I'm sure I'm not the only Ph.D. mathematician on MO in serious need of career advice. I'm sure there will be other readers in similar situations, who will find any good advice very helpful. Can anyone suggest anything? Honest, serious answers only please.

Note that the obvious advice, i.e. do lots of great research, write loads of papers, make friends with lots of professors at conferences and seminars, apply to many jobs, learn loads of new topics, get a brain upgrade, etc. etc. etc. is already known to me and most other people on MO.

Background motivation

Suppose someone (who shall remain anonymous, but let's call him Dr.H for the sake of argument) is in the following position:

Dr.H has a Ph.D. in Pure Mathematics from a good English university.

Dr.H's Ph.D., whilst perfectly respectable from the mathematician's viewpoint, is not known to be of any use for industrial research or non-university jobs of any kind.

Dr.H has several years' postdoc/lecturing experience, but only at universities with very low academic reputations, which has now ended.

Dr.H has several published papers in good journals; but unfortunately, less than other people of his age in his area. He can do good work, but too slowly.

Dr.H currently has a non-university, non-research job teaching in a school, and cannot easily attend conferences, seminars, university libraries, etc. etc., and consequently Dr.H now has even less time for research than before.

Most advertised mathematical jobs (e.g. www.math-jobs.com, www.jobs.ac.uk), both academic and non-academic, demand teaching experience or other skills which Dr.H does not possess, and does not know how to acquire.

SUMMARY: Dr.H's research record is quite good, but it seems not good enough for Dr.H to get a university job involving research. However, Dr.H's teaching experience also seems not to be good enough to get a purely teaching university job. So Dr.H appears to be in a very tricky situation!

Question: what should Dr.H do?

Does Dr.H have any reasonable chance of continuing his academic career? If so, how? (Apart from the obvious "apply for more jobs, publish more papers").

Should he apply to advertised university jobs, even though he does not satisfy the requirements? Isn't this simply a waste of time?

Or should Dr.H abandon the universities entirely and seek non-university jobs?

Does Dr.H have any real advantage over new B.Sc. Mathematics graduates when applying for non-university jobs of relatively low mathematical content? If so, how should he find such jobs, what exactly are these advantages, and how should he make full use of them?

Important note: in your answers, please state which country you are referring to, since this can make a big difference!

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    $\begingroup$ It sounds like Dr. H. wants an academic job, but how much? Would he for instance be willing to relocate to a small college in a small town far away from a big city? Would he be willing to spend six months to a year not gainfully employed but traveling and visiting math departments in an intense period of partly collaborative research? Perhaps most importantly, what are his contacts like in the academic community? Is there anyone who would be inclined to pull a few strings for him? Anyone who has strings to pull? $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Jul 20 '10 at 0:54
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    $\begingroup$ I'm a bit confused about what sort of teaching experience Dr. H doesn't have. Is this a english vs. american issue? Like when you say "lecturing" experience you mean experience as a "lecturer" that didn't involve actual you know lecturing... $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Jul 20 '10 at 1:12
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks. To answer Pete Clark: "Dr.H" is willing to consider any locations (mostly) free from crazy psychopaths, murderous criminals and cannibals (note: this is intended to be humourous), but does not have sufficient financial resources to spend several months travelling in the US or elsewhere, searching for employment (but he would be very happy to do this if he could afford it). $\endgroup$ – Zen Harper Jul 20 '10 at 2:17
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    $\begingroup$ To answer alex and Noah Snyder: "Dr.H" has lectured M.Sc./Ph.D. courses to small classes (20 students or less), a few tutorials to very small groups (10 students or less), but no big "core" teaching courses like classes of 200 Calculus students. "Dr.H" is also not US-based and has almost no contacts in the US, unfortunately. $\endgroup$ – Zen Harper Jul 20 '10 at 2:20
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    $\begingroup$ Alex, I'm not sure what you are describing is right. I think the teaching that a graduate student does varies wildly by institution (I know of a number of schools where it is very common for students to teach classes, I taught something like 5 different classes as a graduate student at the University of Washington). $\endgroup$ – Karl Schwede Jul 20 '10 at 3:23

14 Answers 14


I am going to give a non-serious answer, but there is a serious point behind. Lots of current and former mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists excelled in other fields. Here is my top 10 list:

1) You can change your name and start selling puzzles.

