Thursday, January 31, 2013

Law Students are Catching On ... Why Aren't Ph.D. Students?

A friend linked to this article on Facebook today, and I wanted to bring it over here for discussion.

The article in question is about law school applications, so it might not seem completely relevant to a blog about leaving a Ph.D. program. After all, law is a profession. Aren't those people who enroll in professional programs like law schools the smart ones? The ones who thought about more than "I like books and writing and teaching; I'll go do that for ten more years!" after undergrad ... and instead thought "I'd like to be a lawyer, so I think I'll go to law school"

Aren't law students who enrolled in their programs when we enrolled in ours the ones who have awesome real jobs now, while we Ph.D. students struggle along in adjuncthood or at a shitty tenure-track job we can't seem to publish our way out of at Nowhereseville State College?

Well, not exactly. Not at all, actually. As the data clearly shows job opportunities for law school graduates have been sharply declining in recent years ... just as more and more new grads with shiny law degrees have been arriving on the market. Meanwhile, law schools are being accused of stretching the truth on their employment statistics in order to attract new students ... and of then shrugging their shoulders when most of their students graduate without job offers.

And (in my opinion, the worst trend of all) law students typically graduate with a debt load that dwarfs the ones that we Ph.D. students rack up. There are few scholarships or work/study programs available to law students, so many (if not most) wind up graduating with $150,000-$200,000 in student loan debt ... for just three years of school.

So I've been seeing discussions about this crisis in legal education around the periphery of my reading on academia for the last couple of years, and it's something I always wanted to discuss on the blog. Obviously, law students and Ph.D. students are different animals in a million different ways ... but at the end of the day, we're both (on average) getting seriously screwed by the systems we're in. And most of the time, we don't figure it out until it's too late.

Anyway, I'd figured that there would be plenty of time in the future to discuss the parallels between legal education and Ph.D. education ... since, surely, law school would continue in its downward spiral just like traditional academia.

But then today I learned that, to my surprise, applications to law schools have declined by 20% this year as compared to last, and are down by a whopping 38% since 2010.

In other words ... no matter how much graduating undergrads loooooooove the law and want to be lawyers, nearly 40% fewer of them as compared to just three years ago are looking at what law schools and the legal profession are offering and saying ", no thanks."

And it's not that the law schools are discouraging people from applying or being forthcoming about their placement rates. As a law school professor in the linked article (delusionally) says:
"We have a significant mismatch between demand and supply. [...] It's not a problem of producing too many lawyers. Actually, we have an exploding demand for both ordinary folk lawyers and big corporate ones."
Exploding demand?? The statistics and surveys and charts and graphs all over the place would suggest otherwise ... but whatever you want to tell yourself, Professor.

Anyway, it's clear that law schools aren't doing anything differently than what they were doing before - or anything that's drastically different from what Ph.D. programs do. They're still heavily recruiting students and publicizing lying about their placement rates and graduates' job prospects.

In fact, you could argue that they're behaving almost exactly like professors in Ph.D. programs, who continue to insist beyond all reason that there is no job market crisis, no reason to cut their enrollments, and that "it'll all work out!"

And yet, despite those similarities ... law school applications are declining while applications to masters' and Ph.D. programs continue to increase:
"...graduate schools received 4.3% more applications for entry into master’s and Ph.D. programs this year in comparison to last year.  This is part of a larger trend that includes the economic decline 4 years ago, when grad school application rates increased sharply..."
So I've been thinking about these two trends for most of the day, and I have some ideas about what I think might be going on. But I'm interested to hear what any of you out there might think.

Why do you think that potential law students are so much more likely to forego applying than their Ph.D. counterparts? Is the pull of "being able to study Medieval Basketweaving for five years" really that much stronger than the pull of "being a lawyer," or is there something else that I'm missing?

Because I'm fascinated by these divergent trends ... and curious about how we could get potential Ph.D. students to think a little more like potential law students (and to start making some rational decisions about their education and career).



  1. Fascinating. Paul and I just talked this over and here are some of our thoughts.

    Paul suggested that the press has been much more open about how bad a decision going to law school is. The cases where students sued their law school, etc-- people in and out of the field know it's bad. Also, he says the stats for law school students and job placement have been made more transparent than those of academe.

    I added to the discussion that law students are expected to put out a large sum of money to get their education. I think many MA/PhD fees are more insidious. You start with a stipend and tuition remission and think--this isn't a bad deal! Then you lose your stipend in the later years of your Phd or you get a health issue and need loans to augment your crappy insurance or you simply need more than 10k to live/pay bills. But grad school doesn't seem as costly as law school.

    I also think some of it could be attitude/values of attendees. Many people will go to law school with the goal of making money. No one thinks that being a humanities prof will make them rich. I think that while people do have "noble" reasons to become lawyers the rhetoric surrounding the profession is vastly different than that surrounding academe. So potential law students will, let's say, get an MBA or enter government while grad students are still clinging to living the life of the mind"

    Another difference could be that undergrad profs who advise students to go to law school aren't usually lawyers themselves. Law school is not that different from advising them to enter another profession. For let's day my former profs in English there was a different "investment" or identity thing in play when I too wanted to be a prof--it worked for me! It'll work for Currer.

    1. Before I read your comment, I was also going to say that I think the big difference is that students tend to go to law school to make money. I mean, there are definitely exceptions, but many people I know who got their J.D. wanted to find a stable and well-paying profession, not because they were passionate about law.

      I also agree that I've seen a lot more press about law schools - and business schools for that matter - being a bad investment. I really haven't seen that much about academia outside of reading these blogs and VersatilePhD. If anything, the recent articles in Forbes and NBC about how being a professor is low stress, suggests that academia is an awesome place to be.

      How ironic that students sued their law school! I've heard of one case in which a graduate student sued his department, but that was because they wouldn't grant him his PhD, not because he thought the university had covered the truth about job rates.

  2. I think people go to grad school because of the IDENTITY of being a scholar. It's like being a monk or something. It's on a higher plane than mere jobs. Plus I think there's a delusion of "who knows what the market will be like in the average 10 years it takes to finish??" versus 3 years for law school, which seems much sooner. I think people seek a certain experience and identity in grad school that isn't the same for law school, which is more of a means to an end than an end in and of itself. If that makes sense.

    1. Yes, this was what I was clumsily trying to get at in the paragraph about making money, identity, values, etc. You said it better.

  3. Wow..thanks JC for highlighting this article and discussing it here. I agree with all the commentators here.....and you could add in 'identity and perceived status'. I remember thinking that my colleagues at gradschool who were doing PhDs thought that they were somehow 'special' or even 'extra clever' than others who didn't do the same thing.

  4. I think it's worth mentioning that a masters degree in some fields does lead to a demonstrable increase in salary, for an investment that ranges over 1-2 years in length. And so it is not unreasonable to pursue a terminal masters with that end goal in sight. I think at a larger level, the government and many industries are trying to place downward pressures on salaries by increasing the supply of workers through expanded undergraduate programs and the H1B visa program. Given this state of overcredentialism and oversupply, it is not surprising that people look for any advantage that they can gain in the job market. For now, a masters satisfies that. However, I can imagine that PhD programs will begin to grow for this very same reason as the masters credential begins to loose its value.