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Not Getting a Postdoc after PhD

  1. Nov 28, 2014 #1
    Hello all!

    So I need advice...any advice...on where to go in my life. You might say I'm going though an existential crisis.

    I'm graduating with a PhD in theoretical cosmology in August and I rather die than get a postdoc (and therefore any type of professorship/physics research position).

    So I'm naturally at the question "Well, what do I want to do with my life?" with the constraint question "What am I QUALIFIED to do?"

    It turns out the the intersection of these two questions is quite small haha.

    First off, I love teaching. I'm talking about high school teaching. I've taught a STEMM program at a local private high school and love it and they've even asked me to substitute teach there a few times. I would be happy teaching there (at least for a little while) AND then even have a physics teacher position open which I will be applying to.

    However, I don't want to put all my eggs in one basket.

    I've heard stories of people going into the finance sector but i admittedly know nothing about this process or what they look for (I have very minimal programming experience).

    Does anyone know anything about this avenue?

    The amount of money I would be making is a far second to being happy doing what I'm doing so don't make money more of a factor than it should be.

    ANY thoughts/personal experiences/advice on anything related (even tangentially) would be very helpful. Thank you so much for your time!
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  3. Nov 28, 2014 #2


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    Unless you want to have several jobs, you will need to put your egg in a basket. There really is not more than one egg. If you have a high school already interested in hiring you and you feel that it is something you would like doing, I would say "go for it".
  4. Nov 28, 2014 #3


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    Have you considered trying to get a faculty position at a small undergraduate-only college? Not a community college (which is another possibility), but a four-year school that offers a physics major. That's what I decided to do after finishing a Ph.D. in experimental particle physics 30+ years ago. I did my undergraduate at a school like that, and enjoyed it, so it seemed a natural thing to try for. My first job was a two-year sabbatical-replacement position. The next one was tenure-track, and I've been there ever since.

    Most such schools nowadays do expect you to be able to do some research that can provide their students with research experience for grad school. You need to come up with some angles for that, and at least maintain contacts with the people you worked with in grad school. Different schools have different standards for research as far as tenure and promotion are concerned, ranging from the "little Ivies" which are very serious about it, on down to more "generic" small colleges which can be more flexible.
  5. Dec 1, 2014 #4
    I got a math PhD and am now experiencing the same existential crisis. Actually, the math I was doing itself threw me into an existential crisis, but now that I'm done with that, there's the one about figuring out what I want to do with my life, but also figuring out what anyone would want to do with me. I've been looking for a job for about a year now, with no luck. Evidence is accumulating that it is because a math PhD is not a very marketable degree, rather than because I'm terrible at job-searching, although there's no question that I am pretty terrible at it. For example, right now I have a very tenuous job lead for something where they need someone with math skills. The problem is that they need someone with tailor-made skills for the job, rather than just someone who's good at math. If I had a CS degree, I think it would be a very strong possibility, but as is, they have basically come out and told me it's a long shot, and they normally only want CS or engineering degrees. At first, I believed the whole story about how if you are good at job-searching, you can squeeze your way into a job. And maybe that's true, but I think you have to be either really good or really lucky. The thing is, I've improved my resume a lot, got career coaching, networked, met a lot of people, and it's still not working so far.

    For finance jobs, it's probably best to have done stochastic calculus or something relevant to their needs, if you want to go in as a math or physics PhD. It is true that it is a place where they will hire quantitative people without much experience because they value the math and analytical skills. However, it's highly, highly competitive, so it's not like a PhD in a quantitative discipline is a golden ticket to a finance job. In my experience, it's no picnic.

    I don't particularly care about money, but it's kind of nice to be able to make a living at all I don't consider flipping burgers to be completely beneath me, although it would be a waste of my skills, but I keep thinking if I wait another month, I'll get something better. It's not that I'm not willing to do that, but I feel like I just wouldn't belong in a service sector job or at a call center. Someone else needs that burger-flipping or call-center job, too who is more fitting for it. For now, I'm tutoring, which pays a lot better than burger-flipping, but it's just so sporadic that I'd be making quite a bit more money if I were flipping burgers. I can step up the amount of tutoring that I'm doing if I cut back on job-search activities and learning programming and probably achieve something like a burger-flipping income. If you're really good at marketing and live in a place with a lot of students and not too much competition, you can actually make a pretty good living at it.

    I missed the deadline for taking the GRE, so it might be hard to apply to masters programs now for next year. So, I'm thinking about going to a hacker school, now.

    The big difference, though, is that I am really bad at and don't enjoy teaching. Some people tell me tutoring is teaching, but the whole part where the students get to talk back to you completely freely and give you much higher quality feedback entirely fixes the problem for me. So, you're lucky that you have something that you can market yourself with. The teaching sounds like a pretty good bet for you, since you don't care about making money.
  6. Dec 1, 2014 #5


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    homeomorphic, I know we've talked about this, but I don't necessarily believe that a math PhD is not a marketable degree -- it can be, and is often, a very marketable degree depending on what area of research you focus on, and what other skills you develop both before and during your PhD.

