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Friday, September 29, 2006

Research Agendas and Entry-Level Candidates

One thing I’ve seen more and more of in recent appointments seasons – to the point of becoming almost a standard part of a candidate’s file – is a research agenda. I must confess to having a bit of apprehension about this development. Full disclosure: I didn’t have anything like a research agenda when I went on the market in 1994, beyond a couple of ideas I had stumbled across in the course of clerking and adjunct teaching. So it might be that my unease is nothing but the first manifestation of becoming a dinosaur. OK, not exactly the first – I never stole music on Napster – but let’s say the first career-related manifestation.

Still, I wonder how much good these agendas really do, and whether they have the potential to do some mischief. Of course their benefits (at least theoretically) are clear: they indicate the degree to which the candidate has thought about the direction she wants her scholarship to take, provide a roadmap for the candidate’s first several years of writing, and thereby provide faculties with some degree of comfort that they’re not going to end up with a junior faculty member who just isn’t writing. And of course they help the candidate’s writing coalesce around a core idea, so she develops a deep expertise in a given area. If the agenda is sophisticated enough, it can also make it easier for the candidate eventually to make a real contribution to legal scholarship, so that the candidate-turned-scholar ends up saying things are significant, and not just saying things that make her an expert or get her published.

Let’s start with an obvious problem that doesn’t go to the actual usefulness of agendas: they work against those who get the law-teaching bug late.

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. (Indeed, my sense is that the prevalence of research agendas is a symptom of the legal academy’s move toward a more liberal arts and less professional focus.) A student who goes to school thinking he wants to become a partner in a firm or a D.A., and only discovers in his second or even third year that he might want to teach, simply has less time to take Professor Mentor’s seminar, and then another, and then do an independent study with her and then spend time working out the path his interests are taking him. Frankly, I’m not even sure a student can do this if they start on day 1 at law school, unless perhaps their undergraduate work (or advanced work in another field) already got them started. The only other option is for the candidate to work with a mentor once she gets into practice. That’s certainly possible, but given the modern reality of law practice, I suspect it’s unusual.

My intuition is that these observations, if true, have significant class, ethnicity and gender bias effects. Most law students have some conception of what it means to be a lawyer; surely at some point they stopped and thought about what kind of law they wanted, or could expect, to do after graduation. But I suspect a lot of students – many, although of course not all, poorer students, people of color and possibly women – don’t have the same connection with academics, and take longer to start imagining themselves as professors. I make no pretensions to having empirical data to back this up, but having been involved in appointments decisions for a dozen years now (and intensively for half a dozen of those years), I do have a sense that, for whatever reason, these effects exist.

I also have some concerns about agendas on their own merits. One relatively minor concern is that agendas, if not carefully thought out, can lead down blind alleys. Normally that’s not only not a problem, but an inevitable and productive part of scholarship – you try one path, find it unworkable, and then go down another instead. But if a candidate feels committed to her agenda, could it amount to a straightjacket that keeps her banging her head against the wall and getting the same bad result? Frankly, I kind of doubt this. But if it’s true that many (most?) agendas end up being substantially revised once the candidate settles down and starts to write, it’s fair to ask what they really add to a candidate’s attractiveness (more on this later in the post).

More generally, though, I do wonder about the quality of research agendas. Unless the agenda is the product of more than the standard three years of law school (of which at least one is usually taken up with required courses that cover pretty basic ground), I wonder if it can keep its promise of providing a coherent core idea that will organize the candidate’s scholarship. I have to confess that I’ve not re-reviewed the research agendas of candidates we’ve hired, to see how closely their current work corresponds to where they said it would go.  (Blogging is great; you can just spout off without having to worry about footnotes.)  My guess, though (and again it’s just a guess) is that my junior colleagues are writing in areas they had planned to, but not in exact conformance with what they said. Did they really need a multi-page agenda to explain the basic ideas they wanted to consider in their scholarship?

So, do agendas have any use? As I suggested in my post a couple of days ago, providing a research agenda makes a candidate less risky; even if an agenda ends up being significantly amended or even abandoned, at least it indicates some thought about future scholarship and probably helps those first one or two crucial articles get written. But I do wonder if they’ve gotten far more detailed and elaborate than needed to provide that basic impetus. And of course, they may have class/ethinicity/gender effects. But because they do have at least some benefits, we’re now back to the IBM problem I flagged in the last post: all other things being equal, nobody ever got blamed for choosing the candidate with the multi-year agenda. And the system grinds on.

Posted by Bill Araiza on September 29, 2006 at 12:03 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Tracked on Oct 4, 2006 4:05:58 PM


There is good advice on how to write a research agenda here.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 3, 2006 4:04:21 PM

As someone struggling with the same practical issues as Agendaless (writing a research agenda, not whether having to write a research agenda disadvantages poor students, people of color or anyone else (not that that's not a worthwhile discussion (am I done covering my ass here?))), I was wondering if anyone actually had an answer to the ultimate question posed, "[A]nyone have any tips on how to write a research agenda?"

