Amanda in her inimitable style has written some very persuasive guidance about the job market. Let me add a few thoughts about what else you can do to prepare. If you’ve already been socialized to want an academic job, then you better be ready for a rough slog. Unless you happen to be among the handful of students who get all the attention and plum interviews this job market season, you are likely to get a couple of interviews and at worst none at all. As Amanda said, most of this is out of your control. The job market sucks. There are thousands of people chasing too few jobs.
Imagine you are on the other side of the job application process and you receive several hundred applications for one job. The reality is that the committee will use some heuristics to sort through which applicants are likely to get the most attention. This may not be fair, but these criteria include (1) fit with the job (2) where the candidates went to school 3) who they studied with and (4) where they have published. You have limited control over most of these, but you should be aware that this is a reality.
Still, there are some other things you can do to prepare for your dream job, and it’s never too early to think about how to position yourself to be an attractive candidate.
1. Choose an Interesting Topic for Your Dissertation
It’s hard to be get excited by dead boring topics that ask narrow questions that aren’t important, even if elegantly studied. You could be stuck with the project you pick for your dissertation for a decade or more, the time in graduate school writing about it and the time afterwards turning it into a book. Make it a good topic. There is some risk in purely responding to public events (post 9-11, post financial crisis), as much as it is risky to choose a topic that isn’t yet a top tier issue but one that you think should be (as it might never become one). However, if you think the problem is going to be a perennial one that the world will face for years to come (and you can see yourself working on that issue for years to come), then get stuck in.
2. Be Strategic in Putting Together Your Committee
If you didn’t go to a top school, then your road to a good job is harder though not impossible. It does mean that you might need to be strategic in your selection of committee members, selecting the most well-known and respected faculty at your institution who have roots in the field whose letters of recommendation (and phone calls!) will potentially mean something to hiring committees. It might also mean finding faculty at other institutions to join your committee to give you some deeper and more influential ties to the discipline. You can’t just walk up to someone at APSA or ISA and ask them to be on your committee. You have to be on their radar substantively. Hone your craft, write some good conference papers, and then when you have something worthwhile to show someone, you can stalk them at conferences…
3. Aim High and Publish During Graduate School
Journal editors bemoan the submissions of bad papers from graduate students, but if you are not from a top school, you can’t afford to go on the job market with a dossier that has no publications. You won’t get a look if you don’t have something going for you – a name-brand degree, endorsement from a prominent faculty member, or publications. A committee is going to be hard-pressed to jump you up the queue of attention for interviews just because you have an interesting topic. People are too busy slogging through hundreds of files to read all the writing samples that carefully. You have to figure out how to make a compelling case for yourself. Aim to publish or co-author with senior faculty in top tier journals (APSR, IO, ISQ, IS, JPR, etc).
4. Develop Some Interesting Methods Skills
Multi-method research is hard to pull off, and you want to develop methods that are appropriate to the problem you are studying, but let’s face it, there is some methods fetishism out there. I don’t care if you do formal models, advanced econometrics, experimental research, GIS, archive analysis, process tracing, content analysis, network analysis, agent-based modeling, language skills. All else equal, you are going to put yourself in better stead if you have some interesting and sophisticated methods skills in your arsenal. Go to ICPSR. Or, go as I did to IQMR.
5. Change Your Market Signal – Pursue a Pre- or Post-Doc or Dissertation Research Fellowship
If you are like me, you will strike out on the job market the first year, even applying to many jobs. You might not get any interviews. You might only get 1 or 2 the next year. If you don’t get those jobs, you will have some hard choices about whether or not you want to stay in the field or go on the adjunct/visiting route. Sometimes those turn in to something, but it can be a route to bouncing around a lot with many moves, making settling down and having a family (if that’s what you want) very difficult.
A pre- or post-doc or dissertation research fellowship could set you up nicely. Here are ones to consider. On the funding side, these include: NSF USIP, Fulbright, SSRC, and TESS. On the fellowship side, these include, Brookings (though not sure if active), Belfer, CISAC, Niehaus, PIIRS, Society of Fellows, CGD, EUI, (there are others!). This is easier said than done, and these are almost as competitive as tenure track jobs themselves. However, if you didn’t go to a top school for graduate school, then one of these can help signal to employers that you are worth considering. Good recommendation letters and active faculty supporters for you are always key here. Know the deadlines, consult with people who have gotten them (full disclosure, I had a Brookings pre-doc, Belfer and Niehaus Center post-docs).
6. Focus on Fit In Your Cover Letter
Look at the job description, the nature of the institution, and the make-up of the faculty. Tailor your letter accordingly, including how what you do is a perfect fit for the advertised job and how you will complement their faculty. You should also identify core classes your could teach for them. Say that in your cover letter.
7. Practice Job Talks
Learn how to sell yourself in a few minutes. Do the APSA job interviews, even at schools that you don’t think you want to go to (because you might be surprised about institutions and chances are that you can’t be super picky and survive). You need practice. You need to learn how to describe your work, talk to other faculty, learn how to ask questions about other people’s programs. Do a practice job talk. Do several of them, even if you don’t have an interview scheduled. The first one or two will be lousy. Have your friends tear apart your presentation and your Powerpoint (if you have one).
Good luck. [To stay sane during this period, I recommend healthy diversions, namely exercise, including marathons, triathlons, or other kinds of challenging fitness regimens in which you can restore your self esteem by setting a difficult goal and achieving it. It does wonders for sustaining you through dark times.]