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Friday, May 17, 2019

New Summer Series: Interviewing Fellowship and VAP Directors

Thanks, Howard, for introducing this new series!  As Howard mentioned, I am the Chair of the AALS Committee on Becoming a Law Teacher.  The Committee’s goal is to improve the available resources regarding how to become a law professor.  There is information out there already, to be sure, but it is pretty scattered and if you were new to the law professor world and didn’t have many connections, it could feel pretty puzzling.  What is a job talk anyway?  And how about a research agenda?  And why is everyone terrified about the Wardman Park Hotel?  Our goal is to demystify the process as much as we can.

That’s the big project, but we are partnering with prawfsblawg on one specific part of it.  As we started to dig into the data, it become clear to us that VAPs and fellowships are the de facto gateway into the profession.  We all know that to some extent, but the stats that Sarah Lawsky has put together are even more striking than we would have guessed. Almost everyone (literally, almost everyone!) who is hired for a tenure-track law professor job today has either done a fellowship or VAP or has gotten a PhD.  And yet, while there is some information available on the tenure-track market, there is surprisingly little information about these programs.  How do you get a fellowship?  How does one fellowship differ from another in terms of mentoring, teaching and research time, and basic employment terms?  And how can you make the best use of your fellowship time to prepare for the entry-level market?  If you have stayed in touch with your law school professors or have friends who have done VAPs or fellowships, they might be able to give you some information about specific programs.  Otherwise, though, you are on your own. 

Our hope is to change that.  Over the summer, I will interview the directors of as many VAPs and fellowships as I can.  I will ask them all of the questions I would have had when I was new on the market, along with additional questions I crowdsource here from all of you.  Then I will post edited transcripts of the interviews here on prawfsblawg and on AALS’s website.  My goal is to post one interview per week starting in June and continuing through most of the summer.  I will also maintain a spreadsheet of basic information about each program for easy comparison. 

I’ll be back in a few days with a draft list of questions for the interviews, and I would love your feedback!

Posted by Jessica Erickson on May 17, 2019 at 09:53 AM in Getting a Job on the Law Teaching Market, VAPS & Fellowships | Permalink


Adding to "Economic Inequality"'s comment, it's worth pointing out that PhD programs in many fields don't automatically fund candidates for the entire length of a PhD: they expect candidates to apply for outside fellowships during the final dissertation year or two. So PhDs will apply for VAPs while finishing the dissertation. In that case, they aren't adding any extra time to the process, they are just getting a funding source that better matches their goals. The alternative would be a discipline-specific fellowship, cobbling together part-time gigs or adjuncting, or a year or two without funding. Very unsurprising people choose VAPs instead!

Posted by: phd | Jun 5, 2019 2:06:00 PM

How is nobody here talking about the economic impacts of these respective options? The primary alternative to a fellowship is a PhD (a total of three people were hired this year without a fellowship or a higher degree, and all of them clerked). Not everyone can afford to spend ~5-10 years making $30k/year. Fellowships/VAPs are much shorter--typically 2-3 years--and pay over twice that. For a wannabe tenure track professor from a low SES background, that is a potentially HUGE difference.

Are there potential equity issues with respect to fellowships/VAPs? Absolutely. But the alternative--likely hiring more PhD candidates--is at least as, if not more, problematic.

Posted by: Economic Inequality | Jun 5, 2019 12:20:25 AM

"You can't use the entry level hiring sheet to get the data for the fellows programs since many do not get placed"

I'm not. My data comes from the fellowships themselves and counts fellows who did not ultimately place on the market.

Posted by: a non | Jun 4, 2019 11:58:29 PM

This seems like an overreaction. Women face unique concerns (i.e., giving birth, recovery, etc.), but that does not mean that men's concerns are always and in every case different from women's. Men may be reluctant to take a job that does not guarantee a secure outcome, in a place that requires moving, for a decreased salary--especially with a spouse who wants to give birth during that time; maybe even a spouse who does not work, or whose job is inflexible and does not allow for moving. Also, many men and women delay children for a variety of reasons, often career and security is among them. I don't see the 1-2 year period for a fellowship as having a devastating impact on women in the way you suggest.