Posted by: Anon2 | Oct 3, 2006 3:38:31 PM

I have to say the Stanford offered no aid whatsoever either. I am not a white male, though perhaps I am a surrogate for one.

Posted by: Shubha Ghosh | Sep 30, 2006 7:05:55 PM


I am a white male who went to Harvard Law School and is now a law professor, and for the record, no one at Harvard and none of my professors gave me any useful advice at all about the teaching process. My former professors gave me little advice, the advice they gave me was utterly absurd, and I was pretty much at sea during the process. I had never heard the phrase "research agenda" until an appointments chair asked me for mine, and I had to ask him what a research agenda was.

Posted by: LrAtheLAwProFESsor | Sep 30, 2006 5:33:06 PM

I think having a research agenda and being able to communicate it is, mirabile dictu (Latin for "duh"), an important part of presenting yourself as a strong candidate. The agenda is also a good tool for self-assessment. The discussion of ethnic/race/gender/class bias as carried out here seems misguided. That should not be surprising since, based on my observation, folks seem to be clueless about these issues. The bias that exists is not a matter of capacity or time, but being tied into existing and emerging research networks that allow mentoring and collaborative relationships to develop. Entry into those networks (and their formation) often has very little to do with merit. Nonetheless, they shape the way things are in the market.

A research agenda is more than a timeline for when one plans to achieve what. In fact, I would argue that such a timeline is completely misguided. A canidate should have a sense of what questions he or she is interested in, why they are of interest, and how to approach them. What form that information is communicated is irrelvant. Whether the agenda gets executed is a matter to be determined at P&T time. Whether the agenda is of interest to pursue is to be determined at hiring time.

Posted by: Shubha Ghosh | Sep 30, 2006 7:48:58 AM

I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out wtf class/gender/race has to do with writing a research agenda.

Just so I don't make any mistakes when the time comes, can someone explain to me how, as a minority/first-generation american from a modest background, I'm destined to write a bad research agenda? I'd really like to know how I'm pre-programmed and pre-destined to be adversely affected by this Draconian requirement.

I have no lawyers in my family, and therefore think I should submit my AALS materials on pink paper-- is that wrong? Thanks in advance.

Posted by: andy | Sep 29, 2006 7:50:49 PM

The potential class/ethnicity/gender effect would have nothing to do with the time on a daily basis to sit down and write the agenda itself. The point was that those from underrepresented groups don't see themselves from day one (or before) in law school as professors, and so don't usually spend three years thinking about legal issues from an academic perspective. So, they might, when they realize they want to enter academia, know they want to write about corporate finance, or some such thing, but not know be able to articulate in any detail their particular methodology or the path their scholarship will take to the grand finale.

That said, explaining how the scholarship you've written and your next few ideas relate to each other does help a person be much more intentional about the things she or he writes, which, if nothing else, makes that person a more productive and happy scholar.

Posted by: Marcia McCormick | Sep 29, 2006 7:35:53 PM

Anon: a perfect return on an unpromising serve. This rarely happens on the Prawfs.

Sam: thinking about research ideas is not a bug of the life in the academy – it’s a feature. Much better to have candidates compete on this relevant feature than on irrelevant nonsense like law review membership.

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Sep 29, 2006 1:17:54 PM

I have no idea whether there are class/ethnicity/gender effects to requiring a research agenda, taken on its own. But isn't the relevant question the overall effect on the hiring process? I could imagine several different possibilities, including (a) a research agenda diminishes reliance on other criteria (such as educational pedigree, or publication record), which themselves have such effects -- so, for example, crafting such an agenda takes time and mentoring, which perhaps has discrepant effects, but less so than making everything turn on having several articles published; or (b) research agendas are an additional screen that has independent effect. My guess is it's more the former, but I don't know.

What Sam Bagenstos said makes sense -- agendas may give insight into what the candidates think would be a productive line of inquiry, or how they imagine the research side of being a faculty member, more than evidencing what they actually will do. (In fact, it might be interesting to ask candidates to write two agendas, one for themselves and one for a hypothetical candidate in a completely different field. The latter might be quite revealing, or at least entertaining!) But it'd be important to develop that understanding, so that those reacting to the agenda aren't reacting as much to the particular topics chosen. Perhaps another value is getting candidates to more carefully imagine whether the profession is for them.

Posted by: Ed | Sep 29, 2006 12:03:03 PM

If it's troubling to require research agendas because women/minorities don't have enough time to write a single page, then my goodness, it must be a thousand times as troubling to expect candidates (let alone new hires) to write any law review articles. Women and minorities should just be allowed to get tenure based on an oral promise that they'll do some research when they are retired and have more time.

Posted by: Anon | Sep 29, 2006 12:03:01 PM

Um, Kate, I thought the idea was clear enough. Bill's saying that crafting a research agenda takes time, and that people who have less leisure time (broadly construed) are less able to do it. And the implication is that leisure time may (he did say "may") be distributed in a way that has "class/ethnicity/gender effects." The assumption is probably that women with kids are going to be called upon more often than the men in their families to devote time to child care, and that they'll therefore have less time to craft research agendas. But you knew that; it's just a lot more fun to caricature someone's argument.

