Thursday, January 04, 2007

Podiatric Metaphors Expounded, or Getting Your Foot in the Door While Putting Your Best Foot Forward

I recently applied to S.J.D., or "Doctor of Juridical Science" programs. Why would someone who hated law school and who thinks of her L.L.M. program, as a "glorified J.D." want to go on for more?

Because while I sort of hated law school, I love the study of law. And while the program at Liberal College Law is so unstructured and virtually indistinct from my 3L year as to be a glorified J.D., it is useful at least for giving me the time, space, and resources to write a lot, and under faculty supervision. For now, that's what I need and want. And I'm not ready to go on the market yet. And I think I could write a really great dissertation combining my two favorite research interests, federalism and employment discrimination law.

I've already explained how it behooves me, a graduate of a Top-20 public law school, to stack on the pedigrees and get my post-graduate degree from a much higher ranked law school. It is a part of how I am gaming the system, investing time and money now to better my chancs of getting that coveted law prof gig in four years. It's all about how gaming the appointments system.

So how do I game the admissions system?

I don't know. At this level, it's not about LSAT test-taking strategies or even trying to choose classes that will get me the most A's. That helps of course, but LLM students here at Liberal College Law are not graded on a curve, which takes some of the pressure off. And by now American academic-track LLMs should be used to taking issue-spotter exams, and if they want to be professors, should be good at writing seminar papers--so there's not much advice to be given on that point either.

So how do you game a system that isn't set up to be gamed? In my journey to become over-educated, I find that by now it matters a little bit less what my grades are or where I have gone to school previously. Now that I have been accepted to Liberal College Law's LLM program, it can almost be assumed that I am qualified and have the requisite academic track record. Apparently, going to a big, mid-ranked public state school for college doesn't matter as much anymore, and what matters is the last institution I have attended--and I have been climbing up the ranking ladder. So if Liberal College Law considers me qualified, well then, I am considered worthy of admission to a lot more places than I did back in 1998. So at this stage, the old transcripts and accolades matter less, and I forgot that secret PBK handshake anyway.

I've realized through talking to professors and my program advisor that what matters most is faculty-student match-up. Who will be staff that year doing similar work to my proposed topic, who can advise me, who I can get to agree to be on my committe and advise me on a dissertation for up to three years. It's kind of like networking--it matters more who I know, who will work with me, and what they think of me.

So the best way to build faculty contacts is to give up on your free time. I hardly have time to blog, much less be a research assistant, given that I am writing two to three articles this year. Plus, while being an RA is useful for getting to know well one professor, it doesn't help you create a team of people behind you. So I frequently go around to office hours, introducing myself and my work. I do this with professors who have moved from my previous law school to my new law school (just to say howdy), and I do this with professors who do work in my areas of research. I email them abstracts and updates about my academic and career progress, just as a friendly update.

I let them know when one of my papers was accepted to a colloquium. And after the colloquium, I made a point of going in person to office hours to tell them about my experience (i.e., brag). It's a lot of work and apple polishing, but I've never been turned away for a brief chat, and short update emails have always been appreciated--amazingly, some faculty like to hear what students are up to, and don't mind giving out advice and encouragement. Some actually view mentoring as part of the job description.

This is easy enough to do at your home institution. But what about schools elsewhere? What if you want to keep moving up the ranking ladder, or are a J.D. looking to get an L.L.M.? I've found that blogging is invaluable for creating contacts and friends (or at least, the real-life alter ego has found this helpful). Long before I started blogging, I was emailing other blawggers articles and blog topic suggestions, just to get those coveted "hat tips." (And that got me thinking, why aren't I blogging myself?) But before I even started blogging, I was emailing professors far and wide, just to offer some comments and compliments on their work. Isn't that the purpose of SSRN, to widen one's audience in hope that someone will read you and say something about it? Generally, authors are receptive to readers--and are especially flattered by young scholars and student readers.

So it's not impossible to do some apple polishing long distance. Email is a wondrous thing. Once you draft your research proposal and assemble a little dossier of your CV, writing sample, transcript, etc., you can even send it out to a friendly and interested professor at your dream institution, who might just sponsor your application. That, at least, is the end goal. But making some friendly contacts far and wide and getting your name out is a start.

It's all about putting your best foot forward, I've realized. It's a simple, but true, "duh" statement. It's not just about getting the grades or the pedigrees--you have to get out there, get known, get people behind you who will go to bat for you. You have to present yourself well, to know how to talk about yourself and your work, to learn the art of self-promotion without sounding too arrogant, and how to ask for help and advice while projecting confidence. You have to get people who will agree to supervise your work and be on your committee, or at the very least read drafts and offer comments. Eventually you want people who will pick up the phone and make some helpful calls during the hiring process. People who know other people. Networking is important, especially in academia. So instead of just listening to my professors in lecture, I try to talk to them in office hours, to turn what would be a uni-directional relationship into a mutually consitutive exchange of ideas.

Most students have spent their entire lives on the other side of the lectern, viewing it as a sort of "fourth wall" that they, as the audience, should not breach. I remember being a TA and having more students come see me for grad school advice than the professor--not a good thing if you want letters of recommendation.The students would confess that they have always been "too shy" to approach the professor, and so preferred getting more informal advice from someone of a less formal stature. This hardly makes sense, and it's like asking your neighbor for career advice. Not that TA's aren't helpful or friendly, but there's a limit to what they can do for you.

So go ahead, and wedge your foot in the door. Polish your shoe while you polish that apple. We're not in elementary school anymore, so don't be afraid of such anti-nerd (oh, but the meek shall inherit the earth) labels as "brown-noser" or "apple-polisher" or "teacher's pet." I mean, if you are pursuing a third post-secondary degree, you are soooooo beyond "nerd." But this stage, as an academic aspriant, you should be beyond thinking of yourself as only a student--for all intents and purposes, you must think like a "future colleague."

And maybe, once you start getting your foot in the door, you'll be invited in one day.

(Foot in Door photo credit: "Danielsonship" on Flickr)