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Law and STEM—parallel universes?

A recent assembly of law school deans pondered what is happening to enrollments and job opportunities for newly minted lawyers. This is reminiscent of what new Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines, and especially the physical sciences, have faced for over two decades.

The question that looms is whether the current drought in opportunity and subsequent benefit, which depresses applications for postgraduate education, is structural or cyclical—a temporary decline or a new economic reality. 

When it comes to marketability of JDs or science Ph.D.s, how instructive are the parallels?  Could these two professional fields that invest heavily in student talent cope better and serve those trained to renew their workforces?

Here are the numbers: law schools produce 44,000 graduates each year, with 55% landing full-time law jobs within nine months. Applications are down 25%, with six-figure student loan debts all too common. The suspicion is that transparency about career prospects, at least in the short-run, is depressing the numbers. As we know, perceptions of strife lead to many self-selecting out of the pool for consideration. Entering law cohorts are now down by 15%. 

The STEM prospects are comparably grim, but have been a chronic condition. Graduate programs in STEM disciplines awarded 36,000 new doctorates in 2011. Back in 1995, Sheila Tobias, Kevin Aylesworth, and I (Rethinking Science as a Career: Perceptions and Realities in the Physical Sciences) reported un- and underemployed Ph.D.s bemoaning senior faculty who deceived them about their academic marketability and indicting one another (men accused women of taking the scarce positions, while women claimed they were granted merely token job interviews) for their dilemma. 

Today, the time to complete a physics doctorate remains uncertain, though shorter (typically less than five years) than for most STEM degrees. But physicists get jobs based on their mathematical prowess, with most working outside the academy. Life scientists seem to have fewer options, though the parallel between hanging out a legal shingle and creating or joining a bio startup company is inescapable.   

In short, skills matter for lawyers as much as scientists. And skills acquisition is tied to curriculum, mentoring, and career counseling. This should be part of the preparation package. In this sense, these parallel universes indeed intersect. 

I am left with what a colleague once wrote years ago: do not adjust your mind—there is a flaw in reality. Flaw or not, adjusting expectations is least we can all do. 

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