T Nation

Questions for Lawyers/Professors

I’m a senior political science student who is looking into working for a year or so and then entering either a PHD or JD program. At the moment I’m leaning toward PHD, as I’d like to become a professor, but I am fascinated by the law, particularly issues related to civil rights and constitutional law. I have a few questions for members of either profession.

For the lawyers:
What did you do before going to law school? Also, one thing I’m considering is working as an assistant at a law firm. I realize that this will mainly involve me doing paperwork and such, but would this give me an impression of what a legal career would entail? Is there any value to such a course of action?

For professors:
Did you go straight to a graduate program or did you work first? What sort of jobs might be beneficial to someone considering a PHD? Do schools look closely at what you do after college, or are they mainly concerned that you simply have a job?

Sorry if this post is a little long. Thanks for any advice.

[quote]mundele wrote:
Sorry if this post is a little long. Thanks for any advice.[/quote]

For a potential lawyer or professor? Not even close.

[quote]nephorm wrote:
mundele wrote:
Sorry if this post is a little long. Thanks for any advice.

For a potential lawyer or professor? Not even close.[/quote]

Ha. Maybe I should go back and lengthen it.

Depending on the PhD program, some (many) require a Masters first.

As far as a job, really depends on the program. It is probably too late to get into a program for next your–especially if you are going to want funding–so you are looking at getting a job. If you can get something that is geared towards the benefit of others (volunteering in New Orleans, aid work overseas, not-for-profits, etc.) that generally looks good within academia.

[quote]mundele wrote:
I’m a senior political science student who is looking into working for a year or so and then entering either a PHD or JD program. At the moment I’m leaning toward PHD, as I’d like to become a professor, but I am fascinated by the law, particularly issues related to civil rights and constitutional law. I have a few questions for members of either profession.[/quote]

FYI, only a minute fraction of the legal profession does anything related to constitutional law or civil-rights law - particularly if you mean what I think you mean, which is litigating or addressing interesting constitutional or civil-rights issues. But you do get to learn a lot about it in law school…

Anyway, if you’re going to be doing civil-rights law you’re probably going to be working either for the government or a not-for-profit. Your best bets for doing work related to constitutional law are either to get a prestigious federal-court clerkship and then get with a big firm that does a lot of appellate work in DC, or become a professor.

[quote]mundele wrote:
For the lawyers:
What did you do before going to law school? Also, one thing I’m considering is working as an assistant at a law firm. I realize that this will mainly involve me doing paperwork and such, but would this give me an impression of what a legal career would entail? Is there any value to such a course of action?
[/quote]

Worked for The Princeton Review - but that only taught me about law school, not about being a lawyer. I think it’s a great idea to be a paralegal or legal assistant at a firm so you can observe the lawyer lifestyle and profession. Many more people would do this - then they wouldn’t be surprised by the hours…

[quote]Tex Ag wrote:
Depending on the PhD program, some (many) require a Masters first.

As far as a job, really depends on the program. It is probably too late to get into a program for next your–especially if you are going to want funding–so you are looking at getting a job. If you can get something that is geared towards the benefit of others (volunteering in New Orleans, aid work overseas, not-for-profits, etc.) that generally looks good within academia.[/quote]

Thanks for the tips. This brings up another question of mine: is it more common to pursue a masters and PhD separately, or do them in one program? If I get a masters at one institution, will that limit my options when I go to get a PhD?

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
I think it’s a great idea to be a paralegal or legal assistant at a firm so you can observe the lawyer lifestyle and profession. Many more people would do this - then they wouldn’t be surprised by the hours…[/quote]

That’s what I’ve been thinking. Having been at college interacting with professors for four years, I think I’ve gotten at least a rough idea about what it is like to be involved in academia. The idea of studying the law appeals to me, but I’m not convinced being a lawyer is the best option. I definitely want to get a better of this particular career before I make any decisions. Thanks for the response.

PhD work is nothing like undergraduate work. For a PhD you are expected to make a substantial original contribution to a field of research.

I don’t see the point of getting a separate masters degree.

Admissions to a PhD program depends on the biases and views of the professors in the program. Good GRE scores are really important because it’s the only standard that’s the same across applicants. Good grades don’t help, but bad ones hurt. Your undergrad institution matters. If it’s a research school, you should have been involved in research. Letters from professors who clearly know you well and think well of you are important. A lot of the PhD students at my school initiated correspondence with a professor in the department well before applications were due. A lot of the professors have a “for prospective students” info page on their websites.

