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What are the factors that make an application competitive for postdoc positions in pure mathematics at top tier universities (e.g. MIT, Harvard, Princeton, UC Berkeley, Stanford) in the US?

Clearly, one needs

  • Good recommendation letters
  • Interesting research articles
  • Some teaching/service experience.

In what proportion are the above needed? E.g. how many good articles, how many courses taught, etc. make an application competitive?

Is there any other important factor I haven't mentioned above?

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    Some additional factors that could play a role: (1) Lab/institute where you did your PhD; (2) Previous personal communication with the potential advisor; (3) Relevance of your work and skill set to the research interests of the potential advisor. In some fields, the advisor often has some project in mind and will be looking for the best person to pursue it. – Bitwise Nov 9 '14 at 16:38
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    Teaching experience is going to be irrelevant to a research postdoc. Some research postdocs give the candidate an opportunity to teach, but this is more about giving the postdoc a chance to gain teaching experience than it is about getting a good teacher. – Brian Borchers Nov 9 '14 at 17:20
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    @BrianBorchers: The asker is most interested in research postdocs in mathematics in the US. I think pretty much all such postdocs require teaching. I agree that the candidate's teaching experience will not be of primary importance, but I don't think it is completely irrelevant. – Nate Eldredge Nov 10 '14 at 6:19
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There's no simple answer. In particular, there are no quantitative standards for how many papers you need. For postdoctoral research positions in mathematics at top departments in the U.S., it works roughly like this. (For those from other fields, note that these positions are filled by departmental search committees, not individual professors, and they often involve some light teaching but are focused on research. The postdocs are independent researchers, not under the direction of any professor.)

  1. Teaching experience and the teaching statement don't matter much for these jobs. The department will want to know that you aren't a truly terrible teacher, so you won't raise tons of complaints or create a serious problem if you teach a class, but they won't really care whether you are an excellent teacher or just minimally adequate. (At best that would serve as a tie breaker between otherwise equally impressive candidates.) Just write something sensible and uncontroversial for your teaching statement and don't worry about it much.

  2. Quality matters much more than quantity for research papers, and trying to write more papers at the cost of writing worse papers is generally a bad trade-off. In practice, the typical number of papers varies a little by subfield. In some cases (such as theoretical CS), it would be very unusual to have only one paper, and it had better be amazing if you want to get a job that way; in some other subfields, having half a dozen papers might make people suspicious regarding their quality. To gauge how your application compares, you can try looking at the CVs of people in your area who have recently started the sort of job you'd like, but keep in mind that counting papers won't reveal their quality.

  3. Strong recommendation letters are absolutely crucial, and getting good letters is worth a lot of time and thought as well as preparation in advance, for example by talking with potential letter writers so they are familiar with you and your work long before you apply for jobs. Choose your recommenders carefully, and don't limit yourself only to people at your university.

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    Are there are any specific considerations for applicants applying from abroad, e.g. UK? What if the applicant doesn't have a position for 2014-2015? Is recent teaching experience necessary? – P.Windridge Nov 9 '14 at 18:42
  • Many adverts state that "recently" awarded PhDs are preferred. What counts as "recent" here? (These clarifications seem broadly relevant to the OPs question and don't justify their own separate question but apologies if this is not the appropriate place to ask). – P.Windridge Nov 10 '14 at 18:38
  • @P.Windridge: one year ago is almost certainly recent; ten years ago almost certainly is not. Someone who is finishing a postdoc that they took right after graduating is probably OK. Apart from that, someone who isn't a new graduate has to play it by ear. For an anecdotal example, I was hired in a competitive (top ten) postdoc which I applied to the fall after I graduated and started 15 months after graduating, so it is certainly not necessary to be a new graduate. – Oswald Veblen Nov 20 '14 at 1:33

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