To Ph.D., or not to Ph.D? That is the question.
November 2, 2008 5:29 AM   Subscribe

Should I get a Ph.D.?

So I'm about to graduate from a top-25 law school. I've got a respectable but not stellar GPA (the school doesn't rank). I spent my last two summers working for a U.S. Attorney's Office and the Federal Communications Commission. Yay me.

Except that I don't have a job yet, and with the economy having tanked, prospects are not as rosy as they once were. BigLaw has already finished hiring, so that's off the table. The clerkship thing doesn't seem to have panned out. Which leaves me with public interest and small firms.

Thing is, what I really want to do is teach. Teach and write. And neither of jobs I'm most likely to be able to land at this point have a clear track back into academia. Tenure track law positions, hell, even non-tenure track law positions, generally require a few publications under one's belt. Which I don't have yet. I'm working on a paper that I think is really interesting, one that has the potential to be a major academic project, but there's no way I can have it even ready to submit for publication before the spring. Which is a problem, because academic hiring is going to be finished in about a month.

On the other hand, there's a Ph.D. program at my university that I'm completely fascinated by. History and Philosophy of Science. I'm currently taking my second non-law graduate class, and I've talked with my current professor, who happens to be attached to the program I'm looking at. I'll be sitting down with the program director week after next to see if I could actually do a course of study that would be satisfactory for all involved.

My question for the Hive Mind is whether or not I'm completely crazy. I turn 27 in a few months, I'm sitting on low six figures in educational debt, and I'm considering embarking on a 5-6 year academic program. Granted, my job prospects will be significantly better once I'm done--I'm told by law faculty that JD/Ph.D.s are in no small demand--but the thought of being in school until I'm 33 gives me pause. I love both research and writing, and assuming the program is willing to work with me on a few logistical issues (and, you know, admits me, though I'm not terribly worried about that) I know I can complete the program. Should I? Or should I just bite the bullet and get whatever real job I can?
posted by valkyryn to Education (43 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Umm ... so, you said: "I'm told by law faculty that JD/Ph.D.s are in no small demand"

That may be right in law schools, but it pretty much won't help if you want a philosophy of science job. Philosophy jobs are very hard to get regardless of whatever other degrees you have. If you want to get a philosophy job, I'd recommend you finish your J.D. and then get a Ph.D. in philosophy. This is not very rare (1/3 of my starting class in my Ph.D. program had a J.D.).

Here is some good advice on Phil Ph.D. programs:

Here is a standard ranking:
(It's normally believed that if you want to get a job at a top research school, you must have a Ph.D. from a top 25-or-so school.)

I'm no phil sci expert (I do epistemology), but I'd say that Pittsburgh, Oxford and Michigan (for Physics in particular) are the best places to study phil sci in the next 5-10 years. Major phil sciers have been moving and retiring in the past couple years, so watch out for that.

posted by singerdj at 5:53 AM on November 2, 2008

How much time have you spent working, out of school? I'm not talking summer jobs here, but a couple years of full-time employment in a non-academic setting? If you're 27, I assume at least a year or two in there...

Personally, I'd take a couple years to work, pay down some of that debt, and figure out what exactly you want. If you stay in school for too long, it can be hard to maintain a bit of perspective on what to expect "in the real world." Two years isn't going to significantly delay you, but it could keep you from making an expensive commitment that might not be right for you.
posted by paanta at 6:24 AM on November 2, 2008

As with singerdj, I'm a little confused. You are studying law, enjoy law but want to do a History/Philosophy PhD? Then in the last paragraph you seem to suggest that you want a JD/Law PhD, which is a bit confusing...

Anyway, shrugging off the conflicting comments, I am of the opinion that you should get a Law PhD/JD (whichever the Faculty prefers for it's academic staff if both are available), since you quite clearly state that you like teaching and research and essentially want to become a professor. I've heard of a PhD being referred to as an "academic apprenticeship" many times and I think it's now a given at most universities that you'll have a Doctoral qualification if you want to become a professor there. So, if your dream is to become an academic, this seems like the best way to do it!

Don't get the other PhD though! You'll spend "5-6 years in academia" and then end up just as unemployable as you were before you started, unless the Faculty you study with happens to have an opening (and my experience with those types of PhD is that openings are rare). Why do I get the feeling this comment is going to get me flamed?
posted by ranglin at 6:27 AM on November 2, 2008

Check your MeFi mail.
posted by googly at 6:29 AM on November 2, 2008

I don't know anything about legal academia except that it's really different from the rest of academia, so don't take advice about "how to become a law professor" from people (like me!) who are professors in other areas.

What I _do_ know is that law faculties certainly hire people with Ph.D.s in areas outside law -- the two law professors I'm friends with here at UW have doctorates in history and chemistry, respectively.
posted by escabeche at 6:30 AM on November 2, 2008

Various comments:

A JD/PhD helps iff the JD is relevant. It can help you land a position in a law school, or in a political science department if you study judicial politics (and are willing to advise prelaws). It won't help you land a position where nobody gives a fuck about lawyers or judges.

There are many reasons to choose a PhD program. "This one is here" is not a good one unless there is something actually tying you to that area.

Going along with that, are you willing to live absolutely anywhere in the US? No? Then do not get a PhD. You can get through a program and get a job if you're tied to a particular area, but the tradeoff is that you have to compromise your career goals.

Why do you want to teach? You should be aware that most faculty do not primarily teach bright-eyed students who bustle along to law school and ponder teaching themselves. Most faculty teach primarily poorly-prepared, poorly-motivated students who ill understand college and who want to understand how your course gets them higher income.

Why do you want to write? Go look at journals publishing in philosophy of science. That's what you would be writing -- not what you did as an undergrad or law student.

