In the comments to a previous post, Random Grad Student asked for my thoughts about the humanities post-doc: "its place, how to get one, [and] how search committees at different institutions view them when you're applying to a tenure-track job."
I admit that I have little experience with these. They were starting to proliferate when I was first on the market ten years ago, and I now know a number of people who have held one--but though I recall investigating a few, I never seriously considered applying. It may just have been that none of the topic-based post-docs fit me that first year (and my second year I was in a good renewable lectureship, so I didn't look at anything non-TT). But I think it mostly struck me as pointless work, on the front end, while one was also applying to tenure-track jobs.
(I still think this; I understand why post-doc applications are due early, but since every job placement officer I've ever met considers a post-doc inferior to a tenure-track job, it might be more sensible for them to list in the spring, along with VAP and other non-TT jobs.)
So with that proof that I don't really know what I'm talking about, I'll say what I do know and have seen, and hopefully my readers will pitch in more knowledgeably.
1. How To Get One: no clue. (Readers?)
2. How Search Committees View Them: I don't think that, at my own institution, we particularly distinguish between post-docs and VAP or other full-time non-TT employment. We're looking to hire people who have a couple of solid publications and some directly relevant teaching experience, so if a post-doc gives you whichever of those you need, that's great--but there are other means to that end. Indeed, for our purposes, a fancy post-doc might not help a candidate coming from a fancy institution if his weakness is precisely his lack of bread-and-butter teaching experience.
Research institutions might feel differently, but my sense is that even they aren't specifically excited about a fancy post-doc unless
a) it's the most fancy (by which I basically mean the Harvard Society of Fellows)
b) it gives you something you don't already have on your vita
Again, this is just my impression, but while there are lots of reasons for a candidate himself to value the opportunities provided by a fancy post-doc--research time, new professional connections--I don't think that, simply as a line on the vita, it adds much to a candidate whose degree is from an elite program. But for a candidate whose degree is from a second-tier institution, then that Mellon-funded post-doc likely does act as an important additional accreditation.
None of this is to malign the post-doc; it's a nice line for anyone to have, and preferable to continuing to teach at your grad institution (and certainly better than taking a VAP with a heavy teaching load or adjuncting). And used well, it can help you add other things to your vita and application materials.
But my feeling is that it's a shiny consolation prize for those who weren't able to find (or weren't looking for) a TT job the previous year.
As always, readers, I trust you to tell me how I'm wrong.