Looking for a postdoc in a different field than my PhD, among other things

In summary, PF is about to defend their PhD in Physics/Materials Science and is currently working at a company. They want to resign after defending their thesis and are considering a postdoc position, despite the low salary, for the opportunity to be mentally challenged. They have applied to two offers and are unsure if they should take the underpaid position similar to their PhD work or find a job in a different company. Ultimately, they are seeking guidance and considering their financial situation as well as their desire for intellectual stimulation.
  • #1
fluidistic
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Hello PF,

I am about to defend my PhD in some area of Physics/Materials Science.

I am also currently working at a company, but I want to resign after I defend my PhD thesis. I am offered a postdoc position and a salary raise if I stay in my current company but I feel I would mostly apply some knowledge I have gained during my PhD, and doing extremely unmotivating tasks such as creating "useless" Excel documents, write internal reports which may be read (this is not even a given) internally by very few people who will not be able to understand everything, and won't ask clarifications to fully understand whatever I will write, but who still insists the documents to be written at an almost paper-like article quality. So here for me, it's game over.

I have started to look for postdoc positions, mostly in condensed matter physics, which is not exactly my domain. The only reason I would like to pursue a postdoc as opposed to find a job in some company for instance, is to get extremely mentally challenged, so that I can learn things related to Physics (QM/Condensed Matter appeal a lot to me). That's the only motivation, because economically this isn't the best option (I have 2 kids + a wife and myself to feed and I am the only one working at the moment).

I have applied to two postdoc offers so far, one of which is very similar to what I've done during my PhD, the salary would be about what I am making currently, but I feel I may mostly apply my current knowledge rather than learn a lot by switching to a different, albeit somewhat related field. They contacted me back stating that they did not find a good candidate yet and they are wondering if I am still interested (I told them that I would reconsider.

I didn't give them the reason, but the reason is mostly money, which is way too low IMO, partly because the city is one of the most expensive on Earth). The other postdoc position was in condensed matter, which seems very interesting to me, but I wasn't accepted, the reason given is that the field is too different from mine (ouch!... that is exactly what I am seeking and explained in the motivation letter...that I was looking for a different field to get mentally challenged, and I explained in details my Physics background, etc.).

I am wondering two things, one of which might be easier to answer than the other.

1) How hard is it to get a postdoc position not exactly in your PhD field, although it isn't that far either? I also got a degree in Physics so I have the physics background required to understand, say DFT (density functional theory), Feynman diagrams and so on. I just did not work with this during my PhD.

2) Should I go for the underpaid postdoc position which is almost (90%) of what I have already accomplished during my PhD? I would know what to do exactly in no time at all, I know which devices to use, how to use them, what data they will retrieve, how to analyze the data and exact what they are looking for. The only thing I am not familiar with is the use of a closed source Software.

Thank you!
 
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  • #2
fluidistic said:
Should I go for the underpaid postdoc position which is almost (90%) of what I have already accomplished during my PhD?
I can’t tell you what you should do, but I can tell you what I did in a similar position: I took a job in industry.

I had a wife and three kids at the time, so I was maybe a little more “how am I going to feed us” oriented than you. But as you said, the post docs that would accept me were basically just extensions of what I was already doing. So they were not worth the lower pay from an intellectual perspective.

I have never regretted it. The challenges in the business world were not academic, but they were enjoyable in themselves and the constant worry and stress about feeding my family was gone.
 
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  • #3
Dale said:
I can’t tell you what you should do, but I can tell you what I did in a similar position: I took a job in industry.

I had a wife and three kids at the time, so I was maybe a little more “how am I going to feed us” oriented than you. But as you said, the post docs that would accept me were basically just extensions of what I was already doing. So they were not worth the lower pay from an intellectual perspective.

I have never regretted it. The challenges in the business world were not academic, but they were enjoyable in themselves and the constant worry and stress about feeding my family was gone.
Thank you for your input/perspective. The thing is that I am already working for a company (I also worked in another company during my PhD, it even funded part of it), but in my case the jobs are not mentally motivating. Maybe because I am hired as the sole "physicist", and I have no one to rely on/discuss whether what I am doing seems to make sense, etc. So I could/should consider trying in a different company, maybe.
Regarding money, most of my PhD has been pretty rough and we could make it only because of a very frugal life (which I do not intend to change even if the pay rises.)
 