If you find philosophy of science fascinating, why? Could it be the case that (given you want to get a PhD in something), you'd actually be better off getting a scientific or social-scientific degree and marketing yourself as at least partly a methodologist?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:37 AM on November 2, 2008

And, following ranglin, going through a philosophy PhD program to improve your job prospects over a JD does seem, well, phrases like "apocalyptically foolish" come to mind.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:41 AM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm going to assume that you're talking about getting a PhD and then aiming for a law professorship, not a position in your PhD discipline. Your J.D. is of little value in the eyes of the rest of academia and it would not give you more than a marginal advantage on the job market in the non-legal academy, though it will help you considerably in admissions.

However, a PhD is not useless for breaking into legal academia. While there is a bit of added value for a PhD in practically anything, the route that will maximize your chance of becoming a law professor is a social science PhD, e.g., political science or economics, with a research methods focus. Law schools are currently drooling over a somewhat limited crop of J.D./PhDs who are capable of producing good empirical research on law and courts.

Law schools may not be as explicit about it, but you'll still have to be a productive researcher to get hired and tenured. If you can imagine yourself having a passion for this side of the job, it's worth considering.
posted by shadow vector at 6:52 AM on November 2, 2008

Going along with that, are you willing to live absolutely anywhere in the US? No? Then do not get a PhD.

I'm going to chime back in for two reasons:

1. I want to wholeheartedly support the comment above. If you don't want to move, don't get a PhD! Academia can be quite competitive, and you'll most likely be applying for positions all over the country, because they don't come up that often, so you take what you can find! I have a friend who refuses to move more than an hour or so from his current Alma Mater and, needless to say, he's still a sessional (American's call it adjunct) staff member, rather than full-time.

2. It occurred to me, having read ROU_Xenophobe's comment, that you should realise that most PhD programs allow you to pretty quickly experience what teaching and research in the Faculty will be like, especially if you can get a job as a TA or somesuch. This should give you some idea of whether you like it or not before you waste TOO much time. Also, in America some universities allow you to graduate with a terminal Masters degree after finishing your coursework but before you start your dissertation. This could provide a type of "bail out" option if you decide academia is not for you, although I can't make any comment on how well these types of degrees holders would progress (and whether this type of Masters would help at all!).
posted by ranglin at 6:58 AM on November 2, 2008

Let me add that I'm not sure what the market is like within law schools for law/philosophy types. I know that some exist and there is a substantial philosophy of law discipline, but I don't know off the top of my head how competitive that is. My guess, however, given the nature of the topic, is that this is probably similar to political theory's place within political science: stupendously, absurdly competitive. Check into this and be careful of committing yourself to a path where you'll have to literally be one of the best two or three new PhDs in the country that year to get hired.
posted by shadow vector at 6:59 AM on November 2, 2008

I'm sitting on low six figures in educational debt

This seems like it might be a real problem -- academic pay is decent, but not anything spectacular (though it is better in e.g. engineering; it seems likely that it is also better for law professors. But not for philosophers, except for the one or two each year who manage to be the subject of a bidding war. You won't be those people, sorry.) Wikipedia has aggregated some salary data if you're interested in thinking about this more. (By my rough calculations, if I had that kind of debt, I'd have to live like a grad student for another 8 years at a minimum to pay it off. And let me tell you, by the time you finish grad school, you would be a little tired of living like a grad student.)

Also, have a look at this document on graduate study in philosophy (via leiter).
posted by advil at 7:08 AM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Going to school in order to get a job is stupendously foolish. I didn't even get one degree and I retired at 33. But money isn't everything: really its almost nothing. Instead think about what drives you; what do you do when you don't have to be doing something else?

Now, I've known a couple of people who also asked: "Should i get a PhD" and the advice I gave them was, no, its a pointless waste of time. But this is because, it was a waste of time for them. The reason is that deep down they actually dreaded the idea of years of more schooling,and only saw the degree as a means to and end: social status and making more money someday.

But look at the way you speak about the prospect of working for your PhD. "there's a PhD. program at my university that I'm completely fascinated by", "I'm working on a paper that I think is really interesting", "I love both research and writing".

I say, do what you love. Don't compromise.
posted by Osmanthus at 7:41 AM on November 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

Whenever I see someone say something like "the thought of being in school until I'm 33 gives me pause" I always ask myself a question I heard on some pop radio psychology show, but it actually does make sense. For you, the question would be:
When you turn 33 in six years, are you going to regret not having a PhD?
The question lets you move away from a question of whether you spent too much time in school, but how you will feel afterwards in terms of accomplishments. Time will still move on and soon you'll be 33. Do you want to have a PhD by that age or is a job more important?
posted by mathowie at 8:11 AM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Absolutely no, don't do it.

If you're looking for a job, you're in a much better position with a professional degree than as you would be with a phd in philosophy. Do you know how many phds are out of work? They posted a job here in the Toronto area for a phd to teach business english at a local college and got a THOUSAND applications. There's another business here (and elsewhere) that hires out-of-work phds to write undergraduate papers for pay. The students pay 40 bucks a page, I don't know how much of that gets to the phd. That's the situation we're in.

First: a phd program sounds fantastic, but here's the truth: it's extraordinarily boring. You won't JUST focus on one tiny area. First you'll have to do your comprehensive exams, when you'll have to cover all parts of the field so you're ready to teach the inevitable undergraduate survey courses (more on those in a moment). Many parts of it will be painfully boring and tedious. You will have to take in the whole field all this alone, too. For many months, if you don't get out of bed, no one will notice or care. This is the nature of phd programs. Let's say you make it through that, only getting a little bit bitter: then you have a the "finishing problem". Everyone struggles to finish their dissertation. Mostly because it gets so damn boring after while, and it's hard to maintain that kind of motivation for one tiny subject for that long. The work isn't difficult. It's not enough to consider whether you're capable of the work. It's relentless and boring. And lonely. That's the killer.

