In an earlier post "Should I go to graduate school?" I related some of my experiences as both a graduate student and an adjunct professor to the issue of going to graduate school. At the end of that post I said that in looking back on it all I could think of only one major mistake that I had made during the decade when I searched in vain for a full-time, tenure-track position: I should have imposed a time-limit on myself and then left academia for some other type of career. But, instead, I hung on for ten years and then left academia to become an independent scholar a year after my parents died.
One of my former Haverford students wrote to me after he read that post, asking what might be a reasonable time period for searching for a job before deciding to move on to something else. Everyone's answer to that question is, of course, subject to innumerable qualifications. Consequently, if you're looking for a position, or intend at some point in the future to do so, your particular circumstances will play the most important role in how long you decide to conduct your search. But nonetheless I believe that something worthwhile can be said about this issue.
My own experiences should once again prove instructive. If you look at my academic autobiography, you'll see that I express some amazement that as time passed and I improved as a scholar and a teacher, it became no more likely that I would find a job. In fact, it became harder. Additional qualifications, i.e., teaching experience and publications, didn't help at all.
I started looking for a position in the fall of 1992. I was expecting to finish my degree in the spring of 1993, and so I had to think about finding a job for the fall of 1993 when I would no longer be a student. Since this is what most people do, it means that most people first go on the market without having finished their dissertation. I was no different in this respect.
I sent out my applications and was interviewed by four schools at the December meeting of eastern division of the American Philosophical Association. (My academic autobiography explains the application and interview process.) Two of the four schools brought me to campus in early 1993, but as you already know, I didn't receive any job offers. I then finished my dissertation and graduated in May 1993. Then began my years as an adjunct.
Well, I couldn't have known it at the time, but my first year on the market when, remember, I hadn't yet received my degree, had only a small amount of teaching experience, and hadn't yet published anything was the best one I was to have in a decade of searching. Never again did half of my APA convention interviews result in on-campus interviews. I've talked with other people about this, and many of them have told me that they too experienced the same thing. Most of them, fortunately, went on to find a job. The point, though, is that their first year was the one in which they caught the serious attention of the largest number of schools.
In short, if you don't get a job your first time on the market, your chances for getting one begin immediately to decrease. Schools begin to assume that something is wrong with you, that you aren't serious about academia, and so forth. Whatever the reasons may be, it just seems to be a fact that your prospects diminish dramatically if you don't have a position by the time that you receive your Ph.D. They don't disappear completely, they just decrease.
This is why I now think that I should have given up my job search after three years. I managed in early 1995 to get an on-campus interview for a tenure-track position. I didn't make another on-campus visit for a tenure-track job until the spring of 1999. By that time I had a more diverse teaching and publication record than many of the people who were interviewing me, and I was obviously going to do even more in the future. I can't imagine that those accomplishments made for better prospects of success. I had stayed too long, and so my efforts weren't going to be rewarded.