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  • #4
The answer to 1) is of -as always- it depends.
Speaking as someone who has spent a lot of time during the past year trying to find and hire good post-doc I can say that what we/I are generally looking for is NOT someone who has the skills that exactly match what is needed for the role; simply because those people very rarely exist. Instead, we tend to look for people who have some key skills and who we believe would be able to learn the rest quickly.
The latter is important because 1) post-docs tend to be quite short and although we do allow people to spend some time getting up and running, we do want them to be "productive" for most of the duration of the contract 2) The reason for why we are hiring someone is typically that we just had a new project funded and we need to start deliver results in the next 6-12 months.

It is important to keep in mind that "key skills" do NOT necessarily have to be about physics; at least in experimental physics most of the hard-to-find skills are often technical know-how and experience using specific types of equipment; if a candidate knows how to operate most of the important kit in the lab then he/she will usually be able learn the necessarily physics quite quickly.
The situation in theoretical physics will of course be somewhat different, but even there it is true that many methods are applicable to many different fields and someone who e.g. has experience with DFT could be useful in many different areas.

The answer to 2) will at least in part depend on whether you think it will lead to a few good publications and it if is in a well-regarded and well-connected research group? That is, would doing the underpaid post-doc position put you in a good/better position the next time you apply for a job?
Knowing how to do the job is not going to help you if the topic you are working on is a dead end and unlikely to go anywhere.
 
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  • #5
I feel I may mostly apply my current knowledge rather than learn a lot by switching to a different, albeit somewhat related field

What is your career goal? In math, the point of a post doc is to spend three years building a cv to try to apply for a tenure track position. The point is not to do a second PhD. Maybe physics is different, but it feels like you're not focusing on the right stuff here.

Even if your goal is just to get a second PhD effectively, the people hiring for the post doc are going to want someone who has a good shot at a tenure track position/bring them academic glory in some way.
 
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  • #6
f95toli said:
The answer to 1) is of -as always- it depends.
Speaking as someone who has spent a lot of time during the past year trying to find and hire good post-doc I can say that what we/I are generally looking for is NOT someone who has the skills that exactly match what is needed for the role; simply because those people very rarely exist. Instead, we tend to look for people who have some key skills and who we believe would be able to learn the rest quickly.
The latter is important because 1) post-docs tend to be quite short and although we do allow people to spend some time getting up and running, we do want them to be "productive" for most of the duration of the contract 2) The reason for why we are hiring someone is typically that we just had a new project funded and we need to start deliver results in the next 6-12 months.
Ok, in that case I guess I had the "bad luck" that they found someone with a more theoretical background. The postdoc position had an experimental part with a technique I dealt with during my Master degree, but that did not matter to them apparently. Despite that I could probably pick up the theoretical background they wanted, they just went for someone with such a background, I suppose.

f95toli said:
The answer to 2) will at least in part depend on whether you think it will lead to a few good publications and it if is in a well-regarded and well-connected research group? That is, would doing the underpaid post-doc position put you in a good/better position the next time you apply for a job?
Knowing how to do the job is not going to help you if the topic you are working on is a dead end and unlikely to go anywhere.
As far as publications, it looks like it would lead to some, but not in Nature, either. The recruiter seems to have started his career not too many years ago. I don't expect the position to give me any significant "plus" next time I'll apply to either a job or even a postdoc.
Office_Shredder said:
What is your career goal? In math, the point of a post doc is to spend three years building a cv to try to apply for a tenure track position. The point is not to do a second PhD. Maybe physics is different, but it feels like you're not focusing on the right stuff here.

Even if your goal is just to get a second PhD effectively, the people hiring for the post doc are going to want someone who has a good shot at a tenure track position/bring them academic glory in some way.
In Physics in general I think there is only a very low % that end up with a tenure track position. I don't even want to try/apply. I don't have a long term goal, I don't really know what is going to happen. I see myself landing in some company in the long term. Maybe I could try to join a lab staff... I don't really know. The only thing I know for sure, is that I enjoy learning new things and contribute to the field (something that is not currently happening in the company I work for).