Let's say you make it through! Yay, congratulations!

Are you intending to continue focusing on law, in spite of a phd is a totally different area? If you want to shift over to philosophy/history proper, minus law, that law degree won't help you any more than any other undergradate degree would. Keep in mind as well that interdisciplinary programs are rare, and the places you'll be applying to will expect you to have a proper degree in either history or philosophy. So you might need to argue your case there just to get seen. As was said above, are you ready to take a job in Bumfuck Alabama and be happy about it?

If you are married, or meet someone in the next 5-8 years, are you prepared to either a) have a permanent long distance relationship (fairly common in academia), or b) have your choices of location further limited by where your partner can get a job? (You won't even be able to apply for that job in Bumfuck, as your partner absolutely will not go there.)

If you hook up with someone who's in the same Phd program as you, you can pretty much forget about getting a job at the same school. Swinging that kind of situation is pretty rare, and in this fiscal environment, will probably get more rare. Bumfuck University can't afford both of you.

Before you'll get a tenure track job that allows you to make decisions about your personal life, you will probably have to take sessional gigs, which will not pay you enough money to stay above the poverty line. Sessional pay is the dirty (non-) secret of academia, where they expect you to do most of the work for the departmental teaching load for the sheer privilege of doing it. In spite of teaching three or more classes, sessionals often don't break 30K a year. Your 6 figure educational debt will be seriously pressing on you at that point. But you'll be one of the lucky ones with a sessional gig. Yay!

But let's look at a best case scenario: you get a tenure track job! Fantastic! (Keeping in mind that if you're in the US, particularly at Bumfuck University, you'll probably get a starting salary around 60K or less. Once again, your 6 figure debt is going to continue to be a serious concern.)

Are you prepared to spend most of your time teaching first year philosophy or history survey courses? It sounds lovely to be able to teach graduate seminars on the topics that inspire you, but that's not what's going to happen, at least not until you pass the tenure hurdle (at least 6 years after you get the highly sought-after tenure track job). Remember that first year students will be bored, disinterested, and will raise their hands only to ask, "is this going to be on the exam?"

But at least you'll get to do your research, right? Sure, when you're not teaching. Which is all the rest of your time. And you'd better produce; it takes a lot of peer-reviewed published articles and even a book to get tenure. Forget about holidays and weekends for the first six years of your life. Are you disciplined enough to create a work/life balance in a field that doesn't think there is one?

Many (many many) people start phd programs because it sounds so romantic and daddy would be so very proud. But it's not all it's cracked up to be. You have to think hard about your priorities in life. Is it love? Location? Money? Sheer autistic obsession with a topic? It's not an easy road, and don't let the excitement and romance of it lull you into making a decision. If you're really ready to go down that crazy road, it could be the most rewarding one for you. Or it could break down your self-esteem and your options in your life. So think carefully.
posted by Hildegarde at 8:19 AM on November 2, 2008 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Several things make me skeptical of your plan:

(1) You say you go to a "top 25" law school, which makes me think your law school is probably ranked somewhere between 20 and 25. The chances of candidates from such law schools getting teaching positions is a lot lower than if you attended a top five law school.

(2) You say you don't have a job, which makes me think your performance in law school has not been completely stellar. Generally, students at the top of their classes at a nationally ranked law school have no trouble getting a job, no matter what the economy is like. Students who are not from a top five or top ten law school must have top grades if they are to have hope of getting a law teaching position.

(3) You don't mention law review as part of your law school career. It's pretty important that you have been on law review if you aspire to a law teaching career (but there are probably exceptions to that).

(4) You haven't done, and don't seem to be planning to do, a judicial clerkship. A federal judicial clerkship is an almost universal stepping stone to a teaching career.

(4) I don't get the impression that this History and Philosophy of Science program you're fascinated by fits into a coherent plan for your scholarly future. It sounds like you're approaching your future in a somewhat ad hoc manner.

From what you're telling us about yourself, it does not sound like you would be a strong candidate for a law school teaching position. I don't mean that as a criticism; I think a solid legal career, even in the relatively less prestigious realms of the profession, is a lot more challenging (and a lot more remunerative) than a career in the legal academy except for a handful of academic superstars at the top four or five law schools. (Seriously, law professor salaries don't come anywhere close to matching the income of many small-firm lawyers in lots of mid-sized U.S. cities. You don't have to have a prestigious job to do very well financially as a lawyer.) And I think members of the legal academy have a bizarrely inflated sense of their own position in the professional pecking order (note all the blog entries that law professor bloggers post about "how to get a job in the legal academy." It seems almost a requirement of being a law prof blogger to post self-congratulatory musings about how aspirants can navigate the tortuous path to one's privileged position as a law professor).
posted by jayder at 8:24 AM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

This isn't my field at all - but shouldn't you be considering an LL.M?
posted by kickingtheground at 8:24 AM on November 2, 2008

I agree, wholeheartedly, with what Hildegarde says. Especially what she says about the nature of Ph.D. programs (I have been in one, and she is right on the money).

And be careful about listening to others who urge you to "do what you love" or "follow your passion."

It's easy to listen to the facile encouragement of others and ditch your plans for a legal career in favor of a Ph.D. program. It wasn't until well into my thirties that I learned the true meaning of the phrase "talk is cheap." Urgings to "do what you love" are undoubtedly well-meant, but from your position now, you don't really know whether the options a History and Philosophy of Science Ph.D. will open up to you will actually be "what you love," if you're lucky enough to have any real options at all. Have you made peace with the fact that your academic career may be limited to (a) piecing together a living by teaching first-year classes at three different community colleges or commuter schools or (b) skulking back to the legal profession with your tail between your legs because the big-time academic career you wanted "didn't work out"? Seriously, not to make light of your ambitions, but that's a real possibility.

