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JD/Practicing Attorney - Currently working on LLM thinking of making switch to PhD

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Hi all,

First, thanks for any guidance you might be able to lend me. I would note at the offset that I am currently studying for, but have not taken, the GRE. I recognize that my score will weigh heavy on my chances. 

I'm an attorney currently enrolled in a top Tax LLM program. At some point during the last semester, I realized that the through-line between all of the classes I have enjoyed has been a focus on more academic approaches to law. Suffice it to say, I realized that I really want to make a change and pursue a PhD in public policy or political science.

A few questions broad questions. First, I went to an Ivy League undergraduate school, but was debt-averse for law school so I went where I had a full ride -- not a bad school, by any means, but nothing to brag about. The LLM program I am in, however, is the top program in the US for that particular (very niche) field. Should I finish out the LLM (I'm about 1/3 completed) in order to be a "more interesting" candidate for a PhD program?

Second, I have noticed a few mentions of JD-cum-PhD applicants but not a lot of discussion of ultimate outcomes -- could any of those that might come across this weigh in?

Third, taking all comers, what are tangible things that you did/will do/should have done that you think influenced your acceptance to a top tier program? If you were transported back to 9 or 10 months before you wrote your applications, what would you do (differently or again)? Try to get something published? Focus more heavily on acing the GRE? 

Thanks all!

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I saw this post and figured I would weigh in because I come from a somewhat similar background as you. I also went to and graduated from law school.  However, after some lengthy personal reflection after graduating, and after an internship working with an attorney, I realized my passions lay in theoretical examinations of political science issues, and that my personality and interests were unsuited for the demands of a legal career.   Since coming to this conclusion I have spent a year and a half engaging in extensive research that has included talks with political science professors, grad students currently enrolled in top poli sci programs (including students at top programs who went to law school and are transitioning into academia), blog posts, forums, career counselors, and advice books on getting into grad school.  I am not currently a grad student in political science, so I cannot speak to the success part of your question.  However, I will most likely be applying to grad programs in poli sci this upcoming cycle (or after).  Take my advice for what it's worth, but I hope I can impart some of the knowledge I've accumulated over the past year or so.  Before I get to your specific questions, I just wanted to make a few general points:

First, be sure you understand EXACTLY what you're getting into with a PhD program, particularly in political science.  I think it's critical you ask yourself honestly about your motivations for wanting to go to grad school beyond just the fact that your interests are in "more academic approaches to law".  I am not sure the extent of research you have done regarding grad school, since you don't really mention that in your post.  But, assuming you don't know very much, I think there are a few things you should understand before pursuing this venture.  From all the research I've done and all the people I've spoken to, I have learned that there are really only two reasons you should go to grad school: 1) you LOVE research; 2) you want to be a professor at a university so you can teach, but also so you can further your research goals and interests.  Any other reasons for wanting to go to grad school, such as not knowing what else you want to do with your life, or wanting to have the prestige of having "PhD" attached to your name, or to earn more money throughout your career, are not good reasons to get a PhD.  Indeed, there are better, less costly ways to accomplish some of those goals mentioned.  I think there is a big misconception about what you do in grad school, what academics do in academia, and what it is academics actually research in the profession.  This is part of the reason why I think so many students end up dropping out of grad school, because they haven't done the proper research to understand what it is academics actually do.  Do you have any idea what area of political science your interested in researching?  Have you determined what, broadly, are your research interests in political science?  Have you ever cracked open a top journal like the american journal of political science or the american political science review?  If you haven't done any of those things yet, I would HIGHLY recommend doing so.  This will really help determine whether or not you're truly interested in topics political scientists research and whether the life of an academic is really the right path for you.    

Grad school itself, from what I've been told, is very different than law school.  Rather than being taught broad range of topics like in law school, your focus is necessarily more narrow.  Attrition is very high in grad programs, sometimes up to 60%.  Some drop out after being unable to pass their comprehensive exams; others drop out during the dissertation phase.  I've also heard that grad school can be a very isolating experience, because you spend most of your time cooped up in the library doing research for your dissertation.  Consequently, it's really hard to relate to other friends and family members and people who aren't in you cohort.  And in political science, the average time it takes to complete the program is around 7 years as opposed to 3 years for law school.       

