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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Law Prof as Graduate Student

I have a very bad habit of sitting in my office and coming up with things to do that make the relatively straightforward job of being a law professor more complicated.  One example is starting up a blog, an extremely rewarding but highly time consuming thing to do.  Another is going back to graduate school.  For the past two years, I’ve been taking graduate courses in philosophy at the University of Maryland at College Park.  I hope to complete my Ph.D. coursework this coming year.

This raises an obvious question:  why would I go back and do a Ph.D. when I already had a tenure-track job as a law professor?  The answer has a couple of parts.  First, I write about property theory and teach a property theory seminar.  Pretty much every major moral philosopher has something interesting to say about property.  If I was going to teach and write about these philosophers, it made sense to improve my basic grounding in their work (or, in other words, to stop practicing philosophy without a license).  Second, when I started writing about theoretical issues, the cliché that law school does not provide academic training started to hit home.  I thought that I could add depth to my scholarship by getting the academic training that a Ph.D. provides.  Third, my undergraduate degree was in philosophy, and I really like the subject.  Fourth, I thought it would be both fun and challenging to get exposure to new issues and ideas.  Finally, there is the credential, though it really isn’t that important in comparison to the others.  A J.D. and a Ph.D. would make me one of the more overeducated people in my circle of friends, but even here the credential doesn’t help that much – one of my good friends has a J.D. and an M.D.

So far, I’ve been really happy with the decision.  I was fortunate that a seminar in the philosophy of property was offered in my first semester at Maryland.  I think my academic skills have improved, though it is hard to isolate the relative impact of the Ph.D. program from the steep learning curve of a junior scholar.  I’m sure that my essay on Property and Freedom, whatever its remaining faults, is far better than it would have been had I not done graduate work in philosophy.  An advantage of doing graduate work at this point in my career is that I already have a research agenda, and can tailor my studies to that agenda.  On the other hand, it has also been invigorating to study new things.  In my first year, I took a philosophy of science seminar solely because it fit into my commuting schedule.  I’ve become so taken with the philosophy of science that it has become my philosophical area of specialization, and I will do my dissertation on a philosophy of science topic (mechanisms and explanation, for any of you who might care).

There have, of course, been some drawbacks.  I had to take the GRE. I live two hours from College Park, so I spend a lot of time in my car.  I have to pay tuition.  Many people who do Ph.D.s get tuition waivers, but these waivers are earned through teaching assistantships, and my current teaching gig pays way better than the going rate for graduate students.  Still, the whole program will cost about the same as one year of law school.  Perhaps most troubling, there are the obvious complications of trying to do what amounts to two jobs at once.  Every semester, I have a couple of weeks where conflicts – say between grading and finishing a seminar paper or take home exam – make my life crazy.  Although I have been able to incorporate some of my seminar papers into my legal scholarship, the coursework demands have slowed down my scholarly productivity a bit at a time when it is particularly important to crank out the paper.  But all things considered, the pros strongly outweigh the cons, and it has been a lot of fun to be a student again.

Ben Barros

Posted by propertyprof on July 1, 2008 at 03:06 PM in Life of Law Schools, Property, Teaching Law | Permalink

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I am quite jealous of your endeavors. Congratulations!

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