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Friday, August 09, 2019

Junior Prawfs - advice on advising

Hi folks. Since we’re at the end of summer as well as the beginning of application and job market season I thought I’d consider a slightly different aspect of junior prawfing. Specifically, I’d like to get some advice on… giving advice. Over the last couple of years I’ve found myself speaking to aspiring legal anthropologists. Sometimes they’ve been referred to me, sometimes they find me on their own. The conversation lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours and, in almost all cases, I know I’ve left them feeling more than a little shattered even though that is not what I intend to do.

The initial communication usually goes something like this:

Them: I’m interested in law and anthropology, in being a professor and in making a difference, and in XX and YY substantive areas (e.g., human rights and the environment). What’s your experience been like? How’d you get to where you are? What advice do you have for me?

Since I’m still developing my response my initial reaction varies from call to call, but it’s starting to shape up something like this:

Me:  I hear at least 2 different big questions: (1) should I be an academic [of any kind] or instead should I pursue a non-academic career (2) if I want to be an academic, should I pursue both the JD and the PhD in Anthro or just one, and if so which one?

Also, tell me a little bit about (1) your GPA (2) your standardized test history [have you taken the GRE and/or LSAT? If so, what are your scores? If not, when will you take them?] (3) do you have any geographic restrictions?

I have also started asking about

  • How much they value working as part of a team vs working solo as a default (to help me get at the academic/non-academic question—I know, plenty of academics collaborate regularly, but we’re talking defaults)
  • Whether they’ve considered and are willing to pursue the non-academic paths that are mostlikely to be available to them from either degree program if they cannot get a faculty position (e.g., NGO/policy research positions for the PhD, corporate law practice for the JD) **I know these are not easy to get either; the question is meant to indicate the need for a plan B and to suggest some of the possible plan Bs that may occur to me.

Usually, the person I’m speaking with

  • Really wants to do the PhD, is somewhat more ambivalent about the JD.
  • Really wants to be an academic but is less sure whether they want to be an anthro or law professor (I know this doesn’t fit with point #1 above, but it is what it is).
  • Never contacts me again after we’ve spoken, although I always say multiple times that they’re free to do so.

My question is this: is there any way to spot the line between being honest about the realities of both academic job markets—which are different, but neither is good—and being excessively discouraging? Besides law professor blogs like this one I tend to read InsideHigherEd, Chronicle Vitae, and The Professor Is In (although the last one less and less), so I’m regularly exposed to horror stories from across the disciplines. A lot of the folks who write in these non-law venues also struggle with the ethics of advising someone to pursue a PhD in [most of] the social sciences and humanities. But because I’m talking about both law and anthro, and because faculty jobs are not easy to come by in either field, I think I come across as doubly discouraging—when, again, I just mean to be very frank. Beyond this, I have some war stories from the (still fresh) job market, which probably adds color and terror in equal measure. I always emphasize that it wasn’t a traumatic experience for me and that things obviously worked out. Nevertheless, I’m very conscious of the fact that for every moment where I made a reasonable choice that led me to where I am there’s at least one other moment where I just lucked out… and so I emphasize that “luck” aspect too.

At the same time, I’m starting to feel like I’m kicking the ladder out from underneath me and that’s not a comfortable sensation either. “Yes it worked out for me but that doesn’t mean anything” doesn’t seem much more reasonable than “Yes it worked out for me so it’ll be fine for you too!” Is there a happy medium? I’d be interested to hear how others handle these kinds of encounters with an aspiring prof/prawf, especially before that person commits to a degree program.

Posted by Deepa Das Acevedo on August 9, 2019 at 12:42 AM | Permalink


FW: absolutely -- I'm learning to stress the importance of having an acceptable plan "B" when I speak with aspiring prawfs who are at a really early stage. It always ends up feeling like I'm expounding on the importance of prenups with someone who's just gotten engaged, but I think it's essential to do more than merely acknowledge the risks involved with pursuing an academic career (of course, considering academia a "risky" career move itself takes some effort for most people but that's a whole different conversation!).

Posted by: DDA | Aug 10, 2019 9:51:16 PM

One piece of advice I have tended to give pre-law-school folks (as well as law students) who tell me they want to be law professors . . . is to make sure they are *also* happy with "plan B" -- i.e., the most likely careers, the most likely way they will spend their days, if they check all the boxes (that they can) for a law professor gig and don't land the job. And, in fact, the best thing is to plan for both, i.e., do what's necessary so that plan B looks very attractive as well. It's a recipe for sadness if you put all your eggs in the one basket knowing that a) the odds are not in your favor and b) plan B will make you miserable.

This works with a teenager as well, when she tells you she plans to be an astronaut and go on a space walk. That's nice, dear, but if you are planning to major in engineering in order to make that happen, let's make sure you also think you will be delighted to "do engineering without being an astronaut" . . .

Posted by: FW | Aug 10, 2019 9:57:22 AM

Thanks for this, Orin. That's been my general line of thinking as well, although I admit I feel a bit bad for them by the time I'm done explaining how hard it is in both fields. It's also complicated by the fact that, many times, these aspiring academics are contacting me at such an early stage that I'm really advising them about whether or not they should go to grad school or law school in order to become an academic rather than about how to become an academic (of whatever variety). The few times someone's contacted me saying, more or less, "this is what I'm doing - now how do I do it?" it's been much simpler on my end!

Posted by: DDA | Aug 9, 2019 9:45:17 PM

I'm not sure I have anything unique to say on this, but given that no one else has responded to these good and important questions, I'll throw in my two cents that you should just be completely honest. I think something along the lines of "It can be done, but it's hard, and here's why" is often useful advice. Of course it's much easier for the advice-giver if the advice is encouraging. But if the reality is discouraging, giving an encouraging picture is giving a false picture that may lead someone to make a decision that is a big mistake for them.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 9, 2019 6:17:16 PM

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