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Law school and grad school - how bad are they really?
June 18, 2010 5:58 PM   Subscribe

Philosophy major considering grad school or law school--or both. Am I insane?

I'm a rising senior philosophy major. Right now I want to do either graduate school in philosophy or law school--or possibly a joint degree program. Pretty much everything I'm reading these days--for both--seems to be saying "the job market is terrible, don't do it unless you can't possibly imagine yourself doing something else--and maybe not even then."

The problem with this advice is that it is pretty ambiguous in who it's aimed at. Especially with regards to law schools. I understand that things are bad now if your plan is "go to grad school, get tenure track position at an Ivy League" or "go to law school, get a job at Big Law in NY/DC." But neither of those is really me. I'm interested in graduate school in philosophy as an end in itself. That is, I would find spending 5 years studying philosophy to be sufficiently rewarding to justify the time investment (with the assumption that I would only go on a fellowship/TA-ship that would allow me break even, or come very close). If I were to get a teaching job at the end of it, then that would be great. But I could also be happy doing grad school and then moving on to something else.

I’m interested in law school because I find the field immensely engaging. Obviously you have to study a variety of things like contract law that aren’t necessarily going to light a fire under you, but I think that I would enjoy the intellectual challenge of both law school and the legal profession. I’d be interested in making money only to the extent that I would want to make enough to pay off my debts. (See below.)

A third option I’m considering is doing both. Depending on whether or not I did it through a joint degree program, it would probably be 7-9 years of school to get the two degrees. My thinking is that after doing that my options would be to practice law, to teach law, and to teach philosophy, and with the latter two I would be more attractive than other candidates given my well-roundedness (or something like that).

(FWIW, based on my research, it seems that given my GPA and probable LSAT score (based on an official practice test I took) I can get in pretty much anywhere but the top 15, and possibly somewhere in the top 15 if I really nail the LSAT. My thinking is that I would prefer to go to a school slightly below my statistical level and get some scholarship money rather than stretch myself to go to a T-15 school where I’d be borrowing 100k.)

So my question is: is this sane? A degree in philosophy doesn’t immediately qualify you for anything specific, so it’s not like I’d be turning down A Sure Thing going to grad school after graduation. If I’m not banking my happiness on being an Ivy philosophy professor or hotshot lawyer, are law school and grad school really such bad options?
posted by resiny to Education (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
You should read this Metafilter post and comment thread on law school and the legal job market. Lots of lawyers, law students, and at least one law professor made it a great discussion of the realities of law school and the current job market.

Here's my take: if you can study philosophy with exceedingly minimal borrowing, then I would do that in a heartbeat. It's clearly something you're interested in, and if you can avoid taking on debt then there's really no downside. You can consider going to law school afterward. It's likely the job market will have improved.

I would not go directly to law school. Outside the top 14 you'd face an extremely bad job market. Remember that you don't get your first law job after graduation; you apply for your first law job in December of your first year at law school. So you'll be trying to get onto the job track while the job market is still terrible, and the market is so bad that it's not just firms that are had to get jobs at; public service jobs are also in short supply, partly because of increased pressure from people who couldn't get jobs at firms and partly because of budget shortfalls.

If you were to go to law school, whether now or later, I would strongly, strongly recommend going to the best school that gives you a full or nearly full scholarship (i.e. more than half). Minimal debt means that even if it turns out to be a mistake or waste you won't be screwed. It also means you won't have nearly as much pressure to stick it out if you hate it or do terribly your first semester or year. Finally, it means that you'll probably do well compared to your peers.

Remember: the vast majority of legal jobs worth having require that you be in the top third of your class. Many require the top quarter or even top ten percent. And that's just to get your resume looked at. So you don't want to go anywhere where you can't be reasonably sure that you will trounce your classmates.

(That doesn't apply to the extremely elite schools, but even they are struggling to place students right now. Students at Harvard, Yale, etc are going unemployed in significant numbers).
posted by jedicus at 6:12 PM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I understand that things are bad now if your plan is . . . "go to law school, get a job at Big Law in NY/DC."

Things are bad now, and will be bad for years to come, if your plan is to go to law school and get a job as a lawyer at any type of firm anywhere in the United States or abroad.

