These suggestions are based on my personal experiences as a graduate student at the University of California at San Diego, as a postdoc at Washington University in St. Louis, and as an assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa. While my experiences are in philosophy, much of this advice would apply to other humanities fields as well.
There are different things that can be done at different points in your graduate career. This series of recommendations will be broken down by year. I will take as my ideal a person who goes on the market for the first time in the fall of his or her fifth year. Obviously, if you go out sooner or later, the time frame will shrink or expand accordingly. (However, the longer you wait, the more urgency there will be that you get a job immediately.) Also, the order is more or less arbitrary.
NOTE: An academic job in philosophy isn't the only thing you can do with a Ph.D., but it is certainly the expected thing in most departments. You would be wise to spend your first several years as a grad student asking yourself whether this is what you want to do with your life. Do you want to teach undergraduates (or, if you are both lucky and good, graduates), write and deliver papers, serve on campus committees, go to faculty parties, etc.? Do you really want to do this with your life? There are alternatives. Ph.D.s in philosophy have gone on to teach philosophy in high school, edit academic journals, and go to law school, to name just a few possibilities. To put it bluntly, the job market in philosophy is tough, and even well-qualified candidates fail to find adequate employment. You will save yourself a lot of angst during your travails on the job market if you keep in mind that there is life outside of the coveted tenure track job.
However, assuming that's the goal, what should you be doing about it?
Things to do throughout grad school
Continually assess where you are, where you are going and where you want to go. In particular, figure out where, ideally, you'd like to end up after graduate school. A small liberal arts school? A big state university? A community college? Do you want to primarily teach? Would you rather primarily research? (To my knowledge, there are no American philosophy positions that allow one to do research without at least some teaching responsibilities, at least not until one retires! Such positions exist in Europe and elsewhere, but even there they are becoming more scarce.) What you do during grad school will help position you with respect to these different possibilities. Although there is a lot of variation, a community college is going to be much more interested in evidence of your teaching ability, and Princeton and Berkeley are going to want evidence of your promise as a publishing philosopher.
You should also keep in mind that you may not have much opportunity to be picky. The current market is full of candidates who have a strong record in all areas — teaching, research, service, etc. — so the more that you can do, and do well, the better your chances will be. However, there are only 24 hours in the day, so it helps to prioritize. Also, anything that gives one a feeling of control over one's situation (e.g., "I should choose this RAship over a TA job this quarter because I should work on this qualifying paper and send it out to a journal") helps fight against depression and angst.
- Start a "job file." Throughout your grad career, you will be producing and collecting documents that you will need to hang onto for several years. Start a file (or perhaps two, one digital and an old-fashioned manila folder for paper) and put all these job-related documents in it.
- If you are teaching in philosophy, get faculty to observe you teach. When you go on the market, you will need letters from the faculty recommending your skills as a teacher. Such letters will be much more convincing if the writers can say they have actually seen you do it. Ask your observers to write up a short review and give it to you. Stick it in your job file and give it back to that faculty member when it comes time for the job market. (Your faculty will appreciate that you preserved their memory for them!) Good departments will also maintain a file for you, and when possible, see that a copy of such documents end up your department file.
- Collect student evaluations. There are two main types of student evaluations: qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative reviews include free-recall responses, in which the students are prompted to write about you in full sentences, if not paragraphs. Quantitative reviews are those that ask the student to "Rate your TA in the following areas on a scale of 1 to 5." Both kinds of assessments are important measures of your teaching skills. If your university doesn't provide evaluations, create your own. Collect these and stick them in your file (or see that they go into your department file). When you go on the job market, you can ask a third party (e.g., the placement adviser, the department secretary, etc.) to summarize your evaluations. Lots of juicy, positive quotations from actual students are concrete evidence of your teaching abilities. So is the statement "94 percent of the students in Intro Philosophy rank Ms. Meno as a highly recommended instructor."
- Many programs allow (force?) grads to teach and assistant teach throughout grad school. However, that work isn't always in philosophy, or you might get lucky and land a dissertation fellowship. For this reason, get the teaching components under your belt and into your file as soon as you can. Evaluations gathered in your final year will do no good if you go out on the market in your final year, much less if you go out earlier.