2) You can drop out and start a company (this or that, whatever).

3) You can start a hugely successful hedge fund which will in turn employ over a hundred other Ph.D's.

4) You can write a popular book explaining why people can't count.

5) You can write a comic book, a very good one.

6) You can write three volumes of a proposed seven volume monograph, get upset over its print quality, invent a new way, write a manual on it, and sell these and other books in dozens of languages.

7) You can design a bomb.

8) Why stop on a bomb? You can move to NJ and design a computer.

9) You can start a company selling in bulk a number-theoretic algorithm accessible to undergraduates.

10) In the good old days you could become French Minister of the Interior, but it helps to be friends with an Emperor.

UPDATE: while writing I discarded a few other career choices which I felt were somehow "less relevant", such as Iraqi Oil Minister, Russian oligarch, or even World Scrabble Champion.

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    $\begingroup$ You can do a lot better than minister of the interior: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Painlev%C3%A9 $\endgroup$ – thel Jul 20 '10 at 3:26
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    $\begingroup$ Hmmm... Didn't most (if not all) of those establish themselves in academia first and have their little fun afterwards? In other words, getting a university job was too easy for them, not too hard. $\endgroup$ – fedja Jul 20 '10 at 3:40
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    $\begingroup$ You could record electronic music, win the Polaris Music Prize, and break the US Billboard 100: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caribou_(musician) $\endgroup$ – Tom Church Jul 20 '10 at 4:40
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    $\begingroup$ For #7 I was expecting a link to the Unabomber... $\endgroup$ – KConrad Jul 20 '10 at 5:00
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    $\begingroup$ Josh, you are amazing! None of the FRENCH mathematicians I talked to knew that Painlevé had been Prime Minister (nor that Emile Borel had been Député and Ministre de la Marine : MP and Minister for Maritime Affairs). I usually mention these things in order to make the point that the intellectual quality of French governance is not necessarily a strictly increasing function of time (but Heaven forbid I pollute our cherished site with French politics). One could also mention Joseph Fourier, who was a "Préfet" under Napoléon: something like a Governor in the US. $\endgroup$ – Georges Elencwajg Jul 20 '10 at 8:27

Tell Dr.H to try to start with a short term visiting position (visiting instructor/honorary fellow/etc.) at some "reasonably good" (whatever that means) university. These are much easier to get than regular faculty ones (In many cases all you need is to know somebody who has a grant and is interested in collaborating with you. Such positions do not go through the formal hiring process and can, in fact, be offered by any faculty member: all one would really need is the chairman's approval and some source of money (say, a grant or a startup supported by some small contribution from the department if teaching is also involved). I invited quite a few people this way myself). That won't bring Dr.H high salary or job security but it may give him some extra time in the academic setting. What he makes of that time depends entirely on him. Of course, some "exit strategy" is a must for the case it doesn't work out. I wouldn't advise taking too much risk in the current economic situation with unemployment rates hovering over 10%.

@Greg The advertised level of seniority is not really negotiable and that has nothing to do with the department politics, it is just a legal issue. What you can negotiate though is the early consideration for promotion.

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    $\begingroup$ +1, especially the bit about finding someone with a grant that you can collaborate with: that's the sort of thing I had in mind in the part of my comment about professional contacts. $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Jul 20 '10 at 2:56
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    $\begingroup$ An obvious bit that should perhaps be made more explicit: assuming that Dr.H has British citizenship, he should extend his job search to all of European Union/EEA. This will considerably increase his chances of getting a postdoc in a reasonable place and then move on to something better. $\endgroup$ – mathphysicist Jul 20 '10 at 6:40

Based on what I read, I would recommend that Dr. H seek a career outside academia. I'd advise Dr. H to seek out, via friends and acquaintances, other math Ph.D.'s who have successfully found careers that they are happy with and learn about their jobs, as well as how they managed to get them. There are not a few companies who have found math Ph.D.'s worth hiring, but you do want to walk into the interview sounding knowledgeable and motivated (i.e. with a positive and confident attitude), even if you don't have much experience. So you might want to devote some time to learning some additional stuff either on your own or in courses. Finance is a popular choice, but there are many others available.