On the issue of diversity, why don't law schools seem to care about diversity in education, in background, in political views, in life experiences, in disabilities? Why is diversity only conceptualized in terms of race and gender and sexual orientation? There is surely room for improvement in all of these categories.

Posted by: anon | Jun 4, 2019 11:13:58 PM

You can't use the entry level hiring sheet to get the data for the fellows programs since many do not get placed; also some work after their fellowship but still put it down so you don't know the year of the fellowship. If you go to the websites of some of the main ones and you will see what I am referring to; one program had 1 out of 7 and another had 25%. If you followed this the past few years on the fellows pages, you would see that the number of women listed on some of the fellows pages was 25% or less at some of the programs for more than one cycle. Note that this is some of the programs, by no means all (some may be high one year then balance out the next like Bigelow which had the reverse ratio last year as I recall;others have the same issue for multiple years).

I specifically noted that in prior years the entry level hiring was more like 50/50 and in past fellows programs have all been 50/50 except for past few years. This year's entry level hiring was the first one to come up (assuming 2 year fellowship)when some of the fellows classes at some of the programs seem to have gotten more unbalanced.

Given that something like 75% of entry level hires were fellows at some point (almost serving as a feeder into the tenure track job) I think it's highly relevant to point out the lack of diversity among some recent fellowship classes for multiple years in a row. The lack of racial diversity is also another issue. It's worthwhile of discussion whether there's something systematic that may be precluding people from applying or being accepted.

And a sudden 18% difference in the gender gap this year is a single data point that is worthy to note. If we saw a similar number in the clerkship market or in a law firm - after years of variation of only a few points- it would be worthy to ask if such a large difference is truly a onetime fluke or there's something systematic especially given changes in other data points (however small) in some of the feeders. Fellowships may be the best alternative to produce academics, but they are not perfect and they can't be reformed unless people start pointing out some of the possible issues especially regarding selection into them which I thought the purpose of this thread was. If fellows continue to serve as feeders, and some continue to have large gender gaps then the large gender gap this year in entry level hiring will replicate.

Something has to explain 18% gap. I don't think that's just "year to year variation" given past patterns of only 1-5% variation. Why was this year different from past years? I only propose the fellowship lack of diversity as one potential contributing cause; and it's something that can be easily remedied with awareness of the issue.

Posted by: anon | Jun 4, 2019 9:18:53 PM

"It's not a single data point; the entry level hiring was 59% male"

This is particularly disingenuous given that the entry-level hiring last year was 49% male, 48% the year before (53% the year before, and 44% the year before that). The five-year running average is 50.5% male.

Also, looking at the fellowship programs you cite, 6/10 and 6/11 of the most recent fellows alums were women. It wouldn't shock me to hear that fellowship programs are more male than female, but the sample you've chosen appears cherry picked and likely non-representative. The absolute number of fellows in these programs is small enough that you'd expect natural variation with some years having some programs that are disproportionately male or disproportionately female. For instance, 4/6 of the current Bigelow Fellows are female.

I fully believe that there are problems with sex/gender in legal academia, including with respect to hiring. I also think you are being incredibly unfair in picking on the fellowship programs -- especially when, for many women, the longer commitment and relatively lower salary of a PhD program (the primary alternative path to academia these days) presents a greater obstacle to entry.

Posted by: a non | Jun 4, 2019 7:54:36 PM

it's not a single data point; the entry level hiring was 59% male this year;and for the past 2-3 years, including this year, at least 2 of the top fellowship programs had 25% or less female (one had only 1 out of 7). The disparity is not 5 or 6%;it's 18%. Other years have not been so stark but if entry level hires follows the fellowship market, then it's quite likely there will be the same disparity -or worse-next year since this trend in the fellow market is more recent; it use to be more 50/50. I am not sure if those figures count non tenure track hires in the sheet; if so disparity is likely greater.

