First-year graduate students have now settled into their new environs ready to embark on the life of the mind. They have met with advisers and department chairs, and likely gone through some formal orientation. The sessions normally address how their research money can be used (provided there is any), how to write a teaching assistant syllabus, how to write a grant application, and a number of other topics with varying levels of utility. All too often, however, these orientations leave out some of the big picture issues that incoming students in the humanities and social sciences should be considering. Below I have outlined a few things I wish I had been told at the beginning of this journey.
1. Know how bad the job market sucks and why.
Too many folks have entered these programs because they were passionate about what they do, which is fine. But as the 87 billion adjuncts making $12k/year will tell you, passion won't pay the bills. Hopefully, you've done this research already before moving all your worldly possessions to Madison or Durham or, God forbid, Austin. If not, do it now. Talk with your advisers about the state of the job market. Ask about their past students. How many got jobs? Also helpful, talk to those who have just defended/graduated. They will likely have some observations of the market that your professors do not. Last, research postings from the last few years to see how jobs in your field are trending. How are job postings trending in your regional or methodological subfield? What sort of comparative or interdisciplinary approaches seem most sought-after? The answers to these questions can inform how your project develops. These trends might change over the 4 to 10 years you are in the program, but paying attention to the market from the beginning is vital.
2. Find out what can get you one of those precious few jobs.
Related to #1, you must know what it is going to take to make you competitive for one of the jobs in your field. This is tricky and certainly varies between field and discipline. That said, some combination of a published article, experience teaching more than one class, a dissertation chapter that appeals to non-specialists (for job search writing sample), one of the prestigious national grants in your field (SSRC, Fulbright, Mellon, Wenner-Gren, etc.), and some noteworthy conference presentations will normally keep an application on the “keep” pile through the first round of discards. Some folks will tell you to just focus on the dissertation and that certainly has to remain the focus. But a great dissertation without many of the things listed above might not even get you serious consideration for the coveted tenure track.
3. Prepare for the academic path to blow up in your face.
I am not saying it will, though the numbers point to it being more likely than not. Regardless, years training for Plan A with no consideration for Plan B just isn't wise. From day one, begin considering what that Plan B might be. A number of resources are now available to provide guidance and information about leaving the ivory tower. PhDs at Work gives some in-depth testimonials from those who have made the transition. One of the many resources at Versatile Ph.D. includes forums for discussing specific fields and job paths.
How you approach a possible non-academic future is up to you. Maybe it’s taking a statistical methods class even though you're a historian who won't need them for the dissertation (wish I had done this). Perhaps you can work in a university administration office to have something outside the classroom for a future resume (I did this unintentionally). Or you might have some entrepreneurial aspirations you can be developing throughout graduate school. Whether its coding, design, bread baking, or beer brewing, it can't hurt to build skills outside of what makes sense on the scholarly C.V.