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Friday, September 29, 2006


Bill's post generated a significant amount of heat for its one paragraph on issues of race/ gender/ ethnicity/ class and research agendas. I want to ask about the paragraph before that one, though, which began:

Agendas, I have to think, can really be developed only after close work with an already-established scholar who can mentor the candidate. While I don’t have a PhD, I would think the model is of a PhD student who works closely with an advisor after a period of close reading of advanced materials.

I'm not sure I agree about the two central points Bill's making here. First, on the assumption that PhD programs work through close mentoring relationships -- it can happen that way, but in my experience it doesn't have to, and often is better if it doesn't. Some of the best dissertation advisors have numerous students whose committees they are overseeing at any one time, as well as other drains on their time (such as their own work). In some fields, a PhD student may coauthor work with an advisor or ride on an advisor's grant, but a successful graduate student and future academic must begin, fairly early on, working independently both to develop a research agenda and complete her or his work. An overly close mentoring relationship can sometimes get in the way of both of those things. Mentees who become acolytes of their dissertation advisors may, as a result, enjoy some initial success riding the coattails of their mentors, but their inability to strike out on their own by doing creative, independent work is likely to sink or stall their intellectual development. They probably won't really enjoy their academic careers, either.

Second, as to the mentoring relationship in law schools, it is obviously less close than in PhD programs . . .

. . . although that too can differ from school to school (at a major academic-producing school like Yale, for example, there are so many students vying for faculty time that close mentoring becomes quite difficult, especially given the short length of a JD education and the classroom demands of a student's first year). But I think the same dynamic holds with respect to mentoring: too much is not a good thing. If "mentoring" becomes a form of "do work like mine," that might bring some short-term gains -- such as, e.g., research assistant positions (which aren't necessarily good things for wannabe academics) and, especially, the implicit or explicit promise of an excellent clerkship recommendation and, later, "picking up the phone" for the candidate when she goes on the job market. But it may also come at the long-term expense of developing one's own research agenda.

To be a successful academic long-term requires really wanting to strike out on your own. If a mentoring relationship achieves that, great -- but what a wannabe academic needs more than that is models for scholarly work and support in striking out on her own. That, to me, is what a good PhD program can do a better job of providing than a law school can. But it's not really mentoring, in the traditional sense. Much of what happens in graduate school occurs in lonely moments of reading, writing, or performing research (if that requires something other than reading and writing). Law schools can do this as well, and, goodness knows, plenty of current law professors, and entire generations of them in the past, have produced stellar scholarship without the benefit of a formal PhD program. But training for independent research is not the default mode of education in JD programs as it is in PhD programs.

The short version of my point is this: The research part of an academic's life is an independent endeavor that requires skills that no amount of mentoring can necessarily help develop. Too much or the wrong kind of mentoring can inhibit the development of those skills. I think this makes an academic's life fundamentally different from a lawyer's career, where mentoring can actually provide significantly more assistance. Working closely with a supportive and patient law firm partner or clerking for a wonderful judge can be an incredibly important step in a young attorney's development. That kind of mentoring -- whether it comes from a partner, judge, or professor -- is likely to have much less effect in the development of a young legal academic.

Posted by Mark Fenster on September 29, 2006 at 10:44 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I'm glad my posting about research agendas triggered all these comments; for the most (!) part it's been an enlightening discussion. I don't want to post a long reply but I do want to make a few quick points.

1. I'm not suggesting that whites/males/non-working class people all get proper mentoring (more on the "M" word later). Not at all. My only, simple, point was that people who get interested in teaching later in their law school careers might be less able to access good mentoring, and thus less likely to create a useful (to appointments committees) research agenda than people who walk into law school planning on being a law prof. And the connection between coming to teaching late and any possible ethnicity/gender/class effect is simply that I suspect fewer people of color/women/working class students are likely to walk into the first day of law school imagining themselves as lawprofs. Marcia McCormick got this point, as does, to some degree, Shuba Ghosh -- thanks!

2. As I don't have a PhD I'm grateful to Mark Fenster and his commentors for their discussion of what's good and/or normal in PhD programs. Still, I note Mark's point about the need for training for sustained research (maybe not his exact words); it's that sort of training (call it mentoring or whatever) that I think some types of students are less likely to be able to access in three years of law school.

3. At the end of the day (literally!) I'm still left a bit concerned about the increasing emphasis on RAs. It's not that they're not valuable in some way (though interestingly some commentors conclude that they're not to be taken as promises of what the candidate is going to write about). And of course it's not that minorities or women are somehow inherently less capable of doing them. (Jeez, c'mon). It is that (1) they might favor people who start early (with the effects I still wonder about, despite all the assertions to the contrary made by commentors) (2) for a relatively small bump in terms of information provided. Finally, I'm concerned (3) that we might -- might -- be witnessing an arms race where candidates get the message that to succeed in the market you need a bigger, longer, uncu ... uh, more elaborate RA than the next person. Do committees win by getting that? Not if we don't expect candidates to follow through on them (see some of the prior comments). Do candidates win? Not if they precommit themselves to too deailed an RA that doesn't pan out.

Again, I'm not necessarily opposed to RAs. But I think there's another side to them, and their usefulness in the hiring process.

Posted by: Bill Araiza | Oct 2, 2006 9:01:55 PM

I want to emphasize that I have been blessed with good mentors from graduate school and role models in the form of colleagues in law schools. I think I am the better scholar for all that, and I hope I reciprocate to my current colleagues both professors and students.

Posted by: Shubha Ghosh | Sep 30, 2006 7:03:21 PM

In getting my PhD (in history) I had a great mentor. Mentoring in PhD programs varies tremendously from discipline to discipline, and within disciplines varies considerably among and even within different schools. So yeah, there are extremes, I suppose, of not getting enough good advice and never separating oneself sufficiently from one's mentor.

But if the question is, "does this sort of training better prepare one for taking a long view toward scholarship than does just getting a JD," I think in most cases the answer has to be "absolutely yes."

Also, I disagree with this sentence: "The research part of an academic's life is an independent endeavor that requires skills that no amount of mentoring can necessarily help develop." At least in history, knowing how to do the research -- how to go to archives, what sort of data potentially exists to be mined and what type of data professional historians think is useful -- at least for me and most folks doing history, required a mentor. If the sentence was meant to convey the thought that some folks can't learn even with a good mentor, I guess that's true too.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Sep 30, 2006 10:53:27 AM

For what it's worth, I completed an economics PhD in Michigan, and I suppose I was a success of sorts, landing a couple of tenure track offers after four years in the program. I definitely view myself as independent. I also bring the value of independence into my own current academic career. I do not want my students to be clones of me. I am pretty sure society as a whole would not want that either. A colleague at Buffalo, where I used to work, once mentioned to me that one gauge of success is how many students one has mentored and shaped in their careers. I think this is correct up to a point. Personally, I do not think one should be judged or should judge one's self by how many minions have been created.

But the way academic hiring and networking functions, clones do tend to have an easier time landing jobs and acumulating the plaudits of the profession. For long term career happiness (if not success), however, independence is the way to go. It's the old story of trading off conformity with freedom. And yes, I think it is difficult to have both.

Posted by: Shubha Ghosh | Sep 30, 2006 7:35:52 AM

My experience has been that the most successful PhD students are those who are quite independent from their dissertation advisor. Academics who attract students with a high potential for success are those who have an extensive research agenda--those who make a decision to take on students who don't need extensive mentoring. I worked with a candidate who took the initiative to develop his own agenda, was awarded his own grants, etc.

Posted by: anonymous | Sep 29, 2006 11:14:21 PM

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