I am not sure what explains less women in some of the fellowship programs in past few years which has manifested itself in this years' market; I hope it's not the start of a trend. But I think women face unique concerns with respect to the fellowship market that are not appreciated. Women have to physically give birth; and while it's great alot of fathers chip in and take paternity leave, it's not the same as maternity leave for women in academia means taking a semester off, precluding the recipient from benefiting from many of the perks of the fellowship if they are only there 50% of time. Paternity leave is generally 4 weeks so they can still reap the benefits of the fellowship. Women may be dissuaded from applying for fellowship because of this. While a fellowship, especially in a different city from spouse is an inconvenience, for both men and women, it is near impossible for a women who wants to have a child during this time if not living in same city. In most families, women still disproportionately share child care especially in early years with respect to feeding and care, though this is changing.

The number of people applying for entry level has been halved in past decade; more and more people are realizing a fellowship does not guarantee a job and for many this is multi-year process,which further inhibits women who may have to spend half of their 30s doing fellowship or phd just to get an entry level job. When it stretches from 1 year to 2 years to 5 years it complicates the issue because many women don't want to keep on delaying.

The entry level market also has been dominated by business and Crim and health; so maybe some of the difference is due to subject matter. But that trend in subject matter is not unique to this year; those subjects were the hot topics for a few cycles. And subject matter does not explain the totally unbalanced fellowship splits since subject matter shouldn't matter for that.

Something explains the 20% spread in this year's market and why multiple fellows programs only have 1-2 females for a few years now. A 45/55 split can be a one-off but 25/75 split or 20/80 splits a few times is indicative of something. There may be other forces at work too, such as lack of mentorship to get a fellowship.

Posted by: anon | Jun 4, 2019 6:51:44 PM

"Generally speaking women often have children in their 30s and are less likely to have moveable spouses especially for short term gigs."

On what do you base these claims, particularly the second one? In 2019, things are a lot different than 1950 or 1990. Family dynamics are complicated.

"maternity leave as a practical manner is inhibited since one gains nothing from the fellowship if out on leave the whole time. That’s less true for this field."

While a woman does far more than a man in raising a baby, that is changing. Maternity leaves are often accompanied by paternity leaves. And men are frequently asked to share the duties--to the extent this is feasible--with the woman. Maternity leave is a problem for women in the workforce whether they want to do a fellowship or not. And, though not to the degree it is for women, it is also a problem for men.

"These things should be 50/50 in 2019."

As I say, with men expected (rightly) to pick up more of the slack with children, sharing domestic responsibility, etc., this means things are getting closer to 50/50. But it still is not clear why this should mean there should be 50% women/50% men in *every* year--or at all. You can't look at one datapoint and draw a sweeping conclusion that things have gone awry. You have to look at long term trends, motivations, etc.

Posted by: anon | Jun 3, 2019 10:19:44 PM

Thanks everyone for this feedback! I am in the midst of conducting interviews now, and I hope to post the first one on Friday.

Posted by: Jessica Erickson | Jun 3, 2019 4:53:11 PM

Another one: these days, what are the thresholds for ready to apply to tenure track jobs, vs. should apply for fellowships instead, vs. not yet ready for either? What level of "not sure yet" about future research directions is acceptable at each stage? What about publication expectations?

Posted by: anonphd | May 20, 2019 12:05:59 PM

It seems many commenters are suggesting VAP-skeptical questions, but I hope you'll also take time to ask questions meant to advise potential candidates. There is much advice out there already, but a lot of it is quite old and could be updated for a more competitive market and new kinds of candidates. Along those lines, I'm wondering what advice the directors have for fellowship candidates coming from PhDs. A PhD is obviously an advantage in theory, but I'm finding it a real challenge to figure out how to reframe/rework my research as legal scholarship. What is the directors' advice either for applying to fellowships initially, or, after getting a fellowship, for using the two years to integrate better into legal scholarship vs. the original PhD field?

Posted by: anonphd | May 20, 2019 11:58:08 AM

Generally speaking women often have children in their 30s and are less likely to have moveable spouses especially for short term gigs. maternity leave as a practical manner is inhibited since one gains nothing from the fellowship if out on leave the whole time. That’s less true for this field. Something is the reason why some of the fellows programs are not even close to evenly divided, with the entry year list reflecting that. I just assumed it was a self selection issue but it is likely a combo of a bunch of things.

These things should be 50/50 in 2019.