Of course, if Dr. H really, really wants to do academic research and teaching, then I'd advise the greatest possible flexibility in terms of the location, quality, and type of academic institution.

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    $\begingroup$ By "not a few" you mean "more than a few", right? (I'm saying this because this idiom gave me trouble and English is my native language.) $\endgroup$ – Michael Lugo Jul 20 '10 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I mean "more than a few". Thanks for asking for clarification. I should avoid obscure idioms like this. $\endgroup$ – Deane Yang Jul 20 '10 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ One way to begin a career outside academia in the USA is to take actuarial exams. The first couple of exams don't require much more than a background in undergraduate mathematics and statistics. Then they get more specialized and harder. It used to be said that with five under your belt, you could get a job in an insurance company, but I am not sure whether that holds any longer. Actuaries historically had very safe and fairly well paid jobs. People need insurance in good times and bad. How one gets into actuarial work in continental Europe or the UK I don't know. $\endgroup$ – engelbrekt Jul 20 '10 at 16:28
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    $\begingroup$ The suggestion of an actuarial career is a good one. $\endgroup$ – Deane Yang Jul 20 '10 at 17:53
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    $\begingroup$ I think it would be harder for a mathematician to get actuarial work in Europe. Mathematicians will have a harder time getting hired for this type of work in "continental" Europe because of the priority given to Business School/Ecole de Commerce graduates which already have a strong background in undergraduate math/probability which they acquired in classes prepa etc.Sometimes the requirement of being a graduate from an "Ecole de Commerce" is mandatory (this does not actually apply to the U.K, I think the situation in the U.K might be closer to the situation in the U.S) $\endgroup$ – 16278263789 Jul 20 '10 at 20:49

One answer is that it is certainly not always a waste of time to apply for a job even if you don't think that you fit the ad. It's easy to just keep copying your application, even trivial in MathJobs. Moreover, you should take the details of ads with a grain of salt. The semantics of research areas are often based on internal department politics. Who knows what they really mean if they say that they want to hire in "mathematical physics" or "geometry", etc. Even the advertised level of seniority is sometimes negotiable not an obstruction, because the department can consider workarounds such as early promotion. (Corrected at fedja's suggestion; I didn't mean that it was "negotiable" in the direct sense.)

Another answer is that, for the sake of your sanity, you should have a "Plan B" if you want a tenure-track research job in mathematics. It is not so difficult to major in mathematics, but after that the available positions from graduate school, to postdocs, to tenure-track research positions are a severe pyramid at every stage. Then, two-body problems can make things even more difficult. The two basic choices for a Plan B are industry and teaching, and you have to decide which one is more livable for you.

In my case, it would have been industry. It is true that it takes new skills to have a career in industry, almost always involving computer programming, and sometimes also statistics and applied math. But it is not necessarily all that formidable. If you can get past the personnel office, many managers realize that mathematicians are fairly adaptable to new skills.

Likewise, teaching is not necessarily all that limiting; many people with teaching positions find ways to have good access to the research community. A few even get good research positions at a later stage. But if "Dr. H" is not at peace with this type of "Plan B", then maybe he should consider the other type.

For both answers, my experience is in the United States. That said, an important answer for all countries is to expand your geographical range as much as possible. Going by the obvious statistical calculation, it can make a huge difference. When my wife and I were on the job market, we applied all over the US. Although we're happy where we are, we could have given more consideration to the rest of the English-speaking world, certainly Canada but also even places like Singapore.

