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PhD in IR after a JD - profile evaluation


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So I've got kind of a unique situation and posted a very similar question over in the Economics subform, however I am also exploring PhD programs in PoliSci/IR and would like to get similar feedback on those. I'm currently a JD student at Yale Law School but I very much would like to be able to transition into academia at some point, perhaps sooner than later. While I initiated my legal education with a major focus on public policy and government work, I feel like graduate studies in a social science field would be beneficial in a number of ways including allowing me to keep the door open to teaching later on, something I'm intensely interested in doing and, given the fact that I'm already at YLS which places the most number of new law profs nationwide feel it would be good to take advantage of that and set myself on a course that would allow me to teach easily. However, aside from teaching and academia, I feel like it may still be worthwhile for a career path involving international law and foreign policy at places like the State Dept.


In any case, I've decided that I'd like to at least explore the option of doing graduate studies in International Relations (which I majored in undergrad along with Economics) after I complete law school. But given that this is an entirely new idea to me that I haven't really explored much in the past, I don't know much about how the process works and right now just want to get feelers as to how an applicant with a background like mine would even be viewed and potentially what I should start thinking about right now if I want to apply in a few years. Not necessarily looking for feedback on whether this is even a worthwhile endeavor for a JD student...those conversations I will be having with professors I know who know my background and goals better, including a professor I have who did basically this exact same thing (PhD after JD). For now I'm just curious about whether I'd even be able to get into a program to make this worthwhile


Background on me--

- JD student at YLS

- Majored in Political Science and Economics in undergrad, graduated with a 4.0 and almost all A+'s in my Econ classes. I have decent relationships with my political science professors but only one professor that really knows me and my work well (she was my senior thesis advisor, and my senior thesis was in IR and political psychology). Neither my PoliSci nor Econ degrees were hugely quantitative so I worry about not having a quant background that may be looked for. I did get through multivariable calc in college and did excellent in my courses, but other than my senior thesis I didn't do other independent research. In addition, I went to a UC and, with large class sizes and professors that don't make teaching a priority, even though I did really well I feel like I may not have the requisites that a grad program would look for.


I would have the opportunity to produce even more major research projects at YLS, however I'm not sure if a PhD program would really care about this type of work.

- Haven't taken the GRE yet but i'm typically very good at standardized tests, I got 99th percentile on the LSAT, so I'm confident I could knock that out


How would schools view an application from a JD student interested in teaching (perhaps, law teaching)? Does it help at all coming from YLS? Will publishing while in law school help? And how much of an impact will not having research experience in undergrad outside of a senior thesis hurt? 


Appreciate the feedback

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20 hours ago, xnsch said:

Not necessarily looking for feedback on whether this is even a worthwhile endeavor for a JD student...those conversations I will be having with professors I know who know my background and goals better, including a professor I have who did basically this exact same thing (PhD after JD). For now I'm just curious about whether I'd even be able to get into a program to make this worthwhile

1.  I know you stated that you are not necessarily looking for feedback on whether this is even a worthwhile endeavor for a JD student, but answering the question "why do I want a PhD" is a necessary question to answer before any other questions can be answered regarding your chances for success in being accepted into a grad program.  To be sure, it is important that you discuss this with your professors to get their feedback, but keep in mind they may be biased in their assessments of whether you should pursue a graduate degree (something I have learned in my research).

 Basically there are only two reasons to get a PhD: 1) you are passionate about research and want to do so at institutions that will provide you with the best resources to accomplish your research goals; 2) You want to be a teacher at a research oriented institution.  Any other reasons--wanting to advance in your career, not knowing what else to do with your life, or thinking getting a PhD will get you access to higher paying jobs--are bad reasons for wanting to get a PhD.  This is because a PhD program is meant to do one thing: socialize you into thinking like a researcher and providing you with the tools to become successful at a research oriented university.  Consequently, the skill set you obtain in a PhD program is rather limited and is not always applicable to jobs in the private sector.  This is not to say you couldn't get other jobs in government or at think tanks with a PhD--indeed many grad programs are now encouraging students to look for jobs outside of academia (more on that later).  But the opportunity costs of getting a PhD (which on average is 7 years for poli sci programs) is high.  This leads into the next reason why you should really consider whether getting a PhD is the right thing for your professional career goals.  The job market is absolutely atrocious.  There are significantly more PhD graduates than there are positions available, which has created a whole class of students who are unemployed or perpetually working as adjuncts with very minimal pay.  

If you are interested in working at a think tank or public policy more generally, you could still get a job with just your JD.  I know from personal experience that many think tanks accept JD graduates in research roles because I am currently working at a think tank right now, and when I was looking for jobs at think tanks, many job listings listed having a JD as preferable.  So if this is your goal, just applying to think tanks or government research programs out of law school may be a smarter choice due to the reasons I mentioned above.  If you really feel like you want more of a public policy oriented education in addition to your JD, then getting an MPP or MPA is probably a better option.   Here are some links that will provide more information on what I have been discussing: https://chrisblattman.com/about/contact/gradschool/ http://100rsns.blogspot.com/

2.  Now to answer your questions and give general feedback.   

20 hours ago, xnsch said:

How would schools view an application from a JD student interested in teaching (perhaps, law teaching)?

