People had told me to start looking for my next job 6-12 months in advance. I had several thoughts on this:
1) What if I get a job, and then have to tell them I want to start in another 12 months?
2) It's kinda hard to find much motivation for the job hunt when you aren't sure if you are really graduating.
3) Is it really going to be that bad? What will keep me busy for a YEAR?
With the benefit of experience, I wish I could reach back and respond to each:
1) You should be so lucky. If they want you, they'll wait. And if they can't wait, you can find another job you are that well qualified for. I applied for a job that I didn't get a call back about until SIX MONTHs later. The job you apply for on the first day of hunting might just take 12 months to get their funding in order. Especially if you are looking for a post-doc.
2) It's even harder to find the motivation to look for a job while writing your dissertation. You might not have a date yet, but if your boss is dropping hints about graduating (stops making reference to your attending the next 5 annual retreats, starts mentioning which PIs would be good mentors, stops writing grants for your project...), start the process. Even if you are off by a few months, you'll be glad you've put the time in. Because...
3) Grad student-self, you are way less prepared than you think, and this process will take way more time than you imagined. Oh sure, my CV was up to date when I first applied for a job. But the second job wanted a resume. And my first cover letter was awful : "To whom it may concern, let me summarize the contents of my CV, and evade my motivations for applying here..." I still am working on how to pitch myself in interviews or job fairs to prompt potential employers to see me succeeding in the positions they have open. But more than that, I still don't know what I am looking for. Reading job descriptions got me thinking about jobs I could or couldn't do, and made me realize that when we say "industry job" that's about as specific as "University degree." This has helped me to realize that while I want off the bench in the long term, I would like to try some applied R&D, in drug development or even clinical trials. It got me thinking about how to use my interest in writing, and even how many "industries" are out there. Sure, BigPharma and Biotech spring to mind, but biofuels, bioremediation, food science, regulatory science, medical devices and science publishing are all venues that need Ph.D.s in biology, and that I'd really never thought of until I started looking. It doesn't have to take a year to find a job, but if you are looking for a job you want, you need the flexibility to be more discerning.
Sure, you might get the first job you apply for, but it may take them half a year to get back to you. It's hard to get focused on the search unless you have a firm date, but really I should have started looking at job boards earlier- like maybe when I was applying to grad school. Seriously, if I had figured out what job I wanted after I had my degree, I might have tailored my education to get it.