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I am in some kind of conundrum. Currently I am a grad student in Germany. Things are reasonably fine, but because of some bad luck I am not 100% confident that I will finish my thesis at the end of this year (as planned). I might need some more months (maximum 3, I hope), which in the worst case I could finish my work even without a salary. Still, I want to try and get done as close to the end of this year as possible.

Some sources (the Internet generally) tell me I should soon start searching for a postdoc position, especially because I am for personal reasons bound to a fairly specific location in the UK (not where I currently live, but where my significant other lives).

So what do I do? Start looking and applying for postdocs now, wait three more months (to give me the same leeway but with the added three months) or wait until I am actually done. Waiting until I am done is probably the morally right thing to do, but if it is taking me until March 2018 to finish, sustaining myself for potentially some additional months of job search will be financially problematic.

If I start searching now (or soon), what can/should I tell potential advisors? How common (if possible at all) is it to set the start day "somewhere between January and April next year"? I have a feeling this would hurt my application significantly, in favor of applicants that have a more well-defined timeline. What is the most common thing to do? I have seen others postpone their graduation, but most of them were planning to leave academia after that anyway, so had to prepare for a fairly different hiring process.

I am just worried that even if I find a position quickly after finishing, the start day might be months away and that would still leave me without any salary for a lengthy period of time. Any tips and experiences would be appreciated.

  • Relevant: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/30260/… – posdef Apr 27 '17 at 13:32
  • And this: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/187/… – posdef Apr 27 '17 at 13:32
  • Data point: I went from Germany to Canada after submitting my thesis, became a sushi chef, games tester, and general travelling factotum. I started applying for four or five postdocs only 10 months later. Got my preferred position. – henning -- reinstate Monica Jul 7 '17 at 13:09
  • @henning Unfortunately I wouldn't have the money for the travel or for sustaining myself for 10 months. I am starting to apply right now in fact. Deadline is in two weeks and I am waiting for one more letter to send it all off. – skymningen Jul 7 '17 at 13:24
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Actually, what you described seems very familiar and I'm sure it's the same for a large fraction of Ph.D. candidates. So relax a bit :-)

But - I have to say that, reading between the lines of your post, I'm uncertain that you should even be searching for a post-doc at all:

  • You express a desire to find employment that sounds at least as significant, if not more so, than your interest to continue your research.
  • You are not speaking in terms of what you want to do research-wise but where you need to be geographically.

1. First figure out / soul-search whether what you really want is to find a post-doctoral research position.

Are you absolutely sure that you want to pursue a career as an academic researcher, right now? Are you sure a stint in industry (or other non-academia employment) is not something you would find satisfying, interesting, relevant?

(To Op, specifically:) Maybe you are and your motivation and orientation is perfectly sound, but I'm getting a 'vibe' that this might not be the case.

If you're certain that a post-doc is indeed what's right for you to do next, then

2. When the conclusion of your Ph.D. duties is in sight, it is time to start searching for a post-doctoral position.

The research groups / departments with which you'll inquire about open positions are very well aware that prospective availability is sometimes up for change, particularly in your case. Do not hesitate to say "I expect to conclude my Ph.D. in between X and Y months". Now, it's possible that someone might tell you "I need an extra researcher who's willing to start yesterday to get ahead on some funded research project" - and won't accept you on that account. But, well, that's life - and they won't think less of you because you're not done yet; don't drive yourself mad in some impossible race.

3. Sometimes you don't find a suitable post-doc position even if you search diligently and on time. Think about contingencies.

Academia is never very well funded, positions are scarce, and in your particular case there are some tight constraints. I know this is not very encouraging advice, but it's better to recognize this possibility and learn to live with it than spending the last months of your Ph.D. in dread of it being realized. That's really not a good emotional state to be in - and it won't help your work, either.

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  • I did a lot of soul-searching. I had a stint in industry before I started my PhD and while it was reasonably nice I would prefer something else for my life. I also know that I would prefer to stay in academia, but being with my significant other is more important to me than my career, so my idea was trying to find a postdoc (and I know it is hard if you are already fixed on a location) and if it doesn't work out I will just have to find an industry job. I also have to realistically say, that I don't have the funds to keep searching a postdoc, so I will have to "work to eat" at some point. – skymningen Apr 28 '17 at 6:55
  • + 1 for don't rush it. – henning -- reinstate Monica Jul 7 '17 at 13:09
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Job market is tricky, a good position might come up now and not again in the next 6 months, especially if you are rather picky in terms of location, or research area. That's generally why people advise to start looking early on.

It took me about 9 months to get a postdoc position that was satisfactory in terms of reputation, projects, salary and location. During that time I turned down a couple of positions that were offered to me, and had some 30+ applications rejected. I was lucky enough to have a interim postdoc contract with another group at my department and didn't have to worry financially while looking for jobs.

I think it's definitely worth keeping an eye out for jobs already, you might want to wait a bit before applying to positions, since if you are actually a good fit for a position they will want to know when you can start, and "sometime between 6-9 months" isn't a very appealing answer when you really need someone for a position.

