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I'm a mathematics PhD student looking for a postdoc position in the US, and I currently have two job offers:

  1. Offer A is from a top department, but while they have some good researchers working in my field, they're certainly not the top researchers in that field.

  2. Offer B is from a good but lesser ranked department, BUT they have one of the top researchers in my field (I would rank him among the top 3).

I tend to believe that I'll be equally productive in both places. Given this information, I have the following questions:

  1. Which is going to be more helpful when I'll start looking for a tenure-track position: Having that top department being mentioned on my CV or having a good reference letter from that top researcher in the lesser ranked department?

  2. Are there any other factors that I should consider when I choose between the offers?

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    Forget about rankings. Which of the researchers / departments do you believe will do the most to support you toward a successful research career? It isn't necessarily the one who is "top". – Nate Eldredge Jan 23 '17 at 19:18
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    @NateEldredge Could you expand to a response? I think this is essentially it. – Captain Emacs Jan 23 '17 at 19:26
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    When you go out on the job market, do you expect potential employers to be familiar enough with your particular field of research that they'll be aware that the researcher at institution B is tops in his field? It's rare in my experience for anyone on the search committee to be very familiar with the postdoc supervisors of our applicants. – Brian Borchers Jan 23 '17 at 21:51
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    @DanRomik: What you say is true, but when you say "assuming that you really will end up being equally productive in both places", I think you are imposing a hypothesis so strong as to make the statement almost vacuous :-) – Nate Eldredge Jan 23 '17 at 22:02
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    Worth noting: you do not know if you will have a good working relationship with the "top researcher" at Institution B. In that case, Inst. B has a single point of failure - if things don't work out, your secondary options may not be as pleasing. – AJK Jan 24 '17 at 4:50
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Would you be publishing with that top researcher? If yes, you will probably produce more cited publications in better journals with better impact. Nobody cares about departments when it comes to publications, if there is a person whose name they recognize. Otherwise it is all about department, because as an average researcher you do not deserve a personal slot in anyone's mind. You will be assumed to be the mean of that department.

The effect is actually really small because academia is meritocracy. After you have merits you will be evaluated based on those. If I feel busy or lazy, I may skip a paper that does not look good after a quick eyeing if I do not see any seals of quality, such as a researcher I recognize or a department that has the good stuff on average. Also the top journals matter. So the point is that when you are under a rigorous evaluation for your future positions in Tenure Track, they will read you papers and make the decisions based on those. But you will have a slightly better metrics on those papers if you publish with a top researcher or you are from a top department, you might have a small advantage because people are slightly more likely to read your paper. But if you make it to the top journals or produce high quality publications it does not really matter.

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There is no simple answer to your question.

Maybe you should try another approach and answer all the smaller questions before you answer the big one:

  1. What do you want to do afterwards/in future?
  2. What matters to you personally?

Next, you split those two up to even smaller questions:

  1. Do you want to specialize even more on this specific research topic (+1 for option B) or do you want to open up and see the bigger picture (+1 for option A)? Do you want to stay in academic research (+1 for option A because the name of the top researcher will be recognized in academia) or do you want to leave (+1 for option B because the department name will be recognized more outside academia)? You can come up with more questions like this, see e.g. the comment of @nate-eldredge. The Answer to "What counts more, the name of the scientist or the name of the institution?" is "It depends."
  2. What suits you best? Consider everything: the city, the size of the department, the people you already met there, the working atmosphere, the mission statement of the department or the institution, the distance to your family and friends, ... The list has no clear ending and each question has your own weighting.

You will end up with a long list and +X for option A and +Y for option B. That's your personal ranking.

  • OP already said they want to maximize the chances for getting a tenure track position, so it sounds like they are planning to stay in academia. And I disagree with +1 for the top researcher option for staying in academia - unless it's someone who is a Fields Medalist, Breakthrough Prize winner, or both, the top department will almost certainly confer a greater reputational benefit even within academia (assuming OP's premise that the quality of the work they will be producing equally good work in both places - potentially a questionable premise). – Dan Romik Jan 26 '17 at 16:39
  • Questions can get way more complex, the given ones are just examples. The +1 for the top researcher makes sense, if OP wants to specialize on this specific research topic. Should OP consider to broaden or switch his research area or wants more interaction with other/close research areas, the +1 might move from the top researcher to the top department. – FuzzyLeapfrog Jan 26 '17 at 16:52
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I would choose the location based on some non-academic criteria. If you are aiming to live and work in a particular state or region for the rest of your professional life, then choose a job that gets you closer to that ultimate place.

In other words, the C.V. will tell others who you are. But your own predispositions and social life will represent who you really are.

Go check out the areas if possible. I would virtually "visit" both places (if actual visitation is unrealistic) and get a feel for the campuses and the people in the area. College towns. The Big city. The rural Northwest. The (fill-in-the-blank) Interstate-XX-Corridor. The SoCal weather. The long commute. The mountain air. Summer heat. The beach town. You may not feel comfortable in all those places. If you aren't happy with the ancillary aspects of the position, it will be difficult to be happy with merely the work itself.

So while the "academic" answer to your question may be important, please consider the big picture.

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