- Give some consideration to your mix of teaching experience. When you go on the market, you will claim to be able to teach certain courses. The best way to support your claim to be able to teach a course is to have experience with that course, either as a teaching assistant or as a lecturer. So, if you want to go on the market claiming an Area of Competence (AOC) in ethics, then teaching experience in ethics is important. One should also attempt to exhibit some variety in one's teaching background. Being a Hegel scholar is fine, but there probably isn't a college in the world that will want you to teach all Hegel classes every semester. It is better to be a Hegel scholar who is prepared to teach philosophy of mind, feminism, and history of ancient philosophy (or whatever), if you are going to be hired into a department with a normal mix of teaching requirements. Again, look to your own junior faculty as a guide. What mix of courses is your department's most recent hire teaching?
- Keep in mind that teaching opportunities may be available at neighboring colleges. Make your adviser and chair aware of your interest in teaching off-campus, as they may be contacted by those institutions when they need adjunct instructors.
- Collect course syllabuses. When it comes time to go on the market, you will be asked questions such as: "You say that you can teach a course in aesthetics. How would you teach such a course?" This question is an invitation to discuss your particular approach to the course topic; what topics will you cover? Will you approach these topics historically, say by reading Plato, or as contemporary problems, say by reading a variety of essays on the problems generated in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe? One important tool to prepare you to answer such questions is to collect course syllabuses throughout your graduate career. Most faculty will be happy to give you a copy of their syllabus for that aesthetics course they are teaching this semester, and such documents will give you concrete ideas about how you would design such a course.
- Begin to put together a CV. Familiarize yourself with what goes into one (and what doesn't). Collect CVs from others. (Junior faculty members are a good source. Your department may also keep a collection on hand as examples for job marketeers.) There isn't an "industry standard" CV in philosophy, so you should look at a bunch of examples and decide which style makes you look best.
- In the process of putting together a draft CV, begin to think about how you would like to present yourself. As a philosophical generalist? As the Next Big Thing in Kant Studies? Think about how your potential CV supports or undermines that image. For example, say you want to present yourself as interested in American philosophy. There ought to be something in your CV to support that claim, e.g., a course taken, an organization joined, etc.
- Start sketching a list of potential AOSs and AOCs. (AOS = "Area of Specialty"; those areas of philosophy in which you expect to research and publish. AOC = "Area of Competence"; those areas of philosophy in which you claim teaching competence. Your AOS is considered to be a subset of your AOC.) Ask yourself what areas of philosophy you associate yourself with. What specialist meetings would you like to attend during your first years as a faculty member, e.g., PSA, Ishkabible, Radical Philosophy, Hegel Society.
- Grab every chance to practice your public speaking skills. It's a sad fact in philosophy that when a grad student gives a job talk at State University, it is often only the second time that grad has stood up in front of an audience and presented his or her original philosophical thoughts. (The first time was the practice job talk given a week earlier.) Public speaking is an acquired skill, and practice pays off. Giving presentations in seminar is a good start, but nothing beats practice at expounding at length in front of an audience and then fielding questions. One can get this experience at conferences, but it may be less intimidating to make a presentation at a departmental "work in progress" meeting. (If your department doesn't have a forum like this, then maybe it's time to organize one.)
- Prospectus and candidacy time. Get cracking on a dissertation. Don't worry about false starts. Eric Brown, associate professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, offers the following advice: "It seems absolutely imperative to make a huge deal about what dissertation topic is chosen. (I think, in fact, that no other single choice in grad school is nearly so important.) The topic must be very interesting to the student, as it will be the primary focus of research for 5 to 10 years, easily. But the topic also must be very interesting to a wide range of philosophers; otherwise it will be very hard to pitch on the job market. (Of course, some of the dissertation can and should be technical in a way that not every philosopher would, or would want to, follow. But at least some of the dissertation must spin off an interesting writing sample and job talk down the road.) This is a huge decision, and no one should start writing without consulting widely."
