When I began my PhD studies in 2006, I had no idea how competitive the job market is for humanities professors. I remember one fellow graduate student naively telling me that earning a PhD was comparable to getting a union card. He said, "all you need to do is finish your PhD and you will get a job." In hindsight I should have known that this was a terribly inaccurate statement.
Three years after earning my PhD, I am now prepared to reflect on some of the lessons that I learned during my application years. If I could go back in time and talk to myself in 2008 (one year before I completed my PhD), I would have offered the following advice:
1) Do not apply for faculty jobs as an ABD student. Applying for faculty positions before I finished my PhD was pointless. You may wonder what the harm is in applying as an ABD student, after all, some of the job advertisements welcome such applicants. I would argue that receiving continual rejection letters is demoralizing and will negatively affect your attitude towards the job market. What's the harm in receiving twenty-five rejection letters in one year? The answer is that there are only so many times you can get up after being knocked to the ground, so save yourself for a time when you are in the best position to apply for a faculty job in the humanities.
Think about it like this: if there are over one hundred applicants for a faculty position, what chance is there that the search committee members would select you for an interview when most likely the majority of the other applicants have finished their PhDs, have more teaching experience than you, and probably have a significant number of publications? Landing a faculty job in the humanities is like winning the lottery--even when you are a strong candidate--so why would you want to subject yourself to worse odds as an ABD candidate?
Yes, it's true, there is occasionally the legendary tale of a PhD student who lands the perfect job. But it would be worth investigating this isolated incident to find out the credentials and connections of that particular person. Did he or she know anyone on the committee? Is he or she related to or affiliated with anyone in the school's administration? If none of these questions apply, try and find out the winning candidate's religious background. If the job was at a very conservative school, perhaps the search committee felt "safer" hiring someone who attended a conservative seminary or university over some of the more impressive candidates. In religion departments, it is often important that schools hire someone with a particular denominational background. I recall a faculty member at Indiana Wesleyan University, for instance, saying that the department wants Wesleyan Methodists, as opposed to those affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Now that's specific!
2) Complete the necessary requirements to your cv. If you have earned your PhD, it is time to consider the second piece of advice, which asks whether you have filled up your cv (honestly) with the following requirements: teaching experience, publications, and presentations. More so than research-based institutions, liberal arts colleges want to see plenty of teaching experience in your field.
My suggestion would be to teach whatever courses you can as an adjunct professor, regardless of the pay. If you have no teaching experience on your cv, and the only work you can find is teaching entry level courses, my advice is to take the job. Certain entry-level subjects may be out of your range of comfort, but they will add depth and breadth to your teaching experience. When I was looking for adjunct work at one school, I agreed to teach introductory courses in the Old and New Testaments. The NT was especially scary to me as a religious historian in training. But surprisingly, I loved teaching intro to NT, and grew confident the more that I taught the course. Furthermore, the knowledge that I gained has helped me when teaching religious history and thought courses. In my course on Modern Christian Thought, for example, I can talk quite a bit about historical criticism, including specific people, theories, and historical development. I would not have known very much about higher criticism had I not taken the time to prepare my lecture in intro to NT.
After several semesters of teaching various courses, it becomes much easier. You have already prepared your lectures and taught the course, and, even more importantly, worked out some of the nerves of entry-level teaching. Keep adding new courses to your cv and pretty soon you should have a list of courses that you can brag about in your cover letter (and present on your cv).
After three years of teaching at various places, here's what my list of courses taught looks like:
The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (spring 2013)
Religion in American Life
Contemporary Religious Issues
Religion in Southern Culture
Religion in the Age of Wesley, Whitefield, and Edwards
Introduction to Western Religions
Modern Christian Thought
Readings in Modern European History (Graduate Course)
Eighteenth-Century Europe (Graduate Course)
Survey of American History I
History of Western Civilization
History of the Baptists (Online Graduate Course)
History of Fundamentalism (Online Graduate Course)
History of Christianity I (Online Graduate Course)
History of Christianity II (Online Graduate Course)
Historic Christian Belief
Biblical Literature I: Introduction to the Old Testament
Biblical Literature II: Introduction to the New Testament
New Testament Survey
Survey of Church History
People, Politics and Empire: Britain 1780-1914
Empire to Europe: Britain 1915-1990
Having taught multiple sections of these courses, I would not lose sleep teaching practically anything in a history or religion department. But I would not have this confidence had I not taken some risks and taught classes that I was not initially comfortable facilitating.
Ok, now that teaching is out of the way, take a look at your publications. Ideally, you should have more than simply book reviews on your cv. If you have nine book reviews and no peer-reviewed articles, it's time to focus on publishing a journal article or two. Ask yourself if there are any tangent topics related to your PhD dissertation that you could explore. Try and avoid carving out your dissertation into journal articles. It may be difficult to find a publisher for your revised dissertation (if that is your plan) if the material in your chapters have already appeared in print. Instead, look for a topic that you know a good deal about, from your dissertation research, that you can simply expand into a journal-length article.
Once you have an article ready to submit, look for an appropriate journal. One of the mistakes that I made as a PhD student was fearing rejection from a top-tier journal. I talked myself out of sending articles to acclaimed journals. If you have a strong, original argument that you think could be accepted by a very good journal, then give it a try. In this case, a rejection letter or email can be helpful, especially if the editor points you in the direction of a journal that he or she thinks may be more appropriate. You may also receive advice from the editor or anonymous reviewers on ways to strengthen your thesis for the next submission.
How many publications are necessary to get a faculty job? Who knows. I don't believe that there is a set number, but you should have at least one or two scholarly journal articles published by the time of your application.
Finally, be sure to participate in presentations at conferences. Not only is reading a paper in front of established scholars good experience, but you may impress someone in the audience who has an important position, such as an editor of a journal or book series. I've heard several stories from friends and colleagues who said that they published such and such journal article or book because a scout in the audience approached them after the presentation.
If you have followed points one and two, you are now in a position to apply competitively for faculty jobs in the humanities. The bad news is that even when you have done everything right--taught several courses, published your brains out, presented papers, won awards, etc.--the odds are still against you landing a tenure-track job. But, if you have avoided applying for jobs when you are not a strong candidate, you have a better chance at maintaining a positive mental attitude and producing the best application in the next few years. I say years because Inside Higher Ed shows that the current average age of successful candidate for a tenure-track job is now 35.7. This is more evidence that applying ABD is a waste of time.