I'm not sure what I would actually say to first year graduate student Bashir. This whole question is a bit like Tapestries. I think I did well as an early grad student. I managed to take in some good advice early on. I also learned a few things the hard way. Went the long way around more than a few times. I'm not sure it could have worked out otherwise. For example, not once but twice, I went out of my way to avoid learning a particular method because I just didn't like it. Guess what method I use these days? So maybe I tell first year me to hunker down and learn this method. But that involves spending less time learning other things, and working with a different set of people. Maybe I get burnt out on it. Next thing you know I'm a junior lieutenant instead of captain.
Really the only set advice that I'd give to a previous me is college me. That advice is simple, take more computer science and math classes. Pretty boring right? Well that's because I can say with some certainty that there'd be a specific pay off for doing those things. What would say I say to graduate school Bashir? Graduate school is the time of the vagueries. Obviously I did well enough. I got an alright postdoc and am at least at the point that some people are vaguely considering handing me the keys to a lab. Could it have been different/better? Maybe??
I feel like I have to include some advice. Here are a few things I went by as a newb grad student.
Read the Chronicle of Higher Education.
This advice was given to me right before starting graduate school. It seems like a pretty mundane piece of advice but it is very important. Plenty of first year students really have no idea what they've signed up for. If you have the slightest inclination to stay in academia, at an R1, SLAC, CC, anywhere. Just flip through an issue every once and a while. Your library probably has a subscription. It is useful knowledge in understanding the profession that you have signed up for.
Pay attention to what happens to those ahead of you. Especially wrt funding.
Who stays? Who goes? Who gets this job or that job? Who publishes a lot? Who never publishes? Which of the job candidates does your department hire? Which do they think are duds? It is best to resemble those who end up with the outcome that you are looking for. "Get with a vet and track him,” he said. “Everything he does. Learn it. Copy it. Then try to outdo it.”1
Diversify you portfolio.
It took me a while to do this. Broadening your knowledge base will make you more flexible. See my story about not being intersted in a particular method. I gave in, took a grad class, learned that it maybe it was more interesting than I'd though, and now it's about 50% of my research. Go figure.
I'm wondering a bit about the ubiquitous EEO demographics card* (or webform these days) that comes at the end of the job application process. A pair of polls, one for current/recent job seekers, one for those on the hiring side of things. Feel free to elaborate in the comments.
For the job seekers..
For the employers..
*(For the uninitiated Equal Employment Opportunity forms usually include a series of demographic questions such as gender and race/ethnicity. Some universities include a bit more. At least one place I applied to asked about sexual orientation. The information filled out by the candidate is supposed to be kept seperate from the actual application, and is used to evaluate the nature of the candidate pool, not individual applicants)
these demands are entirely covert, completely unguessable, and totally ridiculous, if not impossible
An apt description of what it's like on the academic job market. I personally am enduring my second rodeo. Last year had some highlights, but obviously not enough since I'm doing it again this year. There's plenty of advice out there for postdoc/grad's who are wading for the first time into the deep end. (The most comprehensive perhaps being DocBecca's aggregator). I thought I'd add a few notes about what it's like to join in the annual tradition of fretting over never getting a job.
A lot of organization and other tedious things.
Applying for jobs is tedious. There's no avoiding that. Your personal level of tedium will depend on a few things. How many jobs you apply to. What range of positions you apply to? The range of "delivery methods" requested by the search committees. Yes, there will be one job that wants everything printed out hard copy, in triplicate carbon paper and mailed to a P.O. Box.
A lot of educated guesses. What are departments looking for? How good a fit am I for this position? How long until they make the short list? Will there be phone interviews? etc. And if you don't get the position you'll have no idea if your application just barley missed the cut or got trashed in the first minute. You have to get comfortable with the idea of not knowing things. Which can be tough for people used to collecting as much information as possible.
The wiki, web trackers, and other treacherous things.
Though you will be quite busy with applications and the usual responsibilities there will be time for the mind to wander. Especially during the "applied and now waiting for contact phase" which is the worst part. You will probably develop a bad habit. Checking the job wiki, looking at your website stats, looking up CVs of your competition. The wiki is treacherous, and full of misinformation. I avoid it. My web counter on the other hand is like an addictive drug. I know that some person(s) from one university I applied to have been routinely checking my website. Enough to get my hopes up, but not actually useful information. This is how it goes.
A lot of waiting. Not much communication.
Other than the usual thanks for applying email and HR demographic request there won't be much communication. Search committees do not generally send updates "Just wanted to tell you that your app is in the maybe pile. Looks great!". Contact usually only happens if you land an interview (phone or campus). Rejections come slowly for various reasons. For the most part you'll be left having to interpret radio silence as a de facto rejection. Doesn't exactly make things more fun.