There's a real possibility that the six to eight years spent in a Ph.D. program may not have any payoff in terms of career prospects. Gambling six to eight years of your life for a chance to have a job in a very weak academic job market, carries the very real risk that the only thing you will get from the Ph.D. program is the prestige of the Ph.D. I know a lot of people with Ph.D.'s --- from Ivy League and comparable schools --- who are employed as systems analysts and other occupations completely unrelated to their Ph.D. subject because the jobs simply were not there when they got the degree.
posted by jayder at 8:44 AM on November 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

I would continue your education in some fashion while working at a small firm or public interest and interview again with Big Law and clerkships next year. Do not get a Ph.D in philosophy expecting it to lead to a job - yes, that's crazy.
posted by xammerboy at 9:13 AM on November 2, 2008

Nthing don't do it. I especially agree with Hildegarde's comments about PhD programs.

PhD programs are a 6-8 year BET on 1) actually getting a degree (which is far from a certainty) and 2) getting a job after.

I am 2/3 way through a PhD program right now. I work 10-16 hours a day, 7 days a week, rarely on my own projects. I have no hobbies, no social life, no money, and my career-prospects are slaves to the whims on my advisers. And right now if I fail this exam coming up I get kicked from the program with a MS. This is not a 'bad' experience with a PhD program, this is the 'average' experience. People get through it for sure, but not without serious mental scarring.
posted by Spurious at 9:30 AM on November 2, 2008

If you want to teach, why not look into teaching community college pre-law courses? Surely you can do that with a JD.

In a PhD program you'll quickly learn that teaching is a low priority after research.

And I would SERIOUSLY consider all the statements in this thread about the PhD/academic lifestyle. I didn't fully understand this before I started, but I wish that I would have. You've been a law student, so I imagine that you understand the hours involved in being a grad student, but do you know about the socialization aspect? Read "Getting What You Came For."

Another example: If you're in your late 20s and you have any interest in having a family, find your potential significant other NOW and make sure that s/he quickly falls in love with you and will tolerate the PhD/academic lifestyle. (both - terrible hours, high stress, once beyond PhD having to move to anywhere in the country.) Having a kid during course work (first 3 years, more or less) is extremely tough. You can certainly have a kid while you're doing quals or dissertation though. If you're female, acknowledge that after age 35 you're more likely to have a high-risk pregnancy AND you're likely to be put on bed rest which wouldn't jive very well with being a grad student or an academic. Your SO is going to have to take on a lot of childcare responsibilities, so make sure that s/he is okay with that.
posted by k8t at 10:29 AM on November 2, 2008

I only know of one school that has a PhD in the History of Science and it's law school is a top school. That being said, I don't know what you would do with a JD/PhD in History of Science. If it were a PhD in Urban Planning or Computer Engineering or something else, I could see it being useful. But History of Science? Where does that get you?

I would look into being a contract attorney after you graduate and you should definitely start paying off your loans. Or you should be looking into midsize firms that are doing bankruptcy or employment law or whatever.
posted by onepapertiger at 11:51 AM on November 2, 2008

Nthing many others saying this is not a plan I would recommend. I have a PhD in philosophy and a job in philosophy. You will get a sense of what an odd sort of accomplishment that actually is from all the comments above. If you think the economy tanking right now leaves you with crappy job prospects, then you are entirely unprepared for academia. Seven grad students started in my program the year I did, but only four finished. Of those of us who finished, only three ever got any sort of stable employment in academia. We have landed in such grand locales as Fresno, Alabama and Qatar. When I say "You can spend the rest of your life teaching overflowing intro logic classes in a state school in Arkansas for $30,000 a year," do you cry in joy? Because I know people who have. No history department will hire you. Philosophy of science jobs have fewer candidates applying, but there are far fewer of them available.

I have wanted to do this since I was 14 and doing it very nearly broke me countless times between now and then. I would have crashed and burned rather than try anything else, gone bankrupt, lived broke, never married and ground myself down to nothing. I have watched a lot of people, some of the smartest people I've ever met, with the same drive and determination come to nothing trying to do it. If you don't feel that - if you don't feel like you would trash your life up to this point, forego any relationships you already have and die with more debt than you have right now, all so you could do less than you'd like of what you love - then don't get a PhD in philosophy.
posted by el_lupino at 12:13 PM on November 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

For some meta-perspective on the Ph.D candidate lifestyle, consider that there will come a time when you go to work every day, only to end up morbidly reading posts like this with a heavy heart.
posted by Beardman at 12:29 PM on November 2, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses.

Yes, I'm aware that pursuing a career in academia means completely giving up any geographical tether, at least for a while. I'm pretty much okay with that. Goes with the territory. I was probably going to have to do that anyways.

Yes, I'm aware of the social implications of continuing my education (believe me, I am aware of that). I happen to be male, which takes some of the childbearing pressure off, but it's still a concern, so thanks to those who raised it.

Yes, I'm aware that academia is significantly research-oriented. That's part of the attraction, actually. The level of academic rigor in the majority of law scholarship is distressingly low. I'd venture to guess that if you gave any random law review article, even from the best journals in the country, to a professor of a discipline related to the subject at hand (especially a historian), they'd just laugh. It really is that bad.