I have a good friend who had a similar interest in civil rights and constitutional law. He got his undergraduate degree in computer science, worked for awhile for an aerospace firm, and then got his law degree at Harvard. With a Harvard degree he has a lot of options, but I think the Harvard education kind of wiped out his views on the constitution.

I concur with the opinions already expressed as to the likelihood and path most likely to lead to your handling civil rights and/or constitutional issues. It’s far more likely that you’ll end up in a strip mall handling DUIs and divorces than anywhere handling constitutional or civil rights issues.

I also agree with BostonBarrister’s thoughts on working as an assistant in a law firm. The reality is quite different than Hollywood would have you believe. Seeing it firsthand before committing to the time and expense required to obtain a JD will certainly help you make a more informed decision.

[quote]mundele wrote:
What did you do before going to law school?
[/quote]

Lots of things: worked on farms and in oilfields; paid for my MS by reselling obsolete technology and musical instruments online; worked at a Fortune 50 company as an engineer involved in the design, analysis, and testing of various sorts of spaced-based hardware; participated in a high tech startup from day one through commercialization; and kicked around a bit as a consultant.

Background is largely irrelevant in law school. Your academic success will be determined mostly be your ability to quickly order your thoughts in a logical manner and concisely present them. And of course to a lesser extent by your ability to maintain focus and spend a great deal of time studying topics in which you have absolutely no interest. My law school class included MDs, PhDs in a couple of fields, engineers, lots of the traditional PoliSci / English / History crowd, ethnic studies majors, and even someone who majored in film and dance. The only person I remember who didn’t finish left to attend the theological seminary he’d wanted to attend before his parents forced him to try law school.

[quote]mundele wrote:
Tex Ag wrote:
Depending on the PhD program, some (many) require a Masters first.

As far as a job, really depends on the program. It is probably too late to get into a program for next your–especially if you are going to want funding–so you are looking at getting a job. If you can get something that is geared towards the benefit of others (volunteering in New Orleans, aid work overseas, not-for-profits, etc.) that generally looks good within academia.

Thanks for the tips. This brings up another question of mine: is it more common to pursue a masters and PhD separately, or do them in one program? If I get a masters at one institution, will that limit my options when I go to get a PhD?[/quote]

Again, depends on the program. As far as programs that do not require Masters for PhD, often you will do the equivalent amount of course work and research as if you did a masters then a PhD. It is faster to get the Masters and PhD at the same place, especially if you stay on the same topic. It is not necessary and I would hesitate in suggesting you should plan to do so. Mainly, if you discover you really dislike the department you are in you have the option of finishing the masters and going elsewhere. Also, PhDs can limit your job choices (demand higher pay) and you might find yourself better severed with a Masters.

Again, depending on the program, what you get your undergrad and masters does not necessarily limit your PhD work. Completion of a degree, at whatever level, shows that you are capable to completing that degree. While switching fields may lead to taking more coursework to deal with deficiencies, your previous degrees will suggest your ability for future work.

To address your last question, letters of recommendation and ‘fit’ are the top aspects of moving from a masters to a doctoral program. You may get more out of going to a smaller masters program before going to a doctoral program if you are able to get more opportunities and attention in the smaller program (big fish/small pond).

What field are you thinking of pursuing?

[quote]Tex Ag wrote:
What field are you thinking of pursuing?
[/quote]

Definitely something in the political science field. I like the philosophical aspects of political theory, but lately I’ve really been interested in international or comparative politics. It’s a field with such a broad range of subjects and cases that I feel one could study it forever and never get bored.

Thanks for the responses everybody. One thing I like about T-Nation is the diversity of backgrounds on the site, and there definitely seem to be a lot of pretty accomplished members.

[quote]mundele wrote:
Tex Ag wrote:
What field are you thinking of pursuing?

Definitely something in the political science field. I like the philosophical aspects of political theory, but lately I’ve really been interested in international or comparative politics. It’s a field with such a broad range of subjects and cases that I feel one could study it forever and never get bored.[/quote]

Many political science graduate programs do not require you to have a MA to get in. Your undergraduate degree needn’t even be in political science nor even in the humanities. If this is the route you take, choose wisely. There are not that many jobs in political theory/philosophy. It is a competitive field. It does not pay extremely well. The difference between what you might reasonably make as a lawyer (on the low end) is much higher than what you can expect with a PhD in political science and an interest in theory on the high end. Starting out, at least. There are areas of political science that pay well. But it is tough.

So you are going to want to choose a school that has professors who can get you jobs. School name only carries so much weight, though if you go to Harvard, it makes it that much easier. The other option is to go into it for the love of study, in which case it does not matter so much whether or not you can get a job afterwards. Anyway, I wish you luck.