I hope that the following question is suitable for MO. There have been several others in a similar vein, including this one about moving from maths into industry, this one about careers advice for mathematicians and this about returning to graduate school after a couple of years in industry (among others). My situation is a bit different from those discussed in the referenced questions, as I am interested in moving from an already well-established career into academia.

I'll give a bit of background about myself. Naturally, this will be rather personal to my situation but, maybe, the general question could also be of interest to others.

I already have a PhD in maths from a top university and, now, have quite a successful and well paid career in industry. The reason for moving in the first place was complicated and influenced by several factors. Money was certainly one of them, as I was virtually skint at the time, but the main reason was that I was just not happy with my lifestyle at the time and was wanting a complete change. This was over ten years ago. However, after family, my main interest in life is maths. While it was fun initially to work in a highly technical field in industry, over the past few years I have found myself getting bored. Throughout my time working, I have been keeping up my interest in maths, mainly by reading books and papers, but also by writing a small number of papers independently. I had a couple published, and a couple more accepted but, between family life and work, have not had time to pursue this further. More recently, I have started writing a blog, and have been contributing to this site. I would like to say that I have been attending lectures or seminars at one of the top universities around here, as it is something that I have always been intending to do, but have had very little time to actually organize doing.

My question then, is what are the options for moving back into academia after spending a significant time in industry? Also, as time is moving on, I think that moving back into academia at the point where I left off - having just completed a PhD - would not be ideal. I certainly feel ready to contribute to the mathematical community at the highest level.

One answer, I suppose, is simply to speak to the people I worked with during my PhD. That is not so simple though. The people I worked most closely with have since moved on (either into industry themselves, or retired) and I am not so sure about suddenly contacting people who I never worked very closely with after such a large gap. That is certainly something I am considering, but would first like to get some opinions from the wider mathematical community. I am based in the UK, although any opinions based on experience elsewhere could also be valuable.

Finally. I have been quite active on this website under my real name. However, I do not think it is wise to openly talk on the internet about possibly leaving my current career, so am posting this question anonymously.

  • 15
    $\begingroup$ Good luck! I don't really know what the question you're asking is. I don't know of any secret strategy for getting back into academia. There's no advice I can give that's not just common sense. Apply for lots of jobs. Use your connections and contact people. Even the people who have moved on may be able to help. The strategy I used was: prove a great mathematical result, but that's not very useful advice. $\endgroup$
    – Peter Shor
    Nov 9, 2010 at 13:12
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ One of my friends recently got a tenure-track job in mathematics after being out of mathematics for 3 years. If his case is an example to work from, what he did was he continued to publish papers and attend the occasional conference, visiting and collaborating with people around the world even though he had a full-time job at a hedge fund. $\endgroup$ Nov 9, 2010 at 14:47
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ I am a UK academic; Google will find my email address. If you want to send me more details of your interests and publications then I will let you know what I think. I am a pure mathematician but my wife has been backwards and forwards several times between industry and academic engineering so I know a little bit about that as well. $\endgroup$ Nov 9, 2010 at 15:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It sounds like the ideal situation for you would be as an adjunct professor in an academic department -- applied maths is the obvious choice, but I feel like something more directly related to your industrial career would be better, whatever that is. Industrial engineering and optimization, software engineering, finance, mining, whatever it is. Unfortunately I have no idea to go about getting an adjunct position. $\endgroup$ Nov 9, 2010 at 17:05
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Many thanks for your comments so far - there have already been some very interesting and useful comments. I apologize for not responding immediately. I had to go away and gain a bit of reputation to even post a comment (which was a bit of fun). I'll read through and think about the current responses some more... $\endgroup$
    – Anonymous
    Nov 9, 2010 at 20:30

5 Answers 5


Nobody seems to have mentioned much about teaching--- perhaps because the original question itself makes no mention of teaching having anything to do with the desire to return to academia. This is a kind of elephant in the room.

I should admit: I'm on the academic side, I have not personally tried to make this kind of transition, and I have never been in a position to evaluate somebody making this kind of transition. But it seems to me that if you're reasonably current with your research area, and publishing papers, and meeting people (as suggested elsewhere), your biggest obstacle may be teaching.

Presumably you have no teaching experience over the last n years, and depending on your grad school experience, you may not have had much then (or it may have been a different sort from what professors do). This may matter. I don't know how to begin building a teaching history, while working a full-time job.

You may need to overcome the suspicion that will find teaching low-level service courses boring for the same reasons you find your current job in industry boring. Imagine the skeptic on the search committee who asks, rhetorically, "Who wouldn't be an academic if it were all just learning, writing papers, and talking to enthusiastic people with the same interests?"