Also, I think it's important to understand that the job market right now for PhD's is atrocious.  There are just simply more PhD graduates than there are positions to fill at universities, and graduating from a top 20 program with awards, accolades, and publications still doesn't guarantee getting a tenure track job right after graduating from grad school.  There is an adjunct teaching problem, where many PhD grads take adjunct positions in the hopes they'll get hired at their adjuncting institution.  But adjuncting jobs pay very little, and I've heard of some grads taking 2 or more adjuncting positions at different colleges in the area and drive around all day to their different teaching jobs just to be able to make ends meet.  Many times PhD grads are on the job market for 5 years before they get jobs; other times they just drop out of the job search completely.  Even if you get a tenure track job, your struggles don't end there.  There is a lot of pressure, particularly at an R1 university, to "publish or perish" before your up for tenure consideration.  And your publications must be published in journals that are approved by the department.  Even in those circumstances, where a tenure track professor publishes in the approved journals, you still may not end up getting the job.    

Assuming you're already aware of all these things, and have determined that grad school is for you, then I would also start figuring out what areas of political science interest you, and then trying to find the department and faculty that engage in that kind of research (assuming you haven't already done so).  Figuring this out is one of the most important things you will do in preparation for applying to programs.  Many people on this forum will make a huge deal about getting into a top 20 program, and while that should be a large consideration in your calculus of where to attend grad school, it shouldn't be the only consideration.  Fit with the faculty and department is a huge part of your consideration for which programs to apply to, and determining your research interests will help greatly with this.  The recommendation is that you should try to find at least 3-5 scholars in a particular department whose work you really enjoy.  If you can't find that many scholars researching in your area of interest, then the school is probably not a good fit for you.

Also, figure out whether you want to go the policy route or academic route.  If you want to go the policy route, I really don't think it's worth the time to get a PhD in public policy.  A PhD in public policy is not required to get a job in the policy world, and most public policy experts do not have PhD's.  You would be better off getting an MPA or MPP at somewhere like Columbia, University of Chicago, or Harvard.  What really helps you get a job in the policy world is experience and networking like crazy.  

Now, to answer your specific questions:

"Should I finish out the LLM (I'm about 1/3 completed) in order to be a "more interesting" candidate for a PhD program?"

No I don't think you should finish the program as I think it would be a waste of time, and I don't think you would be a "more interesting" candidate for a PhD program if you graduated with your LLM.  Admissions committees look carefully for applicants that have potential to produce excellent, original research, to demonstrate a passion for research and the subject of study, the potential to move the discipline forward, demonstrated creativity, and curiosity and desire to explore ideas, not whether you are "interesting".  Depending on the program, there is no research or major thesis component to LLM programs.  Furthermore, many adcoms are unfamiliar with the curriculum involved in JD and/ or LLM programs.  Consequently, there is nothing really in your LLM program that would likely signal to ad coms the qualities they are looking for in candidates.  Hence, why I think you should just leave the program.   

"If you were transported back to 9 or 10 months before you wrote your applications, what would you do (differently or again)? Try to get something published? Focus more heavily on acing the GRE?"

To be a strong, competitive candidate, you're going to need excellent letters of recommendation (preferably from poli sci faculty; if not, from faculty that know you very well and your potential for research), an exceptionally well written statement of purpose indicating your reasons for wanting to go to grad school, and a potential puzzle you would like to solve in your research, a writing sample, and great GRE scores, preferably above 164 in the quant section if you want to get into a top 20.  So yes, I would try to focus on doing very well on the GRE, because ad coms use the GRE as a cut off point for the first round of cuts.  Then after that, they start diving into things like your statement of purpose, letters of rec, etc.  I would also see if you can try and get a research assistant position if you don't already have research experience.  Again, because your potential for producing research is crucial in grad school, ad coms will be looking for research experience.  As far as whether to get something published, I've had mixed responses to that question, but the general consensus seems to be no, because the journals admissions committees would even care that your work is published in is usually too difficult for someone other than academics to get published into.  However, I personally am going to try to get something published.  I do not have a quality writing sample, so I'm going to start from the ground up with a research project and then see if I can get it published.  Doesn't hurt I suppose.  However, getting work published takes quite a long time, so if you're thinking of applying this upcoming cycle, you might not having something published in time before you submit your applications.

Sorry for the long essay.  I know I might have offered extra information that you didn't need or already knew about.  But I figured I would be thorough just in case.  I hope this advice helps.  If you have any more questions, feel free to DM me.    

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