Law Ph.D. gets first applications

The Yale Law School Ph.D. program received 82 applications for five spots in its inaugural class.

The three-year program, which was announced in July 2012 and will enroll its first class next fall, is geared toward students seeking careers in legal academia. Gordon Silverstein, assistant dean for graduate programs at the Law School, said the school’s faculty designed the requirements for the program with the aim of providing the degree with “both breadth and depth.” Though the program will last three years, Silverstein added that it will resemble a six-year program — the standard duration of doctoral study in the Graduate School — because students will arrive with the common background of a three-year J.D.

“The lack of a Ph.D. in law has been the subject of conversations and head-scratching for decades,” Silverstein said. “This program is an intellectual enterprise that aims at developing [students’] intellectual skills and their capacity to be leaders, with the eye that most of them will end up as law professors.”

All Ph.D. students will attend the same two-semester seminar during their first year, while simultaneously taking courses in their respective fields of research. During their second year, candidates will write a dissertation proposal and may begin teaching. Ph.D. candidates are required to teach for two semesters to complete the program, and Silverstein said administrators hope students will teach within the Law School but can choose other fields instead. Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard said his school will approve the faculty participating in the program, monitor student progress and ultimately approve the degrees.

The Ph.D. program has drawn criticism since its creation, as some scholars argue that considering law an autonomous discipline departs from the traditional view of law as a field best approached from multiple disciplines. Yale and many other universities already allow law students to seek doctorates in affiliated disciplines, such as economics, political science or history, while completing their law degrees.

Silverstein said administrators want Ph.D. candidates to study various aspects of the law while delving deep into an area of specialty.

Stewart Schwab, dean of Cornell Law School, said he is interested to see how Yale implements the program, adding that the rigor and quality of scholarship generated within the program will determine its reception.

“Will other law schools watch, consider, think about it?” Schwab said. “Yes, and if [Yale Law’s Ph.D. program] proves successful … it may become more widespread.”

Schwab said it is too early to tell whether Yale’s Ph.D. in law will give graduates an advantage in the competitive field of legal academia, though he added some of its goals resemble law school fellowship programs already in place at schools like Cornell and Harvard, which law schools take into account when reviewing applications for faculty positions.

Richard Primus LAW ’98, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, said he and a group of young law professors organized an annual conference to teach themselves a set of academic skills when he first entered legal academia, adding that professors in other fields would have learned such academic skills from senior scholars in graduate school. Primus said a systematic way of providing these tools could benefit the field, though formulating the curriculum could prove challenging.

“If it is possible to have a course of study that treats law as a discipline with a set of advanced scholarly tools, I think that’s a worthwhile aspiration,” Primus said. “The question is, can we design a curriculum that gives the skills scholars in this field will need?”

Primus added that the development of the Ph.D., a program specifically aimed at training scholars, might cause Yale to place lower emphasis on scholarly training in the J.D. program, though he said it is too early to speculate on the former’s impact on the latter program.

Applications for the Law School’s Ph.D. program closed on Dec. 15, and accepted students will be notified this spring.

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