In my role as junior hiring chair, I’ve been thinking a little bit about how a (R1) institution can best serve its postdocs. Many find the transition from graduate student life to being a postdoc somewhat of a rude shock. At the same time as the intellectual support structure of your advisor and fellow graduate students is taken away, while at the same time you have to take on significant teaching responsibilities. Even for those will a fellowship to offset their teaching, it can be a little daunting to figure out exactly how to interact with your new research group.
What should the expectations of a new postdoc be? Many universities assign research mentors to new postdocs, but (in practice) this is essentially meaningless unless it carries with it certain expectations for mentor and mentee to interact. How much of the role should senior faculty help in suggesting problems for postdocs to work on? No doubt the answer to many of these questions is “it depends on the postdoc” but I would love to hear personal stories (positive and negative) about your postdoc experiences, especially as it relates to practical steps that an institution can make to improve the experience.
Feel free to leave your comment anonymously (well, people feel free to do that anyway). I don’t particularly trust my own experience since I feel that I was probably more independent than most as a graduate student, and was fairly happy working alone in my office (not to mention already having a number of collaborations ongoing with Kevin Buzzard and Matthew Emerton). Harvard was a welcoming and friendly place (to me), but my best interactions happened serendipitously more often than not. The initial seeds of my collaboration with Barry started by joining in conversations he was having with Romyar Sharifi and William Stein in front of their offices (all on the 5th floor I believe) discussing (early forms of) Sharifiology in the context of Barry’s paper on the Eisenstein ideal. I had a few lunches with Richard Taylor at the law school (I have a vague memory that I realized this was possible from Toby — could that be right?). Richard is definitely generous with his time, and (in this context) he was ideal for bouncing off ideas. On the other hand, I don’t think Richard’s style in mathematical conversation is to be very speculative; he certainly never suggested any particular problem to me but nor did I ask. My collaboration with Nathan surely started out by virtue of the fact that we would chat socially at tea time.
I can’t quite distill from my own experiences either any recommendations for new postdocs or specific recommendations for institutions (particularly the University of Chicago) to put things in place to improve the lives of postdocs. But perhaps you can help!