But I guess one thing I didn't make very clear is that I'd specifically want to end up as a law professor, which changes the equation somewhat. Though Ph.Ds are a dime a dozen in the normal academic market, in the law teaching market, though things are still unbelievably competitive, Ph.D.s are actually rather rare. At my law school, again, top-25, something like 10% of the faculty has one. If you factor out those who are either deans or attached elsewhere in the university, there's only a couple. The "standard" academic teaching market and law teaching market are entirely distinct. I wouldn't be competing for any of the jobs that my graduate cohort would, and they wouldn't be qualified for any jobs that I'd be interested in.

There is one thing though that most of the respondents here don't seem to be aware of. Law professorships don't pay as well as practicing law can, but they do pay significantly better than anything else in academia, even better than most science and engineering departments. We're not talking the $30-45k salary for philosophy here. We're not even talking the $55k that is the national average for lawyers. There are a few law schools that pay between $55k and $75k, but the vast majority of first-year tenure-track positions at law schools are between $80k and $120k. I may be crazy, but I'm not that crazy (at least I hope not). I'd be completely fine even at the bottom end of that range.

jayder, you seem to have picked up on the specific law-related aspects of my question and make some good points, some of which I'll answer for your further consideration.

1) Yes, you're approximately right in your assessment of my law school. I realize that this puts me at a disadvantage when compared to people from Yale, etc.

2) No, simply being near the top of your class does not make it easy to get a job this year. That's what admissions and career services tell you, but it's a lie. Again, top-25 law school, but over 30% of the class of 2008 graduated without a job (a record at least in recent memory); well over 50% of the class of 2009 is still unemployed; and OCI has been spectacularly underwhelming for the class of 2010, even for people on law review. I had a rough first semester, but even though my GPA is now more than 0.2 above the median for my class, I know people with better GPAs than mine who are in exactly the same boat. This is at least partly because the small firm and government market hasn't started hiring yet, and that will (hopefully) soak up a lot of the excess, but the numbers are already way down from even two years ago.

3) No, I didn't mention journal experience, but yes, I have it. I'm the managing editor at one of the journals here on campus, and this is part of what leads me to make the comments I made above about the quality of scholarship in the legal community. I read pretty much every article we publish, and let me tell you, most of them are crap. Just because we have to publish x number of issues and a total of y pages doesn't mean that there's actually that much stuff worth publishing in our field.

4) No, I don't have a federal clerkship, and no, that doesn't seem terribly likely. I'm applying to a few state supreme courts, and if I'm made an offer there, I'd definitely do that before anything else. Even if I decided I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., the clerkship would come first.

onepapertiger, the point on subject matter is also well-made. Things to think about.
posted by valkyryn at 1:02 PM on November 2, 2008

Best answer: Is there a job in the legal academy that having a Hist-Phil of Science PhD will qualify you for? The only thing I can think of would be something like either legal history or patent law. You need to talk seriously with your profs about what positions exist that would make this a rational course.
-Are there enough such jobs to make it a reasonable bet?
-Is getting a Hist-PhilSci PhD the best way to get qualified for that job? Would you do better actually becoming a patent attorney for a few years, or something else that would allow you to begin paying off your loans? (Stipends for philosophy PhD students are under $20K/yr (when last I checked) - and under no circumstances should you do a fulltime PhD if you are not fully funded by the program.)
-Recognize that personal organization/time-management skills, self-discipline, ability to handle loneliness are the traits that will see you through it. Even so, it will likely take more than the number of years they suggest. Median completion times are something like 7+ years.

I guess my advice would be:
Talk to your profs. A PhD is worth it IF it's a clear necessary qualification for a job you want.
But if it's just intellectual curiosity that's driving you (and fear of what life would be like outside school?) -- don't enter a program yet. Go live in the outside world, give it a couple of years, then think about coming back.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:36 PM on November 2, 2008

Okay, so you want a job teaching law, which you think you will get by pursuing a phd in a totally unrelated discipline. You are hoping against hope that you can get in the higher salary range; presumably because you would have this phd? Don't you think they're going to care that you have a) no experience in actual law practice, and b) the wrong kind of phd? What exactly are you going to be offering that law school? Would they hire you over someone who spent 15 years in civil rights law? Which person would you rather have teaching YOU?

Many professional schools have faculty who don't have phds. This is because they are professional schools and are teaching people to perform a particular job. In that case, people without phds but with lots of experience are a good thing. I can't really see that any self-respecting law school, paying their tenure-track faculty 120K a year, are going to be interested in a 30something who couldn't get a job in law, has no experience, and has a phd in a different field.

Maybe a school paying far less might take a chance on you. And then you're still in the same boat the rest of us are warning you about.

If you really want to teach law, you probably shouldn't take up philosophy/history of science. Now, if you want to take up history and philosophy of law, that's more logical. The law degree still wouldn't really help you. You could become a law librarian and would be extremely sought after across north america, but that doesn't seem to be your area of interest.

My suspicion is that you want to do this, and nothing we say is going to deter you. So go have fun, and remember: if a phd program doesn't pay all your expenses, they don't really want you. Let us know how you make out. I suspect you'll wake up at some point in your 30s wondering what the hell you're going to do with your life, but maybe you'll prove us all wrong.
posted by Hildegarde at 2:52 PM on November 2, 2008

Okay, so you want a job teaching law, which you think you will get by pursuing a phd in a totally unrelated discipline. You are hoping against hope that you can get in the higher salary range; presumably because you would have this phd? Don't you think they're going to care that you have a) no experience in actual law practice, and b) the wrong kind of phd? What exactly are you going to be offering that law school? Would they hire you over someone who spent 15 years in civil rights law? Which person would you rather have teaching YOU?

