As the application period for postdocs approaches, I’d like to mention those proposed by ETH Zürich and encourage all candidates to apply here. Basic information may be found on this web page, and it is then possible to apply online very easily by following the link to this form, with a formal deadline of November 30. (There is also an open position at the Assistant Professor level in applied mathematics; the application procedure is different, but some of the information below may still be useful to motivate possible candidates.)

One thing I’d like to comment on is the “light teaching load” which is mentioned: this very often takes the form of courses on topics chosen by the postdoc himself or herself. As an example for this semester, Anne Moreau is teaching an introductory course on algebraic groups. Such teaching can be very good opportunities for a young researcher: if, for instance, the theory of expander graphs is an important tool that you’ve used in your work but did not yet have time to study in full depth; or if your probabilistic work seems to have applications to number theory, but you never had an occasion to learn analytic number theory from the ground up because there were no graduate courses on the subject in your institution… then teaching an introductory course would probably be the best way to reach a state of satisfactory osmosis with such a subject.

And now here are some additional good reasons to want to come to Zürich for a postdoc, which are maybe not so obvious to every reader, especially among mathematicians from outside Europe.

(1) ETH Zürich has a strong history as a world-class institution in mathematics: this is where Pólya discovered random walks, to give just one example. There is in particular a tradition of links with physics, still currently reflected in the mathematics and in the theoretical physics department. There is also a very strong computer science department, both theoretical (algorithms, etc) and practical (as much in the sense of computer languages, and of concrete applications).

(3) The scientific environment is extremely good; for instance, because of the presence of the Forschungsinstitut für Mathematik (FIM), which runs a very active visitor programme, it is almost too easy to invite people to come for a week or longer for discussions and joint projects. And other people’s visitors are of course excellent opportunities to talk about mathematics… In addition, the FIM sponsors various special activities and the Nachdiplom lectures, which are graduate-level lectures given during a semester by outstanding mathematicians, often on the most recent developments in their field (for instance, Simon Brendle, from Stanford University, is lecturing this semester on the Ricci flow with applications to geometry).

(2) The location of the mathematics department is hard to beat in terms of convenience; it is located in the “main” building

Main building

of ETH (click for a larger picture), which is found in the center of the town of Zürich, literally 5 minutes (walk) away from the main train station. As a proof, here is one side of the view from my office

View to the lake

with the Zürich lake, and the other side

View to the train station

with the train station. (I should say that the 5 minutes figure is mostly the downhill time from ETH to the train station; going back up on foot usually takes a bit more time, but there is a very convenient cable-train to do this; the entrance on the ETH side can be seen on the second picture above). Most other departments of ETH are now located in other buildings, some of which are also close to the center, and others are found in another campus (Hönggerberg).
From the train station, all corners of Switzerland are very easily reached, as well as France, Germany and Italy. Scientifically, this includes the EPF Lausanne, the universities of Basel, Neuchâtel, Geneva, and others in Switzerland; in France, this includes Strasbourg (only two hours away), and Paris is 4h30 by train: an excellent opportunity to visit the Bourbaki Seminar, for instance. And to go further (or faster), the international airport is only a 10 minutes train ride away.

(4) In addition to ETH, the University of Zürich (i.e., that of the Canton of Zürich, in contrast with ETH which is a federal institution of the Swiss Confederation) also has an excellent mathematics department, and there are many joint activities between the two, in particular the Colloquium and the Zürich Graduate School in Mathematics.

(5) The quality of life in Zürich is outstanding. As an example, all the (many) water fountains in the town offer drinkable water. As another, the public transport system is among the very best in the world — for this, the relatively small size of the town is of course an advantage (compared, e.g., with Paris). Living without a car is possible in very good conditions, and does not mean that skiing, hiking, and so on, must be put aside, since the train network can bring you efficiently to most ski stations and to many wonderful places for walks. Also, it is true that life in Zürich is quite expensive, but the salaries are commensurate and certainly competitive with the best offers in the US or elsewhere.

Finally, to balance the picture, here are some small potential drawbacks — to show that I am trying to be objective…

(i) The mathematics library is good, but most collections (especially journals) are within the main ETH library, which is extremely extensive (in all domains of natural sciences, architecture, biology, etc), but is not a walk-in-browse-pick-up-and-go library: the collection is typically searched online, where books can be reserved and then picked up at the central desk, while journal articles are typically found on the catalogue, and then scanned by the library on request and sent to you by email (admittedly, this is also very convenient, but you have to wait at least a little while for the PDF file to arrive). Depending on your reliance on finding interesting sources of information by random browsing, this may be a problem.

(ii) If you do not already speak Swiss German, you will be coming in a town where the native language is not yours. Again, this may be an issue, although one can argue that travelling broadens the mind, and that such an experience can be very interesting anyway. This is certainly not a problem in terms of being able to work and live here, since most people speak English, many speak French or Italian (or both), and of course standard German is universal. As mentioned on the web site, teaching can be done in English. Note that it is reasonable to try and expect to learn standard German (which is the written language for Swiss German speakers), but Swiss German itself is not mutually intelligible for a German-speaker, and is quite difficult to learn since there does not exist a written version. But as already said, it is at least a very interesting experience to observe the linguistic features of Switzerland, where there are four official languages.

(iii) The weather in Zürich is not that of California, of course; but if surfing is not an option, skiing becomes available, and one can at least swim in the river Limmat or in the Zürich lake (whenever the temperature is compatible with this activity).

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

3 thoughts on “Postdocs”

  1. … and if it’s too cold to swim in the Limmat you still can go to a public swimming pool. There are at least 10 of those in Zürich, which is a lot for such a small town.

    With public transport you will almost always be faster than with a car in Zürich, especially in the rush hour. And if you’re keen on sports: You are even faster by biking!

  2. The application form indicates that you are suppose to submit 3 letters of reference. Should all 3 letters address the candidate’s research qualifications or should 1 letter address teaching qualifications.


  3. I think it is certainly good if teaching is mentioned by at least one letter, but they should be mostly about research. (As the application forms states, the actual letters will be asked to the refereee directly by the department).

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