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Struggling Postdoc

  1. Oct 13, 2014 #1
    I have a phd in pure maths from a highly ranked university in the UK. During the PhD I was quite lucky and had a good supervisor so managed to get several decent publications. I'm now half way through my first (2 year) postdoc abroad in a very good, but much smaller, university in a non English speaking country (I'm also attending language courses). We have a few joint author publications so far and quite soon I need to decide if I want to apply for another postdoc or not.

    Previously I always thought I would continue with pure maths but I am having a lot of doubts - the reasons for these include:
    -There are not many places in my research area in the UK so another postdoc would potentially mean moving to another foreign country again. I've already felt lonely through this postdoc; the USA is very far from the UK and if I move within Europe I will have language problems again.
    -I'm currently having some problems with motivation and have to force myself to work - probably because I've had an office to myself since July (a colleague will come back soon) and so discuss mathematics with other people only occasionally. The atmosphere here is not very international and as a postdoc I don't teach which adds to the isolation.
    -I'm frustrated by the difficulty and uncertainty of research in pure mathematics - there is no way to know if, when or how you will make any progress.

    Ideally I would like a job in the UK where I can use my brain, make regular progress and earn a reasonable (though not excessive) salary. On the other hand I really love mathematics and feel like it would be crazy to throw it away. I don't have any experience outside academia and don't know much about programming so don't know exactly what I would do.

    Does anyone have any thoughts or experiences of a similar situation? I'm quite unhappy but am not sure if I'm going through a rough patch or really need a change. Thanks!
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 13, 2014 #2
    Why not develop some employable skills? Going into the private sector doesn't mean you are now banned forever from doing math. Become a quant or a programmer. I graduated with my math BS, but I'm continuing to study measure theory and functional analysis via Skype with one of my favorite professors and working on my M.Sc. Find someone who has similar mathematical interests and form a study group. Is it really worth it to fumble blindly in the dark for a tenure track position which you have no idea if it even exists? Unless you have an outstanding publication record, you're not likely to get a tenure track position at a research university in pure mathematics. It's just too competitive. You might get an underpaid lecturer position but that's just depressing. Use your degree.
  4. Oct 13, 2014 #3


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    I will just comment on my own postdoc experience in relation to your doubts and leave it up to you how to interpret it. After all, it is going to be your decision in the end.

    Being Swedish, I did not have much choice other than doing my postdocs abroad as there are no groups really doing research in my field outside of Stockholm. I did 3.5 years of postdoc in Munich and later 1 year in Heidelberg before coming back to Stockholm as an assistant professor. The first year and a half I was quite miserable on the social side as well and did not really feel that I was fitting in. The feeling I have from my own experience as well as from talking to others is that it takes 1-2 years to really feel comfortable in a place (depending on the individual naturally). For a postdoc, this often means that it is time to leave by the time you get settled in.

    Things that might help you overcome this problem: If you are in a larger European country, there could be other institutes in your current country where you might be able to get a postdoc. I know this helped me immensely when I changed postdoc position, moving within Germany meant both less administration to do and that I did not have to start from scratch with the language. Another option would be to try getting a postdoc in a country where most people speak good English (the nordic countries come to mind if you can stand the cold and the darkness in winter).

    Having someone to discuss with really helps with motivation, as does exchange. If you decide to continue, do try to get a postdoc in an institute with international contacts and a fair number of external visitors. This will also help you starting collaborations with new people.

    Regarding teaching, I was at a pure research institute during my postdocs and I missed teaching. However, if you get a postdoc in a university, it is probable that you might have a chance to take on teaching duties even if you are not required to. For example, both of the postdocs in my group at present have chosen to teach in order to get experience. At least in Sweden this is possible without knowing Swedish as the second cycle (Master level) courses are generally taught in English in order to attract more exchange students.

    This is, unfortunately, something I cannot have a well founded opinion on. It does also occur in theoretical physics, but I doubt it is to the same extent. I will say as much as that I have thrown away projects after working on them for several months and that is never fun. On the other hand, if you knew the answer before starting, then it would not be research.

    My experience is that most postdocs go through similar thoughts and often worry about whether they are good enough to get a permanent position. This is to some extent understandable given the number of available tenure or tenure track positions. All I am saying is that it is not uncommon to have thoughts along those lines.
  5. Oct 13, 2014 #4
    My situation is similar. I finished a PhD in pure math about a year ago, and now I am just tutoring a bit and looking for jobs. It's pretty rough, I think. There was some thread here about how math people in the UK can get programming jobs and the CS majors don't have good employment prospects. But you would probably need some programming background.

    In my case, though, I still have no publications, even now, so I wasn't even able to get off the ground in terms of my research career, although my thesis could generate maybe 1-2 papers, if I was so inclined. My teaching was also a disaster. So, I don't have any choice in the matter (other than being an adjunct, most likely), but that's okay because it is what I would choose anyway, except that it's a very difficult transition to make to go from pure math to somewhere in industry. I love classical mathematics, but I have no real enthusiasm for modern mathematics, for the most part, as I found out the hard way, so that is fine with me. Math is just going to be a hobby for me. Turning it into a job takes all the fun out of it, anyway. The situation you find yourself in shows how unpleasant the academic system really is. To my mind, if you're going to do something that difficult, you have to be allowed to fail. All the pressure to publish is just ridiculous and counter-productive.

