Get as much dissertation writing in as possible—the more complete by the Fall, the better.
Prepare a writing sample. Usually schools will request a 20-25 page writing sample, though some may ask for 10-15 pages, so prepare an abridged version as well. An appropriate writing sample might be a chapter or portion of a chapter of your dissertation, an offprint or photocopy of a recent publication, or an article manuscript currently under review at a journal. Your writing sample should reflect your interests, expertise, scholarly innovation, and best work and must be thoroughly edited and proofread.
Most importantly, your sample should be directly pertinent to the kind of job for which you are applying; therefore, in cases where you are a legitimate candidate for two kinds of jobs (e.g., both 19th- and early 20th-century American literature), you will probably need two writing samples. You can include a brief paragraph on a cover sheet giving some context to the sample or explaining the piece’s relationship to your larger dissertation project. If you have an offprint or copy of a publication that reflects another side of your work or your diverse interests, you might consider sending it, too.
Think about what you could present as a “job talk” during a campus interview. While this usually won’t happen until the Spring, the job market process will not give you time beforehand to write a "job talk" from scratch. Thus you should begin preparing essentially another strong writing sample that you could revise and present as a 45-minute talk. Another strong chapter from your dissertation would make a good job talk candidate.
Get feedback on, revise, and finalize letter of application, CV, précis, and teaching philosophy (The Professionalization Committee will provide feedback and suggestions on drafts of all of these documents; your dissertation advisor should also provide feedback).
Find out how to obtain grade transcripts. Requests for transcripts are relatively rare, but you should be prepared. In some cases, job ads will specify that transcripts must be “official” (that is, mailed directly by the relevant institutions), but in other instances, you can put copies in your CDC file or upload them to your online dossier service.
The MLA Job Information List (JIL) comes out in hard copy four times each year (early October, December, February, and April). The JIL is also available online in mid-September. The online JIL can be accessed at http://www.ade.org/. The Director of Graduate Studies can provide you with the ID and password you will need to access the searchable online database of job postings. Be aware that postings are removed from the website after six weeks.
You can also search for jobs and sign up for a daily or weekly email listing of job postings for free through the Chronicle of Higher Education. The free online information (and commiseration) the Chronicle provides can also be helpful. While there will be cross listings from the MLA JIL, some smaller schools and community colleges only post their announcements on the Chronicle list.
Some schools are turning to alternate online job listings, such as Higher Ed Jobs.com, so despite the numerous cross listings with the MLA JIL and the Chronicle, you would be wise to peruse other listings to catch those you would otherwise miss.
When you search the listings, cast a wide net. Of course you should only apply for jobs that match your qualifications and career interests (doing otherwise is just a waste of time, money, and paper). But do not limit your search too much on the basis of factors like geography. You may feel tied to a particular geographic region or feel certain that an area like the Midwest or South holds nothing for you. But ultimately, your goal is to get a foot in the professional door, and you would be wise not to shut the door on any opportunity for these reasons at this stage. A campus visit to a groovy Midwestern college town can completely challenge your biases about the whole region. Learning more about a specific department may cause you to reconsider your priorities, or you may consider taking a job in a less desirable region as a stepping stone to another position later. You may even find an interested school is willing to help your significant other find work in the area. Lastly, even if in the end you remain firmly rooted in your need to be in one geographic area, job offers from schools outside that area can help you negotiate a substantially better offer (one that can potentially affect the rest of your career) at an institution in the area where you really want to live.
Register for the annual MLA convention. Initial interviews are traditionally held at this convention. Interview requests may not be made until mid-to-late December, so plans for attending the conference must be made well in advance of actually knowing if you will have interviews (registration and hotel fees can be partially refunded or cancelled before the convention begins-see the MLA website for details). The cheaper conference hotel accommodations go quickly, so make your hotel arrangements early.
Many deadlines for receipt of application material will be in early November, though more and more deadlines are being pushed up to mid-late October.
As you begin applying for jobs, set up a spreadsheet or some sort of system to keep track of deadlines and what materials you send where, when.
While the general rule of thumb is to only send what the job ad specifically asks for, you should always send your dissertation précis (it is seldom explicitly asked for, but would usually only help rather than harm your chances). Another possible “fudge” on this rule relates to the writing sample: if you have an offprint of a publication, you can include it along with your writing sample. If the search committee doesn’t want to read it, they won’t. But it will remind them that you are a published scholar.
Make travel arrangements for attending the MLA convention. Traditionally the MLA offers some travel grants for advanced graduate students and non-tenure track instructors who are MLA members. The deadline for applications is usually November 1. See the MLA website for details.
Those schools that did not request writing samples up front will begin to contact candidates they are interested in, asking them to send further materials. If you receive such a request (usually by phone or email), try to get the materials with a brief cover letter explaining them in the mail within 2 days.
Schedule a mock interview with the Professionalization Committee so that the “real deal” at MLA or elsewhere won’t be a totally foreign or scary experience. (If you receive a request for a phone interview or an early on campus interview, you should contact the Professionalization Committee to help you best prepare for these atypical—though not unheard of—practices.)
Invest in a suit. You need not look frumpy—in fact “hip” is probably good in a newly minted Ph.D.—but you will need to look professional during your MLA interviews. Comfortable shoes, for trekking from hotel to hotel at MLA, are also important.
It is becoming increasingly common for interview arrangements to be made in the days just before the MLA convention in late December. Usually, interested schools will have a member of their search committee call you to arrange an interview at MLA. You must keep track of interview requests as they are made, making sure to not schedule overlapping interviews and giving yourself at least a half hour (ideally an hour) between interviews to trek to the next hotel and collect your thoughts (it is probably a good idea to keep a schedule of you MLA days near the phone for this purpose). During this phone call, you should also ask in whose name the room is registered where you will be meeting (hotels will not give out that information); and find out who will be interviewing you (it doesn’t hurt to look up their names on the school website to get some sense of the fields of interests of your interviewers).
After MLA, get some rest. The campus visits to come can be grueling. And new job postings continue into the Spring.
January and February:
Many schools fly their top two or three candidates in for campus visits during this period. This process is essentially a several-day interview: meals with faculty and graduate students, meetings with the dean and the department chair, interviews with faculty, a talk drawn from your dissertation, and possibly a teaching demonstration.
If you receive a request for a campus visit, notify the Professionalization Committee at once to schedule a mock job talk. Like the MLA interview experience, you don’t want the “real deal” to be your “trial run.”
Job offers as the result of MLA interviews and subsequent campus visits are usually made March-April to begin in the Fall semester. If you receive an offer by phone, you should of course express your delight, but ask for some time to consider the offer (no matter how ready you are to take it). You should meet with the Professionalization Committee and your dissertation advisor as soon as possible to discuss negotiating your best offer and considering your options.
Notices for new job postings continue to appear on the MLA JIL and the Chronicle of Higher Education list. If the first wave of Fall postings did not lead to a position for you, continue to apply for new postings. Also, keep your eye out and apply for postdoctorate fellowships that can provide you with the time to complete your dissertation, submit article manuscripts to journals, and face the job market the next year with a further mark of distinction on your CV. If you have nearly or entirely completed your dissertation, the 1-2 year visiting appointments that appear in the Spring postings may be an attractive option for you to consider applying for, as they might provide a prestigious “launching pad” from which to begin the job market process again in the near future. Given the competitive market, it is common for more than one go at the job market to lead to a career “home.”