I'm not so sure I agree with Hildegarde, here. Yes, actual law practice is something desirable in a law professor, but in the tenured law school faculty ranks you commonly see faculty who have practiced one or two years as associates in big firms before moving to academia. I could be wrong, but it is my perception that it would be unusual to see a new law school faculty member (non-clinical faculty, I mean) with fifteen years of practice experience in any area of the law. The legal academy simply does not expect that much practice experience.

The most well-established, guaranteed route to tenured law faculty positions is the route of Top 5 law school + federal clerkship + Supreme Court clerkship + one or two years as an associate at a Cravath-type firm ... then first law faculty position.

It's my understanding that, with a JD/PhD, one is somewhat excused for deviations from the well-established path, but only slightly. And what is considered an acceptable field for a Ph.D. might include philosophy of science if one could connect that meaningfully to legal scholarship (not sure what valkyryn has in mind in that regard, though). I do think that Ph.D.'s outside the expected fields (economics, history, etc.) can be welcomed into the legal academy as long as they really form part of a legitimate law-related research program.
posted by jayder at 3:06 PM on November 2, 2008

the reason there are few PhDs on law school faculties is because they are totally unnecessary. I can't emphasize this enough. It's just totally and completely unnecessary and doesn't add value. No one will hire someone to be a law prof because they have a PhD.
posted by onepapertiger at 3:23 PM on November 2, 2008

Fair enough, Jayder. I can't speak for law, only for history (my own phd program) and science and technology studies (my husband's). I'm a little surprised that they don't value experience more highly, though; I left my phd program for library school, which has a exactly two instructors who had not been practicing librarians; one who was studying health informatics (understandable) and one who was cross-appointed with computer science and taught information visualization. We had several "20-years in the field" faculty, some of whom didn't have phds. They were great instructors for the practical and theoretical sides of the job.

I just don't see how history/philosophy of science is going to be a good transition into law, frankly. And I did a great deal of history of science during my first graduate degree. Fascinating stuff, but not particularly relevant to the study of law. Neither history nor philosophy use social science research methods, so there isn't much cross-over there.

For background, not only am I a phd dropout (and my husband is struggling to finish his dissertation as we speak), but my employer is interested in supporting me going back to school...for a phd. I'm considering it, but only insofar as I can apply what I'm learning and doing directly to my daily work in the library. Doing something unrelated would be completely acceptable, but I feel it would partition my interests and make it harder to switch gears back to my passion for my job. I think as long as the school work can constantly inform the thing that you do daily (or hope to do daily), it might work. But I'm still not entirely convinced. Phd programs aren't nearly as much fun as they look like they should be. Master's degrees, on the other hand, are MADE OF FUN.
posted by Hildegarde at 3:24 PM on November 2, 2008

Whoops, sorry, meant to format the links:

See his comment at the end of the following posting, where he concludes that in some areas "PhD training is essential" for law faculty.

See the following posting, where he discusses what he calls "the interdisciplinary turn" in legal scholarship and says "the vast majority of faculty hired at top law schools have not only JDs, but PhDs in some cognate discipline":

Here's another posting where he describes the hiring process at the University of Texas law school, saying that a third to one-half the candidates they interview have both a J.D. and a Ph.D.
posted by jayder at 3:56 PM on November 2, 2008

The program he's thinking of is in history of science/philosophy of science. Which I can imagine being relevant to the study of say, legal history in some science-related area. What he needs to see is:
1. Are law faculties in fact hiring scholars who do the legal history of the science-related area he has in mind?
2. Will the PhD program let him focus his thesis work toward the area he's interested in?
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:30 PM on November 2, 2008

Response by poster: Hildegarde, you're wrong about law professors, and jayder is right: Many if not most law faculty have little or no experience actually practicing law beyond judicial clerkships, which are very much unlike what most lawyers do on a regular basis.

Furthermore, there's no such thing as a discipline unrelated to law. Really. Most of the time the distance really isn't that attenuated. Economics, history, politics, physics, English, engineering, you name it: there's law about it. History of science has the potential to be incredibly relevant to law, particularly in the area of intellectual property, but also in areas as diverse as forensic evidence and expert testimony. What we think about science and scientists is very important to what we make of such information in the courtroom, and the issue is very much a live one.

jayder, my interest is the history of economic thought, especially the economic thought of the Founding generation, so I wouldn't be straying very far from the most traditional cross-disciplinary fields. History, economics, and the concept of law as a science (because many early modern thinkers thought law was a science) would be what I would want to do most of my research in.

Hildegarde, you are partly right in that little anyone here can say will affect my decision. jayder, especially in his last few posts, links to material that essentially confirms my suspicions that a Ph.D. can be of real value for a legal academic.

But that doesn't mean that there aren't other people who could effectively dissuade me. What will make or break this for me, other than whether or not I can actually get accepted anywhere, is whether or not the program director I'm meeting with is willing to work with me on the logistics. If they're going to make me take a bunch of classes I don't want, the deal is off. If they won't allow a member of the law faculty to be on my dissertation committee, I'm out. If the law school is categorically opposed to me teaching a class here and there, I'd be concerned. And, as you've pointed out, unless there's full funding, I'll want no part of it.

jayder, you're right that I'd be a long shot to teach at a "top" law school. I don't expect that I'd be able to get a position at my own alma mater, at least not right away, nor at any school that good. But I'd be completely okay teaching anywhere in the top 100. Which may be a little ambitious, but if what you're saying is true, I should have at least a halfway decent shot at something like that. Yale? Gosh no. Fordham? Probably not. But the University of Tennessee? Pitt? I'm hoping that's more realistic. Even if I can't parlay that into a more prestigious law school, I'd be content.

