Sunday, January 09, 2011

Lesser of two evils?

This, and everyone's saying what a foolish idea it is to enter a PhD program?

Certain definitions in the surveys seem open to abuse. A person is employed after nine months, for instance, if he or she is working on Feb. 15. This is the most competitive category — it counts for about one-seventh of the U.S. News ranking — and in the upper echelons, it’s not unusual to see claims of 99 percent and, in a handful of cases, 100 percent employment rates at nine months.

A number of law schools hire their own graduates, some in hourly temp jobs that, as it turns out, coincide with the magical date. Last year, for instance, Georgetown Law sent an e-mail to alums who were “still seeking employment.” It announced three newly created jobs in admissions, paying $20 an hour. The jobs just happened to start on Feb. 1 and lasted six weeks.
While there are no doubt some who reach the end of 7 or 17 years of a doctoral program shocked that Amherst hasn't offered them tenure, I tend to think grad students know what they're getting into. And for those who only realize the odds after a couple years, they're just left where they'd have been two years before. In other words, I don't think anyone leaves a PhD program - with or without the degree - with the same feeling of having been conned as, apparently, happens with law school. There's no rage - none that I've seen, at least - at having been misled. Why, then, are there so many more OMG don't do a PhD articles relative to watch-out-for-law-school ones? Is it just that, given what I study, I only get forwarded the PhD ones?


kei said...

Or the rage of feeling conned is that you thought the PhD program was going to be romantic, "doing what you love," and it turned out to have too many should-be-in-law-school type people. (Am I just speaking for philosophy?) But even if you get this kind of conned feeling (am I just speaking for myself?), you learn that there's nothing that can be done about it, that it could be worse (i.e. law school is worse and you X the law school application website, never to consider it again), and move on with your life (in or out of your program [now speaking for myself and others, respectively]). Feeling morally bankrupt or upset is probably not the same thing as being financially screwed _and_ not really loving what you do or finding it worthwhile, at least to reporters and whoever reads the Times.

What could make PhD life exciting? How can we get our own reality shows? Is it impossible? lol.

Phoebe said...


What you describe holds for French as well. I think that pre-professionalism, for better and worse, is the norm, and that the attitude distinction between the law or MBA student and the poetry student, even, is now slight. This surprised me at first - I was more of a Dreyfus Affair buff than a driven, what's-a-B? student (as those who met me in science classes can attest) - but I've come to appreciate it. I get more done knowing how driven my classmates are, and I appreciate that female grad students are not, as a rule, objects of male professorial lust. The good old days of absentminded academics, not so great.

Or, yes, there are disappointments, but this article was probably the push many would-be PhD-program-to-law-schoolers needed not to go that route.

"What could make PhD life exciting?" I've settled for "The Big Bang Theory," and that's not even about grad students.

Miss Self-Important said...

A reality show about me would make my life more exciting, but I doubt it would do the same for anyone else's. Still, I support the idea.

Also, how much do you think the status-envying NYT reporter enjoyed interviewing these morons? This is a Styles section genre masterpiece, even if it's not quite in the Styles section. They got the law school deans to all sound like complete tools ("Yes, it's TERRIBLE what other schools are saying about their employment stats, but WE would never stoop that low...") and they found a subject to profile who basically said: "Yeah, I went to a crappy law school because it was in California and I was all like, it's warm there so that's cool, and now all my friends think I'm smart and shit even though I'm basically unemployed and like maybe my debt will just disappear one morning because sometimes debt just does that, you know, so yeah, overall, I think I made a good life decision." And they managed to argue that both having AND not having a legal job sucks. PURE GOLD.

Phoebe said...


Do you think the portrayal of the law school deans was unjust?

As for the dude... I've had a couple (offline) conversations today about the choice of that guy as the subject. What came out of these... On the one hand, dude's not representative of the well-meaning but not-brilliant students who get screwed over by misinformation about law school, which makes it seem as though the article itself is misleading. Sure, a skeptical reader might think, a guy this live-and-let-live can't get a job, but anyone who didn't take out a loan to go to the South of France is probably doing just fine.

