I have just finished serving on my second faculty search committee this year, and so the job market is very much on my mind. Since becoming a tenure-track faculty in 2011, I have developed some standard advice that I give to incoming PhD students. The advice is based on my own experiences on the job market and on my participation in multiple faculty searches in urban and regional planning. This advice is nothing new or different, but I find it a useful set of goals that PhD students should aspire to over their time at CU to put themselves in a good position for the academic job market.
Publish - The market today demands that candidates have published at least one article in a peer-reviewed journal, and probably two. You don’t need 10 publications, and you don’t need to have hundreds of citations. What matters most, in my experience, is that you have demonstrated that you can translate your research ideas and data into actual publications, which is perhaps the single most-important task you will be assigned as a junior faculty member. It is fine to publish with your advisor, but be careful if all of your publications are with them. A search committee might assume (rightly or wrongly) that you rode their coattails through the publication process. If you are collaborating mostly with faculty, be sure to describe your contribution clearly in your cover letter and work towards lead-authoring later in your student career. If possible, try and have at least one sole-authored article. This is more difficult in some subfields than others, but it is the best signal you can send to a search committee that you are ready to step into a tenure-track position (thanks to Dan Immergluck for this suggestion to my original post, which I agree with).
Apply for external funding - Securing grant funding for your research is an important part of junior faculty life. During your time as a PhD student, you should demonstrate that you can successfully apply for grants, small and large. This is often a shortcoming for candidates coming from well-resourced programs, because they may never be forced to apply for competitive funding. You should apply for grants regardless of your funding. Doing so will show the search committee that you are willing to expose your ideas to external scrutiny, and that you know how the process for funding works. Try and follow the same path that many successful faculty do: start with small grants (internal travel grants, seed funds) which allow you to test your ideas and collect preliminary data before drafting larger and more ambitious proposals (to the NSF, Lincoln Land Institute, Fulbright, Eisenhower, etc).
Avoid publications that don’t matter: Publishing is partly an ego game…at different times during your PhD program you may be seduced by “opportunities” to publish in venues that simply don’t matter. Avoid, like the plague, encyclopedia entries, chapters in edited volumes, student planning journals, and obscure journals with low standards. Run away. Keep your eyes and brain focused squarely on peer-reviewed articles in medium-to-high quality outlets, or securing that amazing book contract with a university press. The above advice might be controversial, but the worst outcome is that you give your precious time and ideas away for a publication that doesn’t ‘count’ in the eyes of the search committee. Better that you start as a 3rd or 4th author on a paper with your advisor or committee, learn the ropes, and then take your best shot at a quality journal. If you already have several good publications…great! Then you can confidently be part of that perfect edited volume. But don’t rely on that publication to get you an interview.
Present at conferences: Publishing is a careful and iterative process. Journal articles don’t spring from your head and land directly in JAPA, at least not for most of us. More typically, the first step is to present your ideas and preliminary data at a good conference, get focused feedback, and then revise for another conference or submission to a journal. You should try and present at a conference at least once per year during your PhD, starting in your 2nd year. In our small field, you will get the added benefit of meeting your future colleagues, networking, understanding where you ‘fit’ in your subfield, and becoming more comfortable speaking in front of an audience, some of whom might terrify you.
Use deadlines: All of the above goals involve deadlines - for abstracts, grant proposals, conference papers, manuscripts, revisions, etc. Use these deadlines to your advantage, and let them structure your research time. Like it or not, many of us operate as procrastinators - we need external prompts and signals to get down to work. Using a revolving set of deadlines is a great way to remain consistently productive.
Teach: You should teach, even if you aren’t required to for your funding. Again, start small. TA for a great faculty member. Ask to teach an individual lecture or lead a discussion. Later, look for opportunities to develop your own syllabus and deliver a class on your own. Take advantage of your university’s resources on teaching and learning. The old advice that “teaching doesn’t matter” does not hold true anymore, at least for programs like ours (professional Masters program at an R1 university). We take teaching very seriously and probably won’t interview a candidate that has no track record in the classroom.
Be of service: You should do some high-quality service while you are a PhD student. This comes in many forms, up-to-and-including serving as a representative to the ACSP or on a national-level committee. But local stuff really counts. Serve as an officer in your PhD student group. Help organize a lecture or contribute to a conference. Write a book review for a quality journal. These are all evidence that you are a good colleague willing to pitch-in, and aren’t squarely focused on your own achievements and stature. Under no circumstances should you be seduced (see above) by the “opportunity” to do service that overwhelms everything else. Don’t organize a year-long seminar series or conference event on your campus, unless it is necessary for your funding. Don’t start a non-profit that takes you away from your teaching and writing. You have only limited time as a PhD student, and you need to do all of the above to succeed. A huge record of service but no publications or teaching will probably sink you with most searches.
This is a daunting set of goals, especially when you are also expected to take classes, read, think, and have a life outside of your program. But if you start immediately with the small stuff you should be hitting your stride by your later years. Eat that elephant one bite at a time. Not surprisingly, this list mirrors almost exactly what you will need to do as a junior faculty member to receive tenure (have a robust research record, teach well, be of service), so it is no surprise that it is a good set of criteria for candidates who want to someday be junior faculty.
Ultimately there is a lot more to the job market than the above. At a certain point in the process, search committees are forced to choose among a whole range of great candidates, and the elusive ‘fit’ becomes important. But work towards the above goals while you are in graduate school and you should well-positioned to make the first cut in a lot of job searches.