Also, since the question seemed to steer away from it, I didn't say anything above about the mechanics of "obvious" methods. However, here is one thought that may not be so obvious. There are more effective and less effective methods for getting visibility as a research mathematician, and for that purpose the Web is a new world. It makes a big difference if someone on the search committee knows your name before they see your application. Of course, it's obvious to just try to "be visible" by writing papers, giving talks, and meeting people. What's not so obvious is that it can help a lot if you make effective but judicious use of new tools: A good home page, the arXiv, and now MathOverflow. Of course you shouldn't semi-spam the arXiv or MathOverflow --- that will lead to bad consequences. But if you use them properly, they can be more effective, and differently effective, than giving talks at this or that meeting. By contrast, e-mail during job season is one of the more obvious steps, and I have to say that that tactic is overused.

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    $\begingroup$ I would hate to contradict you, Greg, but do you know any examples when blindly applying to a bunch of schools by sending out a serial application without any consideration for the advertised job details led to success? If so, was the person a superstar or someone more in line with Dr H described in the question? I am asking because from conversations with more than a few people involved in hiring, I got a distinct impression that typical reactions to receiving a serial application vary from immediate discarding to mild annoyance (with nasty letters to the applicant in the worst cases) $\endgroup$ – Victor Protsak Jul 20 '10 at 2:50
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe I should not say that one should apply "blindly". However, (1) at least if it's a MathJobs ad, how upset can the search committee be with applicant #537 who does not fit the ad. Maybe for very narrowly worded ads it could make a difference. (2) Certainly I have seen examples in which a department interprets its ad loosely. As I said, the wording of the ad can be artificial or political. $\endgroup$ – Greg Kuperberg Jul 20 '10 at 3:10

This answer is related to fedja's. Many universities, at least in the U.S., hire various kinds of adjunct faculty to help with the departmental teaching load. (These positions are often called "visiting professorships", but I don't have in mind the kind of short-term research visiting collaboration that fedja discusses, but rather semester or year long positions, funded by the dept., not an individual, for the primary purpose of helping with the teaching needs of the dept. At least at my university, these are not offered by individuals; very likely the details of how they are offered differs from one dept. to another.) At my university, and I would imagine at others, the basis for the offering of these positions is quality of teaching.

Obtaining such a position, and doing well at it (so that one gets subsequent strong teaching recommendations) can be a foot in the door to a teaching-based academic position.

Also, at my university (and I know we are not unique in this, although perhaps uncommon) there are no math classes taught in lectures of 200; everything is taught in classes of around 30 or fewer students. So what matters is the quality of the teaching recommendation in relation to teaching such classes. Speaking more generally (and so less authoritatively), I would imagine that for teaching recommendations in general, the quality and strength of the recommendation is important (the applicant should have a record of good lecturing skills, sincere relationships with students, etc.) rather than the precise nature of the previous teaching experience. (After all, some new Ph.D.s will be hired to positions in which they might have to give 200 person lectures, but even if they have had prior teaching experience as a grad student, it is less likely that they will have given lectures to a class of 200.)

  • $\begingroup$ I can testify that this is a viable method of getting an academic job, at least for those already in the US. The details, naturally, vary, and some hiring may be done very late based on the needs. $\endgroup$ – Victor Protsak Jul 20 '10 at 8:50
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    $\begingroup$ Here is one apecific addendum. I Know that adjuncts programmes are often viewed negatively, and perhaps with good reason. But during the years I was at the University of Arizona, I had the impression it was quite well run there. I'm sure there were some things to complain about, but the adjuncts appeared to me valued members of the department and I think many managed to go on to decent teaching careers. Interested people could write to a mathematician there to ask about such opportunities. $\endgroup$ – Minhyong Kim Jul 20 '10 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ On the page math.arizona.edu/employment several opportunities are listed, including the ati post-doc programme, which could be quite interesting. $\endgroup$ – Minhyong Kim Jul 20 '10 at 10:04
  • $\begingroup$ The actual job security and personal/professional respect given adjuncts varies wildly. To my chagrin, in MN there's no job security beyond a given semester, in contrast to Texas A-and-M, where I was told that adjuncts have on-going positions. $\endgroup$ – paul garrett Oct 21 '13 at 23:53

