In the recent reader request thread, MB writes:
As a young graduate student, I would love some advice on how and when to participate in certain "career milestones" so that I can at least be proactive about my job prospects later on. For instance, if I want to pursue an academic career, what should I be doing at certain points in graduate school, at what point should I start thinking about post-docs, when should I apply for them, and how should I go about finding them, etc, and how does this compare to an industrial route? Once graduate school is done, how can I put myself in the best position not to be unemployed? We see a lot of forecasting on this blog and a lot of "what to do after the fact," but I would find it really useful to have some perspective on how to pre-empt some of these issues.
There's a lot of good questions in there. The basic gist is this: you need to start preparing for post-graduate school employment at least a year in advance, if not more.
If you want to go the academic route, I believe that you're supposed to send your application package (cover letter, CV, research summary) to your professor a year before you'd like be there. (This means, of course, that you need to have a decent idea of when you're done with your thesis, when your committee is agreeable for you to defend, etc.) It also means that you need to have to have accomplished something of substance by that point; a couple of papers' worth of material is probably a nice minimum goal to shoot for, although some of our more august readers will probably say that you need more.
For the industrial route, there's probably not too much difference between what I've laid out for the academic route. That said, larger companies tend to hire on a cycle that starts with campus interviews and other applications in the autumn and ends up with site interviews (and hiring!) in the winter and spring.* The academics tend to go off of a "rolling admissions" basis, to borrow a phrase from the undergraduate admissions world.
Readers, what do you think of my recommendations? What would you recommend to MB?
*That also means (for site interviews) that you need to be able to give a 45 minute presentation on your work.