My thinking is that I would prefer to go to a school slightly below my statistical level and get some scholarship money rather than stretch myself to go to a T-15 school where I’d be borrowing 100k

Lower-ranked law schools often tend to be more expensive than higher-ranked schools, not less expensive. And 100k total costs for three years of law school is a pipe dream.

Don't go to law school just for the fun of it unless you have unlimited time and unlimited money at your disposal. Law school is fun, yes. But you can study torts and whatnot all day long for free if you're the sort of person who has money to burn and nothing better to do for three years than have fun reading and stressing out.

Outside the top 14 you'd face an extremely bad job market.

Inside the top 14, you'd face an extremely bad job market, too. If you graduated in the top 10% of your class from one of the top 5 schools in the country, you'd face an extremely bad job market.
posted by The World Famous at 6:13 PM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


You think a philosophy undergrad degree doesn't really qualify you for many positions besides grad school? Try a PhD in philosophy when not only do you come up against the stigma of "what can you really do with a philosophy degree?" but also the added stigma of being perceived as too overqualified because you have a PhD. Grad studies in the humanities: just say no.
posted by pised at 6:35 PM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


My thinking is that after doing that my options would be ... to teach law...

I can get in pretty much anywhere but the top 15...


These two thoughts don't go very well together. If you don't go to a top 14 law school and do very well there, your prospects of becoming a law prof aren't very good. It'd still be possible, but I wouldn't make your plans under the assumption that a law prof job is likely -- even if you do get into a top 14 school.

I got a philosophy degree and went to a top 14 law school, and when I read your question, my gut says don't go to law school. It sounds like you have an abstract intellectual interest in it but it's not worth the actual years and money and restrictions on your freedom (not just as a result of debt but from locking yourself into a specific path).

You seem to suspect that the naysaying you've been hearing about law and law school only have to do with the very most prestigious jobs in NYC and DC, so as long as you wouldn't mind not working there, you'll have no problem. I really don't think it's that simple. I've been spending a good 10 months looking for a job and am not restricting myself to those kinds of jobs (or NYC/DC in general). It's not easy.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:49 PM on June 18, 2010


I wouldn't do either course, frankly. Other posters are correct that the legal job market is somewhat awful right now, and the academic job market has been awful for years.

It's not clear from your post what you want to do with a philosophy graduate degree. Frankly, there's not much of a job market for one.

One of the greatest fallacies I see repeated, especially here on AskMe, is that education is good because it's education. That doesn't really follow; education is good when it provides you a set of skills that a future employer wants. Given that the two job markets to which your proposed degrees would be relevant are both awful it is not clear that pursuing this educational path will give you a skill set that employers want.
posted by dfriedman at 6:50 PM on June 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


I dunno, I can kinda see where you're coming from; I went to law school simply because I had visited a friend at law school, thought the whole idea was awesome, got bored of being a journalist and decided to try out law school because it sounded fun. I fell in love with criminal law after my second year and now I'm very happy as a criminal defense attorney. So you really can get into law school simply because you like the idea of it ... but you'd better be flexible and able to choose a specialty once you're here, because eventually law school will get pretty stale. (I could hardly stand school my third year. I just wanted to get out into the world.)
posted by Happydaz at 7:18 PM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Unlike dfriedman, I believe in education for the sake of education. An undergraduate degree is not vocational training. However, a law degree is vocational training, and that means you need to look not only at law school but at the practice of law and the job opportunities in it.

The job opportunities are, in a word, shit. The market is flooded with unemployed lawyers, and with big firms laying off associates from year 1 - 8, recent JDs are competing with seasoned attorneys who have literally years of experience for the same jobs.

My sister will graduate next term from a well-regarded Top 50 law school in NYC, one that is more well-regarded at city firms than its rankings would indicate. She'll be $120,000 in debt with monthly repayments of around $1,200. Even though she has real world job experience (she had a career before law school), stellar grades, excellent internships and is willing to relocate anywhere in the country, she knows her job prospects are dire.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:41 AM on June 19, 2010


The virtue of grad school over law school is that it's free -- or should be; if you don't get fellowships and TAships you absolutely should not go.

And you've got a good attitude about it: you just want to study for a few more years, and don't have your heart set on becoming a professor at all, let alone a Fancy one.

