The Fellowship of the (Hi)Ring

Thanks to Dave and the rest of the perma-bloggers for the invitation to blog here. I have been told that I am the first non-tenure-track guest on this site. I am one of those aspiring academics in limbo: not yet on the tenure-track. In short, I, like so many other aspiring academics these days, have a graduate fellowship. LOTRfellowshipA.jpg

There has been a proliferation of fellowships and VAP positions; and it seems clear that more and more entry-level candidates are seeking some sort of pre-market academic employment. Perusing the list of last years’ entry level hires, many of the successful candidates had either completed a fellowship, a visitorship, or some other form of academic study beyond law school.

Cynically, one could suggest that graduate fellowships are a means for law schools to extend the tenure track on the backs of low-cost labor. Let’s examine this position a little closer.


First, entry-level candidates are now not judged on potential, but on a proven record of publication. Thus, candidates are expected to have spent time before entering the academy writing and publishing. To the extent that writing articles takes time, schools have lengthened the tenure track. And graduate fellowships are one place that aspiring profs can park themselves as they write their way into the academy. And, although you can’t blame the longer tenure-track on the fellowships, they are indicative of the longer lead time to tenure.

Further, while by no means poverty-inducing, taking a graduate fellowship is not a lucrative proposition. (Then again, neither is academia in general.) Georgetown pays $70,000 for an eighteen month period. Harvard offers $60,000 per year for the Clemenko. Yale offers $42,250 for the Ruebhausen and Ribicoff. Stanford offers $50,000 for a first year fellow and $55,000 for returning fellows. Temple offers $36,000. These stipends are certainly less than the average tenure track professor. [Feel free to leave more details about the stipends in the comments section. Applicants may be interested.]

Okay, so perhaps these fellowships do provide cheap labor and an extended period of work before a tenure decision. But how do schools reap the benefits of the extended tenure track? First, those schools that offer graduate fellowships benefit from additional pre-tenure labor, cheaper labor. Second, to the extent that anyone counts the number of publications from a school within a year, schools that offer fellowships, may get additional credit for articles produced by fellows. Lastly, all schools benefit from the greater sorting potential based on more applicant writing samples. So perhaps the cynic is correct.

But these fellowships can mean a great deal more than just a place to write for individuals who come to the academy several years after law school or for folks from outside the traditional academic mold. For instance, beyond writing an article or two, one could spend time during a fellowship finding a voice and reading the current literature to find where he or she fits in. Further, one could think seriously about what motivates him or her as a scholar. That is, one could take the research agenda question seriously. Moreover, one could learn to teach by developing a syllabus, writing lesson plans, and standing up in front of a class. And, one could meet other faculty members and find out how they develop ideas for articles and budget their time between writing, classes, students, and service.

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3 Responses

  1. Jason says:

    This justification of the fellowship has rung a bit hollow to me. Your fellow Fellow at Temple, for instance, already had two publications to his name before coming in. My impression from perusing the bios of other Fellows in other programs is that there are more like Brian Gallini than like yourself.

    Perusing the current list of Climenkos at Harvard, it seems that at least seven of the fourteen had published prior to entering the program, and two either had or were finishing PhD programs (and if you’re not at conferences / publishing during your PhD, what are you doing?).

    In other words, a lot of these people in VAPs really do seem to be people who’d have been hired directly to the tenure-track before the emergence of these programs.

  2. Geoff says:

    I have been a skeptic about fellowship programs as well, particularly those that slot aspiring “bar subject” course teachers into legal writing instructor roles. It has always seemed to me that teaching legal writing involved a different skill set, in many ways, than teaching a class like torts. I know that I would not be qualified to teach legal writing. Schools do a disservice to their students–many in desparate need of writing instruction–when they don’t hire professional writing teachers but instead hire would-be-tenure track faculty with no particular gift or insight with respect to teaching writing. I’m also not sure what value teaching writing has for a person headed to teach crim or something of that nature (as opposed to the value of practicing in the subject area you will teach for another year or getting a year of PHD coursework in).

    Is the main advantage of a fellowship time to write? I think not. The bottom line is that a candidate who has not written pre-fellowship is unlikely to place an article before the AALS conference in November — so while a fellowship might produce an article, it is unlikely to do so in time to matter (at least if it is just a 1 year fellowship).

    But time to interview shouldn’t be ignored. The bottom line is that both the AALS FRC conference and the full-day callback interview process can be incredibly time consuming for most candidates who will end up with a job (and have, say, 3-10 call-back offers). Particularly when you start talking about schools that aren’t close to major hub airports, it can take almost a day to get there and a day to get back, making an interview a 3 day proposition. Are there a lot of firms out there where it is easy to take that kind of time off? Ph.D. programs and fellowships are far more forgiving of that kind of time commitment.

    The other benefit is learning to “talk like a law professor.” Being conversant not just with the law, but with how law is discussed in academic circles, might be something that could come during those first 8 weeks in the fellowship post.

    I’m not sure it’s true that schools are judging candidates based on a “proven record” of scholarship rather than potential — what has happened instead is that the indicators of “potential” have changed. It used to be that scholarship potential was assessed based on what are now generally discredited factors like law school rank, clerkships and the like. Now, schools expect at least some publication as an indication of future publication potential (but I don’t think pre-appointment publications, particularly student papers and notes, are expected to be as good as the papers expected for tenure).

  3. Jason says:

    Geoff, I agree with everything you said, except for a minor quibble about your claim that things like law school rank and clerkships are “now generally discredited.” That is, I think you’re being overly generous. The bios of people coming into academia every year are still dishearteningly tilted toward those with high LSAT’s and “elite” credentials.

    I’m not sure Jeffrey Harrison would feel the need to blog were rank and things to actually be discredited to some significant degree in legal academia.