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Penn Law’s joint JD/PhD programs set graduates on the path to careers in academia

April 08, 2019

Penn Law graduates have gone on to careers in as professors at top universities around the country, and the Law School’s cross-disciplinary offerings often play a vital role in making that possible. The Law School’s robust joint degree programs allow students to take advantage of the many top-ranked graduate and professional schools within the University of Pennsylvania, from the renowned Wharton School of Business to the excellent graduate programs in History, Philosophy, Engineering, and more.

Five recent JD/PhD graduates who have since launched successful teaching careers shared their perspectives on earning their joint doctoral degrees at Penn: Gregory Ablavsky L’11, Gr’16, Associate Professor of Law at Stanford Law School; Ben Grunwald C’08, L’14, Gr’15, Assistant Professor of Law at Duke Law School; Jooho Lee C’04, L’17, GrW’17, Assistant Professor of Business Ethics and Law at Seaver College at Pepperdine University; Karen Tani L’07, Gr’11, Professor of Law at Berkeley Law School at the University of California; and Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, Gr’08, Professor of Law and Psychology and Deputy Dean for Academic Affairs at Penn Law.

Tani was the first graduate of Penn’s joint JD/PhD program in American Legal History in 2011, and came to Penn specifically for that purpose after studying history as an undergraduate. Now a professor at Berkeley, she recalls the program as offering a truly cross-disciplinary experience that allowed her to develop expertise in two interrelated fields.

“There were people both in the Law School and in the History department who were really committed to the joint degree training, and wanted to help people succeed in this interdisciplinary way,” she said. “My mentors [on the faculty] really wanted me to fully do both degrees, not take shortcuts or give either degree short shrift.”

During law school, faculty encouraged Tani to not only take legal history-oriented seminars, but also the black letter law courses that form the basis of a traditional law school education. At the same time, she said, “being deeply immersed in history and doing the same things that doctoral students in history do really made me feel that I was getting that doctoral disciplinary training, and that’s exactly the skill that I use in my research [today].” 

Ablavsky also came to Penn to earn a PhD in history, and learned about the joint JD degree program during his first year of graduate study.

“I was excited about the idea that I could take the academic work I was doing with legal history and apply it in more policy and doctrinally oriented arenas,” said Ablavsky, who is now teaches law at Stanford. “There was an opportunity to make my work speak to current issues in a more direct way than most historians do.”

He enrolled at the Law School during his second year on campus. Like the majority of joint degree students who pursue a JD, during Ablavsky’s 1L year at Penn Law he focused completely on law school courses. During later years of joint degree programs, most students go back and forth between schools and take a combination of Law School courses and graduate courses each semester. 

Both Tani and Ablavsky completed their JDs first, and then went on to federal appellate clerkships: Tani with Judge Guido Calebresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and Ablavsky with Judge Anthony Scirica of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Both then returned to Penn to work on their dissertations, spending part of this time as George Sharswood Fellows at Penn Law. The Sharswood Fellowship is a competitive two-year fellowship intended for scholars who are pursuing careers in legal academia. 

The fellowship offered Tani and Ablavsky the opportunity to gain teaching experience and learn how to develop law school courses — knowledge they would carry with them into their future careers.

Wilkinson-Ryan was also a Sharswood Fellow after completing her JD, and used the time to complete her dissertation for her PhD in Psychology and then convert some of the research into publishable law journal articles.

“I had been writing initially for an audience of psychology academics, because that’s who was on my dissertation committee, and I needed instead to be writing for an audience of legal academics, so I took the same research and redescribed it and focused more on why it should matter to legal scholars,” she said. “Being [at Penn] was particularly helpful because I had friends and colleagues who could really help me think about the context in which I was writing.”

For Grunwald, it was an interest in criminology that led him to the joint JD/PhD program. While researching the use of forensic science in criminal investigations during his time working at the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, Grunwald became interested in learning more about the processes of criminal investigation and adjudication. He began the Criminology PhD program at Penn, and was accepted at Penn Law during his first year. During his years at the law school, he found that law professors were particularly supportive of his research interests.

“When I would talk to members of the law faculty, I never really felt like I needed to explain why I was studying what I was studying, they just seemed to get my research interests,” he said. He ultimately decided to pursue a career in law teaching, and ended up at Duke.

While working toward their degrees and producing scholarship that crosses the boundaries between the law and other disciplines, JD/PhD students develop strong mentorship relationships with the faculty at Penn Law. Those relationships not only help them develop as scholars, but also give them an edge during the search for a tenure-track professor position at a law school.

“As I progressed, my mentors at the Law School helped me understand some of the nuances of going on the law teaching market, including translating historical research in ways that would interest the non-historians on law school hiring committees, and understanding what legalscholarship looks like as opposed to scholarship for historians,” said Tani.

Grunwald and Ablavsky echoed those comments.

“While I was on the market, my Penn Law mentors were very supportive and helped me make valuable connections with scholars in schools across the country,” said Grunwald. For him, Penn offered a unique opportunity to develop close relationships with faculty that would ultimately propel his teaching career. 

“There’s a view out there that if you want to teach law, you should go to Yale, Harvard, or Stanford. But there’s a real advantage to going to an outstanding school like Penn, that might not have as many students interested in legal academia,” he said. He found that the Penn faculty were “incredibly supportive, generous with their time, and gave terrific feedback” on his work.

Thanks to the teaching and research skills, knowledge, and mentorship they gained through their JD/PhD programs, Tani, Grunwald, Ablavsky, and Wilkinson-Ryan all secured teaching positions at top law schools. 

“I think Penn prepared me really well, and I landed in a home that’s really supportive of interdisciplinary research,” said Tani, describing her experience at Berkeley. “[The joint degree] helped make me appealing candidate on job market because people could see that I truly had a disciplinary skill set in addition to having the legal training that everybody on the law teaching market has.”

Wilkinson-Ryan represents the rare case where a fellow is ultimately hired at her current institution: after going on the job market and exploring her options nationally, ultimately she happily accepted a law teaching job at Penn. Joining the Law School’s faculty, she became part of a larger cohort of professors with doctorate degrees who had helped propel her own career path.

“If I think back, I took all of my 1L core courses [at Penn Law] with JD/PhDs: Contracts with Claire Finkelstein, JD/PhD in Philosophy; Torts with Stephen Perry, who has a JD/DPhil in Philosophy; Civil Procedure with Chris Sanchirico, JD/PhD in Economics; Property with Wendell Pritchett, JD/PhD in History; and Criminal Law with Stephen Morse, JD/PhD in Psychology,” she said. “Those people, to a person, became mentors of mine, and they offered really interesting and different models of how one might go about forming a career.” 

Now, Wilkinson-Ryan plays the same role for the joint degree students who come through her classes.

However, a JD/PhD from Penn can also open the door to teaching careers beyond legal academia. For Lee, the joint degree led him to his current role teaching business ethics and law in the undergraduate college at Pepperdine. 

Lee earned his PhD in Business Ethics at Penn’s Wharton School, and during his first year there he realized that a degree from Penn Law would also be an ideal complement.

“There’s a lot of overlap between business and law, especially in business schools, so having the law degree helped me get a better understanding of the legal environment of business,” said Lee. “[The law degree] has helped with my teaching as well, because I teach business law in addition to business ethics. Without the JD, I wouldn’t have gotten the job that I have.” 

Penn Law takes an integrated approach to legal education, and is the only top law school with as many elite professional schools and departments both physically proximate to each other on campus, as well as intellectually connected and seamlessly integrated into the curriculum. 

To learn more about Penn Law’s joint degree programs, click here.