Posted by: Anon | May 18, 2019 1:18:17 PM

Why is it more difficult for a woman to uproot herself than a man?

Posted by: Anon | May 18, 2019 9:14:36 AM

Looking at the entry hiring list this year lays bear one big negative of the fellowship route: some of the fellows classes in recent years are majority male if you look them up online. One or two have only one or two females. For many women in their 30s it is becoming increasingly difficult to uproute themselves for short durations for unknown benefit. That is not to say men do not have the same concern but the numbers this year are particularly stark and I can’t help wonder the connection. The entry level tenure track list this year is majority male by a lot. In the past entry level hires were more 50/50.

Posted by: Anon | May 18, 2019 3:47:32 AM


I agree that participating in certain recognized VAP/Fellowship programs tend to serve a signaling function. For example, my sense is that the Bigelow Fellows at Chicago are selected largely based on the sense of the Chicago faculty running the program that those candidates will be successful academics. That means that a lot of schools will look closely at Bigelows, as someone pretty smart has already concluded that they are likely to be successful. It's a signal that someone smart thought they were ahead of the pack, much like you might interpret getting top clerkships, high grades, etc. With that said, I think your argument is that without any VAP or Fellowship position (or Ph.D.), schools don't take top candidates seriously even if the candidates have all the other credentials schools are looking for. And I'm skeptical about that, for reasons noted below.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 17, 2019 9:50:26 PM


In suggesting it is "tradition" I mean the VAP/Fellowship is just a continuation of what has been a relatively uniform set of hiring practices that looks to signals like degree school, advanced degree, etc. The VAP is one more signal, which, given the background of many fellows at the top schools, is just more of the same. I think the use for VAPs was perhaps worthwhile when it gave practitioners time to write. But if practitioners or PhDs or whoever already have a publication record, the only purpose it serves is grooming for the market--and possibly some teaching practice. But even at top programs, fellows are often teaching courses that are structured much differently than doctrinal courses, and will never teach them again.

Posted by: anon | May 17, 2019 8:36:16 PM

Anon writes:

"You would be surprised by how much people do out of fear and tradition--even when tradition is not a good predictor of future productivity and success as a teacher. Law school hiring is set up like hiring at large firms. There is a standard model for how it goes, and deviations from it are the exception rather than the rule. All the standard pedigrees are essential to many, many schools. This now includes VAPs."

That's possible, but it's worth noting that if this practice is a mere tradition, it's a relatively new tradition that has been much debated internally. When I went on the market 18 years ago, very few people did VAP or Fellowships. We mostly just wrote articles on our own time and then went on the market. (That's what I did, too.) And I remember when VAPs and Fellowships started to become the norm, around a decade ago. Faculties had a lot of debates and internal discussions -- and discussions here at Prawfs -- about their pros and cons. Given how much this issue has been discussed and debated, and the relatively recentness of the switch, I think it's harder to say that the VAP preference is based on some sort of irrational fear or unquestioned longstanding tradition. It's possible, but I think there's a lot of reason to question that explanation.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 17, 2019 6:18:47 PM


"I'm skeptical that this true, in part because it would mean schools are passing on candidates whose resumes suggest they are are likely to be particularly productive scholars."

You would be surprised by how much people do out of fear and tradition--even when tradition is not a good predictor of future productivity and success as a teacher. Law school hiring is set up like hiring at large firms. There is a standard model for how it goes, and deviations from it are the exception rather than the rule. All the standard pedigrees are essential to many, many schools. This now includes VAPs.

Posted by: anon | May 17, 2019 4:16:05 PM

I agree with Orin. I am skeptical that VAPS and fellowships are purely a signaling device, i.e., that hiring committees are rejecting candidates with comparable papers and research agendas simply because they haven't done a fellowship or VAP. The law teaching market is brutal in many ways, and the reality is that there are so many qualified candidates for every open position. So the question is not whether candidates have written something or have a research agenda, but whether their scholarship and other factors are better than that of other candidates. It is hard, albeit not impossible, to write pieces that rise above the competition while working full time. I also agree with Orin on all of the limitations of the current system, so my goal is certainly not to defend the system.

