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Apparently I'm not mathematically talented enough to be hired as a postdoc. Is there any way to earn a living while continuing to do mathematics I love (commutative algebra)? I don't like teaching or working in financial market.

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closed as too broad by Najib Idrissi, Shaun, Davide Giraudo, ᴡᴏʀᴅs, Willie Wong Mar 20 '15 at 11:57

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I thought it was the opposite......people who get post-docs can't get a position as a professor right away? So getting a post-doc means you have talent? – Damien Oct 1 '11 at 14:42
@Damien, He is saying he cannot get a post-doc fellowship. – user12205 Oct 1 '11 at 16:22
@Mathemagician1234 : You have no idea what you are talking about. If anything, the academic job market is worse in Canada and Europe than in the US. – Adam Smith Oct 1 '11 at 20:20
@Adam I was simply going on what I told second hand. That's why I said "apparently". – Mathemagician1234 Oct 1 '11 at 20:35
@Mathemagician1234 The Canadian and US job markets are sufficiently intertwined that there is not a big level of difference between them. Europe is much harder and is often restricted to citizens of EU countries. – Zarrax Oct 1 '11 at 20:47
up vote 13 down vote accepted

If you want to get paid to do research on topics that you choose, then academia is your only choice.

If you are finishing a PhD and want a career in academia, you have two real choices : get a postdoc, or find a position at a teaching-oriented institution. If your track record is not strong enough to get a postdoc and you don't enjoy teaching, then neither of these are options. There are other things that people do which allow them to hang on for a short time (eg 1-year visiting positions or adjuncting), but these are exploitative and I strongly advise you not to waste your time on them. All you will end up doing is wasting a couple of years before entering the non-academic workforce.

There are really no jobs outside of academia which will allow you to continue doing your research. However, there are jobs in which you can continue doing math in some form or another. For instance, if you are a US citizen, then you can work for the NSA. They will tell you what to work on, but you will still be doing math. You could also work for a high-tech firm or in finance. You won't be proving theorems, but you will still be solving problems and using your mathematical skills.

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Of course you can be a mathematician. Robert Ammann, Marjorie Rice, and Pál Turán all did spectacular mathematics while a postal clerk, housewife, and Nazi prisoner of war.

Pál Turán was being worked to death under the harshest of conditions in Nazi germany. He worked out results in extremal graph theory in his mind while enduring forced labor. Whenever he could find a scrap of paper, he wrote down some of his results.

Being a mathematician is a state of mind.

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Well, there are many universities, and they're not equally competitive. Getting a postdoc position at, say, Michigan State will be easier than getting one at MIT, although it will still be very difficult!

Outside of academia it's rare to be paid for doing research in pure mathematics, particularly in abstract algebra. It seems to have fewer applications than most other fields - fewer even than number theory (applied to cryptography), combinatorics and graph theory (applied to algorithm design) or category theory (applied to programming language design).

One option would be to look at companies which do paid research in mathematics - one example is Think Tank Maths who are based in Scotland, but there must be similar companies in the US.

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If you don't get a post-doc does that mean that you are not as talented as someone who does get one? – Damien Oct 1 '11 at 14:52
Obviously not, although you'd hope there's a correlation. – Chris Taylor Oct 1 '11 at 14:53
Outside academia, there are few computer science jobs that requires research in graph theory, and even fewer in category theory. – user2468 Oct 1 '11 at 15:19
That's a valid point. – Chris Taylor Oct 1 '11 at 15:23
Think Tank work for the arms industry: Some people may be put off by this. – m_t_ Aug 26 '12 at 9:56

Yes, you can earn a living while doing commutative algebra. If you can get an undemanding job you may have a lot of free time to do math; this happened to me once. (You wouldn't be getting paid to do commutative algebra of course.) In some countries it's easier to pull this off this than others. Government jobs, and to a lesser extent government contractor jobs, have the reputation of having a lot of "downtime", but of course this varies widely from job to job. Maybe some other posters would know of other easy jobs where this can be done.

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I think this is a good suggestion. Perhaps instead of jumping into a different direction straight away, try one of those undemanding jobs for 2 years while you study, and then try again in 2 years. One can progress very far in two years, especially if you've made some contacts during your PhD for some guidance. – Ragib Zaman Oct 1 '11 at 15:47
I'm starting my own online business to support myself,partly so I can do exactly this. When catastrophe hits in life and the roads most traveled collapse,you have to start thinking outside the box. – Mathemagician1234 Oct 1 '11 at 20:13
It's great to do math as a hobby. However, you should be warned that it is basically impossible to get an academic position like this. I know two people who have done so, but they were pretty exceptional people (in particular, both of them had plenty of postdoc offers before they left academia -- they just wanted money). In other words, do it for fun, but don't do it with the assumption that you will be able to eventually move back into academic mathematics. You don't want to become like some of the odd characters who apply for every position my university advertises year after year... – Adam Smith Oct 1 '11 at 21:45

There was a theoretical physicist you may have heard of who once earned a living working in a patent office.

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This patent clerk didn't live in Germany early the last century and flunk out of mathematics in grade school,famously,did he? – Mathemagician1234 Oct 1 '11 at 20:14
@Mathemagician: No, he didn't. – Zev Chonoles Oct 1 '11 at 20:26
That clerk flunked out of university mathematics,that I know for certain. Showing that grades in the long run really don't mean a lot-they certainly aren't as significant as the preeminence of importance we place on them for undergraduates as barometers of talent implies. – Mathemagician1234 Oct 1 '11 at 20:38
@Mathemagician1234 : You don't "know it for certain" -- Einstein flunking math is an urban legend, as you would see if you read Zev's link. – Adam Smith Oct 1 '11 at 20:41
@Mathemagician: See also here. – Zev Chonoles Oct 3 '11 at 6:05

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