I have spoken to current poli sci grad students, including one who got his JD and two others from Stanford.  They have all said that schools are indifferent regarding whether you graduated with a JD.  Schools mostly care about your potential for producing interesting, original research and becoming a successful researcher at a highly ranked academic institution.  This is due to the fact that schools are risk averse, and don't want to expend large amounts of faculty and monetary resources on students who have no chance of graduating with their PhD or getting hired as an academic.  So you need to demonstrate that you have interesting questions and that you have potential for producing exceptional research.


20 hours ago, xnsch said:

Does it help at all coming from YLS?

My guess is, it probably won't make much of a difference, due to the goals of law school and PhD programs are different.  A law school's goal is to train students to think like lawyers and equip them with the proper tools to become successful lawyers.  This is fundamentally different than the goals for PhD programs, which is to train you to become researchers.  One has a more practical focus, the other has a more theoretical focus.  Consequently, going to Yale Law School won't signal much to admissions committees your potential for research, nor will it provide an accurate barometer of the rigorousness of the program in relation to what is expected of students in a PhD program (again being due to the fact that what is expected in law school and PhD programs are totally different).  

20 hours ago, xnsch said:

Will publishing while in law school help?

It might help, especially if you publish articles about international law as it relates to international relations, and can get those articles published in political science journals.  Moreover, there are political scientists who publish in law journals.  But I am not sure if publishing in a law journal would signal anything to admissions committees, since the standards of what gets published in political science journals and law journals is likely different.  It certainly couldn't hurt, but I would definitely consult someone on that.


20 hours ago, xnsch said:

And how much of an impact will not having research experience in undergrad outside of a senior thesis hurt? 

I don't think it would hurt necessarily, but not having research will not give admissions committees an indication for your competency in research, or your potential for success in research.  Perhaps if you publish in a political science or law journal, it may help overcome your deficiency in research experience.

3.  Here are a couple of other notes regarding your profile.

  a) the fact that you have a 4.0 in undergrad is excellent.  Although it doesn't necessarily say anything about your ability to do research, it will help you get past the first round of cuts admissions committees make.  

b)the fact that you don't have a huge quant background won't hurt you.  Political Science is not economics, which requires that you have a quant heavy background to be considered in top programs.  From speaking with other current poli sci grad students, ad coms understand that most people applying to their programs probably don't have a heavy quant background and thus compensate for this fact by requiring you enroll in quant classes in your first year of a grad program.  However, this is why it is crucial that you do well in the quant section of the GRE, because it signal to ad coms your success in the required quant classes.  If you want a career as a professor at a research oriented school, you need to get accepted into a top 20 program.  This means you need to get at least a 160Q score, but preferable a 165 or above.  

c) it is critical that you get letters of rec from professors who know you very well, and that you know will ham it up for you in their letters.  According to one grad student I spoke with, it needs to be on the level of "this the best student I've had in the past 10 years", or something to that effect.  It would be preferable to get most or all of your letters of rec from a poli sci professor (like the one you mentioned that was your advisor on your senior thesis), but if this is not possible, then get the other two letters from law school profs who are either well known in the poli sci circles (i'm sure there are a few at yale) or are just well known in the legal field generally, AND who know you and your work very well.  Again, letters of rec from poli sci profs are preferable because poli sci faculty in ad coms will share with your poli sci letter writer a similar gauge of what success in a student looks like than would someone who is a faculty member from a law school.  Consequently, ad coms place greater weight on letters of rec written from poli sci profs than from law school profs.  

Overall, in order for you to be competitive at a top school, you generally need a high GPA, high GRE scores, an exceptionally well written statement of purpose indicating your research interests, faculty you would like to work with, and what interesting research questions or ideas you will bring to the table, and glowing letters of rec.  Publications would also be a nice resume booster.  Of course, none of this guarantees you will get into a top program, because acceptance decisions are fairly random; it will merely make you competitive with other applicants. 

I know this is a lot of info to digest, but I hope it helps.  If you have any other questions, feel free to message me.  Ultimately, I highly encourage you do more research by speaking to current law school profs, past poli sci profs, and reaching out to current poli sci grad school students.

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This post was super helpful and I appreciate all of the insight. For sure I know why it's important to talk about *why* i am interested in the PhD route and I didn't mean to sidestep that by any means. My largest motivating factor is the desire to pursue a career as a teacher research oriented institution as you alluded to. I'd love to specifically go into the legal academia field and PhD's are incredibly common and often demanded by even lower tier law schools of their faculty. Having the fortunate opportunity to attend YLS, which places the largest number of legal academics in the country, I figure that there is little reason not to try to pursue a PhD as well if academia is my passion because I would at least have the comfort of knowing that of all the law schools that I could go to, this one is the one that gives me the highest likelihood of actually being able to make it into academia. So I feel like not pursuing a PhD may be a waste of that opportunity and potentially shut me out from being able to pursue law teaching and research in the future. But again I'm definitely having lots of conversations with professors, people in the field, etc. right now. This is really my information gathering phase and I haven't made a firm decision one way or the other, but I figure I need to know whether the path is even realistic before jumping in.