I guess a question I'd have for the field is whether or not one could find the time to spend 10-ish hours a week working a job other than being a student. Because as I'd have a JD, and I plan on taking the bar in the state I'd be studying in, there's nothing other than sheer infeasibility that would prevent me from doing part-time legal piece work while a graduate student. This would make the money side of things much, much more doable while a student, and that would make things much, much easier afterwards. Even 10 hours a week could earn me almost $10,000 over the course of a year, which would be at least 50% of my stipend and could take a decent-sized chunk out of my loans. Obviously some negotiation with the university would have to go on for this to work, but for those of you who are/have been graduate students, could you at least theoretically make time in your schedules (10 hours a week) for something like that?
posted by valkyryn at 5:16 PM on November 2, 2008

I think that the descriptions here of grad student life are among the best and most accurate that I've ever read.

I guess a question I'd have for the field is whether or not one could find the time to spend 10-ish hours a week working a job other than being a student. ... Obviously some negotiation with the university would have to go on for this to work, but for those of you who are/have been graduate students, could you at least theoretically make time in your schedules (10 hours a week) for something like that?

Lots and lots of graduate students have to work over and above their teaching/research commitments. It's possible, yes, but don't fool yourself that it won't make you take longer to finish, more than likely. It's what you do when you have to support a family, or your stipend gets cut unexpectedly. It's not what you do when you are focused and trying to finish ASAP.

However, if you can get paid to do your research or otherwise work in your field, then it is the other way around -- you are then double dipping in the best way possible. That's unusual, but when it can happen the synergy can be good.

Anyway, get a phd and teach if it is your genuine calling in life. But do it knowing that there are far, far better paths to take from a purely economic perspective. Yes, law school salaries are somewhat better than salaries in the humanities, say. But not enough better to justify 8 years of a TA stipend, compared to what even minimally competent lawyers make. Do it for love; if money and employability are your concerns this is the last thing in the world you should be considering.
posted by Forktine at 7:36 PM on November 2, 2008

Furthermore, there's no such thing as a discipline unrelated to law. Really.

Wouldn't it make sense that the discipline most-related to law, is well... law? I don't really understand this mentality that getting a phil PhD will be useful for you in becoming a law professor! It's like somebody trying to get a PhD in Theater Arts and then applying for jobs as a professor of Physics..

To extend the metaphor further, even if you could work out some way to link together Theater Arts and Physics ("Newton's Three Laws: A Play"), it would seem that physics departments are going to be much more interested in hiring people with studies in physics, rather than those with a theater degree that touches on physics, doesn't it?

But to be honest, I think the others posters are right and you've convinced yourself to go down this path regardless of what we all say... Here's hoping that it does work out ok for you and that you don't, as Hildegarde says, "wake up at some point in your 30s wondering what the hell you're going to do with your life".
posted by ranglin at 4:49 AM on November 3, 2008

Response by poster: ranglin, the thing is that law as a discipline is essentially just a methodology, the content of which is significantly supplied by other disciplines. It really is a different bird than other graduate programs. The standard JD degree actually requires zero scholarship. None. You don't have to write anything of any academic value whatsoever. Even a one-year masters program could produce more scholarship than a three-year law degree. But law professors are increasingly expected to be scholars, so even more than it has in the past, the discipline borrows from other fields where actual scholarship is taking place. So while getting a Ph.D. in Theater Arts will do you absolutely no good in applying for a job in a physics department, getting a Ph.D. in either could be of interest in the right law school. Granted, certain disciplines are a better fit with law than others, i.e. the arts tend to be of less use than the hard sciences, which are generally of less use than the social sciences, but there's always some value added.

The trend in the discipline is significantly towards "law and x", where x is some other discipline. Law and economics has been a dominant field for over 50 years in everything from torts to contracts to criminal law. Law and the hard sciences/engineering have been doing productive work in patent law for quite some time, and continue to play a role in legal theories of forensic evidence and expert testimony. Law and history is growing in prominence as we get farther from our legal origins. A lot of historical research went into the recent Heller 2d Amendment case. Law and sociology/psychology is huge in both the criminal and planning contexts, and new discoveries in the nature of human consciousness have been adapted into the legal definition of death. 20th century psychiatric research has revolutionized the way the law treats insanity and mental disability. Law and philosophy have gone together for centuries. Law and medicine/nursing is essentially a license to print money, as the personal injury and malpractice fields have an insatiable demand for medically-savvy lawyers. Legal scholarship is really an exercise of fitting information and ideas originating in other disciplines into the structure of law and legal analysis. The ability to interact seriously with current research in other disciplines is very much in demand.

When I asked the question I kind of figured I'd get a lot of former and current graduate students bitching about their experiences. I wanted to hear that, as a devil's advocate if for no other reason, but I'm discounting it a bit because I'm not approaching graduate studies like most graduate students will. Even if I drop out of a program, I can always go practice law somewhere, unlike normal graduate students who would be up shit creek without a paddle. Even a few publications without a degree could do me a lot of good. But the point about ensuring full funding before enrolling in a program was a good one, as was forktine's indication that part time work is possible but may well extend the length of a course of study.

Thanks all. I think I've gotten what I wanted out of this. I'm sitting down with the director of the program to which I'd be applying next week, and I now have a much better idea of what questions to ask when that happens.
posted by valkyryn at 7:42 AM on November 3, 2008

I'm sitting down with the director of the program to which I'd be applying next week

Applying to one program and one program only because you happen to be familiar with it and wouldn't have to move is a deeply, deeply foolish way to choose a PhD program*. If you are going to do this, you should investigate which programs are the best for what you envision and what their placement records are, and apply to the right programs instead of the convenient one.

