Yale Creates the First American PhD in Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

As the rare American legal academic who has both a JD and a PhD in law (the latter, of course, from a law school outside the U.S.), I think this is an exciting development, for all the reasons that Jason Mazzone laid out nicely last year at Balkinization.  I imagine Yale’s PhD will be very popular, particularly given that the law school intends to fully fund its students, covering tuition and providing a stipend of $27,300 per year for three years (assuming satisfactory progress).

That said, I have some serious reservations about the structure of Yale’s PhD program.  The law school claims that “students will be generally expected to complete the program after three years,” although it says that “requests to extend the course of study beyond three years will be considered on a case-by-case basis.”  My prediction is that very, very few students will complete the program in three years.  PhD programs in law outside the U.S. are usually three or four years long — and they normally involve no coursework at all, other than a one-semester seminar on research methods.  By contrast, the entire first year of Yale’s PhD program will be dedicated to coursework and examinations:

Most students will dedicate much of their first year in the program to coursework.  Students will work with their advisory committees to select six courses that will best prepare them to carry out their research projects.  In cases where students have already completed the relevant graduate training, a student’s advisory committee may waive up to four of the required courses.

All first-year Ph.D. students will be required to take a two-semester pro-seminar on canonical legal scholarship and methodologies.  The first semester of the pro-seminar will be dedicated to reading and discussing canonical works of legal scholarship.  The second semester will be devoted to the presentation and discussion of student papers in a workshop format.  The pro-seminar, required of all Ph.D. candidates, will be the cornerstone of a genuine intellectual and professional community, serving as well as an opportunity for students working in different areas of law to interact with, and to learn from each other as well as the faculty leading these and other seminars and workshops. At the end of the second semester, all Ph.D. candidates will complete the first of two qualifying examinations. The pro-seminar will constitute the primary preparation for this first, written, examination. During their second semester and their first summer in the program, students will also work with their advisory committees to prepare for a second qualifying exam in their area of specialization.  Unlike the first qualifying exam, which measures the breath of a student’s knowledge, the second is an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of the candidate’s area of specialization. The second qualifying exam will be an oral examination, conducted by the faculty who serve on each candidate’s advisory committee, and will ordinarily be administered at the beginning of the third semester in the program.

Even for PhD candidates who have some of their course requirements waived, that is an incredible amount of work.  In practice, the courses and exams will mean that students will make no progress whatsoever on their dissertations in the first year of the program; indeed, Yale does not even expect students to finalize their prospectuses until early in their second year (when they will also be preparing for their oral examination).

Nor is that all.  Yale intends to require PhD candidates to complete “two semester-long teaching experiences” in their second year, a requirement that can be fulfilled by anything from serving as a teaching assistant to (in rare cases) teaching a course of the student’s own devising.  Serving as a TA may not be that time-consuming, but co-teaching or solo-teaching certainly is — particularly when teaching a course for the first time.  At least a big chunk of the second year of the PhD program will thus be dedicated to non-dissertation-related work.  Finally, just to make matters worse, students will then “generally” be expected to go on the job market in their third year.  So just as they are getting into the swing of writing, they will need to navigate the meat market and prepare job talks.  (Yale also mentions the possibility of students completing another teaching experience in their third year!)

In my experience, writing a good 80,000-120,000 word dissertation takes PhD students at least three years.  That is what it takes our very best doctoral students — and they have none of Yale’s extra requirements to complete.  That is probably why the law school intends to give its PhD candidates a choice between writing a “book-length manuscript” (of unspecified length) or “three, significant, publishable articles that might appear in a leading law review.”  My guess is that nearly all students will select the second option — and will still struggle to complete the required three articles by the end of their third year, unless Yale will be willing to count toward the degree the 8,000-12,000 word articles that are the norm outside of the U.S.  How many seasoned law professors churn out three 25,000 word law-review articles in 18 months?

Again, I am glad that Yale has created a PhD program in law.  I just hope (and fully expect) that the law school will be willing to fund a fourth year for the students it accepts into the program.  They’re going to need it.

PS. I would greatly appreciate opinions from our readers who, like me, have PhDs in law from outside the U.S.

PPS. Marko Milanovic points out in the comments that there will be a professional bias in the program toward the three-articles option: whereas students will be able to publish articles before going on the job market in the third year, that will not be the case for a book.  I’d add that the bias will be even greater, because American legal academia does not value books anywhere near as highly as legal academia in the rest of the world — a reflection, I think, of the ridiculous length of American law-review articles.  I think that’s a shame, because writing a book was by far the greatest academic and intellectual experience of my life.


13 Responses

  1. Thanks for this post, Kevin.

    If the Yale PhD in Law program is emulated by other American law schools with existing JSD or SJD programs, how do you forsee that development affecting the reputation of those programs?

    While I think the introduction of the Yale PhD accurately recognizes that the JD is not necessarily sufficient preparation to becoming a legal academic, do you think that the SJD/JSD qualification will be devalued (or further siloed) in the process?