I think given what you've said that the area I need to most work on if I'm serious about pursuing this is proving my research abilities and also in strategizing on what professors would be the best to get recommendations from. I have my thesis advisor that I'm likely going to be having more conversations with in the near future to see if I can secure that, I have an econ professor from undergrad that has already written recommendations on the order of "best student I've ever hard" (I find it hard to be true, but he's very kind and likes me a lot) so there's the potential I could leverage that as well, and I'm hoping that maybe a YLS professor could round that out. 


I'll definitely message you if I have any questions. By far your post has been the most helpful so far! Thanks so much!

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1 hour ago, xnsch said:

This is really my information gathering phase and I haven't made a firm decision one way or the other, but I figure I need to know whether the path is even realistic before jumping in.

This is very smart of you.  And I'm glad to be of help.  When I saw this post I knew I had to respond because I am in a very similar situation as you.  I also graduated from a UC school (UC Irvine to be specific) and I also graduated from law school.  After graduating law school and interning for an attorney, I realized my true passion was researching about ideas in political science, not being a lawyer.  So for the past 6 months I've been doing an intense amount of research to determine whether or not this is the right path for me.  I'm glad you are taking similar care in determining whether or not this is right for you, because getting your PhD is a huge sacrifice.  This is why it's critical to determine whether or not you're truly passionate about research, because from what I've been told, there are definitely some very unglamorous parts about getting your PhD and academia in general, so being passionate about research is important to overcome those difficult parts.  I do have one additional word of advice about your decision to be a law school professor.  

Although it is true that there are PhDs at law schools, the majority of faculty at law schools, including at low tier law schools, just have JD's (usually from Harvard or Yale).  I went to a lower tier law school and there were hardly any PhD on the faculty.  So not getting your PhD wouldn't potentially "shut you out", as you say, from being a law school professor.  As you indicate elsewhere, simply having your JD from Yale significantly increases your chances of getting hired as a teacher at a law school, particularly because Yale law school places the highest number of their graduates on law school faculty.  All of this is to say, you don't need to get your PhD just to teach at a law school.  (I just want you to know I'm not trying to discourage you from getting your PhD; that is an extremely personal choice and I would never try to get in the middle of that. All of this is just something I feel should become part of your calculus in your decision making.  Objectively, it may not make much sense to get your PhD when your JD would be adequate, due to the sheer opportunity cost of getting your PhD.)

Moreover, the whole purpose of getting a PhD is not to place you on the faculty of professional schools (such as MBA or JD programs, although I think it may start becoming more common because of the limited faculty positions open at most universities).  Your advisors for your dissertation, as well as the faculty more generally, will socialize you into thinking the only research that is worthwhile can only be accomplished by teaching at a top 20 institution, and not as part of a faculty at professional school.  In fact, from what I've read, many professors may even discourage you from trying to become faculty at professional schools.  But I do think it is important to let your advisors know that this is your goal at some point during your PhD program, so that way they can prepare you properly for that job market.  

If you do decide that you still want to get your PhD regardless and are set on teaching at a law school, the next thing to determine is what kinds of research questions you are more interested in.  If your research interests/questions/ideas are more theoretical and abstract, teaching at a law school *may* not be for you.  The types of questions faculty at law schools are typically attracted to are real world problems, and consequently their research is much more applied.  

Also, it's important to take into consideration what your PhD signals to faculty at law schools when you are on the job market.  Ad comms know that PhD's are socialized into getting jobs at research oriented schools that are not professional schools, and that their interests are mainly theoretical, so they may be suspicious as to why you are applying to their schools.  Thus, you would need to signal in your job cover letter that you are a good fit for the program (fit is everything) and that your research is focused on more real world problems.   

Again, Chris blattman is instructive here.  He gives excellent advice for PhD candidates who are interested in applying for faculty positions at professional schools.  You should definitely give it a read.  https://chrisblattman.com/job-market/

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  • 3 weeks later...

I earned a JD and worked as an attorney for a number of years before transitioning to a PhD program in Political Science.

In the most general sense, being a Yale law student will help you, because being a Yale law student signals that you are very, very smart. Like the poster above, I know a handful of JDs studying in PhD programs or teaching in political science departments.

That said, at both of my admission visits, I was told that doctorate programs are often skeptical of JDs because many attorneys who decide that lawyering sucks think they can bail to academia without really understanding the nature of or methods used in the work. If this is still the case, your job will be to find costly ways to signal your interest in and understanding of the social science academy. I did an entire MA to demonstrate how serious I was. (Happily, it was fully funded, which, given your credentials, would probably be available to you.)

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