Why do you want to go to Law School?

by Harry on July 28, 2009

A few years ago now, a friend sent me xerox of chapter 5 of Derek Bok’s superb book Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. The purpose was to get me to think about whether there was something interesting to be said about the role of philosophy in a university education. Up till that point I had been somewhat interested in issues of justice in access to university, but not very interested in what universities do, or should do, once students get there. But one thing led to another, and since getting hold of a devouring the entire book, which is I can recommend thoroughly, I was hooked. I’ve been meaning to review it here for ages, and still may, but for the moment I thought I’d highlight one of the passages that has changed one small thing that I do as a professor.

Among the goals that Bok thinks universities should have for students (his main interest is in elite, or as I’ve recently seen them referred to, “Medallion”, colleges, though,much of what he says applies further down the status order of 4 year colleges) and that he thinks they underperform at pretty seriously, is preparing them for a career. He does not mean that colleges fail to provide the credentials necessary for a prestigious career (they certainly do that) nor that they fail to provide relevant education (though he is a little bit skeptical about that). Rather, he thinks that they fail to provide adequate guidance. The consequence is that students are rather ignorant of what different careers involve, what they are likely to do within them, how those careers contribute to the society, and what contribution they would make to their own wellbeing. His particular bete noir (ironically perhaps) is that smart young students with a public service ethic, as well as those who just don’t know what to do with their lives, go to Law School:


For students who begin their legal training hoping to fight for social justice, law school can be a sobering experience. While there, they learn a number of hard truths. Jobs fighting for the environment or civil liberties are very scarce. Defending the poor and powerless turns out to pay remarkably little and often to consist of work that many regard as repetitive and dull. As public interest jobs seem less promising (and law school debts continue to mount), most of these idealistic students end by persuading themselves that a large corporate law firm is the best course to pursue, even though many of them fund the specialties practiced in these firms, such as corporate law, tax law, and real estate law, both uninteresting and unchallenging…..

Imagine the social value that would be produced if these students were, instead, going into teaching and eventually leading urban schools and school districts. As Bok says, we do not yet have a case that letting students apply to Law School by default is bad for them: if they end up enjoying the life more than they would enjoy the more challenging and less well compensated life of a teacher then at least they have been well served. But:

Almost half of the young lawyers leave their firm within three years. Many complain of having too little time with their families, and feeling tired and under pressure on most days of the week. Many more are weary of constantly having to compete for advancement with other bright young lawyers or troubled by what they regard as the lack of redeeming social value in their work. Within the profession as a whole, levels of stress, alcoholism, divorce, suicide and drug abuse are all substantially above the national average.

Bok makes as compelling a case as is possible in the absence of evidence of a kind which, I suspect, would be very hard to gather; his observations certainly fit exactly with my own experience.

So how has this made me change my behaviour? I have written a lot of letters of recommendation for students to go to Law School. Getting a letter of recommendation from me requires submitting a package of materials and meeting with me to discuss one’s goals and the process. Before reading Our Underachieving Colleges, despite my serious reservations about the profession (I’ve known a fair number of lawyers, and I’ve known only one who really enjoyed the job), I never tried to dissuade anyone. I still don’t (just for the CT reader whom I did dissuade, you know, don’t you, that I was not trying). But I do ask them, straight out, “why do you want to go to Law School?”. I am amazed how many students sit there dumbstruck, having never seemed to have given it any thought. I also ask whether they have talked to some lawyers about their jobs, and am similarly amazed how few have done so. Of course, by the time they are asking for a letter it is a bit late to be trying to help them think about a career. But the responses I’ve had suggest to me that Bok’s thesis holds for my institution at least—and that the way we go about thinking about preparing students for a career is extremely laissez faire—much more so than is good for the students, and more than they, who mostly would appreciate some gentle, disinterested, guidance, want.

I’m curious how other people approach writing letters for Law School (or Medical School, or whatever), and whether my experience is idiosyncratic.

{ 101 comments }

1

Doctor Science 07.28.09 at 8:10 pm

I do not have to write letters of recommendation, but I’ve talked to a number of young people about it.

My observation of the many, many people I’ve known who go to law school is that (almost) the only ones I know who are *happy* with their work are the ones working in the public interest. The exceptions are: the one who did small-scale trusts, estates, and small-time business law — he was happy because he got to meet a lot of people who weren’t actually in the middle of horrible life crises. Then there’s the one who’s in copyright law, strictly in the book-publishing industry — he gets to meet a lot of writers, which he really enjoys, and the hours are not crushing.

Aside from those two, the only happy lawyers are ill-paid public interest lawyers, or not-terribly-well-paid law profs. All the other lawyers I know are either unhappy or sociopaths. And paralegals are even *less* happy than lawyers, because they have to work with the sociopathic lawyers.

2

lindsey 07.28.09 at 8:21 pm

Telling people that being a lawyer sucks won’t dissuade them unless you give them serious alternatives to think about (preferably early on). I’m pretty sure I knew that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but what I didn’t know was what else I could do.

3

bartkid 07.28.09 at 8:22 pm

>But I do ask them, straight out, “why do you want to go to Law School?”.

Every faculty should have this as an essay question in their entrance exam.

And, every one of them should require one practical work term – very early in the four years – in order to graduate.

4

lindsey 07.28.09 at 8:27 pm

And I’ll add, your dissuading didn’t stick the first time precisely because I didn’t know what I else I should do. By senior year, it felt a little late to jump ship. Taking a year off before matriculating was just what I needed. More people should take time in between to really sort out what they want to do. You should have actively tried to dissuade me, by the way, because you would have saved me a grand or so on the cost of applying to law school.

Philosophy professors in particular should be horrified by the number of their students that go to law school for lack of better ideas. Most of my fellow majors had the same plan I did….

5

Matt 07.28.09 at 8:31 pm

I’ve known several happy lawyers though most of them are public interest lawyers (mostly working in immigration and related issues) who, if perhaps not properly called ill-paid at this point, are not very highly paid, either. But, I should say, I don’t know many non-public interest lawyers or government lawyers who have been lawyers for very long, so this should be taken with at least some skepticism.

I had the very odd experience of being asked to write law school letters of recommendation _while I was in law school_, because I was, at the same time, teaching undergrads in philosophy at Penn. As with Harry, it was usually too late to seriously advise people by then, but with my other students I did try to dissuade them from the idea that a law degree is an “all purpose” degree with which they could “do anything”. Mostly with a law degree you can be a lawyer. The best way to see if one wants to be a lawyer is to work with them, at least for a summer. Because very few law schools think it’s a positive thing (and a few think it’s a negative thing) for students to come immediately from their undergrad studies, taking a bit longer to work w/ lawyers after graduating might be an even better idea. This will almost never hurt an application and sometimes will help it.

Many students seem to go to law school because their parents (and their social set) want them to do so something professional, but organic chem was too hard so with med school out of the picture, law school seems like the next best option. This is a very bad reason to go to law school.

Additionally, all students thinking of going to law school should know about and consider very carefully the strongly bi-modal nature of starting salaries for lawyers. See, for example, here:

http://www.adamsmithesq.com/archives/2008/07/the-bimodal-starting-sala.html

and here:

http://www.elsblog.org/the_empirical_legal_studi/2008/07/how-the-cravath.html

This might change, as the world of law jobs is now in serious upheaval. But, it’s not going to change so that there are even more of the very high-paying jobs.

I should say that I’m very glad to have gone to law school and mostly enjoyed my time as a law student. I didn’t think it was significantly more stressful than my other graduate school experiences, and I’m glad for the other options its opened to me (including the chances I’ve had to make a more direct impact in people’s lives than I would have just studying philosophy.) I’m not nearly as opposed to people going to law school as, say, Paul Gowder, who sometimes comments here. But students certainly should have their eyes more open to the realities than they do, and not go as a sort of default when they don’t know what else to do and need something to keep the folks happy.

6

Sam TH 07.28.09 at 8:39 pm

In addition to the problem lindsey mentions, of not knowing what else to do, I think one of the attractions of professional school is that it is “like college”. Or more generally, like what most successful students have been doing for 16 consecutive years at that point. Most jobs are not like what you do in college, so it’s a big leap.

This is certainly one reason why lots of people want to go to grad school, even though it isn’t really true. But going to any kind of grad school is much more like going to college than becoming a salesman.

7

rosmar 07.28.09 at 8:41 pm

Since most of us professors only have limited work experience (I’ve worked many types of jobs, from being a nanny to working on a machine hulling almonds to trying (unsuccessfully) to sell used cars, but most of my students don’t want to go into any of those kinds of work, and most don’t want to be professors, either), what should we do so we can give good advice/guidance to our students and advisees?

8

roac 07.28.09 at 8:43 pm

There is an alternative way of doing public service work while getting pretty well paid, though not rich: It’s called “working for the government.” I’ve been doing it for long enough that retirement is hull-up over the horizon, and haven’t regretted it (taken all in all). And I’ve worked with a lot of different people who seem or seemed pretty happy as well.

I would endorse the advice given in no. 5. I told my own son that the best way of finding out if he wanted to go to law school would be to get a job as a paralegal. He did, and the answer was “No.”

9

Salient 07.28.09 at 9:01 pm

go as a sort of default when they don’t know what else to do

The degree of disassociation between what one does in college, and what one plans to do for a stable career, is distressing and is not limited to law school applicants.

But then, where does one go to get reasonable information about career options related to one’s interests? (Assume one does not have well-connected parents and is largely unaware of available jobs as well as unaware of how/where to search for them.)

Undergraduate career fairs are largely a joke, and I anticipate many R1 universities don’t invest many resources in educating their students about options they can pursue with an X major. Trying to receive career-oriented advise from a college major adviser is probably extremely hit-or-miss. I remember my adviser for one of my majors at University of Wisconsin was flabbergasted and offended when I dared to ask.

(The eventual response from said adviser was “It’s not my job to go find you a job,” which suggested a misunderstanding that never did get resolved. Apparently the adviser’s job was specifically to ensure I was selecting courses that would satisfy the major requirements in 4 years’ time. I never had a reason to visit again.)

I remember there existed a Career Services, a kind of interdepartmental facility, had all kinds of resources related to interview skills: how to write a resume, how to behave in an interview, etc. I recall they were apologetically unable to be directly helpful with “career exploration” related to my major, but they at least did provide some insightful suggestions: the best one was to flip through a phone book’s business section and jot conjectural notes on what kind of employee would work at each place, what qualifications and prior experience would be required or preferred, what salary would be reasonably expected, et cetera — which when done thoroughly gives a very interesting conjectural picture of the makeup of one’s community, which can be selectively verified by calling the businesses.

Expanding the Career Services facility, and directing students to it (perhaps making a second-year visit mandatory or perhaps encouraging one’s students or advisees to visit), would go a long way toward educating students about available careers and discouraging the “well I could do this” mentality that I suspect is common among undergraduates.

10

Salient 07.28.09 at 9:03 pm

Preview, preview, preview. My apologies, I just said something very stupid: Undergraduate career fairs are largely a joke, and I anticipate many R1 universities don’t invest many resources in educating their students about options they can pursue with an X major.

That’s obviously contradicted by my own recollection of Letters & Science Career Services at UW.

11

Bloix 07.28.09 at 9:06 pm

“the way we go about thinking about preparing students for a career is extremely laissez faire”

I have a reputation as a hot-head on the topic of higher education so I will do my best to moderate my tone here. I’m sure I will be over-heated for some readers, but believe me, I’m trying.