*Which doesn't mean it won't work out. Lots of terrible decisions have, through random chance, decent consequences.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:51 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've enjoyed reading this thread so far without commenting, because it already contains most of the advice I'd give – though some of the best responses here seem to be falling on deaf ears, as sometimes happens with (especially gruffly phrased) answers that the questioner doesn't want to hear. But as the thread has gone on I've become much more convinced than I initially was that the "tough-love"-type answers here are the ones you ought to be listening to: I really don't think you understand what you're signing on for when you enter a Ph.D. program, either psychologically or institutionally.

I think this last response illuminates one of the reasons the existing answers haven't been heard successfully, and so calls for a response:

I'm discounting it a bit because I'm not approaching graduate studies like most graduate students will. Even if I drop out of a program, I can always go practice law somewhere, unlike normal graduate students who would be up shit creek without a paddle.

No one should this quickly count himself an exception from the usual psychology of being a grad student, and especially not when faced with so many compelling descriptions of it as you've been given here. Tim Burke describes this psychology very nicely in Should I Go to Grad School? (an essay which I commend to every prospective grad student but is especially relevant here), and you are almost certainly not an exception to it, because graduate school subtly changes your psychology, and often virtually demands a total emotional commitment. What you are dismissing as "bitching" is actually an attempt to communicate clearly many of the difficulties you'll soon be facing, despite that you seem to want to ignore them in making this choice.

Also, for other reasons, going into a graduate program with this level of apparent (even if unintentional) contempt for your fellow students is a really bad idea. If you are joining a good Ph.D. program, many of your colleagues will have other professions and qualifications at least as impressive as your law degree, and portraying yourself as exempted from their professional and personal difficulties is a very bad way to start in building the collegial relations you'll need over the long haul of the program.

As jayder, ROU_Xenophobe, and LobsterMitten have most clearly stated, you should be doing more research about the professional side of this decision, and pursuing a Ph.D. only if it leads in some well-established way toward the kind of academic job that you eventually want. But you should also be listening to the answers about what it is like to pursue a Ph.D., on the level of everyday life and psychology (this includes the answers by el_lupino, Forktine, k8t, Hildegarde, et al.), much more sympathetically and much less dismissively. If believing their depiction of grad student life would mean you'd decide to forego the Ph.D., then you should forego the Ph.D. – these ought to serve at least as cautionary tales, not be dismissed as personal complaints that somehow won't apply to you because you're different from everyone else who goes to grad school. (Seriously, I know grad students – and grad school dropouts – with law degrees. They aren't different from anyone else in the context of a Ph.D. program.)
posted by RogerB at 10:00 AM on November 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

I am also skeptical of your plan in specific, to go the philosophy PhD route. Has the program you are considering actually produced a law professor or two in the last 5 years? Or, at minimum, someone who publishes research in law reviews and on legal topics? Is there a potential advisor who has experience in this domain? You need to have a clear idea of how well this program will equip you for actually doing legal research that will be in demand. If there is not an advisor who can help you navigate this and learn what does and does not constitute an interesting research question in the eyes of top 10 law reviews, do not go. There is not a graduate student on earth who is capable of mastering this without guidance from someone more experienced.
posted by shadow vector at 10:43 AM on November 3, 2008

If they're going to make me take a bunch of classes I don't want, the deal is off. If they won't allow a member of the law faculty to be on my dissertation committee, I'm out. If the law school is categorically opposed to me teaching a class here and there, I'd be concerned. And, as you've pointed out, unless there's full funding, I'll want no part of it.

You're going to have to take classes that you don't want to. Your outside member may or may not be up to you. You're going to likely have little choice about what classes you'll TA for. This is the way it works in PhD programs.
posted by k8t at 11:14 AM on November 3, 2008

there's nothing other than sheer infeasibility that would prevent me from doing part-time legal piece work while a graduate student. This would make the money side of things much, much more doable while a student, and that would make things much, much easier afterwards. Even 10 hours a week could earn me almost $10,000 over the course of a year, which would be at least 50% of my stipend and could take a decent-sized chunk out of my loans. Obviously some negotiation with the university would have to go on for this to work, but for those of you who are/have been graduate students, could you at least theoretically make time in your schedules (10 hours a week) for something like that?

First, are those 10 hours that YOU can choose? That would make a huge difference. If you actually have to be somewhere at a particular time, it may not work, especially when you have coursework and TAing. Even if you can choose it, you're going to have to give something up - sleep, for example. A 10 hour a week RAship on campus is more doable - you don't have to be anywhere at any particular time and they understand that your coursework/research comes first.

Sure, there are 10 hours in your week to spare (sometimes) - you could also spend that time sleeping, eating, exercising, or do what most grad student do - use that time to get ahead in one's own research. I would also argue that at certain times - first year, during quals, during dissertation, those 10 hours would be better spent breathing and exercising than working. My significant other may want to see me too.

More importantly, will you ruin your chances for financial aid due to making more than your stipend? Possibly. I work in the summer at a high paying side job. I am very conscious about stopping working at the moment that I make about $200 below the limit that would push me into the next economic bracket for financial aid.

Also, MANY PhD programs/graduate divisions forbid outside working. The ones that don't will discourage it. In my program the few of us with outside gigs are well aware that we should NEVER mention them to the faculty.

So basically, don't count on it.
posted by k8t at 11:27 AM on November 3, 2008

Response by poster: RogerB, thanks for the link. Definitely food for thought.
posted by valkyryn at 4:53 AM on November 4, 2008

Response by poster: For what it's worth, I've spoken with several members of my law faculty, all of whom seemed pretty excited about the idea. I'll post more updates as they happen.
posted by valkyryn at 11:52 AM on November 6, 2008

Response by poster: Final followup: I got waitlisted at the grad program to which I applied, and I'm taking an in-house counsel job with an insurance company. Grad school, if it ever happens, will have to wait.
posted by valkyryn at 12:57 PM on April 2, 2009

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