The downside, in addition to what pised said, is that you're then spending several years doing something not career related. You're not getting into debt, but you're delaying the beginning of proper income and training. (And, on what pised said, go here for a taste of the bitter.)

Bear in mind, too, that it's as hard to get into a decent grad school as it is to get into law school -- so it sounds like you're not bound for a top top program. That matters a LOT to job prospects; not so much if you're not planning on a career in academia. Go here for program rankings, to be taken with an entire shaker's worth of salt.
posted by kestrel251 at 7:41 AM on June 19, 2010


Here's some recreational reading for you: So You Want to Go to Grad School?, Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go.
posted by coffee_monster at 10:27 AM on June 19, 2010


Don't go unless you really want to be a lawyer/really, truly wish to be a law prof. I really wanted to be a lawyer and am currently in law school. Unlike all the doomsday people, I do not regret it (I want to do government or small firm, so I'm not going to cry if I can't get a $100k+ job right out of school like some people, hell, I'd be happy with $50k starting out, but my debts are not going to be nearly as much as most law grads).
Especially don't go to law school if you don't want to be a lawyer that bad AND can't get into a T-15 (usually people refer to the T-14, not T-15, but since I go to a T-15 , I will go ahead and pretend that this is the distinction, ;-) ).
Above the Law is entertaining and all, but they really like to put the bitterest spin on things. I stopped reading it once I was actually IN law school, since I found myself rolling my eyes at half of the sensationalistic drivel they post. Don't let them and their ilk deter you if law is what you REALLY want to do, and not just your idea of an easy ticket to the big bucks (because that's not what it is right now at all).
Note: You have to be willing to work in law and also live a modest lifestyle, at least starting out if you want to come out anything other than disappointed. You also need to be willing to BUST YOUR ASS to make good grades. I was a humanities major and know that in humanities undergrad you can make good grades through some work and a lot of bullshitting. Not really so in law school, as much as the stereotypes of lawyers might claim that. You have to actually read all your assignments closely, study hard for exams, etc.
posted by ishotjr at 11:35 AM on June 19, 2010


Don't go unless you really want to be a lawyer/really, truly wish to be a law prof.

Well, don't go to law school unless you truly want to be a lawyer, period. Truly wishing to be a law prof is not a good reason to go to law school unless you realize it's a remote possibility and can't be your main motivation. Sorry, but those are just the odds.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:09 PM on June 19, 2010


Grad school is 15% learning and at least 70% being socialized into the discipline that you're studying.

If you're trying to go for education's sake exclusively with no intentions of becoming an academic, you're going to have to deal with a lot of {often painful) socialization for nothing.
posted by k8t at 12:45 AM on June 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


A degree in philosophy doesn’t immediately qualify you for anything specific

Neither do most undergrad degrees. This is not a good reason to go to grad school immediately after college. In fact, it is a very bad reason to go to grad school immediately after college.

Loving a subject isn't enough to sustain you through a doctoral program: if you don't have a clear sense of why you're there and what your end-goals are, you'll very likely burn out. Do a lot more thinking about what you'll do during and after your PhD program. Talk to students in the programs you're interested in. Ask them what they did between undergrad and grad school, and what they plan to do after grad school.

Having majored in a similar, shall we say, impractical humanities subject, I'd strongly urge you to explore all of your (many) options before thinking your only path is grad school in philosophy or law school. Generally, there's very little risk in getting some real world experience before pursuing graduate school (and some admissions committees prefer applicants who aren't just out of undergrad), and there's absolutely no shame in taking an entry-level office job or waiting tables or teaching abroad while you figure things out.
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:53 PM on June 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I'm interested in graduate school in philosophy as an end in itself. That is, I would find spending 5 years studying philosophy to be sufficiently rewarding to justify the time investment (with the assumption that I would only go on a fellowship/TA-ship that would allow me break even, or come very close). If I were to get a teaching job at the end of it, then that would be great. But I could also be happy doing grad school and then moving on to something else."

You will never get a job in philosophy with this vision, so you can go ahead and write that off as a conceivable option. Furthermore, philosophy graduate programs are in the business of training professional philosophers and they will not let you in if they get the faintest whiff that their investment of time and money in you will be wasted in this way. Unless you are an absolute genius, your work will not be good enough unless you scratch and claw at it, every day, to make it better. If you were an absolute genius, people in the field would already know who you are; in all other cases, everyone is more or less equally talented and elbow grease goes further.