The quoted statement above is an understatement. Faculty members never “go about thinking about preparing students for a career.” They know nothing about the careers open to the vast majority of their students. The only career thinking that faculty members perform is for the small minority of students who have the aptitude and interest in an academic vocation. As for the rest, they give their lectures, grade a few papers and exams, and wave good-bye. If the students can’t get jobs, so what? They’re adults, aren’t they? It’s not the professor’s problem, or the university’s, if a B.A. in philosophy or film studies is a ticket to unemployment. After all, the student has received a liberal arts education, and that’s more important to a well-lived life than any mere career training, isn’t it? So what if the only job the student can get is the glorified file clerk position known as ‘paralegal’?

The reason so many bright students go on to law school after getting a humanities degree is that law school is an undergraduate program masquerading as graduate school. It provides a three-year undergraduate education that requires no particular base of knowledge. (This used to be clear in the degree that law schools awarded – the LL.B. – but nowadays the law schools give a J.D., which is false advertising.) So, once your students find that their B.A’s are useless in terms of earning a living, they enter the only undergrad career-training program open to them that does not require them to admit that they’ve just wasted several years and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Once in law school, they have to unlearn most of what they’ve learned in philosophy, or history, or lit crit, because the fundamentals of legal reasoning are rooted in 19th century modes of argument and understanding. You can’t use modern humanities critical techniques and expect to succeed in law school or in a courtroom. In later years, they will look back on “theory” with the nostalgia they have for children’s stories.

The time for students to wonder about what to do with their lives is not senior year, when they ask you to write a recommendation. It’s when they choose their major. If a sophomore comes to your department and says, I want to major in philosophy, that’s the time for you to say, that’s nice, what do want to do three years from now? And if the student can’t answer, that’s the time for some career counseling. Not two years later, when the time to choose a future has come and gone.

But that would mean turning away students, and you can’t do that and expect your department to thrive. And anyway, even if you can see that the student has no possible future as a professional philosopher, you don’t want to discourage them. It’s their choice, right?

12

Harry 07.28.09 at 9:16 pm

There’s an alternative, but equally stark, response, Bloix, which is to orient the philosophy classes we teach (most of our enrollments are not from majors, and most of our majors, as you say, will not become professional philosophers) to providing the kinds of cognitive skills and habits that will serve them well in a variety of walks of life. Orienting the ethics courses required by other majors (eg Business, Nursing, Child Development, in my case) to the kinds of problems they will encounter as professionals in those fields, etc.

I agree about the “why do you want to be a major, and what will you do with it?” and on the rare occasions students talk to me before becoming a major I do have that conversation with them, and have done since long before reading Bok’s book.

Don’t hold back too much — you might be surprised (or might not) that your criticisms are shared (even if I would describe them as “sources of unease” rather than “criticisms”).

13

Salient 07.28.09 at 9:19 pm

Bloix, success: your post is not offensive at all, to me at least. Let me try to engage some points you’ve raised:

Admittedly, I’m quite glad that I don’t have to worry about walking my students through their career options, even though it distresses me greatly that there might be nobody at the university performing that job.

As an instructor, my job’s pretty clearly to teach: to make topical familiarity and mastery accessible, to share insights, to reinforce/encourage insightful thinking, and to guide students into a community of professional scholars: to indoctrinate values and perspectives that are compatible with scholarly research and investigation.

All the same, I spend a nontrivial amount of time familiarizing myself with the career advising services available at this university (which have changed dramatically every semester) and directing students to the appropriate resources (luckily about 99% of them want engineering-related resources, which around here are abundant and reliably good).

Some of these services, frankly, could do a much better job announcing their existence and detailing their services to instructors/professors in the relevant departments. Others do a very good job, e.g. by maintaining an up-to-date website and sending annual explanatory emails.

I’ll address some other points in a second comment.

14

tony 07.28.09 at 9:29 pm

Let me just state for the record that I wish someone had assumed the responsibility of sitting me down and asking Harry’s question, and thus forcing me to think seriously about the answer (because, even before applying, I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer in the traditional sense of working for a corporate firm). Now, with one year left of Law School, I’m just trying to figure out how I can get retire most of my debts and get out of the legal profession.

And just to respond to Bloix #11, I agree that anyone in the role of academic advisor would do well to ask why a student is choosing that major and what they see themselves doing with it. But I wouldn’t put too much weight on how they respond at this point. It’s rather more important to get them thinking seriously about what the options are. I know plenty of people who started working right out of college in fields only marginally related to their majors, and it was these experiences that taught them more about what kind of job they wanted. An undergraduate major can form the basis of a life-long interest that will shape one’s career, perhaps in academia, perhaps elsewhere. But it can also just be a chance to explore an interest that may fade, or may simply remain outside of one’s profession later in life. There’s nothing wrong with choosing to major in philosophy while knowing that you probably won’t pursue graduate studies, any more than there is biology or literature or anything else.

15

LizardBreath 07.28.09 at 9:30 pm

One advantage that law school has (I say as a moderately discontented lawyer, but one who still doesn’t have a better idea for what she should have done) is that for a student without a strongly directed personal ambition, it offers a much more certain? obvious? route into an upper-middle class career and income than other possible vocational routes. I graduated from college with a degree in Medieval Studies from the University of Chicago, without a vestige of a clue as to what I was going to do to pay the bills for the rest of my life. After a certain amount of undirected flailing (Peace Corps, receptionist, selling reprints of articles for a business magazine) I ended up in law school because I simply didn’t have any better ideas of getting onto a career ladder that would put me someplace economically comfortable.

This shows a certain lack of enterprise, admittedly, but I think it’s a reasonably common type of lack of enterprise even among reasonably bright and competent people.

16

Bloix 07.28.09 at 9:31 pm

Well, as the father of college students who is paying for two educations and is very concerned about my children’s futures, I tend to err on the side of appearing to accuse professors and instructors of bad faith, when what I’m trying to say is that they are subject to institutional pressures that (from the point of view of a parent) get in the way of providing for their students’ needs. Sometimes a professor will get mad, and we’re off and running, and sometimes (as here) I get a thoughtful acknowledgement of the problem, and I’m abashed.

17

LizardBreath 07.28.09 at 9:35 pm

Huh. While I was writing that, I see that it was pretty much pre-empted by the preceding ten or so comments. Yeah, another vote for more assistance with career planning for undergrads — college didn’t seem to be obviously leading to anything but a career as an academic, and I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do.

18

hjk 07.28.09 at 9:54 pm

law school becoming a default for smart, ambitious students is a consequence of more and more people going to college and the erosion in the relative value of a BA, especially in terms of prestige/social distinction. in certain peer groups, not going to grad school increasingly seems like underperformance (crazy but inevitable given how middle class meritocracy works in this country). so the solution is more alternatives for post-graduate education for liberal arts students that aren’t hyper specialized. i.e., these students need other default options, and i suppose they wouldn’t necessarily have to be formal university education, as long as they provide widely-recognized meritocratic prestige and credibility that could be useful in a diversity of careers.

until those develop, masses of drifting college graduates will continue to apply to law school for lack of a better idea.

19

rootlesscosmo 07.28.09 at 9:55 pm

Almost half of the young lawyers leave their firm within three years.

I think that statistic is incomplete without an estimate of how many leave the profession altogether. It would be interesting to disaggregate both groups by gender, too.

The happiest lawyer I know has been a solo practitioner of family law in Oakland CA for 30 years. When she was a candidate for Editor in Chief of her school’s Law Review, someone on the interview committee–made up of the current editorial board–asked why she had decided to go to law school. “Because I couldn’t go on the stage,” she told them, which (as intended) brought that impertinent line of questioning to a close. P.S. She got the job.

20

PGD 07.28.09 at 9:56 pm

I know a fair number of happy lawyers, but most are doing government or legislative work of some kind. In-house corporate lawyers also seem to be reasonably satisfied. The real misery-inducer seems to be law firm work, which of course is the bulk of the legal job market. One wonders why they can’t evolve more ways of organizing the legal job market that don’t make people miserable.

21

Chris Stephens 07.28.09 at 10:04 pm

In my own case, when I was an undergraduate (before I had a settled major) I took the Strong Interest Inventory test (originally used to give people who were leaving the military advice about careers) as well as the Myers-Briggs test. I have no idea how good those tests really are (I think the Strong test ended up recommending that I become a forest ranger or a speech pathologist – probably both would’ve been good carreers for me) , but I also (apparently) had a very high score in something called the “academic comfort scale” (which probably meant I liked reading jargon and citing obscure sources!) and in the end I went to graduate school and it worked out well. But I do recall distinctly the two philosophy profs that I talked to a couple of years later (once I’d decided on philosophy as a major) both encouraging me to go to law school – since the job prospects in philosophy were so crappy, and what else could one do with a degree in philosophy? I almost went, but what I really wanted to do was teach, and the issues in foundations of law that interested me at the time could be perused from philosophy as well, and there were a lot of other areas of philosophy that I was interested in besides.

Now that I’m in the position of occasionally getting asked for such advice, I also try to find out from students why they want to go to law school, and recommend that students seek out others who are in the careers they’re considering. If nothing else, I think the interest inventory tests opened up possibilities for careers that I simply hadn’t considered.

And speaking of spending time finding out what someone does in their day to day job, a couple of years ago I was asked by a local high school if a student could hang out with me for a day to find out what it was like to be a philosophy professor. He visited on a teaching day ( rather than simply watching me sitting around thinking, reading and writing all day… or, heaven forbid, coming to a department meeting.) I have no idea what he is doing now.

22

Steve LaBonne 07.28.09 at 10:20 pm

This is a very thought-provoking thread for me as the parent of a rising high-school senior. She wants to go to LizardBreath’s alma mater, and my impression of the place (and it’s a wonderful place, I’m not damning it; in fact I wish I’d gone there myself instead of to Harvard) coheres with her reported experience: it’s fantastic at preparing future academics and fairly clueless about how to prepare anybody for any other kind of career. Now, my daughter currently thinks she wants to be an academic of some sort but what if she discovers that’s not her metier at all? And I myself am not very well equipped at all to advise her, as I had an unsatisfactory academic career and blundered by sheer luck into another way of paying the bills that gives me satisfaction. I wish I knew where to turn for helpful resources.

23

rosmar 07.28.09 at 10:34 pm

Just to add a small voice of optimism, it still remains true that most college graduates make significantly more money than most people who don’t go to college. So, while I wish more people had fulfilling jobs, a) I’m not sure there are enough fulfilling jobs to go around, given our current economic system, though we can help work to change that, and b) college graduates muddle into jobs or even careers somehow, despite how badly most of us professors do at helping them.

I talk to my advisees about their long term goals, but unless I have a friend in the field, or it is a job I did myself, I don’t have a lot of specific advice to give them. At least I can talk to them about generic stuff like going to job interviews and writing letters of interest.

24

rigel 07.28.09 at 11:06 pm

While I was in France recently I spoke to some of my hosts about the French educational system, particularly as it pertains to medical education. Based on their description, the French system (with the best medical care in the world, remember, according to WHO) tends to segregate and perhaps overdetermine societal role early, and theres little recourse once that’s happened. In contrast, the US system tends to do little in the way of fostering actual guidance, and then you can go back to school and change careers, becoming a professional of an entirely different sort, if you think it’s worthwhile.

Both have serious disadvantages, of course. I think that having a volunteer service requirement in High school and college, as is the case in many places, is a good first step to actually making people think about what they want to do with their lives.