- If you have papers from your coursework and qualification process that are potentially publishable or presentable, consider submitting them to journals and conferences. (To determine whether a paper is of sufficient quality, solicit the opinions of a couple of faculty members. Ask them to suggest possible corrections.) Publishing papers prior to graduation is not essential, but everything helps. Keep in mind the following:
- Peer-reviewed is much better than non-peer-reviewed. One peer-reviewed paper in a good journal is easily worth a half-dozen proceeding papers and book reviews. In other words, keep in mind the balance of quality vs. quantity. A dozen publications on the CV might look good, but then again, it might not, if the CV lists a dozen pubs in mediocre journals and non-peer-reviewed conferences, with no pubs in a significant, highly reputable journal. Therefore, this would be a good time to begin to get the lay of the land with respect to journals in your area of study. Different journals have different reputations. Ask faculty members to rank the journals in their area. If you are going to go to all the trouble to write a paper and submit it to a journal, you should maximize the payoff of your investment. Try to find out what the relative advantages are in submitting to, say, Philosophy of Science or British Journal of Philosophy of Science.
- Getting papers accepted to conferences has several benefits. First, having an accepted paper increases your chance of getting somebody else to pay for your expenses. Ask about departmental support. Ask about support for students provided by the conference. At the very least, the conference should waive your conference fees. Second, going to conferences is a good way to meet and network with your future peers. Different societies have different atmospheres. (For example, I have learned that I don't care for big, general-purpose meetings such as the Eastern APA and Neurosciences. However, I quite enjoy smaller, more focused, meetings such as the Pacific APA and the Society for Philosophy & Psychology.) Giving conference papers is a good way to begin testing the waters. Third, conferences offer an important source for feedback about your project and interests.
- Publishing a paper is a good way of establishing your credentials and interests in an area. One might publish a paper on Locke originally written for a grad seminar, and then go on to write a dissertation in philosophy of biology. When one goes on the job market, one could make a legitimate claim to research interests in both modern philosophy and philosophy of biology. (There is disagreement about this advice that the reader should take into consideration. Some have argued that regardless of your publishing history and future plans, you only have a single AOS when you come out of grad school, and that's the AOS of your dissertation. If you wish to claim multiple AOSs, consult your advisers.)
- Start giving the job market some very careful attention (although it helps to have been doing this all the time). Take a close look at Jobs for Philosophy. Join the American Philosophical Association. (It's cheap and they send you the JFP as part of your membership benefits. It’s also available online to members.) Start talking to folks who are currently on the job market and see what their experiences are. Talk to junior faculty, too. Ask those who failed to get a job for their theories why. If people give "practice job talks," go to them.
- Go to your placement adviser and discuss your plans with him/her. Ask advice about when you should go on the market and what you should be doing between now and then.
- If you haven't already done so, write a short (1-2 page) abstract/overview of your dissertation. You will include a dissertation abstract in all of your applications, and it will have to be accessible and compelling to any philosopher. You may be writing a dissertation in feminist epistemology, but the chair of the search committee at a given college may be a Nietzsche scholar or a biomedical ethicist or who knows what. In fact, it's a good bet that if State University is hiring a feminist epistemologist, then their department currently contains no feminist epistemologists (that's why they want to hire one!) So, you will need to write a short and pithy statement that conveys why your dissertation topic is interesting, what area of philosophy it falls into, and what is your novel contribution to the scholarly dialectic — and it must be written in a way that is accessible to a philosopher who perhaps hasn't read a paper in your topic area in 20 years. Consider your dissertation abstract to be a chance for you to demonstrate how articulate and clear you can be in the presentation of a philosophical issue.
- Consider contacting the best people in your field. If you've written work that should be of interest to important workers in your area of study, consider sending it to them to elicit their opinion. If they are sufficiently impressed with your work, they may be of help on the job market or in the early part of your career. Developing a relationship with off-campus researchers might result in a letter of recommendation or you may get pre-prints of work relevant to your dissertation.
- Toward the end of the year, identify a "writing sample" and start working on it.
If you have done all of the above, you should be in a good position to tackle the job market. You will have a CV that you have thought about for some time, complete with AOSs and AOCs. You will be expecting the JFP to appear in your mailbox, and will have some idea of what you will find there and how you relate to the job ads therein. You will have lots of evidence of your skills as a teacher that you will be able to include in your applications. With these things more or less taken care of, you will be able to concentrate your energies where it counts: on composing your cover letters, deciding where to apply, and fine-tuning that writing sample.
The author spent five straight years on the job market. Two as a grad student. Two as a postdoc. And one after starting as a tenure-track, assistant professor at a medium-sized, Midwestern, public university. The author is now a tenured full professor at Pitzer College. The author offers thanks to the following folks for their feedback and suggestions: Eric Brown, Larry May and Jesse Prinz.