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I'm finishing my PhD, and am about to take up a postdoctoral/visiting professor position this Fall. I do have the option of taking leave for six months to attend a Mathematics institute, which is having a thematic year in a field of my interest.

It's clear that I need to be as productive as possible in the next three years to get a tenure-track position. Since I do not have a very specific problem that I'd like to work on with people at the institute, I'm worried that I'd be wasting six months of my time at the institute. On the other hand, its always nice to meet new people, make connections and learn new math.

I'd like to hear the community's experiences so I can make an informed decision. Thanks!

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migrated from Feb 12 '14 at 15:52

This question came from our site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields.

I am migrating this to Academia. The career advice doesn't seem to be mathematics specific (thematic years also happen for institutes in other fields). – Willie Wong Feb 12 '14 at 15:52

I did precisely what you're discussing (attend a semester program at a mathematics institute immediately after graduating), and I'd strongly encourage it.

You say you're worried about wasting six months of time because you don't have a specific problem to work on with the people there. Unless the only work you're expecting to do in the next six months depends on someone who's at your postdoc institution, presumably you can expect to be at least as productive at the institute as at your postdoc.

But as a newly minted PhD, you want to be productive, but not just by continuing to work in the exact speciality you carve out in a thesis. So you don't want to only be working on the specific problems you're already thinking about right now: you exactly want to encounter other perspectives and other problems and get some work done on those.

Which is basically the point of a thematic program. Even if you aren't going in with a specific problem in mind, you may well discover one. Someone may want to work on something with you, or may mention something as an open problem, or it may just come up while talking to people. And even if it doesn't, and you end up doing most of your work by yourself in your office, you'll still get a lot of exposure to the broader state of your field.

Also, of course, you'll meet a lot of people, which may pay off down the road. Even if you don't end up working on something with the person in the next office while you're there, you'll hear a lot about they're specialty, and perhaps a year from now suddenly realize that they're the perfect person to ask about something.

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Thanks, that's what I'm leaning towards going, but a lot of people warned me that it might not be such a good idea. – user128063 Feb 12 '14 at 17:03
@user128063: That's very surprising to me---when I was in a similar position, everyone I talked to thought I should definitely go. If you're hearing that from people who know about the specifics, they may have a reason, and you might want to figure out from them what it is. – Henry Feb 12 '14 at 19:41
Well, I guess only one person warned me against going, and he happens to be my adviser. However, the general consensus seems to be "go! it'll be fun". This is what I'm going to do. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, Henry – user128063 Feb 13 '14 at 19:52

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