I think an underlying problem is that for the middle classes on up, going to college has become an expected part of a complete education. That it is often ridiculously expensive and can wind up doing little or nothing to teach someone What To Do With Their Life suggests to me a failure at the upstream node, i.e. secondary education. Another part of this is our over-reliance on four-year colleges for the vast majority for post secondary education. While there have recently been some moves to buttress the red-headed stepchild that is the community college system, it’s still underfunded, and more to the point, my impression is that it is still geared largely towards churning out people who can then transfer to a four year institution. Notable exceptions seem to be nursing and education, and schools that were formerly called community colleges have become non-adjective-bearing Colleges with the addition of one or both of these programs to their curriculum. A sign of hope, to be sure.

My guess is that the guidance systems at both the secondary and postsecondary levels suffer from a lack of adequate metrics and/or mission focus. I think also that it is important to increase access to this sort of information without winding up like (my tentative and extremely biased) my impression is of France, where your societal role is determined before many have developed a sense of self necessary to evaluate whether they will be happy in that role. Is this even possible?

25

BDC 07.28.09 at 11:40 pm

Interesting timing — today marked the first day of the bar exam. Here are some thoughts from a hopefully-soon-to-be lawyer.

My undergraduate degree was in history and Slavic studies. I chose to go to law school for a dozen reasons, most of them vague. But I’ll agree with Bloix — when I was an undergrad, I found that the faculty (whom I adored) were unable to give me any suggestions beyond their own doors. Whether it’s institutional pressure, or an egoistic drive to pull interested students into the field, or simple ignorance of the other options out there (because, often, to get their positions, most of the faculty have done little except academia themselves), faculty members can’t really give much direction. No blame, just a dry statement.

Kids in college, or law school, have a hard time with career advisors because they look at them and think, “You haven’t done anything, either — why are you giving me advice?” — and a hard time with faculty, as they think, “You’ve done one thing — can’t you give me advice on any other career?”

The real eye-opening opportunities are out there with alumni networks, and internships, and school-year jobs in the city, and courses that take you out of the classroom and down to the courtroom or the newspaper office or what have you. But those are trickier to break into than law school, which is always happy to have you, and harder for career advisors to convince kids to try.

I’ve spent three years in law school generally ignoring the dry, academic part of the law and reveling in the public interest world — public defense, community organizing, alternative dispute resolution — and it’s been a fun ride, with an exciting public job at the end. But I’ve been both obsessively pointed in what I wanted out of law school and pretty lucky about my opportunities. And gifted in having an incredible set of public interest law advisors, the first time in seven years of higher education I’d had someone who I felt knew what they were talking about giving me advice.

I vaguely wonder if undergrad schools should require an internship at a different job every year. Law school effectively does that in the summers, and it helps a lot in figuring out what to do with the next few years of one’s life. Which is why, love it or hate it, most people actually do seem to get some direction out of law school.

I generally discourage people from going to law school straight through, like I did. It worked out great for me, but not for many.

26

BillCinSD 07.29.09 at 1:15 am

In my Engineering field, the vast majority of students can get paid summer jobs in the field so they at least know what entry level jobs are like. Of course that only leaves 30 or so years of work to worry about.

The only advice I ever give is 1. take advantage of the summer opportunities to find out about companies and the different areas one can work — usually they find that the people they work are much more important than the actual job they are performing; 2. think about a longer horizon and where you want to be and how can you get there; and 3. periodically re-evaluate 2. I don’t know how well this works as I haven’t been advising that long

27

Joshua Holmes 07.29.09 at 1:29 am

No one should be allowed to take the LSAT without reading Tom the Temp’s blog.

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unimaginative 07.29.09 at 1:52 am

As a former philosophy major and current lawyer, I dissent from the majority view here. I went to law school for the usual reasons: I looked forward to a comfortable lifestyle, and I was pretty good at studying stuff and writing papers about it. I did well in law school because it was all about studying stuff and writing about it. I found a position in complex litigation because it seemed to match my rather limited skills. I’ve been practicing at a law firm for 20 years, and studying stuff and writing about it is what I do, with the occasional oral presentation thrown in. Contrary to myth, the hours aren’t bad, and the compensation is about quadruple what a tenured liberal arts professor at a state university can expect.

Bok is correct that a studend entering law school in order to fight for social justice is likely to fight for social justice is likely to find disappointment. But no career path will satisfy such a soul.

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Shawn Crowley 07.29.09 at 2:35 am

Law students are a very different breed from medical students on the whole. Selection for medical school starts with the undergraduate curriculum. Organic chemistry, comparative vertebrate anatomy and similar weed out a lot of students who like the image of being a physician but who haven’t given the actual process of becoming one much thought.

Bloix@11 is dead on in recognizing a legal education as a glorified undergraduate program with no underlying knowledge base. I went to a very good state school, University of Washington, for law school and was stunned at how little some students knew about anything.(I had just completed a PhD in biology and taught an upper-division ecology class during law school.) Law school was often the default choice for lack of a better idea.

Even 20 years ago the financial rewards of law school (I’m excepting the top graduates of elite schools here) were starting to erode. Firm associates had less expectation for making partner and, if let go, often had experience which was transferable only to another large firm. It’s pretty hard to go out on your own when you’ve never even seen the inside of a courtroom and can’t even do paralegal tasks because you had a paralegal doing those tasks. At present the technological revolution has greatly reduced the numbers of lawyers needed to support partners.

What was clear to me was that many law students were in love with the image of being a lawyer. No matter how much you hated the profession or how little you made, you would still be a professional. Law school is a way to cling to an elite status even if you are making less than the average plumber.

Education in the US is sort of like its health care system. We spend a great deal of money to get mediocre and uneven returns.

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Shawn Crowley 07.29.09 at 2:45 am

A quick addition: I don’t want anyone to think that I am denigrating the job of plumber. If I had a child wondering about career choices I would strongly suggest one of the skilled trades in preference to law school.

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matt m 07.29.09 at 2:48 am

SamTH @ 6: I agree; at my institution we get about 14,000 applications to grad school/year. I can’t help but think there are plenty of students who pursue professional/graduate degrees largely for the reasons you describe, a problem of the unknown working world vs. continuing school of some form, which still allows the pursuit of one’s own interests. The working world isn’t so flexible, at least from the viewpoint of a senior, and so grad school, with some funding attached, seems to look a lot more appealing for most. So I think the sentiments here are correct that more undergrad advising would be beneficial, but more networking and connections between departments and businesses/outside institutions would be helpful too, to give students tangible options of life after school.

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Justin 07.29.09 at 3:12 am

Dear god, anyone who wants to be a lawyer should work as a paralegal first (or intern–some places paralegals need a sort of vocational degree). I think that’s such an important point that I nearly put it in all-caps, etiquette be damned.

I say that not from direct experience, but from talking to a lot of people who at least considered law school and were promptly dissuaded by working in a law office. Obviously, the circumstances of a single office don’t necessarily represent legal work in general, but it’s an invaluable chance to talk to lawyers, observe them, observe office dynamics, etc.

I’d echo the thought that part of what might account for the huge quantity of applications to law school is the fact that it’s just like more college. I’m 25 (and in grad school in the humanities), but watching my friends, I’m noticing that almost none of us had any preparation for dealing with the task of getting good jobs (whether of the fulfilling or paying the rent varieties). The few exceptions are those fields like computer programming or engineering that give you an obvious target coming out of college. It’s not just that those are more lucrative majors, but that they don’t require the same kind of “now what?” moment that many other degrees do.

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joe koss 07.29.09 at 3:38 am

I am not a lawyer, but I was a disaffected Liberal Arts major for a few years after graduation, and was told countless times by countless adults throughout many years of schooling that I was the “lawyer type” (a scenario which I think is played out many times for many students), even though I continually told people, from a relatively early age, that I didn’t want to be a lawyer.
I guess looking back I am struck by how unimaginative we (educators, parents, adult figures) are when we encounter a relatively smart, rational, logical and articulate student who enjoys thinking critically and taking positions. My skills, nascent as they were, almost always got deflated to: you like to argue, you should be a lawyer. So much so that by high school I drifted as far into Math and Science as I could, began my undergrad as a Chemical Engineering major, only to find out, with the help of Calc II and Analytical Chem for Freshman, that that kind of ‘work’ wasn’t for me.
I think it is somewhat disheartening that smart, non-business/science oriented but motivated liberal arts majors think the only profitable path after undergrad is law school. And this sentiment seems to be continually reinforced by those whom students look to: adult ‘authority figures’ (it was in my case).
Thankfully, there are Professors/other adults of ‘authority’ (Harry was one for me) who are willing to sit down and actually engage and discuss possible careers with a student that they have an idea of and are willing to offer suggestions about.
One thing to remember is that it can take years; it did for me.

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Zamfir 07.29.09 at 7:00 am

I think it is somewhat disheartening that smart, non-business/science oriented but motivated liberal arts majors think the only profitable path after undergrad is law school.

Perhaps some of the former liberal arts students here who didn’t bcome an academic or a lawyer can tell how they ended up? I have always been amazed by the period of “wandering” many liberal arts friends of mine seem to have go through to find a place where there skills fit.

Perhaps career advice to liberal art students simply is difficult, in the sense that you need some years of work experience before any sensible advice can be given to you.

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Jordan DeLange 07.29.09 at 7:05 am

The Law School appeal isn’t all that hard to figure out. If your a bright kid with a general humanities or (some) social science degree, don’t want to be an academic, and would like to make a decent amount of money then law school is certainly the default choice. You might then prefer to work for the ACLU or Public Citizen or whatever, but after you amass a huge amount of debt then working for a corporation seems reasonable.

So anyways, the “why not, lets go to law school” thing seems rational. If its true generally that public sector/non-profit/in-reality-valuable jobs are scarce why is it a problem that a fair number of people just decide to be lawyers?

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Trevor 07.29.09 at 11:32 am

I think that by the time someone is asking for a letter of recommendation, it’s too late. And sure, college career counseling should be _much_ better, but good luck with that. There aren’t enough Sherrys to go around.

I’m ambivalent about telling people not to go to law school – I know the numbers are grim, but my experience was pretty great, both in-school and career-wise. I can’t really feel honest telling people that they shouldn’t go at all.

That said, I think it’s excellent advice to say “go to the best school that you can go to for free.” The institutional pressures to go into corporate law are already nearly overwhelming, and people reason really badly ex ante about how $150k in loan debt will color their decision process. To succeed people already need to set themselves in opposition to the dominant culture in law school – that will be much easier without the debt burden. People will choose a different kind of career if they feel like they’ll be free to leave it.

In my experience even the most generous loan forgiveness program doesn’t affect this calculus. They’ll pay your loans so long as you’re ding low-paying legal work, but that means you’re committing to stay in practice over the entire life of your loans. Most people would rather work for 3 years at a big firm and be free and clear than commit themselves to a decade of public service lawyering.

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Barry 07.29.09 at 11:43 am

PGD 07.28.09 at 9:56 pm

” I know a fair number of happy lawyers, but most are doing government or legislative work of some kind. In-house corporate lawyers also seem to be reasonably satisfied. The real misery-inducer seems to be law firm work, which of course is the bulk of the legal job market. One wonders why they can’t evolve more ways of organizing the legal job market that don’t make people miserable.”

The obvious reason is that the misery is part of the system – get people to spend up to $200K to go to an elite law school, and they have to work certain jobs to pay that off. The firms divvy up the graduates, and then work them like dogs for 6 years, after which the large majority are shown the door.

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Matt 07.29.09 at 11:46 am

I should add that I’ve met quite a lot of former paralegals (or the equivalent) who, after doing that work for some time, at several different types of law offices (public interest, government, big firm, etc.) decided that they did want to go to law school and be a lawyer. For the right person it can be quite good work, or at least not a lot worse than many other jobs, and often with reasons to enjoy it (money, sometimes helping people, sometimes complex problems to solve, etc.)