As a sidenote I also personally have an idea about research in my field that can lead to commercial products. In a way it is a little bit similar to the "discovery" (of course it wasn't really a discovery, but more of an achievement) of the blue LED. I could work out the theory in my free time and contact people at a lab I know to perform the experiments to check the theory. If I was more business driven I would start a company, get a patent and try my ideas, but that's not my goal either. I'd rather have a publication or two that pave the way for companies to use the idea(s).
 
  • #7
A short update. I accepted the underpaid postdoc which was a sort of extension of my PhD. In the end, I stayed for about a year, but I felt the project was almost empty of science novelty. I had an extremely toxic supervisor, who abused me/my person. At the end, they wanted to extend my contract for a full year and the CEO of a company involved in the project phoned me to ask me to stay involved in the project and that he could hire me for much more money. However I would still have to deal with the toxic manager, but in the end I wouldn't accept to stay any longer even if I was paid a million dollar/month. I declined and stayed out of job for about 6 months.

Then came my 2nd postdoc, in a somewhat far away city (moved all my family). Extreme bad luck, one of my supervisor was a bad person. He denigrated me scientifically (after 6 months), going length about me not being cut not only for research, but that I didn't deserve my diplomas (he never asked me any science question to test my knowledge...), that I needed a secretary type of job rather than being involved in research. It was surprising to me, because he seemed (via Zoom) very eager to work with me, and he warned me before I start that my chances to stay in academia where almost null, which didn't bother him. He also wanted my word that I wouldn't leave after 1 year, but instead that I should work with him for 2 years. What happened is that an ex-PhD who has done 10 years of postdocs came back as a postdoc with him. When that happened, he turned mad at me, extremely aggressive and "tested" me until he found "cracks" in me, and told me he wouldn't renew my 1 year contract. He knew I was about to have a 3rd child and that I went all the way here with my whole family, too. But it turns out I was just an investment, and that he got an opportunity to work with someone more experienced than I, for the same price, so that it would save them time (no, or little formation needed).

Fortunately enough, I found a job in the industry, and I am starting in about a month, so that I won't be out of job. It mixes programming (many languages, many techniques such as machine learning and finite elements) and physics to solve real world problems. This looks very appealing to me. I didn't forget your words @Dale, I think they will always stick to me.
 
  • #8
Oh, wow! That sounds like some pretty tyrannical bosses. I hope your next one is better, that can make life miserable
 
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1. What are the benefits of pursuing a postdoc in a different field than my PhD?

Pursuing a postdoc in a different field can offer several benefits, such as expanding your knowledge and skills, building a diverse network of colleagues, and increasing your job prospects in multiple fields. It can also lead to new collaborations and research opportunities.

2. How do I know if I am qualified for a postdoc in a different field than my PhD?

This will depend on the specific requirements and qualifications of the postdoc position you are interested in. It is important to carefully review the job description and assess how your skills, knowledge, and research experience align with the position. You can also reach out to the hiring team for more information.

3. What should I consider when looking for a postdoc in a different field than my PhD?

When searching for a postdoc in a different field, it is important to consider the research interests and expertise of potential advisors, the availability of funding, and the resources and facilities available for your research. You should also consider the location, potential for collaboration, and the overall fit with your career goals.

4. How do I approach my current advisor about pursuing a postdoc in a different field than my PhD?

It is important to have an open and honest conversation with your current advisor about your career goals and interests in pursuing a postdoc in a different field. Explain your reasons for wanting to pursue this opportunity and assure them that your decision will not affect your commitment to completing your current research project. It is also important to discuss a potential timeline and how you can continue to collaborate with your advisor during your postdoc.

5. Are there any potential challenges or drawbacks to pursuing a postdoc in a different field than my PhD?

Pursuing a postdoc in a different field may present some challenges, such as adjusting to a new research topic and learning new techniques and methodologies. It may also take longer to establish yourself in a new field and build a network of colleagues. However, these challenges can also offer valuable learning experiences and opportunities for personal and professional growth.

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