This semester, five students set foot on campus as the first-ever U.S. candidates for a Ph.D. in law.

The new three-year Yale Law School Ph.D. program, which was launched in July 2012 and enrolled its inaugural class this fall, is the nation’s first-ever Ph.D. program in law. A total of 82 students applied to the program earlier this year, vying for five spots, which were ultimately given to three students with Yale law degrees, one from Harvard and one from Michigan. The new degree marks a significant effort to professionalize legal scholarship.

“Yale has always been a leading law school in terms of the future of legal scholarship,” Law School professor Tom Tyler said. “This is a further step in the direction of professionalizing the study of law.”

Law Ph.D. candidates take program-specific seminar in law, taught by Tyler and Bruce Ackerman LAW ’69, that is specifically designed for the Ph.D. program. They also enroll in a variety of other courses in both the Law School and the Graduate School.

Tyler said legal scholars need to go beyond the application of legal rules and think about the nature of those rules to gain a deeper understanding of law. The new program formalizes this practice, Tyler said, but more importantly, it follows a wider trend of establishing professional formation for fields such as law and business. Tyler said that offering a Ph.D. in law is analogous to establishing a school for business and management, as both of these practices used to be based on experience and apprenticeship before they involved formal training programs.

In a Tuesday email to Law School alumni, Yale Law School Dean Robert Post said that when he launched the program last summer, new law professors had experienced “disturbing turmoil” in the market. The Ph.D. program was designed with the aim of making entry-level candidates as competitive as possible, Post said.

Ackerman said that he is sure the Ph.D. candidates will be competitive for employers, but that his real goal in teaching the seminar goes beyond simply making the students competitive candidates in their career fields.

“I’m actually driven by the need to help the next generation of scholars speak to the foundational questions of how we should respond to the issues of this time,” he said.

From its creation last year, some legal scholars have criticized the program, claiming that law is a field best approached from multiple perspectives rather than viewed as an autonomous discipline. But students and faculty interviewed said they enjoy the targeted nature of the program, though some aspects could potentially be improved in future years.

Kerry Monroe GRD ’16, one of the five Ph.D. candidates, said she appreciates the institutional support that the program offers — a kind of guidance that is often lacking in the fellowships offered by other law schools across the country. Monroe also said she would not have been interested in getting a Ph.D. in a different field.

“I fell in love with the subject matter,” she said. “So it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to study something else.”`

But Monroe said that she fears that she will not have enough time to write her dissertation in three years, because of all the courses that are required. Likewise, Rory Van Loo GRD ’16, another law Ph.D. candidate, said that a fourth year might be a helpful option for some students.

Tyler and Ackerman said they are open to proposals about expanding the length of the program — but they added that they want to wait and see how the project unfolds over the next few years. Ackerman said he would like to expand the program by admitting more students and merging with the Law School’s J.S.D. program for international students.

“We want to have a critical mass of scholars, both national and international,” Ackerman said. Assistant Dean for Yale Law School Graduate Programs Gordon Silverstein said that there are no plans to expand the program in the foreseeable future.

The application deadline for the next cohort of law Ph.D. candidates is Dec. 15.