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Sumana Harihareswara 07.29.09 at 11:52 am

Zamfir asks:

Perhaps some of the former liberal arts students here who didn’t become an academic or a lawyer can tell how they ended up? I have always been amazed by the period of “wandering” many liberal arts friends of mine seem to have go through to find a place where their skills fit.

I knew, as a teen, that I didn’t know what major or career I wanted yet. That’s one reason I chose to go to a large state school with many strong departments — to keep my options open. I’d been doing summer internships every summer for a few years by the time I entered college — a public radio station, a state senator’s office, tech writing at a tech startup. So I knew a little tiny bit about the world of work. I also had a mentor who’d switched from teaching philosophy to carpentry mid-career, so I knew — at least intellectually — that I wouldn’t be stuck forever in a career I hated.

My parents wanted me to go into software engineering, medicine, law, or some comfortable and secure government job. I took a single programming class and did terribly (it’s not really my native mindset), didn’t think I could deal with being responsible for others’ lives as a doctor, and was unsure about law, especially after I read Scott Turow’s 1-L. Also, I think I’d known by then that most law students go into law school wanting to do public service work and come out doing corporate firm work, and I probably assumed that would happen to me, too. As for working for the government, the application processes frustrated and bored me.

I majored in political science in college, because I found it interesting, basically because of a single graduate student who taught my discussion section the second semester of my freshman year. I kept doing tech writing internships in the summers, and did random part-time admin/editing/tutoring/webmaster/research work during school. I took the LSAT and the GRE just before graduation, because my mom & sister suggested I should take them while my book-learning was still fresh and hold the scores for eventual grad school applications. I did fairly well. But I argued strenuously with my mom about grad school. She said I should go, get another degree, become more employable and keep my options open. Why not law?

I said that I didn’t want to go to grad school without a reason. It seemed like the people who entered grad school with a specific purpose, a burning desire to study or become a specific thing, did well, and the others were at high risk of burnout. What’s more, in high school & college, I’d seen that the most interesting teachers were the ones who’d had jobs in The Real World and not just academe. So I wanted some real life experience before any grad school I did.

The next time I thought of grad school, it was as I was reading tax histories for fun, and I consulted the prof who’d introduced me to it, Robin Einhorn. She gave me a tax history reading list, I started it and then stopped, and realized that I wasn’t passionate enough about it to go to school again.

After college I still didn’t know what to do, and to varying degrees pursued substitute teaching, copyediting, and personal computer consultancy, while working fulltime in (mostly) customer service jobs. One of those jobs expanded so that I did a little software testing, marketing, and writing. As I was looking for perhaps a sales job in tech, I heard about a tech management training program that was a paid fulltime job, and I applied and got in (perhaps partly thanks to those GRE/LSAT scores). I got a specialized nights-and-weekends degree (MS in technology management), partially paid for by my employers. Now I’m a happy project manager of software developers. I describe this sort of job as suitable for nitpicking dilettantes. I have to know a little about a lot of things. Random academic-y love of trivia helps, but so does experience in a variety of fields and environments.

I’m very glad that I had so many different work experiences before making irrevocable choices, and that I delayed grad school till I had a specific purpose.

I did hear a piece of advice I sort of wish I’d followed: major in something that makes you an expert in a field, like biology or history, that gives you a strong base of knowledge.

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Steve LaBonne 07.29.09 at 12:22 pm

I did hear a piece of advice I sort of wish I’d followed: major in something that makes you an expert in a field, like biology or history, that gives you a strong base of knowledge.

Thanks Sumana, I’m gald you said that because this is one piece of advice that I do feel qualified to give to my daughter and have given her. I tell her that her job in the early part of her college experience will be to find a major that she cares deeply enough about to want to become expert in it.

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Matt 07.29.09 at 1:22 pm

especially after I read Scott Turow’s 1-L
I’m pretty sure that this book, if it were ever a very accurate description of law school, is no longer very accurate for the majority of law schools.

I’m not at all sure that majoring in history makes one an expert in any sense that makes you employable, except perhaps as a school teacher.

Other than the US education system, the system I know the most about is the Russian one. There, students finish highschool at 17 (usually). They can enter college right after that but many spend a year preparing for entrance exams, as the exams are subject-specific(*) and the normal high-school education usually doesn’t prepare students well enough to pass them.(**) The normal course of college study is 5 years, with the large majority of time focused on one subject and closely related areas. There is significantly less “general eduction” or general requirements than in the US. You must pick your field of study when you are 17 years old and it’s very hard to change once one has started- you’d basically have to start the whole process again. Students graduate as “specialists” in a field, but my experience is that the percentage of them who go on to work in these fields, at least for any time, is not significantly higher than what you find in the US. Students still don’t know what they want to do and are not trained clearly for jobs outside of their specialty. The point of all of this discussion is to suggest that this problem might not be a particular problem with education in the US or with academics who fail to properly advise students, but rather a normal part of life, and that figuring out what you want to do with yourself is hard, full of false steps, and something that others can help you with only to a limited degree.
(*) the system of entrance exams for Russian higher education are changing now and it’s not clear how they’ll end up. It seems that a general test of some sort will be at least part of it.
(**) Paying bribes to examiners has often been a sufficient, and sometimes a necessary, step for passing university entrance exams, unfortunately.

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Matt 07.29.09 at 1:23 pm

hmm, apparently you also cannot use the word “spec1alist” on this blog, either, as my comment now awaits moderation. I realize you want/need to prevent spam, but is there some other system you can use? This one is really annoying.

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Steve LaBonne 07.29.09 at 1:44 pm

I’m not at all sure that majoring in history makes one an expert in any sense that makes you employable, except perhaps as a school teacher.

I didn’t interpret it in that sense, but rather in the sense that the intellectual chops gained by working to attain some real degree of mastery over a field of inquiry are more transferable to a variety of subsequent jobs than the experience of dabbling in a number of things without really focusing on anything. And as we know, even some quite prestigious colleges have a sufficiently lax system of academic requirements to make it quite possible to graduate after having only done the latter.

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anonprof 07.29.09 at 1:44 pm

As a law professor, it’s good to read this thread! Yes, too many people go to law school, and too many become dazzled once there by the lure of bigfirm money (though that will probably change in the next few years, if it hasn’t already). But I want to point out that there are actually, in my experience, plenty of happy lawyers; they are working as DAs, public defenders, city attorneys, for small firms outside of major cities, at public interest orgs. (a few also work at big law firms, but I think most there are unhappy). The particular unhappiness of the legal profession is caused, I would hazard, by two things: (1) the focus on big firm jobs/big firm money, especially at high-ranked schools, and connected to that (2) the crushing debt now imposed by a private law school education. That debt makes it impossible for many new graduates to do anything but go to work for a private law firm (there are loan forgiveness programs that can help some new lawyers, but they are not available to everyone).

So, after you ask a student “Why do you want to go to law school,” perhaps the follow-up question should be “How are you going to pay for it?”

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David 07.29.09 at 1:45 pm

Having earned a law degree, taught in a well-ranked law school, and practiced law, all before returning to philosophy, I have long felt myself morally obligated to have a very frank conversation with every student who seeks a recommendation letter for law school admission. In addition to pressing hard on the why do you want to attend law school question, I press hard on the what do you intend to do with your degree, how much have you researched the kind of work you’re interested in (and who in particular have you talked to), why are you applying to these schools, how are you going to pay for it, do you have a plan to recover your investment, have you considered other options, have you looked at any of the quality of life evidence gathered in recent years regarding various careers in law, how else might you use your talents in ways rewarding both to you and to society, and so on. I also openly share my own experiences and evaluationos — both the positive and negative. I tell students that I drifted into law school for various reasons (including the collapse of a plan A in my senior year and a wildly improbable couldn’t get any better LSAT score), that (and why) I found law school both frustrating and rewarding, what I thought about practicing law (I was fortunate that my area of practice permitted a high degree of craft satisfaction; unfortunately, I had to work with lawyers and had little control over what I worked on), what my friends thought about it, what they’re doing today and how they feel about it, the kind of person I felt myself becoming while in law, what my wife’s experiences in law have been, why I eventually left law, what it feels like to just now be approaching the income I had some 19 years ago, and so on. I do my best to establish credibility with the students and share my sense of what law school friends at work in private practice, the judiciary, public service/government work, not for profit work, and so on, report. I feel good about the fact that all or nearly all seem to be prompted into serious reconsideration of their situation and decision and many report back later feeling much better about the path taken — some give up on going to law school, others go with clearer vision, some just change the schools they’re applying to, or apply to joint degree programs, and so on. I’m always amazed at the fact that the majority of the students I talk to seem not to have had any previous conversation with parents, relatives, counselors, etc., even remotely like the one I have with them — they’re just drifting down stream and reporting to parents, et al., that they’ve got a plan, so no need to worry.

As a few posts above emphasize, three things students need to hear as they move from the undergraduate work to the next step: a) there are lots of ways to earn a living doing meaningful work that you’ll enjoy, grow in, and so on; b) remember, the average student today will have not three jobs over his or her life, but three careers — so be open, flexible, and on the look out for opportunities of interest; c) you’ll need enough money to acheive a certain baseline standard of living (the baseline varies from person to person to some degree), but after you’ve hit that baseline, additionoal money is over-rated relative to other features of your work (meaningfulness to you and society, autonomy/control, collegiality, stresses (some of the good, little of the bad), and so on).

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dpinkert 07.29.09 at 1:49 pm

As a former political philosophy student turned lawyer (25 years out of law school), I applaud Bloix’s interventions. I do, however, want to nitpick the following statement:

“In later years, they will look back on ‘theory’ with the nostalgia they have for children’s stories.”

My experience is that the political philosphy years set the tone for all that followed. Who was it that said something like, “It was my youthful idealism that established the standards against which I measured myself in later years.”?

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Tracy W 07.29.09 at 2:39 pm

As with Harry, it was usually too late to seriously advise people by then, but with my other students I did try to dissuade them from the idea that a law degree is an “all purpose” degree with which they could “do anything”. Mostly with a law degree you can be a lawyer.

How interesting. About three years after I graduated from engineering school I went to a friend from there’s wedding, there were about ten of us there, all working professionally, and only one person was actually working as an engineer (who, incidentally, was female). I am surprised that law would be more limiting.

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Matt 07.29.09 at 2:52 pm

I am surprised that law would be more limiting.

It’s not that a law degree is limiting as such, it’s just that it’s not a qualification for anything but being a lawyer, and that it’s no obvious advantage in most other fields- for government, an MPA or even an MA in economics or an MBA is likely to be more useful, for business as well, for journalism, a journalism degree or any degree, really, is likely to be as useful. My point was that students often have the idea that a law degree will be seen as a big plus for them in getting jobs in all sorts of areas other than being lawyers, and that this isn’t really so, at least not more than other advanced degrees, and often less so than more directly applicable degrees. I think law schools often come close to false advertising on this issue, and perhaps even go over the line. Given that most law schools are very expensive (even leaving aside the opportunity cost of spending 3 years in school), students should understand that the vast majority of people who get law degrees become lawyers, and that they should probably not go to law school unless _that’s_ what they want to do.

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Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 07.29.09 at 3:48 pm

“As a few posts above emphasize, three things students need to hear as they move from the undergraduate work to the next step: a) there are lots of ways to earn a living doing meaningful work that you’ll enjoy, grow in, and so on”

Yes, but I think also folks need to be realistic about the transistion from college to the world of work. In college, the focus is education – in the sense of “bringing out” the talents of an individual, culturing them, adding to their human capital. In the work world, the focus is on how you can make money or save time or money, what you contribute, rather than how can develop you as a person. It’s a hard transition, whether you’ve taken a generalist track or a specialist track like engineering or pharmacy, etc.

