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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An argument for waiting to go on the academic market

Years ago, when I was contemplating going on the academic market, I did what lots of people do: I called my friends, visited with mentors, and consulted the law prof blogs.  If you are new to this world, then you might as well start with Brad Wendel's piece, which includes a number of links to additional articles and blog posts that offer helpful advice for those interested in academic teaching.

Meanwhile, I want to put up some advice for folks who are thinking about filing a FAR form next week, but maybe ought to hold off.  This post is not intended for those of you who are in the second or third year of your designated VAP program or fellowship, who have planned carefully for this moment and have vetted your form with your mentors and friends, and who have a job talk ready to go.  No, this post is mainly for the practitioners out there, many of them less than five years out of law school, who think they might like to be an academic, but have not decided for sure what they should do.  Let me give several examples of what I would call premature market-participation:

1. You just want to see what it will be like.  So maybe you are in your third or fourth year of practice.  Or you are just entering the first year of a multiple year VAP or fellowship program.  You know you will go on the market in a few years, but you kind of want to test it out this year.  You're nervous and you want to see what the Marriott is really like.  After all, this will give you an idea of what to expect when you go on the market "for real" in a few years, right?  Wrong.  Yes, there are many people who successfully enter the academic market more than once, but most of the folks are doing that not out of choice.  If you enter the market prematurely, you may rack up interviews with a number of schools before you have given sufficient thought to your scholarly agenda and academic course package.  Some of those schools have memories, and if you have a lousy interview now, you'll have a more difficult time wowing them later.  Far better to go and put your best foot forward when you have matured as a scholar and as a candidate.

2. You have not written anything yet.  (Notice, I did not say "published" - if you have a paper that is in draft form and has been circulated and/or accepted for publication, you do not fall in this category).  Yes, you were at or toward the top of your law school class.  You were on law review too.  Your professors loved you -- and you clerked for a terrific appellate judge too.  Now, you work for a fabulous law firm/government job.  You don't have a complete manuscript, but you've got a killer outline and you're planning to turn it into an article really soon.  Surely, you will get a job, right?  Well, maybe (probably) not.  I have no doubt that there are a few successful candidates out there who took this route (more likely Supreme Court than appellate clerks), but I would gather that they are shrinking in number with each passing year.  You will be competing with both VAPs and PhD's on the academic market (not to mention a few practitioner types who manage to bust out an article in their free time) and all of those competitors will have writing that demonstrates their scholarly potential.  Even if you have an amazing idea that your mentors have praised, the costs of waiting a year and developing it into an article are relatively slim compared to the costs of going on the market prematurely.

3. You're not sure you want this job.  I'm not sure how much I can stress this last one: if you are at all unsure that you want a tenure-track position at a law school, then wait before you go on the academic market.   Academics want to surround themselves with like-minded people, who feel driven to sit in their offices on a beautiful sunny day and figure out how public choice theory might illuminate the problem of excessive prosecutorial discretion (okay, that last one is just me, but you get the general idea).  If you are at all hesitant about becoming an academic, it will show in your interview.  Your demeanor and the tenor of your questions will all suggest that you view pretenure requirements as onerous obligations rather than career milestones for which you would strive in any event.   If you are unsure whether this is the life for you, talk to some trustworthy friends or mentors, read some scholarship, and go to some of the larger conferences if you can.  But do not use the market as your testing ground. 

These are three reasons I can think of for waiting to go on the market.  I'm sure there are many more that I forgot -- feel free to post them in the comments.  

Posted by Miriam Baer on July 27, 2010 at 09:44 AM | Permalink


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Commercial law will remain hot whether you go on the market this year or next. Has the draft been read over by other professors? Is it ready to hand over to the hiring committees? If not, I would pursue VAPs/fellowships. A VAP would give you the chance to present those drafts at junior scholar types of workshops (plus to the faculty of your VAP school), which could lead to a better final article (and better placement).

Posted by: newprof | Jul 30, 2010 11:43:09 AM

I'm coming to this party a bit late, but is it worth going if you went last year and had between 5 and 10 interviews, have a good publication list but nothing really new since then except drafts which are further along and a better understanding of the process / new research agenda? I'm more looking at VAPs this year, but my area is a semi-hot commercial law field and I don't want to miss an opportunity.