I am more or less in the same situation as you are. After careful consideration I decided that I should abandon academia for good. Because as far as I have seen your career in academia is very dependent on where you start out. If you do a postdoc in University of Nowhere the chances of getting a decent job after that will be even lower than it is now. There is a temptation to think that by hard work you can compensate for the bad start in your career, resist that temptation.

As it stands now I will be applying for finance jobs later in summer. Consider applying to big traditional banks (J P Morgan, Chase Manhattan, Wells Fargo, ...) investment banks (Goldman-Sachs, Morgan Stanley) and big hedge funds (Renaissance Technologies, D E Shaw, Citadel). If you want more info about 2.5 years ago there was a small article in Notices on the transition from academia (specifically math) to finance. The author had a Ph.D. in number theory and went on working for D E Shaw (PDF): http://www.ams.org/notices/200806/tx080600700p.pdf

Also don't worry about the state of financial firms. They have fully recovered from the effects of the great recession of 2007-2009: http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2011/03/chart-day-finance-back

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    $\begingroup$ I am not bitter, just realistic. If you write one fantastic paper lots of things might happen. But among graduating PhDs who can't get a postdoc or teaching job how many of them get to write that career changing paper? Lets look at the downsides as well: one might do 3 postdocs in 3 different cities over 8 years. What are the odds of having a stable relationship in those years? What if you hate the cities you have to spend 8 years of your life in? Have you ever looked at the financial loss? By the end of it you will be in your mid 30s making what a BSc in CS makes in his mid 20s. $\endgroup$ – Najdorf Mar 30 '11 at 6:02
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    $\begingroup$ Pete it seems to me that you are very optimistic. The chance of writing a fantastic paper out of the blue is very small. For instance, if you look at say your first 5 papers do you feel they are a reasonable sample of the rest of your papers? $\endgroup$ – Yiftach Barnea Mar 30 '11 at 6:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Pete: Looking at your CV I am not surprised: PhD from Harvard (2003) then assistant prof in UGA at the age of 30 (2006). My point is that your case is very exceptional. Right now you are 35 with a stable job and a decent wage doing what you love. There are people your age for whom another 2-year postdoc that pays 40K/yr is a best case scenario. The median age of getting a PhD in math is 30.3 (2003), I don't have data on total time spent as postdocs before getting a faculty position but I believe it is higher than 3. And these stats tend to be worse among people that the OP describes. $\endgroup$ – Najdorf Mar 30 '11 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Najdorf: faced with many things to respond to in your comments, I will content myself to point out that I am 34, not 35. I agree that it's good to be clearheaded about the possibilities for the future, and at every stage of one's career it would be good to reflect on whether it's worthwhile to continue. At every stage, one should ask: "Do I still love math to the exclusion of lots of other stuff?" The answer needs to be yes for an academic mathematical career to be worthwhile and satisfying. $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Mar 31 '11 at 3:03
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    $\begingroup$ Pete, I didn't mean to imply anything about you. I didn't even looked at your list of publication. What I meant to say is that in most cases you can see the quality of a mathematician's work within the first few publications. So a fantastic paper is not likely to come if you didn't have very good papers before. $\endgroup$ – Yiftach Barnea Mar 31 '11 at 11:40

I was in a similar position. Short answer get some skills the market requires.

A PHD in maths from a decent university, you should waltz into quite a few jobs. I would try science areas, Cambridge, Oxford, London, and maybe the field of bioinformatics (lots of statistics obviously, and lots of recruiters).

Get a decent recruitment agent. Practice coding.

Have you tried contracting/consulting in London, do you know matlab ?

I have assumed yr in the UK (apologies if not). There are positions out there for good candidates.