Plus, as the most junior person, you’re probably going to get the least interesting work, as a rite of passage, because no-one else wants to do it, or because you have the least expertise and so can’t do the work that needs the most domain knowledge.

I’ve found in my career that working for or with government is a much better work environment than the purely private sector – as the incentives of the carrot of pay/promotions and the stick of “avoid getting fired” are weaker than in the private sector, it’s harder to force a colleague/subordinate to do something, so basically, you have to treat your colleagues and subordinates nicer, relying more on persuasion and strokes. Macho, aggressive “Big swinging dicks” with poor interpersonal skills have a hard time getting anything done without the fear of being fired over the poor souls who have to work with them.

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Harry 07.29.09 at 4:20 pm

dpinkert — I have a feeling, just a feeling mark you, that Bloix had something rather different in mind when mentioning “theory”.

Steve Labonne (#43):
“the intellectual chops gained by working to attain some real degree of mastery over a field of inquiry are more transferable to a variety of subsequent jobs than the experience of dabbling in a number of things without really focusing on anything”.

should be stamped on the door of every college dorm.

Bloix, if you’re still reading — I completely understand and share your frustrations. This is one of the reasons I was so struck by Bok’s book, which is extremely frank about the problems with universities, but (speaking as an insider) is so clearly written by someone who understands only too well how difficult it is to get movement. One thing that Bok doesn’t say (or at least, I don’t remember him saying it, but he certainly knows it perfectly) is that tenure is a major barrier to effecting change; tenure basically puts professors in the position of monopoly providers, and enables them to resist change very well, while not providing them with much incentive to initiate change that benefits anyone other than themselves. I’ve just finished reading Zemsky, Wegner and Massy’s Remaking the American University which is very good on analysing the sources of the problems (a nice companion to Bok’s book — I’m going to figure out how to teach a course using them both).

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Janus Pretendous 07.29.09 at 4:39 pm

I was precisely one of those would-be law students who could have used some skeptical advice from my instructors in the philosophy department while I was an undergraduate. After studying law for one year, I decided that law was not for me. It was a strong desire to protect children that led me to apply to law school, and it is that same desire that has brought me through a lateral entry teaching licensure program. My student-teaching semester practicum begins this Fall. Hopefully, I made the right choice both for mine and my students’ sake(s).

Mmmm … sake.

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Bartelby 07.29.09 at 4:55 pm

Yes, if you don’t tell them about life they’ll learn it from other kids on the streets. In college a guy said he was trying to decide between law school and business school – when he formulated the dilemma that way it made everything clear. Law school, no way; OK, business school. Easiest snap decision I ever made. I’m sure my reasoning would have been the same if his options had been law school and rodeo star.

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rea 07.29.09 at 5:40 pm

Scott Turow’s 1-L
I’m pretty sure that this book, if it were ever a very accurate description of law school, is no longer very accurate for the majority of law schools.

I’m 30 years out of law school, so I can’t vouch for how things are now, but Turow’s account struck me as pretty accurate.

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anon 07.29.09 at 6:13 pm

“there are lots of ways to earn a living doing meaningful work that you’ll enjoy, grow in, and so on”

Lies, lies, lies!

“Perhaps some of the former liberal arts students here who didn’t bcome an academic or a lawyer can tell how they ended up? “

Nobody has volunteered a response because these jobs don’t exist.

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kid bitzer 07.29.09 at 6:24 pm

academics have a lot of bad habits, but one of the better ones that some acquire is an unwillingness to claim expertise outside of their area.

i’m not an engineer; engineering is difficult and complex: so i don’t give people advice about how to build bridges or water-treatment plants.

i’m not a doctor; medicine is difficult and complex: so i don’t give people advice about fighting cancer.

now we come to the matter of career counseling. i feel strong sympathy with harry’s original post. i certainly think too many people go to law school, and for the wrong reason.

but, as has been said several times upthread, it doesn’t help a lot to tell your students “don’t do this”, unless you can give them some advice about what they *should* do. it’s the lack of clear positive options, after all, that leads a lot of the kids to go to law school by default. so without a clear option, most of them will go by default, despite your intervention.

so what should the conscientious faculty member do? well, what we should do is give positive, detailed, personalized career advice.

except: that’s not what i’m an expert in. i have no more expertise in career counseling than i do in engineering or oncology. given what i know, and given what i have made it my business to know, i really have no business giving your kid advice about future careers.

it’s not that i begrudge your kid some advice that i could easily give them. it’s not that i’m trying to reproduce more clones of myself, or increase my enrollments.

it’s just that i have a clear sense of my own limits. and i don’t like to claim expertise outside my area.

now, maybe you’ll say, “okay, so the faculty shouldn’t do it, but the university should, through a career counseling staff that does possess the relevant expertise!”. that’s fine with me.

or maybe you’ll say, “you may not be an expert, but there are no experts in this area! career counselors are losers who don’t have any specialized knowledge! most career counselors are doing it because they couldn’t get a real job!”

i don’t know. i don’t know enough about career counseling even to know whether there is a well-defined and reputable body of expertise there or not.

but i am quite confident that i don’t have it. and that none of the faculty at any of the departments at any of the universities and colleges that i have taught at (quite a few by now) ever had it. it’s just no part of our expertise.

and i don’t really see why it should be. it’s hard enough for me to be an expert at what i’m an expert at.

and given those facts, i do not think the failure of universities to help students choose a career is to be blamed on the faculty. any more than your hospital’s failure to give its patients good career advice should be blamed on their oncologists. just not what we do.

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Kathleen Lowrey 07.29.09 at 7:14 pm

Like kid bitzer, I think this is lamentable situation but perhaps not a fixable one. Profs know what it’s like to be a prof; students’ parents can tell them about their own fields of work, but beyond that young people’s options for good advice are pretty limited. Without knowing much about university career counseling, I’m guessing the people who staff those centres know how to be … university staff. It would be great if every university had a staff of on-site experts on All the Jobs That Exist, What They Are Like, and How to Get Them, but I dunno — if I had that kind of knowledge at my fingertips how likely is it I’d end up staffing a uni career centre? I think I would pursue Extravagantly Compensated Talking Head instead.

I haven’t read Bok’s book, though — maybe he knows not only what should be done but how to do it (to remedy this situation). My advice to graduating students is always to take a couple of years off and work doing anything at all, just to bump into unexpected things / experiences / people / settings rather than staying in the confines of higher ed until they pop out the other end too molded into something (doctor, lawyer, professor) to change their minds.

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Sprite 07.29.09 at 7:34 pm

Lots of whining about law not being “fulfilling” and lawyers being unhappy here, isn’t there? I don’t get it. I’ve been a lawyer at various top firms for 8+ years and am now at a smaller firm. Yes, the work is sometimes tedious, often exhausting, sometimes stressful and there are some unpleasant personalities to work with. But overall, it has been interesting, challenging, sometimes even exciting and I have made more money than I ever thought I would. Law is a service business, your goal is to help your clients not to stroke your ego or focus on your own “fulfilment.”

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Dirty Davey 07.29.09 at 8:24 pm

“Perhaps some of the former liberal arts students here who didn’t bcome an academic or a lawyer can tell how they ended up? ”

Nobody has volunteered a response because these jobs don’t exist.

They do. Liberal arts undergrad, followed by grad school in two different subjects on the academic path. Spent far far too long in the second grad school stint, but picked up enough specific software experience to get going as a software developer. Been there almost ten years, and I’m doing just fine.

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Stigand 07.29.09 at 8:43 pm

Part of the problem is that the more lucrative but soulless professions (law, consulting, etc) are much more engaged recruiters, offer a much clearer professional development path, and are more willing to offer paid internships than the wholesome, homespun alternatives.

TeachFirst, the UK adaptation of Teach for America, explicitly set out to remedy this: it was an aggressive recruiter, made it clear that it was looking only for the most talented people, and set expectations for career progression (a clear path to being a head of department, good exit prospects for those who chose not to remain teachers).

But in most cases, the less mercenary professions can’t afford the financial and management costs required to take recruitment and professional development seriously. The irony is that this means that some of the most politically progressive workplaces end up having the most inegalitarian hiring practices (unpaid 6-month internships, anyone?) and under-reward and under-promote their junior staff.

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LizardBreath 07.29.09 at 8:57 pm

It’s not just the less mercenary professions. Even ordinary business tend to have very unclear career ladders — while there’s nothing wrong with the pay and conditions at an entry-level job being unattractive in themselves, my recall as a liberal arts graduate with no particular skills was that the jobs I could locate and get didn’t seem to have any connection to becoming qualified in the future for a better job. One serious attraction of law school is that the law firm career path is pretty clear — you go someplace (either a firm or something nobler) and learn some skills for 3-10 years, at which point you’re either an important person at your initial workplace, or are qualified to get a pretty good job someplace else or strike out on your own as a self-employed professional.

But that’s not about career advising, it’s about the nature of careers these days.

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Tim Wilkinson 07.29.09 at 9:09 pm

figuring out what you want to do with yourself is hard, full of false steps, and something that others can help you with only to a limited degree

1. Yes; 2. yes but sometimes avoidably; and 3. not that limited. Given how large work looms in the lives of most people, much better career guidance could and should be given throughout life than actually is (in the UK and, I think I can safely guess, the US too).

The absence of a body of expert professionals dedicated to helping people choose careers affects almost everyone – many to a much worse extent than those with inappropriate law degrees – and the resulting job dissatisfaction must be one of the biggest (fairly) easily avoidable causes of unhappiness in society. There’s plenty of concern in govt about providing skills (currently) needed in industry, but bugger-all interest in trying to guide people into (and equip them for) jobs where they might actually be happy or fulfilled.

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Harry 07.29.09 at 9:18 pm

I agree with kid bitzer that it would be bad to say “don’t do it” without having some alternative, and also said myself that when they ask for a letter it is already too late. But one does not have to be an expert career counselor in order to 1) ask “why do you want to do X?”; 2) “have you talked to many people who do X and maybe spent a couple of days shadowing them?”; 3) “Are there other things you might be interested in?” and 4) “The university has a career counselling service you might want to make some use of”. Do less than 1) and you are just complicit in their making what might be quite a bad decision (if you write the letter).

Part of what is at issue is what the job of a professor is. I think it is more than just being an expert in researching, and not completely incompetent in teaching, the stuff in one’s field. But, of course, while it is treated as being that, faculty are unlikely to acquire the skills needed to carry out the *more* that I think is involved. I imagine that is part of what irritates Bloix so much.

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Bloix 07.29.09 at 10:27 pm

It’s not the people here. Over here all the academics seem reasonable and caring. It’s over at Lawyers Guns & Money – a site that I truly love, by the way, for the substance of most of the posts – that I get into trouble, because there I run into faculty members whose attitude is, my job is to teach them [narrowly defined field], full stop. If they don’t learn it it’s their loss. They’re adults and they’re mostly assholes anyway. Now of course what I may be doing over there is the equivalent of evesdropping on faculty lounge belly-aching, but still, there often seems to be no recognition of the purpose of higher education for the great majority of students, and even less that their parents – who are making very substantial financial sacrifices – have any right to an opinion.

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Marc 07.29.09 at 10:46 pm

A number of these issues are discussed on this new website

http://www.lawschoolpodcaster.com/

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kid bitzer 07.30.09 at 2:30 am

“what the job of a professor is. I think it is more”

i invite you to say more about the more.

and also about how to train the professors so that they can do it.

