It is never too early to start thinking about the academic job search. No matter how tight the market is in your particular field, someone has to get the jobs that do exist. But luck, to paraphrase Louis Pasteur, favors the prepared.
In the Humanities & Social Sciences, as a second-year graduate student who is just starting to learn the layout of your discipline and the way it is divided into the various sub-fields, it is useful to wander into the departmental office and introduce yourself to the graduate assistant who helps with placement. Look through the job listings, and learn how jobs in your discipline are defined. What subfields are commonly linked? Positions in comparative politics, for example, are almost always linked to a specific geographical area (e.g., East Asia, Latin America) and one or more theoretical domains (political economy or democratic theory). In political science qualifying exams cover three subfields. The choice of your first and second qualifying exams is usually very easy to make based on your coursework and interests. The choice of the third is often more of a flip of a coin between two or more possibilities. Seeing how jobs are defined can help you make that choice in a way that has a positive impact on your later job search.
Fads come and go. And the idea is not to structure your graduate education around your perceptions of where the job market might be when you finish, rather it is to tinker about the margins in a way that will expand your professional opportunities when you become an ex-graduate student. If your main area of interest is in a particularly competitive sub-field or one that has fewer openings than the norm (which you learn by talking to the faculty placement advisor and graduate assistant, and scanning the job listings), think about trying to gain experience through courses and TA-ships in a more target-rich environment. Again using political science as an example, there are many times more annual openings in American politics than political theory. The ability to teach in areas of high demand or low supply can help separate you, especially in small departments, from other viable candidates.
If you’re in a STEM field, seek out opportunities to present your research findings during a poster session at one of the national or regional meetings in your field. In addition to gaining that first experience in presenting your research findings, take advantage of the opportunity to initiate relationships with other grad students, postdocs and even faculty who are working in your area of interest. Follow up with a brief email after you return home from the conference to cement the relationship, and as you move through your years at Berkeley reach out on occasion, perhaps at the next meeting of the conference; update them on your work, offer suggestions on theirs, answer questions they might have about Berkeley or even your undergrad university or college. As you move forward in time, these people (otherwise known as your emergent network) can become an invaluable source of information about opportunities for postdocs, fellowships, collaborations, etc.
In a similar vein, begin to attend workshops offered by your department and Berkeley Career Engagement. Attend job talks given by grad students/postdocs and/or finalists for faculty positions in your department. Since you are so far removed from being on the market, you can listen, absorb and evaluate without the immediate pressure and panic that comes from learning about the process for the first time when it counts for real.
As you begin to produce seminar papers, from time to time, a professor may comment that you should think about presenting it at a regional or national conference, or submit it to a journal. These are rarely idle remarks. While you may view yourself as a mere graduate student, and a beginning one at that, if she/he is sufficiently impressed by your work to make the suggestion, you should take it seriously. Ask the professor for advice both in terms of how to improve it and where to submit it, and send it off. The gap between graduate student and professional scholar may seem huge, but you will need to close that gap by the time you present yourself as a viable job candidate.
If you have a paper you believe is particularly good, search the “calls for papers” section of your field’s professional newsletter or website, and send it off to an appropriate conference. What have you got to lose? Many of the presenters at regional conferences are graduate students, and giving a paper provides you with the opportunity to meet people working in your area of interest outside of Berkeley and the chance to practice making a scholarly presentation at a time and place where you don’t feel as if your future is on the line.
Another step you can take that can advance your professional development is to work part-time for a research center/institute or journal/press. If your department is hosting national and/or regional meetings of your field’s professional association, volunteer or seek work as paid staff. These kinds of positions help you develop professional contacts, meet faculty from other institutions, and learn skills (e.g., program development, editorial) that are useful for academic positions and can be especially useful should you decide to pursue other career opportunities at some point in the future, for example, in order to stay in the Bay Area.
Berkeley, like most universities, employs hundreds of ABDs/PhDs in non-faculty roles. If you enjoy working in a college or university environment but have reason to believe that you may not finish or may have restrictions that limit where you can look for an academic position, consider working part-time in financial aid, admissions, grants administration, student residential life & counseling, etc. These are tasks common to all institutions of higher education and many are governed by federal and state regulations that are widely applicable. Academic administration can provide an alternative means of remaining within an academic setting in a manner that allows you to satisfy many of the values that made graduate school attractive in the first place.
Working part-time at Berkeley can help pay the bills, expose you to other facets of university operations, and provide you with the experience and resume necessary to pursue other career paths within higher education. Part-time, campus positions are often listed in Handshake (use the filter to limit your search to campus jobs). Professional staff openings (full and part-time) in areas such as student services, professional/budget/personnel, and senior management/executives are posted weekly on the Berkeley Employment website. For more information on career opportunities in academic administration, visit the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Jobs website, the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC), and the Job Listings page of HigherEd360.
When you go out on the job market, one of the elements of your application dossier will be some form of teaching portfolio. Make sure you keep copies of syllabi, exam questions and paper assignments (especially ones you created and/or thought were particularly effective), and student evaluations.
If you feel ready, think about asking if you can deliver a lecture with the professor present. If you have a very good section that is lively and responsive, think about asking either the professor or your advisor to sit in and observe. These kinds of experiences will allow them to write a more effective letter on your behalf regarding your teaching abilities. Too often STEM grad students in labs and advanced ABDs (in the social sciences and humanities) on the job market (who are unlikely to get more TA-ships) are asked to supply evidence of their effectiveness as a teacher, only to realize that there is no one around who can attest to their teaching abilities.
If your professor gives you a compliment on some aspect of your teaching performance (e.g., “I was very impressed by the quality of the papers written by your students” or “That was the best grad student lecture I’ve heard in years.”), write it down. Three years later when you’re ready to ask him/her for a letter, you can use their comment to jog their memory, and remind them that you deserve more than a few lines of pedestrian, boiler-plate prose.