    I don't mean to rub salt in your wound, but you are in the situation that you specialized in a branch of pure math that is probably among the least marketable one can think of (topology, although I've known people just like you who have specialized in even more esoteric branches of pure math who are doing quite well), and you realized that teaching and research just wasn't for you. On top of that, you didn't work on developing marketable skills or working in internships during your undergrad or PhD studies that could have made you more employable. So it shouldn't be all that surprising that you will be struggling at this stage, and likely you would have struggled even if the economy was in better shape than it is now.

    All that being said, why are you so headstrong in seeking a programming or IT position, when many of these positions will require you to either have (a) previous work experience in IT, (b) a CS degree or similar degree, or (c) portfolio of programming work, which as far as what I've gauged in your previous posts, you don't have any of these? A better alternative would be to go in areas where there is an actual demand. I'm thinking specifically of areas like statistics/data science.

    I've found this on the web:


    From what I gather, this program provides an intensive 6 week fellowship in NYC to provide you with training on data science techniques (machine learning, statistics, etc.) and connects you with potential employers. It might be worth a look.

    (BTW, the link above may be of interest to the OP as well).
  7. Dec 1, 2014 #6
    I'm not headstrong in seeking programming positions. My main point there is that programming is still a valuable skill for finance or data science if it doesn't work out, and I don't want to be overwhelmed with looking for too many different kinds of jobs.

    I have applied to data science jobs. I don't have much of a chance there, either. I have a number theory PhD friend who tried to get into data science for months with no luck.

    I have a minor in computer science, and I do have a small portfolio, but nothing that great. So, it's not true that I didn't work on developing marketable skills. I just didn't realize the level of skill you have in order to really be marketable. A lot of people say you have to learn on the job.

    You can say that I just chose a non-marketable field, but looking at my classmates from grad school, I know most of them are not that different from me, with the main exception being the people I knew who did numerical PDEs. Some people seem to even get by with just a bachelor's in math. If they can do it, I thought I could, too. Evidently not.

    I find statistics a little challenging to get interested in, I have realized. I thought I had overcome my distaste for it, but I'm realizing now that part of the reason I haven't been able to learn much more statistics is that it doesn't really catch my interest that well. I'm willing to give it more of a chance. I don't have the sense that it's any better than programming, though. If you want a statistics guy, you're going to hire a statistics guy, not me.
  8. Dec 1, 2014 #7


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    If you simply apply to data science jobs given the skill set you currently have (at least the skill set you describe you have described in your posts), then given your background you are right that you would not have much of a chance. Did you even bother to take a look at the link I provided in my previous post in this thread? That link provides an opportunity for those who earned PhDs in quantitative areas (math, physics, etc.) to learn and practice specific skills and knowledge needed to take on jobs in data science. If you are willing to go to hacker school, I think it is worth it for you to explore this avenue as well.

    BTW, I might also add that I've known quite a few people who have pursued graduate studies in various areas of mathematics (both pure and applied) to the PhD level. Among that group, every single one of them are employed full-time, either in academia or in various non-academic positions (the pure math PhDs I know who aren't in academia are working in finance, software development, actuarial work, statistics/data science, consulting or accounting). Perhaps this is a reflection of where I live (Toronto, Ontario, Canada, FYI), and math graduates in your area have a particularly difficult time finding employment.
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2014
  9. Dec 1, 2014 #8
    I looked at the link. I've been considering programs like that already.

    Most of my friends from grad school got postdocs and a couple got faculty positions. I'm not sure where they tend to end up after the postdocs. A couple are programmers. One is an actuary. I have gone for programming because I got interviews in that area, and it's where I've seen the most math PhDs I know get jobs. I know a topology PhD who is a sort of data scientist, but his job title is software engineer. I don't know how he got the job. I just know him from undergrad, so I'm not really in touch with him, but heard where he ended up through word of mouth. I also know that he also struggled a bit to find the job. He looked in the defense industry for a while and didn't find anything.

    Most people will get a decent job eventually, but it's not a fun experience to go through what I'm going through. I know another math PhD in a very similar situation right now, and another guy who took two years before he got a job. It could be that some math departments have stronger ties to industry, which would make it easier--in fact, at my own program, they are actually trying to establish better ties to industry, but that was shortly after I left.

    I got another crop of job leads today from an engineer I talked to. There are some opportunities in the defense industry and at some big companies, like Amazon or Microsoft research in algorithm development and stuff like that. There aren't a whole lot of good options out there, and they tend to be only in certain cities. That's why it's taken me this long to dig for these opportunities. It's almost as if you have to get a second PhD in how to find a job as a mathematician, in order to make use of the degree. The job postings list too many qualifications, so it's really hard to tell where you are going to fit in. If you are a typical math or physics PhD, you almost certainly won't be a great fit, initially, but there are a few places with deep pockets that may be willing to hire you, anyway, in hopes that it will pay off in 5-10 years (otherwise, they will eventually be faced with a shortage of people who have those skills).
  10. Dec 2, 2014 #9
    Homeomorphic: Perhaps you should consider applying for a post-doc in a more applied field. This sort of thing is not unprecedented; a friend of mine with a background in condensed matter theory is doing a post-doc in bioinformatics.