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Matt 07.30.09 at 3:20 am

Bloix- I don’t want to get the thread off on a wrong track, especially as you’ve been constructive here, even though I think I probably disagree with you. But I’ll say that I think your characterization here of your interactions on somewhat related topics on L,G&M is not one that most people on that blog would recognize, nor is your characterization of the others on that blog. It’s perhaps worth considering how more useful interactions (like the ones here) can take place.

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Witt 07.30.09 at 4:10 am

I said that I didn’t want to go to grad school without a reason. It seemed like the people who entered grad school with a specific purpose, a burning desire to study or become a specific thing, did well, and the others were at high risk of burnout. What’s more, in high school & college, I’d seen that the most interesting teachers were the ones who’d had jobs in The Real World and not just academe. So I wanted some real life experience before any grad school I did.

I wanted to highlight this comment from Sumana Harihareswara because it rings so true to me.

Like others in this thread, I was told many times that I should be a lawyer, which I took mostly politely, because I know it was well-intentioned and kindly meant. My experience with formal education in college was sufficent to assure me that graduate school was extremely unlikely to ever be in my future.

By the time I graduated (with my non-specialist liberal-arts degree), I had nine years of experience in the paid workforce, the last several full-time. The Career Services representative at my university looked at me in polite disbelief when I told her I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector. She was at a complete loss for where to refer me, and apparently had even less inclination to do any research or exploration to find ideas. So I left the office and ended up finding a job through a want ad.

Since I had (have) no particular ambition beyond making myself useful to the world and finding work that keeps me engaged and reasonably well-paid, I tend to feel as if I’ve hit the jackpot. Certainly I know few other people who have had as painless a “career path” in the decade-plus since college that I’ve been lucky enough to go through.

These days, I write a lot of letters of recommendation (although few for grad school), and try to dissuade a lot of bright-eyed young people from law school. (Not usually the same people.) The dissuading conversations go something like “You have told me you like X, Y and Z. What makes you think you will be able to do that as a lawyer? Have you talked to any lawyers? Do you know what they actually do all day? Would you like to do that? How do you plan to pay down your law school debt? Are you aware that most debt-forgiveness programs require you to work full-time, so that if you want to have a child you may be disqualified?” etc.

So far my success rate is zero.

What I have taken from this is that the facts and logic that would be persuasive to me are not persuasive to some other people, and that by the time somebody is coming to me mentioning law school, it’s too late.

I do try to talk very bluntly and clearly about money and possibilities when people come to me for informational interviews about nonprofit work. I don’t think it does anyone any favors to hide what kind of salary they can expect to earn, and the various costs and benefits of going into the sector.

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JanieM 07.30.09 at 4:57 am

“Perhaps some of the former liberal arts students here who didn’t bcome an academic or a lawyer can tell how they ended up? ”

Nobody has volunteered a response because these jobs don’t exist.

I have an undergraduate degree in “Humanities and Science” and a Ph.D. in English. I got out of grad school in the late 70′s, at which point I was neither a stellar candidate for the few jobs that were available, nor very disappointed not to get one of them.

I worked in college admissions for several years, then built on one undergraduate course in Fortran to get a programming job. I’ve been programming, as well as writing and editing (both technical and general-purpose materials), ever since. I’ve also recently taught a couple of one-semester college courses in a field I took up as a “hobby” about five years ago. I enjoyed the teaching a lot and would like to do more of it, but once again, jobs are few and far between, and I’m far from having the credentials to teach full-time.

It has worked out okay for me, though. I haven’t had a “career” as such, but I’ve managed to support myself modestly, far outside any variant of the rat race. I could use a little more intellectual stimulation, and I’m actually thinking of going back to school for some of that, but that’s a whole separate story….

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Matt 07.30.09 at 1:20 pm

Thinking a bit more, I agree pretty much completely w/ Kid B that it’s unreasonably to expect professors to be career advisers, and I tend to think it’s unreasonable for professors to have their student’s financial future or even their happiness foremost in mind. But, something departments can do that could be very helpful is keep lists of alumni and what they are doing. This would provide a ready resource for students wanting to know what they can do w/ a degree, people with knowledge of various fields, and contacts who might help w/ internships or entry-level positions, or even advice on what else a student should do to get such a job. These days especially, w/ email and data-bases and the like, such things are not hard to do and could meet a real need.

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harry b 07.30.09 at 1:45 pm

Sure kid bitzer, but not here and now — I’ll formulate a sensible post about it sometime later (about what the job should be, not about ow to train people for it, I haven’t much to say about that). One thing I’d add to Matt’s comment, though, is that I don’t mean to imply that every professor should have exactly the same responsibilities; the university has the responsibility, and departments need to organise a division of labour in delivering it.

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Barry 07.30.09 at 2:05 pm

kid bitzer 07.29.09 at 6:24 pm
“but, as has been said several times upthread, it doesn’t help a lot to tell your students “don’t do this”, unless you can give them some advice about what they should do. it’s the lack of clear positive options, after all, that leads a lot of the kids to go to law school by default. so without a clear option, most of them will go by default, despite your intervention.”

Yes, it’s hard for an individual academic to make up for the faults of the system. However, one can dissuade a few from making a choice for no good reason.

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Bloix 07.30.09 at 2:07 pm

#65- But JanieM would have been better off – wealthier, more productive, less bored with her lot in life, with fewer periods of anxiety over money, low status, and underemployment – if she had majored – or at least minored – in programming, studied technical writing and editing, and gotten some exposure to the business world. She could have received this education in two years at a good community college, and if she wanted a BA, a transfer to state school close to home. (And she could have taken a few courses in Shakespeare, modernist poetry, and gender studies, too.)

But instead she got her Ph.D. , presumably because she intended at some point to become an English professor, and presumably any caring and competent senior faculty member could have told her that that was not a realistic option. It appears that JanieM wasted years of her young adulthood and tens of thousands of dollars that she didn’t have in order to obtain a credential that gives her no pleasure and earns her no income. Where in her education was a person to say, “look, Janie, this is your life. You only have one. Think seriously about this: What do you want? What do you need? What are you capable of?”

We all know about the for-profit mills that use students as a way to access student loan money, teach them nothing and leave them with debts and no saleable skills. What is the difference between these con artists and respectable higher education?

You may say, the difference is that we don’t make false promises. We don’t promise employment, we promise a liberal education. But I say, you do make false promises. You’re not as crass, but you don’t need to be. You induce people to mortgage their lives away when you know that they are doing so foolishly and based on a misunderstanding of their prospects. Not you personally, perhaps, but the institutions that employ you and use you to further their institutional interests.

It’s not enough for you to say, they’re adults, I’m not a career counselor, I teach [history/English/philosophy] as well as I can and that’s my sole obligation. You are a participant in a scheme to monetize the future income stream that your students’ working lives represent, and to divert it into the coffers of your institution. That’s what you are paid to do. The students willingly submit themselves to this treatment because they believe that it will help them maximize that income stream – that is, they expect the deal to pay off. If what you do has no effect on their income stream, or (as in the case of Janie) actually decreases it, then you’re involved in a con. You may be a poorly paid and oppressed member of the gang, but you’re in it nonetheless. It’s not enough for you to say, my skirts are clean.

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Salient 07.30.09 at 2:16 pm

“But, something departments can do that could be very helpful is keep lists of alumni and what they are doing.”

That is an awesome idea. I imagine there would be some selection bias in who returns the surveys each year et cetera, but something > nothing in this regard.

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bianca steele 07.30.09 at 2:24 pm

There are liberal arts grads out there (I have a BA in computer science from a liberal arts college, but that’s probably not what you mean), but some of them are too busy or disparage the Internet or are too optimistic to take part in this discussion, and that’s part of why you won’t find them here.

I have no idea about career counseling. My own industry is changing by the minute. I’d like to see the following, though:
- Consideration of what careers can’t be entered except by recruiting from universities and grad schools (law gets a check on this)
- Reconsideration of the knee-jerk public policy advice that “retraining,” which somehow will occur in universities, is a panacea (law probably gets another check)
- Recognition that the ideal of the delicate genius (or whatever) whose wife keeps the kiddles quiet and whose disciples handle correspondence isn’t a reasonable goal for most people, and that criticism based on failure to achieve that goal, or social rules based on the idea that those with merit will achieve that ideal, aren’t helpful (law is probably one of the closest careers to meet this ideal, though, only punditry being reliably better)
- Examination of questions like career path–as an engineer, after 5/10/15 years, you may be a very senior engineer–but you may find yourself expected to go into management, or else doing work that is no more challenging than what you were doing at 21, and if you went into engineering because you wanted to do engineering, that can be disappointing. (law gets another check here)
- Recognition that the self-help literature (which I assume reflects the therapeutic training literature–and which influences what gets into the press) may reflect the ideology of the people writing it more than the reality people find on the job, and that’s a problem.

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bianca steele 07.30.09 at 2:25 pm

Sorry, better formatting:
There are liberal arts grads out there (I have a BA in computer science from a liberal arts college, but that’s probably not what you mean), but some of them are too busy or disparage the Internet or are too optimistic to take part in this discussion, and that’s part of why you won’t find them here.

I have no idea about career counseling. My own industry is changing by the minute. I’d like to see the following, though:

* Consideration of what careers can’t be entered except by recruiting from universities and grad schools (law gets a check on this)

* Reconsideration of the knee-jerk public policy advice that “retraining,” which somehow will occur in universities, is a panacea (law probably gets another check)

* Recognition that the ideal of the delicate genius (or whatever) whose wife keeps the kiddles quiet and whose disciples handle correspondence isn’t a reasonable goal for most people, and that criticism based on failure to achieve that goal, or social rules based on the idea that those with merit will achieve that ideal, aren’t helpful (law is probably one of the closest careers to meet this ideal, though, only punditry being reliably better)

* Examination of questions like career path–as an engineer, after 5/10/15 years, you may be a very senior engineer–but you may find yourself expected to go into management, or else doing work that is no more challenging than what you were doing at 21, and if you went into engineering because you wanted to do engineering, that can be disappointing. (law gets another check here)

* Recognition that the self-help literature (which I assume reflects the therapeutic training literature–and which influences what gets into the press) may reflect the ideology of the people writing it more than the reality people find on the job, and that’s a problem.

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Salient 07.30.09 at 2:39 pm

The students willingly submit themselves to this treatment because they believe that it will help them maximize that income stream – that is, they expect the deal to pay off.

And it does. For the vast majority of college graduates, having a college degree improves the amount of income they are earning, relative to what they’d be doing with no college degree. A college degree, even in whateverology from a small liberal arts school, generally enables one to seek employment in places where those without a college degree are unwelcome. Examples off the top of my head include,

* Secretarial work

* Data processing

* Substitute teaching

* Insurance sales representative

* Manager, purchasing / distribution / logistics / materials

* Paralegal

Of 158 jobs listed on a local job search website, 77 require a college degree without specifying what kind of degree (I’m excluding professional jobs requiring a specific degree, e.g. nursing, from search results). Getting a college degree clearly opens up prospects.

I would suggest, we should not judge the worth of someone’s education according to which of the opportunities available to them they happened to take. By that metric, should I say that I was conned because technically the only material directly applicable to my current job came from math courses?

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Steve LaBonne 07.30.09 at 2:48 pm

While some of what Bloix says echoes my own conscience-searching back in my academic days, I think it’s a bit harsh. In particular I think puts a little too much stock in direct job-related training (which admittedly is not what universities and the more prestigious liberal arts colleges are good at.) The problem with an approach that focuses on training is that few of today’s graduates can expect to have just one career in their lives. This is not to endorse the usual complacent balderdash about how laid-off autoworkers can just retrain as massage therapists or whatever. But it’s a bit too easy to devalue the mental habits that a good liberal arts education is meant to develop (though I’m not claiming that the reality always matches the advertising) in a world of ever-accelerating change. If done right it should give one a degree of flexibility and adaptability on which most people are going to need to draw during their lives and which vocational training does not provide.