    If you want a story in the opposite direction, my father is a professor of electrical engineering, in a fairly mathematical area. He also had no publications, I believe, and got a couple postdocs. Still very poor publication record. Then, he lucked out and a department took a chance and gave him a tenure track position. He now has a great publication record. Over 100 publications, with maybe just short of 1/5 of those being in top journals. These days someone like that wouldn't be given a chance. They'd be kicked out in a flash. So, you can get through a rough spot. My father tried to convince me to keep trying as well, given his experiences. He says that's just how it is at first. After a while, it's still hard, but not as bad, once you have really mastered your field. I couldn't make it through that kind of bottle neck. The PhD already drove me half insane, and if I did a couple more postdocs, I think I would be quite a bit more likely to end up in a mental institution than in a tenure track position, even ignoring the fact that these days, without publications, I probably can't get a postdoc in the first place.

    You should look at some job postings to see what's out there. It will probably be terrifying because there won't be very many that you'll fit into. I'm not sure what it's like in the UK, though. If you don't want to throw away your math, what you could end up having to do is get another degree in something like engineering. You can try to become a quant. I don't think it's that easy to break into it, though. You probably would have to work a bit on programming.
  6. Oct 14, 2014 #5
    Thanks to each of you for your replies - it's very useful to hear your thoughts and experiences.

    If/when I decide to leave academia I guess employable skills will become my top priority - particularly computer programming. My contract lasts until May so I have some time... However I don't feel I could do serious research outside academia and it would be difficult to get back on the research path if I left academia. If I knew for sure that I couldn't get a tenure track position then it would be easy for me to decide to quit but at this stage I have decent publications and had well known supervisors so it's not so easy. Perhaps if I recovered my motivation, became mentally stronger and was prepared to move countries/continents several times then I might make it but it's a huge and difficult gamble.

    It's useful to hear you and other people had the same thoughts. At the moment I'm in Italy and the use of English in the country and universities is much lower than what I expected (of course this is my problem, not theirs). The idea of moving within the country is a good one, especially since my Italian has improved, but the universities here seem to consist of 90-90% Italians with few foreigners and almost all job advertisements are written in Italian so I'd still probably still be isolated. I guess if I continue it would have to be in a place where there are plenty of English speakers and I am able to teach. The idea that you were able to go back to Stockholm is encouraging - there is a very large and active group at my old university in the UK but it is definitely still too soon for me to return there (I did my undergraduate and phd in the same university and was very happy there).

    Sorry to hear that you are also having problems! I think several of my friends from my phd, who didn't continue with academia, were able to get jobs in the UK doing programming. However you are definitely right in that there are very few positions advertising for "phd mathematicians". For most of the non academic positions I see I would have to take time to learn several additional skills but I definitely don't won't study for another degree. I was contacted by a few quantitative finance headhunters on linkedin but that's obviously very competitive and it requires a lot of programming / finance knowledge. Personally I'm motivated by a sense of achievement/achievement and your story about your father shows how unpredictable research is in this regard; this is one of the things I find most difficult - in the past I had an excellent phd supervisor who didn't let me get too stressed out... Good luck with your job hunting!

    Sorry if my post is a collection of random thoughts but I'm still confused and it's quite late here. Soon my colleague will be back in the office and I will go to a conference so hopefully I will have a bit more perspective after that!
  7. Oct 14, 2014 #6
    If you don't want another degree, programming is a good option, since people in that field tend to worry less about degrees. That's what I'm trying to do now. Getting another degree is not a route I would like very much either, so I wouldn't blame you, but it might be the easiest way to get a job that involves more math, and at least here in the US, it's much harder to get internships if you are not a student, which can be a good way to get your foot in the door.
  8. Oct 15, 2014 #7


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    Just to add to what Orodruin has already said. If you decide to move to another country and you are worried about the language barrier then try to find a position in one of the many countries where most people speak English reasonably well. Italy is probably one of the worst places in Europe in that respect and I suspect just about any other country would be easier (expect perhaps France) . I know plenty of people who have lived in e.g. the Nordic countries for many years and who barely speak the language at all but despite that have "normal" social lives.
  9. Oct 16, 2014 #8
    Thanks for the thoughts! I spoke to another non-Italian postdoc here (actually the only one I know) and he also feels quite isolated here but has collaborators and family in London and there are many flights there... I had some minor health problems this year which is probably another reason why I am so negative. At the moment I think I will apply for any interesting positions in the UK and, if I don't get one, focus on improving my computer programming skills so I can move out of academia.
  10. Oct 16, 2014 #9


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    I meant to send this several days ago but apparently never hit send...

    Just an observation: If your Italian is improving, you might also consider Spain. Italian and Spanish are fairly similar languages and from what I gather from my Spanish and Italian colleagues, they generally understand each other pretty well if they speak their respective languages. On the other hand, Spain is still in heavy economic crisis and the chances to find something there may be slim.
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