Edit:

Some further thoughts (some gleaned from or inspired by others' contributions here, but included here because I think they're important). If you go ahead with your idea of working on your research projects in another department next year without pay:

  • get a title of some sort from the hosting department, such as "visiting scientist" (this would solve the problem of lack of affiliation)

  • go with your current advisor's blessing (meaning, you would need to get your advisor on board with this before you go; I think step one toward this goal is to ask your advisor why s/he said it's not a good idea, and what s/he thinks you should do instead)

  • find a secondary math-related endeavor to pursue while you are there, either paid or volunteer, for example, some sort of math-related community outreach (this would make you a more attractive job candidate in the US at least, and could help you justify the move to future hiring committees)

  • make sure you'll have at least one mentor in the hosting institution, and some co-workers to interact with

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    "more often women than men but that's neither here nor there" as you say it's neither here nor there, yet very sexist. Why not remove the remark altogether? – Sana Feb 19 '17 at 4:29
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    @Sana - Let's give women the credit for paving the way with this! – aparente001 Feb 19 '17 at 5:48
  • Well, I did visit a few places, and I do have some working relationship with people. – Ink blot Feb 19 '17 at 6:48
  • @Inkblot - sounds like a great start; perhaps further testing of these relationships over the next few months will help you with your decision making process. You are approaching an exciting juncture. – aparente001 Feb 19 '17 at 6:54
  • These further thoughts look good to me. In particular the first is very good advice: for many potential hirers (in mathematics), having no academic affiliation raises red flags, whereas having some academic affiliation doesn't. – Pete L. Clark Feb 21 '17 at 17:57

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