Of course, high schools have long been failing in their duty to produce some of the same effect at a less advanced level, and consequently kids who don’t go to college are really getting screwed. Many jobs “require” a college degree only because high school graduates can’t be counted on for what ought to be high-school-graduate skills. But that’s a whole other can of worms.

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JanieM 07.30.09 at 2:49 pm

Bloix @ 69 — you have read between the lines of what I wrote and constructed a fantasy creature that has almost nothing to do with me.

I am as “wealthy” as I need to be; if I had had more money I would have traveled more, but that’s about it. I’m rarely bored — to the extent that I lack intellectual stimulation it’s in great part because I have lived for 20+ years in a rural area and made a conscious tradeoff between physical and intellectual landscapes. I have never had a minute’s anxiety about money (and no, I had no “family” money to begin with). My “status” is indeterminate but whatever it is it’s fine; and I’m also not underemployed because I’m self-employed and I work as much or as little as I want, with work that’s often challenging, reasonably varied, and, as far as I can tell, possessing no more of a quota of dullness than most other kinds of work. I’ve raised 2 kids to adulthood and had plenty of adventures along that way.

It’s true that I was never given much helping thinking about careers, but the path my life has taken has been determined far more by my own choices about where to put my attention and energy than by other people’s advice, or lack of it. I may have had a vague notion of becoming an English professor, but I went to college, and then grad school, because I was deeply interested in the subject matter for its own sake. From that point of view I wasted neither money nor years, I was enjoying myself along the way, and building a body of skills, knowledge, and connections that has never ceased to be useful. I think it’s appalling to suggest that I wasted those years just because I didn’t end up in a career that was directly connected to them. I suppose no one can stop you from making unfounded and offensive judgments like that, but that doesn’t stop them from being unfounded and offensive.

I had almost no loans to pay off; I started college at a time where there was still enough money floating around academia so that very capable students (I was one) got scholarships, not loans.

I would have been completely unchallenged in a community college. Perhaps a faculty member at one of the schools I did go to could have said more to me about my “prospects,” but in fact up until the last couple of years I was in grad school (and at that point all I was doing was finishing my dissertation), the prospects were pretty good. Then things changed: the money stopped flowing and the jobs dried up and a period of expansion ended.cro

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Steve LaBonne 07.30.09 at 2:54 pm

I may have had a vague notion of becoming an English professor, but I went to college, and then grad school, because I was deeply interested in the subject matter for its own sake.

This is basically how I feel about my own life-science doctoral and postdoctoral education, though it also does have some genuine relevance and significant market value in my current career.

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Salient 07.30.09 at 2:55 pm

If what you do has no effect on their income stream, or (as in the case of Janie) actually decreases it, then you’re involved in a con.

I think this conflates “this person is taking the wrong major” with “this person does not belong in college” somehow. {I’m assuming you are saying that, because of loans payback, the person’s net disposable income is decreased.}

Still, I won’t believe you if you tell me that there are all that many people who pursue and achieve an undergraduate degree in a subject of study they hate, just in order to get a phantom job that doesn’t exist except in their anticipatory head. I specifically doubt the “hate” part — and maybe you’d readily agree, most folks major in something they are personally interested in. To get all the way to a degree, people study topics they like to study.

The opportunity to study something that you like to study, under the guidance of professionals, clearly has value and is worth $. Those professionals can help you both to expand your knowledge about a topic and to develop a deep and thoroughly intentional methodology and ideology (i.e. help you to develop a means for evaluating novel conjectures and expressing their worth relative to a coherent value framework).

Developing these skills and personality characteristics, together with having a piece of paper acknowledging their study, is likely to make a person more employable. I’m thinking retention value here rather than getting-hired value. Maybe my years studying and majoring in English had no direct effect on my ability to get hired to lecture on Maths. I’ll cede that point. But I guarantee my years studying English prepared me for the kind of flexible thinking and analytical rigor that my job demands. (For example, I think one of my jobs is to ensure that humanities students taking my intro-mathematics classes to satisfy a requirement, are able to recognize the value of that class relative to their interests, and can learn the material in the context of developing a skill set applicable elsewhere.)

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Bloix 07.30.09 at 3:02 pm

Salient, you think data entry is a prospect?

What you say about college degrees is true because it is against the law for an employer to specify a high school diploma as a credential for a job unless the employer can show that the diploma is necessary for performance of the job. Why? because in a early civil rights act case, the Supreme Court found that high school diploma requirements had the effect of discriminating against black applicants. But no such rule has ever been imposed on a college degree requirement. Therefore, many employees require college degrees in order to make sure they are getting employees who can read, add, and show up on time with a clean shirt and a pleasant manner. That’s why jobs that clearly don’t require a technical or liberal arts education – secretary, insurance sales – nonetheless require a degree.

But students whose sights are set on those kinds of jobs would be far better off in tech or business school. No, you don’t need much education to sell insurance. But if you have any ambition at all, you’ll want to move into underwriting, where accounting and actuarial science would be a big help, or management, where a business degree would give you a leg up. And if you can run a copy machine you can be a paralegal. But if you want to advance into law firm management or legal support, then you’d want some human relations courses or computer database skills or finance.

Too many students in the liberal arts are simply marking time in order to get the credential that will allow them to apply for entry level trainee jobs.

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Matt 07.30.09 at 3:19 pm

if you can run a copy machine you can be a paralegal

This is, in fact, not true. I suspect you mean it at least a bit as an exaggeration, but I’m never quite sure with your comments. At a firm of any size paralegals are skilled employees who do important work. For many paralegal jobs one must have a certificate, though in many top law firms they will only hire graduates of fairly good schools, and don’t care about the degree, as they just want smart people whom they will train in their own system. This is so of many, perhaps most, big NY law firms. Paralegals are able to move up into management primarily through the training they receive on the job.

Too many students in the liberal arts are simply marking time in order to get the credential that will allow them to apply for entry level trainee jobs.

How did you come to this conclusion? We know that you think college should primarily be job-training or technical training. I think that’s wrong. I also think that many people pay more than they should for college, but they rarely do this because they have to. But I mostly see you expressing your personal preferences here as if they were clear statements of general facts of human well-being, and that’s just not supported.

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Salient 07.30.09 at 3:23 pm

Salient, you think data entry is a prospect?

Eh, for example, medical coding’s not bad.

…it is against the law for an employer to specify a high school diploma as a credential for a job unless the employer can show that the diploma is necessary for performance of the job.

I did not know this. Hm.

…I don’t think I understand what the law says. How could one show that a “diploma” per se is necessary for the performance of the job? I’m confused. It seems monster.com lets me filter search results by “high school degree” and I get results saying, a HS diploma or GED equivalent is required… maybe those employers can prove the need for a diploma somehow. I don’t see how they could.

Too many students in the liberal arts are simply marking time in order to get the credential that will allow them to apply for entry level trainee jobs.

I still dispute this idea that these students are just “marking time” — i.e. not enjoying themselves at all in the process. If that is indeed their experience, I absolutely agree they should find either (a) another major they would indeed enjoy or (b) a less expensive and faster option, perhaps such as an associate’s degree. But I think most students find the majority of their courses in their in-major coursework to be a blast, or at least “fun except for the exams” :-)

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Bloix 07.30.09 at 3:53 pm

See Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971). An employer that specifies “high school diploma” may do so, but it is opening itself up to a lawsuit on a theory that the requirement has a disparate impact on the hiring of minorities. It is then the employer’s obligation to prove that the diploma requirement is a bona fide occupational qualifiction (a “BFOQ”) . No such rule has ever been imposed on the requirement of a college degree.

For its effects on higher ed, see, e.g., The Supreme Court and the Inflation of Educational Credentials – Impact of Griggs examined, By Lowell Gallaway, November 09, 2006
http://www.popecenter.org/print/print_article.html?id=1749
This is an article from a right-wing think tank, but in spite of the source I think it’s at least part of the reality –

“Higher education’s response to its acquiring the role of gatekeeper of much of the job market is a story in itself. It has behaved in a way that is suggestive of massive monopolistic imperfections in the market for its product. Confronted with a significant increase in demand for its services (due at least in part to Griggs), it has engaged in overt price discrimination against students and their parents… [Schools] estimate the maximum amount a student’s family can pay in determining tuition charges. Discounts in the form of scholarships and work-study jobs are given to those who are thought unable to pay the full amount. By this method, colleges and universities are attempting to capture as much as they can of what economists call the consumer surplus that occurs in market transactions…
Griggs played a major role in catalyzing the current mania for educational credentials…
Oddly enough, there haven’t been any legal challenges to employers who use college degrees as a screening device just the way Duke Power used the high school diploma… For many jobs, a college degree is no more essential to the ability to do the work than was the high school diploma in Griggs.”

BTW, it’s not clear whether the Griggs rule survives the recent New Haven firefighters decision (Ricci v. New Haven).

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Salient 07.30.09 at 3:54 pm

(long comment bolded to help readers skim it)

We know that you think college should primarily be job-training or technical training. I think that’s wrong.

I do agree with Bloix (and I’m conjecturing that you do too, Matt) that we need to more openly acknowledge how many of our students rank job-training and employment-enabling among their own priorities when pursuing a degree.

One obligation of the University is, clearly, to advise students as to what career options are open to individuals who pursue each major. And within reason, it’s the responsibility of professors (especially those with tenure?) to advocate for their university to fulfill this obligation to its students, and to inform students about this resource when appropriate situations for that information arise.

I think this priority is commonplace in students largely because college education is extremely expensive — it’s essentially impossible to just take a class in your spare time, out of personal interest, which is a shame. No, not just a shame, let me be emphatic — it’s a core problem, perhaps the core higher-education problem from a social justice perspective.

Let’s see if folks agree with this one: College education ought to be cheap enough, and geographically well-distributed enough, to enable most working individuals in a society to take a course in their leisure time if they so desire. Bloix, I hypothesize that you would be well-satisfied by this, as your principal concern seems to be the monetary cost incurred by students moreso than the years of life spent at college. I hypothesize we can find some basis for agreement here.

I emphatically fault (since I’m being emphatic) most state governments in the U.S. for not subsidizing a strong and reasonably inexpensive public university system that satisfies the above condition. The current distribution of resources is unjust, and accessible college coursework is one dimension of resources. Redistribution of resources, including subsidization of a strong and accessible public education system, is necessary in order to achieve a just society.

I’m very lucky to have grown up in Wisconsin, which has a pretty top-notch public education system and at the time provided sufficient subsidization to maintain reasonable control over the cost of attending college (I don’t know if this is still true). But access to education ought to be available regardless of which state or country one is born into.

I claim, if we find a way to ensure the “leisure course” condition is met, that will reduce the cost of full tuition such that pursuing a degree no longer imposes the stark financial burden we see as commonplace today. This, in turn, settles the problem of “wasting” one’s time and money on a degree never used later: even in a worst-case scenario, the degree can be reconciled as a leisure pursuit, enabling the person to lead a fuller life.

But we can’t talk about “enabling the person to lead a fuller life” in any serious way until cost controls are in place. Then, but only then, it is fair and reasonable to tell a person their expense in obtaining a degree may not be recompensed with access to employment.

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Salient 07.30.09 at 4:05 pm

Thanks for the case # on Griggs — am going to go look it up. :-)

And thinking about what I’ve said just above… I’m such a naive socialist, aren’t I?