I find your attitude hostile to the continuing existence of the philosophical profession, which I care about very much, and I hope that you don't take the money and time of someone more dedicated to the field.

I recommend that you find a job with a business or in government and reconsider this proposal once you have worked for a few years and have a little more perspective.
posted by Kwine at 8:37 PM on June 20, 2010


Kwine,

I don't entirely understand the problem you have with me.

I love philosophy. I find it deeply meaningful and fulfilling, and I derive great satisfaction from studying it. I would like nothing more than to spend 5-6 years in graduate school before getting a job teaching philosophy for the rest of my life. But I'm also realistic. I know that there are more people who would like to teach philosophy than there are jobs teaching philosophy. I also know that there are other people who like philosophy just as much as I do who will be gunning for those same jobs, and who may be better candidates for those jobs than I will. There is, thus, a possibility that I could go to graduate school in philosophy and yet be unable to find a teaching job. I recognize this, and--though I would like nothing more than to teach philosophy--I am ok with it. I could do something else with my life without feeling like a failure or sinking into depression.

This strikes me as a healthy attitude. Certainly healthier than the "TENURE TRACK AT A RESEARCH UNIVERSITY/IVY LEAGUE OR BUST!" mentality. I find it curious that you've read so much into me as a person from my one post, and have, based on your interpretation, written such a strongly-worded post. If you're saying the only proper and appropriately respectful attitude to have towards graduate study in philosophy is a deranged obsession then no, it's probably not a good fit for me. But I don't see how you can infer anything about my level of commitment, intelligence, etc. from my post. All I said was that I'm not going to risk borrowing money for a PhD when the job prospects are so weak and that I could live a happy life if I got a PhD and was then unable to find a teaching position. If those are deemed unsavory attitudes then academia has become grotesque indeed.
posted by resiny at 10:13 PM on June 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


All I'm doing is reading and comprehending your words. Unless your attitude is that you will come away with a job at the end of your tenure, you will not. There are plenty of people who will feel that way and will go the extra mile-almost everyone else will feel that way, in fact. Will you show up to kiss the asses of visiting big shots at dinners and parties? Will you relentlessly solicit feedback from important strangers? Will you bear down and work on your dissertation every day when you are totally sick of it? Are you mentally prepared to watch your advisor tear holes in your approach in about four minutes at every meeting for years straight, and then trudge home to try to salvage the one and a half good ideas that remain? Are you prepared to chase down your incredibly busy advisor to schedule these meetings, as often as possible, at which your work will be ritually disembowled? Will you spend a weekend traveling to Podunk, OH for the Podunk Tech Grad Conference because you need to get a new idea in front of a new audience, and then the next weekend traveling to the Tiny College Grad Conference because you need to incorporate the feedback that you received? Will part of your plan for the summer(s) that you didn't get funded involve selling your plasma so that you have time to focus on your work?

Things like this are not fun, and will be hard to make yourself do unless you have your eye firmly on the prize of a professorship. You are conflating dedication to philosophy with dedication to professionalized philosophy. You have the former and it is necessary but not sufficient. In a year or three, maybe things will be different-plenty of people take some time away before they start. Get ye a job.
posted by Kwine at 6:12 AM on June 21, 2010


Please read the recent front page post on the law school disaster that was already mentioned above before you go borrowing any money. It's bad out there. Really, really bad. If you can go for free, sure, do it. But don't sell yourself into slavery like so many others. You won't be a law prof, sorry, but it just won't happen without a Top 10 pedigree, law review, appellate clerkships and some big time professors or judges sponsoring you. If you're not already on that track, you ain't gonna get there. And if you really love philosophy, law school is not the place to put your passion into practice. Only tenure track professors get to wax philosophical, see supra. You'll end up in daily traffic court or unemployed.
posted by T.D. Strange at 8:30 AM on June 23, 2010


If you're not already on that track, you ain't gonna get there.

Whoa... That is not a given. The OP could get into a top law school, get on law review, get an appellate clerkship, and do the other things necessary to have a shot at being a law prof. It's unlikely (lots of people are trying to do all those things, and few people accomplish all of them), but it's not predetermined before you go to law school.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:55 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


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