On the other, the point of the article is also that even complete and utter slackers have JDs, which is an argument in favor of shutting down the lowest-tier law schools. Idea being, these schools suck in the gullible, and are to top law schools what "modeling schools" are to being scouted in Estonia. It's not that the entire profession's a fraud (although I was under the impression Georgetown was a very good school, so I don't know what's going on there), but that those who aren't cut out for a profession shouldn't be taking out loans to pursue it.

One might say, but there's a demand for law studies, why not let the inept pursue their dreams, since it's not as if they'll actually practice law much anyway. to which I'd respond that the people sucked in might well be gainfully employed if they weren't convinced they were looking for law jobs, or willing to look elsewhere but seeming overqualified with (and having debt from) their degrees.

Anonymous said...

Jason Bohn has a degree from Columbia University School of General Studies 2005. Then he attended the University of Florida Law School...

Anonymous said...

... Then transferred to Columbia University Law School & SIPA. Wow!

Isabel Archer said...

The don't-go-to-law-school rant is a pretty well established genre. I can't say if it's more or less common than the don't-get-a-Ph.D. article; I suppose people don't forward me the latter, and they're not discussed on the various law or mostly law blogs I read. IMHO, there's some truth to this one, but it also vastly overstates its case in places.

One of the nuances this author is missing is that landing one of the six-figure jobs out of the top 14 schools generally was a pretty safe bet right up to the 2008 financial crisis. Even at the next ten or so schools down, you'd see around 1/3 to 1/2 the class landing those cushy gigs, with the percentage of grads so employed decreasing as one goes down the rankings. The large law firms started scaling back dramatically and "deferring" incoming associates (paying them not to work) the time that the Class of 2009 would have entered large law firms. Thus the Georgetown guy's troubles. Whether this is permanent or merely a cyclical downturn associated with the recession remains anyone's guess.

Phoebe said...

Isabel Archer,

I've seen anti-law-school rants before, and it makes sense they'd be on law blogs, but are they so often tossed at the general (yuppie) population? Again, it could be my own bias, but I feel like there's been a lot of energy devoted lately to warning would-be PhD students who just might happen to be reading the Times, the Economist, etc., as opposed to in forums directed specifically at grad students. I'm not forwarded the law-school rants the same way as I am the grad-school ones, of course, but I do tend to notice them when they appear, if only because - and I doubt if I'm alone in this among humanities grad students - law school has always been presented to me as the sensible alternative I was foolish to turn away from.

As for this article, I didn't get the sense that it was warning those admitted to elite law schools, or even elite-ish law schools, against attending. OK, it was (the pie-eating contest remark, the Georgetown situation which I still can't believe is as conniving as it sounds), but that wasn't the main point. Thus the choice of a not-elite-school grad as the article's subject, the suggestion that the lowest-tier schools shut down, etc.

Anonymous said...

Again, Jason Bohn's educational credentials are sketchy, might not be a Columbia Law School alum.

See link:

Britta said...

It seems like all of these articles are like "don't do X" and then they interview a person who went about doing X in the worst way possible. Obviously, the guy in this article couldn't be more of a caricature of the irresponsible millenial if he tried. It's similar to the "don't go to trade school article" they did a few years ago, where the guy they profiled went into 6-figure debt for culinary school, and then realized chefs earn about $10 an hour. It's like, if you can't bother to spend half an hour doing a realistic assessment of what you are getting into before agreeing to take on 100s of thousands of dollars of loans, you probably weren't going to be that successful to begin with.

(Apologies for all the comments, I am on a major procrastination-fueled soapbox rant spree, it appears...)

Phoebe said...


I'm missing how this relates to the post.


I think you're right.

David Schraub said...

My gut feeling is that any student strong enough to get into a PhD program that carries with it even a remote chance of getting a tenure-track position at a well-regarded school, also is strong enough to get into a pretty elite law school.