Posted by: AnonForever | Jul 29, 2010 12:54:44 PM

I wonder if I'm the only one who read this and thought, hmm, so how does public choice theory illuminate the problem of excessive prosecutorial discretion?

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 28, 2010 11:20:14 AM

A few additional notes. First, those who don't fit the traditional requirements for a VAP should consider a subject-specific fellowship, if one exists in your field. I did a fellowship where the goal wasn't to place people on the teaching market, but rather assist with ongoing collaborative research. But the fellowship director was able to tailor it so that I had the chance to write an article and teach in the law school.

Second, even if you are one year into a two-year fellowship, do consider waiting one more year before going on the market if your job talk paper is not where you want it to be. Obviously this requires you to find something else to do for a year. But it is better then landing at a lesser school and having to work for years to lateral to the place you would rather be.

Posted by: newprof | Jul 28, 2010 10:56:52 AM

I have never heard the bland theory re: VAPS and it makes me wonder: does a candidate with decent credentials (top 5 school, clerkship, law review, 2-3 publications) suffer any sort of detriment on the academic market if their practice experience and scholarship tends to be heavily public interest-focused and political?

Posted by: anon | Jul 28, 2010 7:50:00 AM

I agree with the tenor here most of all - I wouldn't file if this principal thing you're thinking is "I think I want to be an academic/I have to get out of this job." There's no sense in going on if you don't have a paper and an idea of what it will be like. There's still some exceptions to that rule. But not many.

Posted by: David | Jul 27, 2010 11:48:04 PM

Good advice. I think that VAP programs/fellowships are interesting in that they are essentially another credential, as most people who receive them now have published at least one article (and have other strong credentials). That, it seems, was much different in the past when these programs were designed for people who hadn't written. The arms race for credentials seems to have seeped into this area.

Posted by: anon | Jul 27, 2010 3:44:51 PM

Be warned about VAP programs: I have a feeling that they prefer bland white-bread candidates who they feel will sell well at the meat market.

See what Mike Livingston wrote: "2. I am less convinced these programs are good for law schools, generally. In my experience they produce a rather cautious, defensive style of scholarship that is well tailored to the hiring process but perhaps less so to a creative, long-term career. Law schools being essentially risk-averse, there is a tendency for several schools to chase the same few fellows and leave other, potentially better candidates trailing behind."


So, if you do out of the box and/or controversial scholarship, you won't get a VAP position, I don't think.

Posted by: anon | Jul 27, 2010 3:38:37 PM

Anon, I have mixed feelings about this.

On one hand, I agree with Howard that many fine candidates entered the academic market, took a VAP job (sometimes over a tenure track job in a less desirable city or at a less desirable school), and then several years later reappeared on the market and did very well. That being said, if your package is such that you think you could be helped substantially by a VAP, I would focus your efforts solely on the VAP market and forego the rest of the interview process (nb: most VAP programs accept applications from outside of the FAR process). First impressions count quite a bit; better to wait until you can make the best one.

Posted by: Miriam Baer | Jul 27, 2010 3:06:21 PM


No. Some schools fill their VAPs through people they interviewed on the market who did not quite make the tenure-track cut, but who are interesting enough to be hire for a year or two off the tenure track.

If you do not fall into any of Miriam's categories of "don't-go" (i.e., you know you want to teach and you have written something), I would argue you should look for tenure-track jobs and VAPs/Fellowships at the same time. Maybe you won't get anything tenure-track and the VAP/Fellowship is a perfect fallback--use it to get experience, publish more, and make yourself a stronger candidate for the next time. Maybe you get a VAP/Fellowship at a better school (or in a better location) than your tenure-track offer and think you can do better with a couple years of teaching and writing experience--a risk, to be sure, but I know many people who have pulled this off successfully.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 27, 2010 2:52:06 PM

Does going on the entry-level market preclude you from applying to VAPs/fellowships (should you not receive a position)? I.e., does it send a bad signal?

Posted by: anon | Jul 27, 2010 12:36:35 PM

Some additional thoughts at http://lsolum.typepad.com/legaltheory/2010/07/should-i-stay-or-should-i-go.html.

Posted by: Lawrence B. Solum | Jul 27, 2010 11:02:14 AM

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