That said, I think we can probably all agree that more information about VAPs and fellowships is a good thing. Whether we like it or not, it is in fact hard to get a doctrinal position without a VAP or fellowship, and right now, there is surprisingly little information out there about how to get one of these positions or how to make the most of them. Let's get more information out there!

Posted by: Jessica Erickson | May 17, 2019 4:04:45 PM

A few thoughts on Anon's concerns:

I think Anon's concerns are fair ones, but also that they are likely better raised with Appointments Committees than with Fellowship and VAP Directors. The reality is that Appointments Committees (and faculties as a whole) value Fellowships and VAPs, for largely the reasons Jessica states: It gives candidates a better background in scholarly work, and gives them an opportunity to produce the kind of scholarship that faculties value.

Anon suggests that schools are treating the VAP/fellowship as a box that needs to be checked, and that they are ignoring candidates who don't do them but are instead doing the needed writing and development on their own. I'm skeptical that this true, in part because it would mean schools are passing on candidates whose resumes suggest they are are likely to be particularly productive scholars. In particular, I would think that someone who can write strong articles on their own while working full-time in law practice is likely to be a much more productive academic than someone who is doing so only after quitting their regular jobs and getting a lot of help from a VAP/Fellowship school. But whether schools are acting as Anon says is ultimately a hard question to answer, in part because so many of the strong candidates see the Lawsky numbers and decide that they will do VAPs/Fellowships, too. Anon suggests that he is one of the strong candidates who didn't do a VAP/Fellowship and is not being recognized, but being Anonymous there is no way to know.

Of course, none of this is to say that there aren't big problems with the VAP/Fellowship system. They do seem to mostly recreate the market for tenure track professors. The "rich get richer," for the most part. I worry that they make it harder for candidates with family obligations or pressing debts to go into law teaching. The system tends to create an unfortunate uniformity in the entry-level market, with most candidates writing and presenting safe, committee-reviewed and committee-approved articles that leave faculties unsure of how how much of the paper is from the candidate and how much is from the Fellowship/VAP support. They also tend to lead to candidates with less practice experience, as well, as Anon suggests. But I think a lot of these problems reflect the reality that hiring schools value what the VAP/Fellowships provide, and that the concerns are probably better addressed to the hiring schools that are valuing VAPs than the schools producing them.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 17, 2019 3:02:29 PM

I agree with Anon. These programs select people who are already desirable candidates. The VAP/Fellowship is just a signaling mechanism that reinforces some very bad habits.

Posted by: Anon | May 17, 2019 2:14:47 PM

I've heard that explanation before but its hard to square with reality.

Take, for example, the statistic you cited in your post: practically every single candidate hired for a tenure-track position has either done a fellowship or a PhD. Surely, there are practitioners out there who have had time to write and develop a research agenda without checking those particular boxes (I'm one, slightly bitter, example). Yet none of them get hired.

Also, if you look at the resumes of the people in the top fellowships, you'll see that many/most also did PhDs or a prior fellowship! Obviously, they've already had time to write and research, yet they're still doing the fellowship.

It seems to me that these fellowships are simply a way to accumulate credentials and contacts that are a unfortunate necessity in the academic hiring process. To extent that they provide worthwhile scholarly training, that can also be obtained on the job, once you become a professor. What you can't gain once you become a professor, however, is the practical experience that students would actually benefit from. It's not a good development for the legal profession or legal academia.

I'm not the first person to raise these concerns. But I'd appreciate you asking the directors about them.

Posted by: Anon | May 17, 2019 12:44:36 PM

Hi Anon -- I can't speak for the directors (although I can ask them), but as a frequent hiring chair, my sense is that fellowships give candidates the time and support to develop their research agenda and write a paper or two. Scholarship is a key part of a doctrinal faculty position, and it is hard to be hired today without some strong indicators that you will be a good scholar. Practice experience is definitely valuable, but it doesn't necessarily help you develop as a scholar.

Posted by: Jessica Erickson | May 17, 2019 12:23:17 PM

I'm interested in learning from the directors why two years in a fellowship program is better preparation for training future lawyers than two more years practicing law.

Posted by: Anon | May 17, 2019 11:55:48 AM

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