Do you think you have "three year's research experience outside of the EU"? If so, you could look at a Marie Curie International Reintegration Grants: http://cordis.europa.eu/fp7/mariecurieactions/irg_en.html Fortunately the deadline is September; you'd need to find somewhere in the EU to support your application (such a grant doesn't bring overheads, so people won't be falling over themselves to host you, but it does pay salary etc.)

Marie Curie grants are competitive, but I think are a little less competitive than some national based grants.

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    $\begingroup$ I think that a Marie Curie IEF might also be appropriate. If I remember correctly, these give some degree of advantage weighting to people who are currently outside of research and trying to get back in. Again IIRC, while they are aimed at postdocs, the upper age limit is fairly generous at around 35. (The IEF doesn't require you to have had experience outside Europe.) $\endgroup$ – Ian Morris Jul 20 '10 at 14:33

I feel for Dr. H. It must be frustrating not to find an outlet for the passion that we mathematicians all possess in such large measures.

However, Dr. H need not lose hope. There are several areas outside of academia where there is enormous mathematical activity; I'd like to point Dr. H to two of these. The first is communication, particularly wireless communication. There is a tremendous amount of mathematics in this field, and importantly, a large number of unsolved problems of an intrinsically mathematical nature. Companies ranging from the very large (e.g., Nokia in Europe, Qualcomm in the US) to the very small (startups) would be very interested in hiring people with mathematical skills. It would take some preparation, but with advance research on what is needed and with commitment, it can be done. (Perhaps one can look for an internship while learning about the field.)

At the risk of appearing to put in a plug for one's own work (sorry!), I'd like to point Dr. H to a survey article I wrote on some mathematical problems in wireless communication, which he may find instructive: Division Algebras and Wireless Communication

The second area is "national security." (Disclaimer: I myself am very uncomfortable with this whole subculture, and would not go there unless there are very compelling and pressing reasons truly connected with security, but Dr. H may have a different world-view.) At least in the US, the national security apparatus appears to be a major locus of mathematics. Besides the head office ("NSA"), there are two think-tanks, one in Princeton and one in San Deigo, that hire large numbers of mathematicians, and, I am told, put them to work on quite interesting projects. Of course, no one on the outside really knows what goes on there (to quote one of those on the inside: "I could tell you, but then I would have to shoot you!"), but at least at these two think-tanks, they give you a basket of problems and ask you to work on whichever you like, and in addition, they do give you time to do your own mathematical research. The UK may have similar programs, perhaps Dr. H may want to explore.

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    $\begingroup$ The British entity which corresponds to NSA is GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters. In addition to this, the Heilbronn Institute in Bristol employs mathematicians to work on mathematics related to signals security. $\endgroup$ – Ian Morris Jul 20 '10 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ The think tanks in question are called "IDA-CCR". I forget what the abbreviation stands for. $\endgroup$ – Michael Lugo Jul 20 '10 at 23:33
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    $\begingroup$ Michael: Institute for Defense Analyses, Center for Communications Research. $\endgroup$ – KConrad Jul 25 '10 at 2:44

Maybe you should apply for a position at a university in a developing country.

In Brazil, at least, it is much easier to get a position (few candidates, usually not strong as in European universities). Maybe you should start with a postdoc (you can even have one scholarship from Brazilian government) and think about something next if you adapt yourself to the country. In this case, I think the first step would be contacting a local researcher in your area and discuss the possibilities.

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    $\begingroup$ Some years ago I saw this. One of my classmates spent 5 years at a university in Saudi Arabia. Faculty there were from all over the world ... he said his department chair was Russian, for example. With nothing to do during off hours except research, he did quite a bit of it. And after 5 years he returned to the US and got a reasonable position. $\endgroup$ – Gerald Edgar Jan 10 '14 at 14:18

I must preface this by saying that I am not a math PhD (though I am intent on becoming one), but I have met several from UC Berkeley and can say that getting a job in industry is not always dependent on specific field of study.