    If anything, the Yale PhD sounds broadly akin to the PhD in Law in Europe and the UK (although the latter appear to be more focused on writing the dissertation itself). 

  2. MR,

    I don’t think it will affect the reputation of JSD and SJD programs all that much, because the PhD program is limited to students who have a JD from an American law school. Foreign students will continue to get the other degrees.  That said, if significant numbers of PhD students seek academic positions outside the US, I can see the program adversely affecting the JSD and SJD, because the PhD program’s requirements are considerably greater.  But I think that’s unlikely.

    I don’t think the Yale PhD is that similar to those in Europe or the UK, for the reasons I mentioned.  Oxford’s DPhil, for example, is a three to four year program that involves no coursework at all other than a methods seminar.

  3. Kevin,
    It does seem like an interesting program. I do share your concerns however. In most UK law schools it is rare for PhD students to finish their dissertation within 3 years – most need a fourth, or writing up year. And this is with all 3 years dedicated (more or less) to writing, with little or no coursework.

    Now, a big reason why a PhD takes a lot of time is that normally the student is relatively inexperienced. The PhD is usually the first truly original piece of scholarship that they write, and there is plenty of room for missteps on the way. Especially because the first real piece of scholarship is at 100,000 words rather than being something slightly less ambitious! If potential students ask me for advice, I usually tell them that it’d be great if they actually wrote an article or two before embarking on a PhD, so that they would know whether they like doing scholarship, know what to expect, and had some time to think of a really good idea for a thesis, rather than going straight from their LLB to the LLM to the PhD. But this is certainly rare.

    So, if the Yale PhD program attracts people who DO have some prior scholarly experience, then it might well be done according to schedule. But even so it would seem to tend to produce a no small amount of stress and time pressure, much more than one would find in other PhD programs. And free time for reading and thinking is the one big luxury of a PhD program. Similarly, like the previous commenter, I find it somewhat strange to run the JSD and the PhD side by side – but I’m sure the good people at YLS will find a way to make this work.

  4. Marko,

    Agreed — but I think it’s unlikely that many of the Yale PhD students will have prior scholarly experience.  Few students publish during their JDs, although some JDs have done graduate degrees in other fields that involved publishing.  (I published two articles on social theory during my MA studies in sociology and literature, for example.)  Most importantly, though, the program is designed to be an alternative to the VAP and fellowship programs offered by many good US law schools, which are themselves designed to provide students with an opportunity to publish for the first time.

  5. Kevin,
    Yes – the program seems to be designed as some sort of a Uber-VAP, with the primary purpose of preparing the students for the (US) teaching market, and upgrading the Yale factor. Which is why, as you say, most students will probably opt for doing the 3-law review article piece option. Not only would this be more feasible, but it would also tend to increase their meat market chances more than a yet to be published and probably yet to be finalized book.

  6. Marko,

    Excellent point about the choice of articles over a book!  I hadn’t thought of that.

  7. Boalt Hall (UC-Berkeley) School of Law has had a Ph.D. program for over 20 years.

  8. FFM,

    Yes, but the PhD is in jurisprudence and social policy, not in law.

  9. Moreover the opportunities to get training as GTA’s and TA’s along with the improvement of abilities to conduct study seminars also helps to improve candidates academics. And it also affects their research and in time completion.

  10. Indiana University Maurer School of Law has offered a Ph.D. in law for several years.  The program may have a different focus, but it is definitely a Ph.D. in law – Yale is not the first.

  11. At the risk of sounding like I’m shilling for Yale, Indiana’s PhDs, like Berkeley’s, are interdisciplinary, not PhDs in law proper.

  12. Kevin:

    A lot of PhD programs in the humanities have now included an articles option as a means to speed up time to completion, so this isn’t entirely off the academic track. Moreover, to the extent that “articles” is deemed to require “law review articles” — i.e., overly long, rather dull, duplicative, and over over-footnoted, in the American style — then, as you noted, it is in some ways a more onerous requirement than the traditional dissertation. Most law schools expect their junior faculty to produce no more than one such article per year on the way to tenure, and many (including, oddly, the most highly-ranked) expect one every 2-3 years. Viewed this way, a 3-article requirement will take much longer than a dissertation, though it will move the student a long way towards tenure.

    More significantly, however, given the problems for university presses and the relative inaccessibility of their products, the monograph model of academic scholarship is clearly on the wane. Perhaps a three-related-but-separate-articles requirement will better-position graduates and acculturate them to the American legal academy, assuming American law schools as research units survive in sufficient numbers to support these newly minted PhDs (and fellows and VAPs and supreme court clerks, etc.).

  13. An exciting development! Yet as a current (foreign) S.J.D. student at another university I also find it somewhat strange that the courses are being run side-by-side with entry to the PhD program expressly limited to persons with a U.S. J.D. It seems to enforce a culture of privileging U.S. jurisprudence over comparative international experiences, particularly when you factor in the fact that the PhD but presumably not the S.J.D will be funded. It would be a different story if the program were open to all and U.S. students gained the coveted spots based purely on merit.

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