Context: I am asked for my career plans and aims for development after graduation if I were accepted into a PhD program in pure mathematics under government funding from Country A.

Dumb question: I want to go into academia after, but given that apparently academic jobs are in short supply especially in theoretical fields or something, how should I talk about my plans after the would-be PhD program?

I have 2 ideas with my anticipated pros and cons:

Idea 1:

Say only that I want to go into academia after.

  • Con: Might be seen as immature like I don't have any backup plans, and I'm not aware of academic job shortages.
  • Pro: Hopefully seen as committed to doing a PhD

Idea 2:

Say that I want to go into academia after but also [insert backup plan here which is based on my current career ever since I graduated master's in applied mathematics last year].

  • Con: Might be seen as not that committed to doing a PhD or even not that sure of what I want to do after assuming the former isn't an issue
  • Pro: Might be seen as mature like I'm aware of academic job shortages.
  • Another pro: How I would state the backup plan might help convince Country A government that I am very interested to pursue PhD studies in Country A (well, besides, being a local applicant)
  • 1
    How much space in the application can you devote to this? In mine, I wrote 1 sentence near the end of my research statement saying that my long term goal is to stay in academia. Oct 10, 2017 at 19:07
  • 2
    Saying that you want to go into academia doesn't imply that you're not aware of academic job shortages. Instead, saying I'll go would have that and many more implications. Oct 14, 2017 at 14:16
  • 4
    I don't understand the point of writing "Country A," providing a link, and then once you click the link you find that the country is still not identified. Do you really think that providing the name of a country that you are applying to compromises your anonymity? Please weigh that against the added value you would get from being specific: academia in different countries works differently. If you decide not to disclose the country...then what is the value of writing "Country A" over and over again? Oct 14, 2017 at 15:25
  • 1
    Your Country A sounds familiar... does it have a strong banking sector? If you already have a prospective advisor, they can coach you how to "target" your application appropriately. When I was applying, my advisor directed me to underline the potential applications of my project in the medical & financial sectors since that is what people like there. (Vs for Japan you would always underline earthquake detection etc.) But I'm not sure if this question would be the right place for it.
    – nengel
    Oct 17, 2017 at 5:34
  • 1
    @JackBauer: I was thinking maybe they are looking for a somewhat more general "what you want to do with your life" rather than "what job do you want to apply to after graduation". E.g. in my case it's "make FPGAs accessible as a general computing platform" which I could do both in academia and in the private sector. And high frequency traders are all over that right now so it would be easy to slide that in there. But if you already have it in a different section it might be overdoing it.
    – nengel
    Oct 18, 2017 at 1:55

1 Answer 1


I guess you mean you are applying for a government fellowship to fund your graduate studies, and the government agency asks about your career plans on the application form. My experience in the US is that many students don't really know what they want to do before entering a PhD program. My impression from some countries where you are required to have a master's first is that most people at the master's level don't know what they want to do coming in (or at least their advisors don't know), but that people who start PhD programs at least think they want to do research. The point is that unless someone shows real mathematical maturity in their application, I wouldn't put too much weight on what they say their career goals are when applying to a US-type combined master's + PhD program (and I guess you are talking about the US), as these goals often change anyway.

Anyway, I think you should state your plans as clearly and as honestly as you can, so if there are a couple of things you're interested in, you can mention them both, but you probably don't need to go into back-up scenarios if things don't work out with your current goals. I expect they mean to ask: "what do you want to do?" rather than "give a strategy for your career that is achievable with a 95% chance of success." Moreover, I don't think the job market is really that bleak in pure math in academia, as long as you are not set on anything too specific (see, e.g., https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/44187/19607), so I don't think something like "staying in academia" is that unrealistic as "getting an endowed chair at MIT" would be.

In addition, since it seems like you're not too sure what the program is looking for, I suggest you read through the selection criteria, which are mostly likely available somewhere in the application guide.

  • Helpful, reassuring and insightful! Can't believe I didn't think of looking through selection criteria for this part. Thank you Kimball!
    – BCLC
    Oct 17, 2017 at 20:44

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