That being said I think if you see very attractive positions, you should get in touch with the corresponding PI and declare your interest. They might have other positions coming up later and if they think you are a good fit, you will already have "one foot in", as the saying goes...

I don't think the situation you find yourself in is particularly uncommon and you'll find that people recognize the difficulty in trying to deal with the two-body problem and in general sympathise with it.

Good luck with the thesis and job applications

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  • Thank you for the advice. I somewhat started to look into positions leisurely some months ago, but quite often even new positions had application deadlines that would have forced me to go the "6-9 months" route, so I somewhat stopped looking at positions which I considered impossible to get for my own good (to not be more frustrated and focus on my work). – skymningen Apr 27 '17 at 13:30
  • I just found an additional question: If I informally contact people already, should I mention this problem up front or just generally inquire about their interest in hiring a postdoc with my expertise? – skymningen Apr 27 '17 at 13:41
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I am myself a grad student in Germany and at my university, it is rather common that after finishing a PhD, you get a short, payed position (e.g. half a year) at the same university, funded by some (say 10h/week) teaching you do, which is mostly used for job-search or to turn important results from the thesis into publishable papers. Have you already asked your advisor about this?

In case that this is not an option for you, I would advise you to look for a contact at the desired university/area (as it is rather small) and try to discuss it in an informal manner first. Maybe your advisor or some other prof, colleague, etc. can establish a contact?

Furthermore you might want to find out when the positions open at your desired university. They might have most of the openings at the start of a semester (e.g. maybe April and October, or March and September,...) as these positions might be connected with some teaching that starts at that time; so maybe you can't start at the first of January either way?

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  • There are such positions here as well, but I already got an extension of my original contract (as there was a delay in my work I was not to blame for), so I am not sure if there would be any funding left for this. It is probably too early to beg for another extension already, so I have to base my decision for not on the basis that I will not have a salary from January 2018 on. I will definitely try and contact potential advisors. There are at least some research institutes around the area which seem to hire all year round. – skymningen Apr 27 '17 at 13:39
  • No, don't get me wrong, I am not talking about an extension. I am talking about a position you get after you finish your PhD, after you hand in the thesis, give your talk, have your grade, celebration, etc. and are all done. At least at my university, it is possible to get a small teaching/research position for a semester or two after that. – Dirk Apr 27 '17 at 13:47
  • Yes, but these positions in our case are usually from your PIs budget. So if there is no or little budget left and for example there is another student needing more time, they are more likely to get it (and that is totally fair), as I already got help and extra time. – skymningen Apr 27 '17 at 13:53
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I took up a postdoc after finishing writing my thesis, but before appointing the external examiner - the thesis soaked up quite a bit of time nonetheless. So you are quite right to be worried about the moral side: but it is up to your potential employer to decide. I recommend applying straight away and be upfront about the risk of not finishing in 3 months. Applying is a process: by applying you learn about what opportunities there are and how strong you are in comparison you are to rival candidates. The downside is mostly that it takes up mental energy that you need for finishing, but it might also help with cultivating a sense of urgency.

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Assumptions: I take it you have worked on a stipend and thus are not eligible for unemployment benefits; and like too many PhD students you couldn't build a financial buffer.

There are three issues in your question. First the issue whether it's morally appropriate to apply for a postdoc position when you haven't submitted (nor defended) your thesis. Don't worry about it. Anecdotally, I think many almost-PhDs apply for postdocs, and the hiring persons know it. You're not deceiving anyone by saying that you are "expecting to submit" in N months.

Secondly, however, this will of course diminish your chances compared to other PhDs who have already submitted and defended. The counter-examples that I am aware of exist, because the applicants had already established working relationships or have excellent and highly specialized skills.

Thirdly, this caveat factors into the trade-off between focusing time and energy on a strong and timely finish versus allocating a non-negligible part of your resources into the job hunt. (And believe me, writing good applications is a full-time job.) Unless you are one of the exceptionally skilled, connected, and sought-after persons mentioned above, the best thing you can do in the short term to improve your odds of landing a postdoc position is to finish your PhD! In other words: Yes, you gain time to prepare applications by starting earlier; but you lose (perhaps disproportionately more) time to finalize your thesis, perhaps ending up unemployed without a PhD. And this is not going to help you to land a postdoc.

Two more things to consider in this cost-benefit analysis: How tight is the academic job market in your field? How good have you been so far in predicting your progress, i.e. based on your experience can you trust yourself when you say you need two or three months to finish?

Many things factor into this calculation, but I would argue that on average it is not a good investment of your time to start applying before you are just about to cross the finish line. By all means, look out for open positions, but don't fret. Chances are the one big opportunity will come again.

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  • I have not worked on a stipend. But based on the fact that I don't earn much already and unemployment benefits would only cover 60% of my current salary (max), that makes it impossible to survive in the city I live in. But obviously, while job searching I can't just move somewhere cheaper, as I might have to move again soon and moving also can be daunting on money. The second point is what I find the hardest to balance, the point where I am finishing soon enough to NOT have this disadvantage. – skymningen Jul 10 '17 at 6:55

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