Even with stellar references and a personal connection or three in the department, someone will ask: can you teach? Do you want to? What's the answer, and how do you convey it on your CV?

I don't have specific advice in this area, because it depends on where you want to work, and your own background. If it is possible to do pedagogical things in your current job, or service/outreach to non-specialists or students, perhaps that would help. Maybe actual teaching (on a per-course basis, not as tenure-track faculty) or volunteering would help. My feeling is that you need to do something to address these issues head-on, to confront both any genuine gaps in your CV, and the biases and prejudices you may face simply because you are changing careers.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ On the other hand, an institution that is very committed to teaching may particularly appreciate the "real world" skills that our OP may bring to the table; it might even result in a course load consisting of fewer boring courses and more emphasis on specialized one. $\endgroup$ Nov 10, 2010 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ My teaching experience is restricted to tutorials given while I was a PhD student. Something I very much enjoyed, although that involved supervising small groups of well motivated students. I'll give your comments more thought. $\endgroup$
    – Anonymous
    Nov 11, 2010 at 1:13

The answer will depend significantly on the country you're in, and of course with the current economic situation, need I mention that this is not the best time to jump ship? Overall, I think it would be difficult to get the kind of research position you may have had after the PhD, and a lot easier to leverage your industry experience into a position related to your current field (which I realize may not be quite what you're looking for). That's even assuming that the university system you're thinking about even cares about industry and giving students job skills that are current, which is where your mileage may vary tremendously, especially from country to country.

Oh, and BTW I doubt that your MO activity will be all that useful in your transition. Still, thanks for contributing!

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Thanks. Right now is probably not an ideal time to jump ship, although who knows when will be a good time, or how old I will be when the good time does eventually arrive? Leveraging my industry experience (in finance) is probably what I'll have to do if I do decide on a career change. $\endgroup$
    – Anonymous
    Nov 9, 2010 at 21:12
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ And no, I realize that my MO activity is not directly useful to this end. Still, it gives me a chance to read and discuss interesting problems with professional mathematicians which is fun and, indirectly, can only be good. And it gives me a place to ask this question! $\endgroup$
    – Anonymous
    Nov 9, 2010 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ Anonymous: The remark about MO was not meant as a dig. I find it wonderful that this site can bring people who have different professional backgrounds (see my question on real applied math). I should also mention that in the school where I work, quite a few of my colleagues across all disciplines have professional backgrounds, but that's because we are very teaching-oriented. A more research-focused schools would have different priorities (i.e. can you bring in grant money), and some such schools have a harder time maintaining the types of programs that have a more professional focus. $\endgroup$ Nov 9, 2010 at 22:17

I hope I am not being presumptuous here, but I thought I'd cast my inexperienced, untempered opinion.

Maybe applied math, scientific computing, computational science, computer science, financial math, or statistics departments might be more flexible? I believe the transition will be difficult, but it also very strongly depends on what kind of mathematics you are into; also relevant here would be for example what type of industrial experience do you have, a research lab, or a more applied place, and so on.

On a more pragmatic note, maybe you could first try to obtain a "visiting professor" or "research visitor" position at some preferred university, to see if you really like academia --- so that you save yourself unpleasant surprises because the ground reality might differ a lot from what you might imagine?

Good luck.


Since no one else has mentioned it, I think the best thing to do is meet people. If it's possible, go to conferences or visit departments (might it be possible to get an unpaid leave without quitting your job?) and meet people. You're going to both want personal contacts in departments where you might like a job, and you'll need people to write you letters of recommendation. Assuming you don't act extremely offensive in person or embarrass yourself, this can only be for the good.

  • $\begingroup$ I'd add: do joint work (although it practically follows, logically, from "meet people," it is worth emphasizing). Successful and ongoing collaborations with active mathematicians would go a longer way at most places, I think, than the same number of solo papers. Or even twice as many. Although it occurs to me: for many of the same reasons that it is unwise to talk publically about leaving one's career, it may be unwise to begin doing too much mathematician stuff without an actual job offer. Presumably the OP knows what risks there are (if any) in their specific situation. Good luck! $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Nov 10, 2010 at 7:24
  • $\begingroup$ Seems like good advice, and something I've been meaning to do for some time. Recently, work and family commitments have been very demanding so I haven't got round to attending conferences, etc. Sounds like this should be my next step (although unpaid leave is unlikely). Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – Anonymous
    Nov 11, 2010 at 1:02

Perhaps an option is to first become a (part-time?) tutor at an Oxford or Cambridge University college (provided these are not too far away); some of the colleges may indeed appreciate your industry experience.

There might be similar positions at other English universities, of course.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.