I just earned a Ph.D in Mathematics, but there are no available postdoc opportunities for me. What should I do?

After four years, I have finally limped and hobbled to a Mathematics Ph.D while working full time at other places - and at the ripe age of 40 at that. It is my second attempt at earning a Ph.D, as my first attempt ended in failure due to poor life choices a decade ago.

Now that I am finished with my Ph.D, I have discovered that I am more interested in research in general than I thought I would be. I am a realist - I probably have a middle of the pack dissertation at a school representing the middle of the pack in my discipline. However, as my writing developed, I found myself not really wanting to stop, and perhaps even do research in areas not related to my discipline.

Applying to a postdoctoral position is the most logical route; however, my family is here in our midwestern city to stay, my alma mater is the only reachable university with postdoc opportunities, and I permanently burned bridges when I left the program the first time. On top of this, I am currently employed full-time at a private nonprofit nursing and pre-med company, and although the choices of courses to teach are far more limited than they were even when I taught at community college, my current employer is wonderful.

To be very specific, given my history above, my Asperger's syndrome and my advancing age, I want to understand the best way to publish independently.

  • Most journals list the requirements and steps for submission on their webpages. Apr 23, 2017 at 2:04
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    You do have the degree, you could start consulting. Just make sure it does not make your current employer angry by breaking some non-competing clause. Or maybe start consulting for the same firm where you are already employed. In case you can convince them you have some algorithm ideas that you think would be useful for them. As long as you have not burned bridges you are probably in a quite good spot. Apr 23, 2017 at 15:44

5 Answers 5


This is a good question but there may not be a good answer. Students who graduate from strong programs with multiple publications and strong letters of recommendation still have almost no choice about where they have to go to pursue a postdoc, and the same problem arises 2-3 years later for tenure-track positions (if they manage to get one). It does not sound like your family is OK with the amount of uncertainty that pursuing this path would require.

For example, even if you were the strongest student graduating from Harvard, to pursue the postdoc-then-tenure-track course you and your wife would need to be OK with (1) moving next year (2) to a location you don't get to choose, then (3) moving three years later (4) to a permanent location you don't get to choose. (If you're lucky, you might get to decide between a couple options, but none might be where you'd want to live.) Hopefully you get tenure there, otherwise you'd (5) have to move again after six or seven years.

My experience is with research positions, and the situation does become somewhat different as you move towards teaching-focused positions like small liberal arts colleges, or community colleges. But it still sounds like staying in your current position may be orders of magnitude better for you and your family than any other option.

One thing that stands out about your post is that although it's clearly and cogently written, it is vague about the key point of what you are looking for. Do you want a job where you teach stronger students? or more advanced classes? A job that affords you time for research? or which evaluates you on it? Or do you just want to do research and publish? I would suggest taking the time to think about what exactly your goals are; hopefully some of them can be achieved without changing positions.

As for publishing: the academic publishing industry in mathematics is not so hard to deal with. The difficult part is finding a problem to work on and proving a theorem! Once you do that, given that you have a PhD in math you should be able to look at papers on the arXiv to see the style in which math papers are written.

  • / Do you want a job where you teach stronger students? or more advanced classes? A job that affords you time for research? or which evaluates you on it? Or do you just want to do research and publish? // This one I am sure about. I love to teach, and I would love to teach higher level courses like calc3, DiffEq, linear and abstract algebra, and the like - at my former CuCollege I taught the calc 2-3 sequence every year and taught DE's for a few semesters. My current employer - though excellent to work for- leaves me merely a Stats facilitator along with freshman algebra and gen studies. Apr 22, 2017 at 23:09
  • I would like to publish, btw, but definitely not under the "publish or perish" scheme (which, if I am not abusing terminology too much, is the criteria for Europe's D.Sci option). I can always just co-author or publish on my own, but I've not been taught the ins and outs of how the general process goes. Apr 22, 2017 at 23:19
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    'Publish or perish' isn't a 'scheme', it's life as an academic at nearly any research-focused institution. If you are paid to do much research, not getting published puts you are risk of no longer being paid.
    – Jessica B
    Apr 23, 2017 at 7:17
  • Jessica - apologies; I meant "scheme" in the old sense of "rubric" here, not as a pejorative meant as a substitute for "scam." Of course, I wouldn't have my Ph.D now if it weren't for this type of job! Apr 23, 2017 at 17:07
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    I have no idea what you mean by "Europe's D.Sci option". I am pretty sure there is no thing that could be called "D.Sci" on which Europe has agreed. In fact all countries in Europe have their own system for becoming a doctor and, in general, there are immense differences between them.
    – Dirk
    Apr 23, 2017 at 18:31

