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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 | Permalink


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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