    Algebraic statistics, a new field which tries to apply algebraic geometry to bionformatics, might have an opportunity for somebody with your background (even though algebraic geometry and topology are not equivalent). The position might be easier to obtain (although I have no idea) and could lead to something fruitful. You might wonder "why bother with a post-doc", but since your skill set is academic, it seems to me plausible that you might have a chance at such an opportunity, which could then be exploited for an industrial position.

    Cluelessluke: Same story. Look at financial mathematics, there is probably some tenuous relationship between what goes on there and what happens in cosmology research. Try to get a post-doc or internship.
  11. Dec 2, 2014 #10
    See if it's your cup of tea; not to mention that there are probably more attempts to take pure math related to topology and apply it to something. The "topology of data" is a buzzword I saw in the science media a year or so ago. I believe there is some stuff going on at Stanford in that regard.

    Algebraic statistics:

    Topological data analysis:

    EDIT: This resource seems to have job listings, probably includes temp positions:
  12. Dec 2, 2014 #11
    I don't think I can get a postdoc because my adviser doesn't think I was a good student, and I have no publications. Plus, I don't really consider myself to be much of an academic. I'm much more interested in building things than I am in publishing papers.

    I hardly know anything about algebraic geometry and only elementary stats (although I know fairly advanced probability), so I think algebraic statistics would be a huge stretch.

    I think topological data analysis is a very, very small market. As far as I know, it's just the start-up, Ayasdi, outside of academia.

    I think image-processing in industry might be a better option for me. It's less of a stretch than you'd think because of my computer science and electrical engineering background.
  13. Dec 5, 2014 #12

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    A PhD to teach high school is overkill. But I guess you went that far and if you really like teaching at the high schol level I guess that is OK. Personally I found that high school physics (and chemistry) is mostly wrong and/or not worth learning. High school scientist wannabes should put all their eggs in mthe math basket - get as much as is out there. So maybe you'd consider teaching math instead?
    Or get a college-level position. In my opinion a much better idea.
  14. Dec 5, 2014 #13
    I have to take issue with that. Without my high school physics class, I probably never would have gotten interested in math. The physics class was what taught me not to leave understanding to chance and use rote memorization whenever anything wasn't initially obvious. The math classes were much worse. Calculus was sort of okay, but a lot of that was because I was taking physics at the same time, which was curing me of my mathematical incompetence. If I remember right, my physics teacher had a masters in math, or maybe just an undergrad degree with a minor in physics. There might have been some significant shortcomings of the class, but it was still one of the defining experiences of my life. There are a lot of Nobel Prize winners who talk about how they were inspired by their high school physics class.

    That's not the right answer for everyone. Paul Lockheart was a successful mathematician who I think might even be teaching middle school kids or maybe high school--I forget. Reading his now relatively widely circulated Lament makes me suspect that he really found a great place for himself there. If a PhD is really good at teaching kids, there's something they can bring to the table that normal math teachers can't. If they don't care about money, I think that's great. If they don't happen to be outstanding at interacting with kids, I would agree that they would probably be better off at a community college or 4-year college, if they can get that.

    One thing I think would be really cool would be to be a mentor to highly gifted kids--I think ONLY someone with PhD-level qualifications would be qualified for that. I've fantasized about finding rich parents willing to pay me $200/hr to tutor their kids and turn them into math prodigies because I know I would be rather good at it, if I had enough time with the student, and if they were reasonably talented. If I was a marketing genius, I'd probably be doing that. I have no doubt that if parents knew how good I would be at that, I could probably make a pretty solid living at it. Actually, I once had a session with a very gifted 7 year old math prodigy, but I'm not that great with kids that young. Maybe this is a bit of a tangent, but let me tie it in by saying that it's amazing the opportunities that are out there for people who are good entrepreneurs. Actually, two math PhDs I know from grad school are each trying to start their own company.
  15. Dec 5, 2014 #14

    rude man

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    I venture to say that that is highly unusual. Grade and high school nerds are attracted to math right away. Algebra is taught earlier than physics or chemistry. My fellow nerd buddies and I were all immersed in math from the get-go. High school physics does not require math beyond algebra II, if that; it does not require trig and certainly not calculus at any level. That's why it's a waste of time.
  16. Dec 5, 2014 #15
    I actually know at least two people from grad school who got interested in math even later than I did. My sister would be another example. I don't think it's particularly unusual. In fact, people who like advanced math generally look down on high school math as boring. It's quite common for mathematicians to say things like "you don't get to the good stuff until such and such class". People on here post things about getting interested in math really late in life quite a bit.

    It seems that you are over-generalizing from the physics classes that you have been exposed to. Mine definitely made use of trig for doing vector stuff. It didn't use calculus, but I think you can still do quite a bit without calculus.
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