And even with the downturn, the odds are still in your favor at the very best law schools. There are far more law students at elite schools graduating and getting jobs at elite firms than there are PhD students from similar-quality programs getting tenure-track positions at Amherst-level schools.

At the bottom of the pile, both law school and PhD programs are bad choices, as you're pretty much guaranteed to get hosed. But the difference is that the odds are still pretty weak at the top of the PhD pile, whereas they're at least decent at the top of the law school heap. So for the student who has the choice between a top-flight PhD program or a top-flight law school program, law school probably is the safer choice.

Miss Self-Important said...

Sorry for being late to this, but basically, Britta said about what I would've said. My hunch is that this is written in the Styles section, well, style, and what is characteristic of that style is that the reporter both hates and envies his wealthier or higher-status subject, and so tries to induce that subject to demonstrate his own stupidity using his (quite impressive) interviewing prowess. Don't get me wrong; these are usually the most entertaining Styles articles--remember the "espresso maker on every floor" couple, and the "I moved to Scarsdale for the schools but they weren't good enough for my precious babies"? Also gold.

So, objectively, yes, this article does get at potential truths about the conniving ways of law school administrators and the bad deal that students at third-tier law schools are getting. Maybe they should be shut down. But it does this by claiming that all lawyers are douchebags--those who are employed are screwing over those who aren't, and those who aren't are evidently total morons who hardly deserve employment.

Just think how differently this article would come off if the main subject were a hard-working and thoughtful first-generation American who had graduated at the top of her class, edited the law review, etc., and now couldn't find a job and was in debt. You'd likely still think it was terrible of the law school to mislead her about its employment outcomes, but you might be less likely to conclude that she should never have gone to law school in the first place, or that lower tier law schools that offer students like her an opportunity for a professional career shouldn't exist. At the very least, you couldn't so easily condemn everyone involved.

Of course, that would make for a far less entertaining article. I, for one, am seriously impressed that the reporter managed to get this guy to admit on record that he honestly believes that his dent will just disappear.

Miss Self-Important said...


Britta said...

My one problem with the "go to a top law school over top PhD programs" is then you will have to be a lawyer. I know for many people being a lawyer might be a better bet, but if you really want to be a mathematician or philosopher, and you can get into a top program and have a reasonable shot at a TT job at some place that doesn't suck, I'm not sure that taking the safer law school option is a good idea, if it means you will have to work very hard in a grueling job you find boring for the rest of your life. I also think that, for people who want to be academics, a tenured job at a not so prestigious school is still a lot better than working 80 weeks at a top law firm. (In fact, seeing the absolute pressure cooker my university is for junior faculty, I would prefer to work at a more relaxed and less prestigious school rather than have to pull multiple all-nighters at age 40 and STILL not get tenure...) Again, I think it partially goes back to intrinsically loving what you do vs. having to be the top of your field in your career.
I understand the adjuncting game is a bit different though...

Phoebe said...

David Schraub (and Britta),

Your point may hold if, as Britta's getting at, the student in question has some interest in actually being a lawyer. Assuming equal interest in law and PhD, and admittance to programs of equal (high) rank, law, even in this economy, might be the safer bet. However. What about being demonstrably passionate about and good at a particular field means that that a student will ace the LSAT, or will have the grades in non-major classes, that law schools will be looking for? My point is that it's hardly a given that someone who gets into a top grad program could get into as good of a law school or vice versa. There are students for whom this will be the case, but lots for whom it won't.


A different, more sympathetic subject might have made for less uniform lawyer-bashing, but I think if anything it would have made the bottom-tier law schools look more despicable for leading such a student on. If anything, it seemed like less of a big deal that these law schools exist if they're just providing slackers with a way to fill three years. The subject who was picked was a good choice because he was gullible, not because of his Styles-esque villain-dom, although he was picked, no doubt, for both reasons.

Isabel Archer said...