Even if there are class/ethnicity/gender effects, that doesn't mean we should stop encouraging candidates to have research agendas. If we think a research agenda is a helpful tool in identifying promising scholars -- and I do, because of what it shows about the candidate's thought processes more than because I would expect the candidate actually to write any of the articles -- then we ought to use that tool while finding ways to eliminate such class/ethnicity/gender effects as exist and prevent some people from showing their true potential (which, as Kate is right to suggest, may exist for any screening proxy).

Posted by: Sam Bagenstos | Sep 29, 2006 11:28:49 AM

As one who definitely got "the law-teaching bug late" -- I'm an '85 law grad just entering the AALS process this year -- I have a suggestion for those a few (or more) years out of law school who are in search of a mentor in academia: Teach a class (or assist in a legal research and writing program) as an adjunct. I've found the faculty at UConn Law School, where I've taught as an adjunct for the past few years, very supportive of my interest in full-time teaching, and an excellent source of advice about the faculty recruitment process. Their best advice, not surprisingly, was to delay my foray into the AALS market until I'd published a couple of law review articles and established at least some profile as a scholar.

Posted by: Sean Fitzpatrick | Sep 29, 2006 10:03:44 AM

And of course, [research agenda] may have class/ethinicity/gender effects.

Ah, the class/ethnicity/gender effects. How can any post on academic job-seeking be complete without them? Because, you know, women have a genetic predisposition to write long research agenda. I meant, to write short research agenda. I meant, women are socially conditioned into writing long and detailed research agenda. No, I meant, their social conditioning is for short and understated. No, no, men’s agenda have to be short and precise. So, less speculative. But maybe more boastful? And women’s agenda are painstakingly thought-through and careful? So, less speculative? Or more verbose, less precise, and more speculative? I keep forgetting how women are disadvantaged by having to write a research agenda, but I am sure they have to be. Somehow. Always disadvantaged.

And I also think we should ban CV’s. They have gender effects too. Someone should write a separate post about it.

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Sep 29, 2006 9:54:22 AM

We actually hired a candidate one year who had what appeared to be a well-developed and ambitious research agenda. That person has written very little from the agenda, perhaps just the bare minimum, since being hired. Turns out that it's a lot easier to write a detailed agenda than an actual article.

Posted by: Anon | Sep 29, 2006 12:01:32 AM

As an aspiring law prof, who is on the meat market this year without a real research agenda, I really appreciate this post.

First, I think it is accurate to say that the rise of research agendas disadvantages poorer students and people of color. IMHO it is also a disadvantage to applicants who don't come one of the few law schools that provides solid institutional support for graduates on the teaching market (ie Yale, Sanford or Harvard.) I graduated from a 7-14 ranked school that doesn't have a good record or support program for placing graduates into teaching jobs. My advisors are great, but none have been on the job market recently. Their advice to me was that I did not need a research agenda unless a school asked for one, and that I shouldn't bother sending application packets directly to schools. Based on discussions from many of these blogs, however, it seems like many applicants have a research agenda and that applicants often send packets to schools with their agenda. I still don't know the basics of preparing a research agenda (ie, is there a standard length? a standard format?), and not for lack of effort. Once I started to see blog posts like this indicating the prevelence of research agendas, I've been trying to find out more about putting one together, but have had little luck. I've done ok overall in the meat market (given the school I went to and the fact that my primary teaching subjects are some of the more competitive ones for landing a job) and have a handful of interviews, but I do wonder whether my failure to send out a research agenda has had any negative impact.

I also agree with the criticism of the research agenda on the merits. I've written a few law review articles already and definitely have general plans and ideas for questions I'd like to research in the next few years. But, every time I sit down to sketch these ideas out into an "agenda," I feel like what I'm writing is 90% b.s/gazing into a crytal ball. There is, no doubt, a benefit to thinking about what you'd like to research and putting it in writing. But, I don't think hiring committees should put much weight into what are essentially exercises in speculation (at least for candidates who are coming from a clerkship or job; candidates coming from a legal writing fellowship, etc. are much more likely to have enough knowledge in their area to put together a research agenda that is actually useful.)

With that said, anyone have any tips on how to write a research agenda?

Posted by: AgendalessCandidate | Sep 28, 2006 9:40:59 PM

A while back my school started requiring research agendas as part of our submission of materials for yearly evaluation (along a listing of papers presented, administrative work, publications, etc.). The research agendas started getting extremely long and elaborate (ironically, usually by people that didnt publish anyway). So, they had to add a qualifier that it be a "brief" research agenda. My standing research agenda line was that "I conduct research that gets published in good places". No one has ever bothered me about it.

Posted by: redneck scholar | Sep 28, 2006 9:16:46 PM

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