I strongly agree with everything in Tom Church's answer, and want to add to it a little bit.

The market for postdoctoral and tenure-track jobs is, I'm sorry to say, extraordinarily difficult. In your own words, you "limped and hobbled" your way to a Ph.D. Unfortunately, even people who sail over the bar often have difficulties finding academic jobs.

One piece of advice I would give to you is to attend conferences. There are plenty of conferences in a variety of mathematical disciplines, held all over the US and in many other places. These are almost always free to attend, assuming you can afford the travel costs. (And occasionally the conference organizers have grant funding to pay for those too.) At some, you can hear hour-long talks given by leading reseachers. Others have slots for 20-minute "contributed talks", and you can present your thesis research and listen to other talks given by junior researchers. Some conferences combine these formats.

These are advertised on the web, so a bunch of Googling ought to turn up some conferences you might be interested in.

The mechanics of publishing per se are actually simple. Once you've written a paper that is good enough to publish, you might e-mail a copy of your paper to someone whose work you cited and ask their advice on what venue to publish in. What is vastly more difficult is learning to write good papers. I second Tom Church's advice to browse the arXiv and read papers in your area of mathematical interest.

Finally, I hope this is not rude, but -- count your blessings. You say that you "currently work for an incredible employer and a great college". Not even all Ph.D.s who do find academic employment would say this about their employers. I would recommend looking for opportunities in your existing institution to expand the scope of what you teach. (Especially since, as you say, moving to a different city is not an option.) Perhaps get a sense of what there might be student demand for, and then speak with your chair or dean? You might not get to teach analysis or abstract algebra, but you might be able to expand the scope of what you're doing a little bit.

Good luck!


Congratulations on finishing!

"The only school nearby that has postdocs will not hire me." Putting this together with your partner's unwillingness to relocate, if you want to do original research, you'll have to do it outside a postdoc. That is not necessarily a roadblock.

You can work on your own with the help of a mentor, and you can collaborate. You can do both of these things remotely, in principle, with perhaps some visits.

  • Your advisor may be able to help you find a mentor.

  • Read papers you find interesting and start corresponding with authors.

  • Go to conferences and make connections.

On the topic of teaching higher level courses, you can apply to teach at other schools without a postdoc and without publications. There's no guarantee you'll be hired, but your chances are better if you:

  • have outstanding references and student evaluations from your current employer

  • are willing to work as an adjunct, at least at the beginning

  • can show a commitment to community outreach, as well as to diversity

  • are willing to teach any course the department throws at you

Here's a fun idea: sometimes there is a group of adventurous high school students who want a math club and need an outside advisor willing to work with them on more advanced math topics than what they might see in their high school classes. If you decide to work with such a group, it would probably be on a volunteer basis.


Depending on your desire to teach vs. do research you could look for a position in industry at a company which would allow you do research. Depending on the company there may or may not be restrictions on publishing. Many companies are quite supportive of publishing and conference participation.

It doesn't sound like your reputation concern has to do with the actual quality of your work. That is all a commercial company is going to be concerned with.

You might be surprised by the marketability of a Mathematics PhD in certain industries. I would start with large engineering and technology companies.