Perhaps a standard liberal democrat would argue that college education can certainly be provided predominantly by the market, i.e. predominantly by private colleges, but that individuals should be guaranteed roughly equal prospects for access to the market institutions which develop (e.g., the government should provide Stafford loans to help diffuse the cost of education). In other words, the current system in the U.S. is pretty good, insofar as those loans are actually widely available and sufficiently large. I think such a system inherently leads to systematically under-served populations and a poorly geographically-distributed university system, but I also think I’m arguing against a straw man liberal democrat here. Help me out, anyone?

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J(oke)D 07.30.09 at 4:11 pm

I like Harry’s approach to recommendation letters, and I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more discussion of recommendation letters for applicants to PhD programs in the liberal arts. Having gone through a PhD program (in a branch of medieval history) and law school myself, I’d guess that a higher proportion of people end up regretting the choice of the PhD. Assuming that almost all the people who drop out without finishing, most of the ones who don’t get tenure-track jobs, and a few of the ones who become tenured faculty end up wishing they’d done something else, that’s probably what, three-quarters? And a lot of those people have very bitter regrets. I enjoyed both grad school and law school myself, for different reasons, but I felt like a distinct minority in grad school. Not that many people like being lawyers – I don’t like it particularly myself, but then I didn’t like being a professor either – but I’d guess that many fewer of my law school classmates had the same level of bitterness as so many of my grad school ones.

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bianca steele 07.30.09 at 5:59 pm

But if you want to advance into law firm management or legal support, then you’d want some human relations courses or computer database skills or finance.

You’re kidding, right? Please tell me you’re kidding at least about the human relations coursework.

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Salient 07.30.09 at 6:12 pm

+1 bianca steele, that’s great

Of course, I think Bloix meant business administration courses on the topic of human resources administration, or some such thing — or maybe Bloix meant sociology courses — ? — but I am now imagining a New Yorker type cartoon of a frat boy leaving the classroom and complaining, “I thought this was a course in human relations, but all we’re learning about is how people talk to each other!”

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bianca steele 07.30.09 at 6:31 pm

Salient, that’s what I thought too, though now that I think about it again, maybe Bloix really did mean human relations?

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Salient 07.30.09 at 6:39 pm

I dunno, I would guess that if anything, business administration courses regarding human resources administration would be useful for managers. So I think that’s what Bloix meant — in fact, it wasn’t until you pointed out the wording that I noticed it said “relations” and not “resources”

{But I’m worried Bloix might take offense at an extended discussion of this, so I’ll withdraw from further conversation about it — Bloix, no offense intended, and I do feel you have been making a solid and reasonable point, though we disagree around the margins.}

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bianca steele 07.30.09 at 6:48 pm

I can’t think of anything worse than a first-year professional who’s been taught by professors from the human resources department about the psychology of professionals and the “correct” way to manage them.

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Bloix 07.30.09 at 7:33 pm

Resources, yes. The folks who teach you how to fire people. But seriously, am I missing the joke? Is someone really concerned that I’m going to take offense? Me? Good God, The Editors told me Good Day to You, Sir. Bitch PhD ripped me to shreds. Robert Farley called me an idiot. I’ve been banned from Edge of the American West. Nothing that anyone at this decorous site could say would offend me in the slighest.

Bianca Steele – I’m not saying that you’d want in your wildest dreams to take a human resources course, either for you or anyone you care about. I’m saying that if a person’s ambition is to be an insurance salesman or a paralegal, they might be just the person for those courses.

On one college visit, my son and I were taken on the tour by a young biology major whose career goal was to become a pharmaceutical salesperson. Ohh-kayy. We crossed that school off the list. But the job she wants exists. Just because I think she’ll be doing evil and destroying her brain while she’s at it doesn’ t mean that there’s no proper educational path for her to achieve it.

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BTDT 07.31.09 at 4:29 am

90 some odd comments and not a single one of you mentioned Wall Street.

Because for the last 20 years or so (until Sept ’08) Wall Street’s been hiring liberal arts grads and luring them with far more money than Wall Street ever did. To the point where BigLaw partners were pretty pissed about the low quality of the students they were seeing from the top law schools.

Even more pissed that they were losing the better ones to Wall Street too- lots of Wall Street firms raided Stanford, Harvard, Yale Law, etc. Silicon Valley too.

I went to law school before all that. And you’re all sort of dancing around the reason law school is so appealing: if you’re 22, earning your fortune in the industries that actually pay liberal arts grads good money* seems like a crap shoot. Silicon Valley (and not just as engineers- plenty of marketing types), advertising, Hollywood, the music industry– all the so-called “glamor industries” – reward people with history degrees pretty handsomely. But it’s not guaranteed. It’s a crap shoot and you actually have to have some talent. Not to mention be willing to start out as an assistant making $25K/year. Which usually means parents willing to help support you those first couple of years. And truth is, most upper middle class parents will gladly pay law school tuition for their precious Ivy grad. Paying for him or her to spend two years in LA working in the mailroom at William Morris? That’s not that easy a proposition.
So it’s off to law school.
And then- this is another point you all missed- junior comes out and scores a gig with Cravath. Which means he’s 25 and pulling in $150K/year. Which means he’s got a sick one-bedroom apartment in a fancy high rise building with a gym and swimming pool somewhere near Central Park. A share house out in the Hamptons. Buys his clothes at Barneys. And still has enough left over for vacations in Europe and the Caribbean.
Now you show me the 25 year old who, after living that large for a year or two says “hey, you know, this lawyer thing sucks. I’m going to pursue my dream and be a teacher. I’ll make $40K/year, live in a walk-up in Brooklyn and shop at Old Navy.”

Ain’t going to happen.

Maybe for a few, but for most, giving up that kind of lifestyle isn’t a reality.

So the moral here is keep asking questions Professor Harry. Maybe you’ll dissuade a kid or two from making the leap. Maybe you won’t.

But at least you’ll have tried.

*read up on this Anon and Bloix

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BTDT 07.31.09 at 4:32 am

^^Oops – shame on me for not proofing.

Second paragraph should read:

Because for the last 20 years or so (until Sept ‘08) Wall Street’s been hiring liberal arts grads and luring them with far more money than Big Law ever did. To the point where BigLaw partners were pretty pissed about the low quality of the students they were seeing from the top law schools.

(correction in italics)

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Joey 07.31.09 at 5:29 am

Just FYI to everyone – what Bloix says above about Griggs v. Duke Power Co is not true. There’s no special rule for high school diplomas. The American anti-discrimination rules are the same for ALL job requirements: high school diplomas or college diplomas or standardized tests or auditions or anything else. Any job requirement can be challenged in a lawsuit if it has a disparate impact on some race, sex, national origin, or religion, and fails the test of “business necessity” / “job relatedness.” So, yes, if sued, you need to be able to show that the requirements you’re imposing bear a certain degree of relationship to the job for which you’re hiring. But the rule is no different if your particular case happens to have the same requirements that were at issue in Griggs, or not.

And yes, so far, disparate impact survives Ricci. Justice Scalia would like to destroy it, but this has not yet happened.

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Bloix 07.31.09 at 3:24 pm

Joey is literally correct but as a practical matter he misses the point. He’s correct that there is no “special rule” for diplomas, but the point is that the Supreme Court has ruled explicitly that if an employer requires a high school diploma it can be forced, by a private litigant, to show that the diploma is a BFOQ (a bona fide occupational requirement) – that is, that the skills represented by the diploma are necessary to performance of the job. No court has ever reached the same result for college degrees.

What this means is that HR consultants tell employers that, if they can afford to do so, they can lessen the risk of suit by requiring degrees, even if a diploma plus two years of work experience would attact equally qualified employees. And many employers follow this advice because discrimination law suits can be expensive and bad publicity.

So the college degree becomes the entry level requirement for many white collar jobs. We then get statistics that show that people with college degrees earn more money than those without, and interpret them to mean that the education confers greater productivity, when a more likely explanation is that the credential is an arbitrary threshold into the world of white-collar work.

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Salient 07.31.09 at 3:44 pm

But seriously, am I missing the joke?

I dunno. The funny part was that “human relations” is a euphemism for human sexuality. Granted, there are many excellent courses in human sexuality offered at university, exploring gender roles et cetera, though these courses probably wouldn’t go by a euphemistic name. But the reason the phrase is funny in context, is because it inspires one to think of a priggish male law firm manager taking a course in “human relations” so that he can learn to smooth-talk his hawt secretary into bed, or some such priggish thing. Oh boy is he going to be disappointed when he sees the syllabus.

(Like any amusement, it’s not giggle-inducing once explained. Sorry.)

Anyway, I for one have appreciated the chance to your thoughts here at CT, and of course I’m glad to hear this momentary amusement at bianca’s observation hasn’t discouraged you (as a bit of a thin-skinned person myself, as Henri recently excoriated me for, I’m preoccupied with not stressing out other people). :-)

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Salient 07.31.09 at 3:59 pm

We then get statistics that show that people with college degrees earn more money than those without, and interpret them to mean that the education confers greater productivity, when a more likely explanation is that the credential is an arbitrary threshold into the world of white-collar work.

That makes a lot of sense to me, especially if “college degree” is specified instead of “some college experience.”

On the other hand, I remember looking at the list of graduating seniors each year and observing such a stark gulf separating those who were accepted at a college and those who weren’t. Either “accepted to a college” is the new “competent enough to merit a diploma,” or “competent enough to merit a diploma” never meant very much.

And how does one indicate “we want applicants who have demonstrated a willingness to learn whatever authority figures intend to teach them and to participate in a system of interaction constructed by authorities,” if not by requiring some proof of performance?

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aaron 08.01.09 at 4:15 pm

I don’t think anyone can defend a liberal arts education as training for a profession (or career). Educators try to claim that it gives you mental flexibility, but this strikes me as an ad hoc justification that overstates the relevance of one’s second year Shakespeare class to the business world (unless people take cues from Richard III on career advancement). Perhaps economic “human capital” arguments are to blame for this–the notion that if some people are paying tens of thousands for something, it must be to make them hundreds of thousands in the long run.

Any old degree can get you jobs with a “BA required”. Liberal arts, on the other hand, are pursued mostly because they’re fun and interesting. For many people, it is a chance to explore and learn about topics that will keep interesting them, but that they won’t be able to explore in the same environment once leaving college. And I think this is actually a positive thing, even if as a parent, the prospect of spending a fortune on a life-changing but ultimately non-profitable experience is somewhat frustrating. On the other hand, I think there are too many people who just fall into the liberal arts by default because they can’t do math and science. I was a sociology major, but I read more than most of my English major friends.

But I think the transition-to-career system needs some improving. A lot of people from my institution (also UChicago) went to law school because finding a good job right out of college is just pretty hard. Why did (and still do) so many people go to wall street or consulting? Because these jobs are easy to find–companies make an active effort to come to colleges and recruit graduates. Teach for America is successful in part because it simplifies the application process dramatically–rather than finding schools and applying for who-knows-what teaching job, having to write a cover letter and do research on each one, you can just apply to TFA (and you don’t need an education degree either). For students who know the right people, are good at building connections, or happen upon the right job, finding something may not be too hard. But for others, it can be a daunting process that is quickly abandoned for the safer and surer route of grad/professional school.

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BTDT 08.02.09 at 2:54 am

@Aaron

Exactly. Success in other areas often relies on luck, talent and connections. When you’re 21 and making what seems to be the most important decision in your life, it’s way too easy to fall into a field where you’re being recruited: law schools want students with good grades, so do Wall Street and consulting firms.

As you note, they make it way too easy.

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