What about being demonstrably passionate about and good at a particular field means that that a student will ace the LSAT, or will have the grades in non-major classes, that law schools will be looking for? My point is that it's hardly a given that someone who gets into a top grad program could get into as good of a law school or vice versa.

Much of the LSAT is basically a reading comprehension test. There is a Reading Comprehension section, and there's another section called Logical Reasoning, which is essentially heavily reading comprehension but with a dash more formal logic thrown in. Inasmuch as most humanities disciplines require being good at reading comprehension and analyzing and critiquing arguments, I'd imagine that most prospective humanities grad students should do well on those sections.

It's true that the Logic Games section tests skills that aren't much related to undergrad or graduate humanities curricula. And yes, there are people who do well on the other sections who struggle almightily with it. My husband and I both fell into that category. But it's possible to make up enough points on the reading-focused sections to get a fairly high score anyway.

As far as undergrad GPA, of course a high one is an asset for both types of programs. I agree that someone with excellent in-major but low out-of-major grades might do a little better in graduate than in law school admissions.

But I very much agree with the broader point of your comment and others -- law school isn't worth it over grad school if your heart really lies elsewhere. It probably is easier to excel in a hard pursuit if your heart is in it than in an easy one if it isn't.

Phoebe said...

Isabel Archer,

Is it time to get anecdotal? I took a bunch of "Law, Letters, and Society" classes in college that I really liked, was reading law blogs, needed to figure out what to do with my life, etc., so I took an LSAT approximately 100 years ago. I don't remember the details, other than that it was my sense at the time that unless I really prepared for the logic part of the test and retook it, and got lucky, my law school options would be good but not amazing, whereas I'm now in the grad program my college adviser said - and I think he was onto something - would be best for my interests. (I have no idea whether my lowest grade, in astrophysics-for-poets-but-not-really-because-it-was-actually-hard, would have mattered much for law school, or whether it did for grad school.) And I don't think I'm particularly illogical, although I'll admit to having just made an argument using anecdote.

So I agree that students in top humanities programs could probably get into above-average law schools, but I think it would be unusual for all but the top all-around students to have equally prestigious options for law and grad schools. And it cuts both ways - I've also known people who've gotten into great law schools, but who had less luck on the PhD end. Basically, my sense is that the professionalization of academia has made it so that grad students aren't chosen for radically different reasons, or from a radically different pool, than law students, but that the differences are still substantial.

One other thing to consider, for students truly torn between law school and grad school, is that it you think there's a good chance you'll end up going both, it probably makes sense to go to the school you won't have loans from first. But I don't know how many people this applies to.

David Schraub said...

Phoebe: There are obviously some PhD programs for which the undergrad skill set doesn't overlap much with what law schools are looking for. One can imagine the math or science person who is a terrible writer. But my feeling is that PhD students in Biochemistry aren't getting the "you should be in law school talk". It's the English and Philosophy and (alas) French PhD kids -- and generally speaking, being good in the humanities or softer social sciences is pretty overlapping with what law schools want.

I don't disagree that one shouldn't pick law school over the PhD program if the latter is your passion. But these advisers often seem to presuppose that being interested in French is just a passing fancy that will go away when you enter the real world, whereas an elite law school will land you more of a "real job" (and what defines a "real job" but that you don't love it -- you're doing this to pay the bills and fund junior's college fund, dammit!). And, relatedly, "good job" in these advisories tends to equal "well-paying job". Which a big firm lawyer is, and an English adjunct, isn't.

Phoebe said...

David Schraub,

See my comment above - this was not my experience. Also, grad students who, after a few years, begin to suspect that adjuncting will be their only option can always go to law school, just a few years older than the other students and with the extra added motivation to cram for that LSAT. Whereas newly minted JDs can't ignore their loans and enter PhD programs in what they realize all along has been their passion, programs after which (assuming law school loans wouldn't need to be paid back while still in school? otherwise, during and after which) they'd be poorly situated to pay them back.