  • Yes, one of the last things my advisor mentioned was actually to keep going in school and get actuarial exams passed, especially since I live in [Midwest city with many insurance companies]. If I passed quals in Linear Algebra, Abstract Algebra, Real Analysis and Complex Analysis. Given that I had coded what we thought was a new routine for finite field compressive sensing (sadly, Das and Vishwanath, who I have since personally contacted, developed a similar scheme in parallel with us over the past few years), and have also taken some stats courses, applied may be an option for me! Apr 23, 2017 at 17:19

Maybe you are looking at the problem from the wrong end?

As long as you don't have produced exceptional research during your phd (think Einstein in the patent office), graduated from a famous university, and are well connected and politically savvy, you can forget about a typical academic career. I don't know the actual numbers, but we are probably talking about 10% of phd students getting a postdoc position and then 10% of the postdocs getting a faculty position, it is probably even less.

So better think about your strength! You have been working full-time, and honestly, I think this is a great plus. By design, people in academia tend to be pretty much disconnected from the 'real world', to the extend that it makes them difficult to employ. So ask yourself, what do you have that the usual graduate doesn't have?

Another plus I see for you is that you have done a phd at the age of 40, and this while working somewhere else. You've shown strong dedication and commitment. I salute you for this! I am younger than you, and I don't think I would have the nerve to go through my phd again. While dedication and commitment won't get you into a faculty position in a big research university, there are other places where someone with your experience could have an advantage. I am thinking about community colleges, adult education or similar. You will have much more street cred than a younger graduate.

You said that you made some bad life choices. Getting your phd you have clearly demonstrated that you could overcome them by yourself (and a phd in mathematics is no small achievement, everyone knows that).

Whatever choices you made then, you now have an experience that other people don't have. Let's say (and I am just making up worst-case stuff, just to show that even something really bad could give you a valuable experience. I am in no way suggesting you had anything do to with drugs).

Let's say you were heavily into drugs, smuggling, and spent 10 years in prison. Sounds really bad, but on the other hand, there will be very few people with that background and a deep understanding of mathematics. That could make you predestined for a job doing statistics in a related field. 10 years down the line, I could see you as a director of a health-related NGO doing research.

Now as far as research goes, doing a phd only touches the surface of what doing research really means. Research is an extremely hard field, many researchers will never find anything important in their lives and their only contribution will be a bunch of papers that no one actually read.

To be a successful researcher, you'll need to be a politician, a manager, a marketing specialist, a grant-writing specialist, a diversity specialist (grant applications are judged not only on their scientific merit, but frequently on adherence to the political agenda dujour). If you are not 100% confident that you can meet all of these requirements, or don't have an independent source of income if your plans fail, I would not risk it (personal opinion).

On the other hand, a lot of research gets done in non-university settings. You have to understand that there is some kind of firewall between academia and the real world. Academics look down on industry, because they think that they are the smartest and best, and industry looks down on academia, because they are so out of touch with reality. Also, lives in industry and academia diverge, the academics don't want to be seen with the dumb industrialists, and the industrialists are embarrassed if the academics see their big houses and expensive cars. So just take into account that a lot of people in your academic circles will not be aware of many options outside of academia, even though many jobs will be just as challenging and interesting, maybe even more so.

Mathematics plays a big role in many fields now, you just need to find the right place. Be careful mentioning the word research when you look for a job, better say something along the lines of 'you would like to use your knowledge of mathematics and your job experience to improve product quality' or similar.

There are lots of research opportunities in quality control, signal processing, coding theory, electronic design automation (companies like Mentor Graphics), algorithms, machine learning. In many of these fields, most of the leading edge research is actually done outside of academia. Many of these companies will also allow you to work remotely. If publishing is important for you, a lot of companies will not have an issue with that (as long as it doesn't interfere with your main work), they might even like the publicity it gives them.

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