I know someone who was a topologist who got a job at an international bank, with, so far as I know, no training in the area. He did comment that, in his particular case, he felt a bit underused, but I mention this as an example.

At Berkeley they have a career opportunities for math PhDs, and I can attest to the fact that the most pure of mathematicians have taken jobs that are not at all pure in the sense of without application. There was, in fact, one set of three people who all went on to some form of software engineering.

It's not coming up at the moment on my browser but you might check


They may have posters from previous such sessions. You may be able to get in touch with some of the speakers I don't know, either by finding their email through the google or asking one of the people in urep.

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    $\begingroup$ Good comment. Many and maybe even most math Ph.D.'s I run into, who are working in the non-academic world, studied pure math. They all had to adapt, learning to work more heuristically and maybe learning skills like programming. What's worse is that I have never gotten the sense that in the financial industry applied math Ph.D.'s have any significant inherent advantage over pure math Ph.D.'s. Their knowledge of applied math is almost as useless as the pure math. $\endgroup$ – Deane Yang Jul 20 '10 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ I would conjecture that the "knowledge of applied math is almost as useless as pure math" is true in the same sense that you learn many ideas in applied math that you never use, and from personal experience, when you start coding it's a whole new ballgame unless you've been coding for a long time. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hoffman Jul 20 '10 at 17:28
  • $\begingroup$ math.berkeley.edu/~urep/career.html that's the correct site $\endgroup$ – Michael Hoffman Jul 20 '10 at 17:29

To add to many other good, informative answers and comments, I would reiterate a certain maybe-negative-sounding point, that one should not base future plans on one's own research results or other achievements becoming substantially different from what they have been in the past.

Thus, the "wonderful paper" will most likely not occur, if one has not had too many of these in the past, and "betting the farm" on its occurrence is just stupid, especially if people are depending on you.

This is a special case of predicting that the near future will strongly resemble the near past...

So far as I can tell, loosely based on actual facts, but certainly on substantial direct observation, the extra-academic job market for Ph.D.'d mathematicians is growing faster than the academic job market, which these days grows at most at the rate of population growth, to match undergrad enrollments. The "problem" in academe is that the recent-years' production of Ph.D.'s has grown at a rate exceeding market growth, by a huge factor... this horribly exacerbated by the economic mess of 2007-9, etc., ... but in any case observing that the academic job market (in the U.S. for sure) is over-saturated...

Some of this is a result of lifting mandatory retirement in the U.S., but/and mandatory retirement in Europe seems to motivate some mathematicians in Europe to emigrate to the U.S. to maintain an "active" role, ...

So, unfortunately, if one gets off to a bad start in some way in academe, things are so tight that it's hard to recover... whether or not one could recover "in principle". So, if practical matters dominate, looking at actuarial stuff in the U.S., or banking/finance, could be more practically viable than trying to get postdocs or temporary teaching positions and "stage a comeback". Sadly, perhaps.


Become EPSRC program manager and show your former advisor who the boss is :-))

Other opportunities involve

  • administrative or purely teaching jobs at universities,
  • teaching Maths in a private school, -
  • jobs in academic publishing,
  • research jobs in industry (IT, petrochemical, pharmaceutical),
  • spying (GSHC or KGB - have you heard of Anna Chapman?),
  • law conversion (solicitors specializing in IP),
  • other businesses (actuarial, treasury, accounting - requires a training contract).
  • $\begingroup$ Many options depend on how easy you are able to pick up necessary IT skills and it is never too late to become an accountant. Well, "never too late" is a figure of speech but I know people over 30 who did it successfully but not over 40... $\endgroup$ – Bugs Bunny Jul 20 '10 at 10:42

The academic job market, at least in the US, shows no signs of improving. I would suggest at least considering non-academic positions. In my experience, the exact field of the mathematics Ph.D. is less important than attitude and flexibility in considering alternatives.

For specific ideas, SIAM provides a couple of good websites:



Although these tend to focus on the US, I think comparable opportunities exist in the UK as well.

Bill Satzer


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