Reflections: An Overview of the Types of Programs Out There

Over the summer and fall, I interviewed the directors of 14 VAP/fellowship/Ph.D. programs. As the series comes to an end, I wanted to discuss some of the main takeaways as well as highlight some questions that these interviews raised for me. These reflections may take a few posts, but in this first one, my goals are fairly modest. I want to provide an overview of the different types of VAPs and fellowships out there, along with some pluses and minuses of each kind of program. I offer this up not for those of us already in academia who think we already know all of this. Instead, my intended audience here are people who are curious about academia and have come to learn that a VAP/fellowship/Ph.D. is a de facto requirement for entering the profession these days, even if they aren’t exactly sure how to evaluate all the different programs out there. 

By my count, there are five different types of VAPs and fellowships, plus a few law-related Ph.D. programs. Let me know in the comments if you think I’ve missed or conflated any of these categories.

Legal Writing VAPs/Fellowships: In these programs, the fellows teach one or more sections of 1L legal research & writing. Of the programs I covered, HarvardStanfordChicagoNYUColumbia, and Tulane all fell into this category. Like all programs, these have upsides and downsides. The upside of these programs is that fellows get a lot of experience teaching an important and difficult topic. Some of these programs also have good pedagogical training, and because schools often need many legal writing teachers, there can be a sizeable cohort of fellows. Many of these schools also have well-developed systems for helping to connect fellows with established legal scholars, getting the fellows feedback on their work, and helping to prepare them for the job market through moot camps, mock interviews, etc. The downside is that teaching legal writing is a very demanding teaching load. It’s much harder to teach 30 1Ls legal writing than for me, for example, to teach 90 students in a typical Business Associations class. Fellows are trying to grade papers, hold individual student conferences, and prep lesson plans while also trying to write and in their terminal year, fly around the country doing job talks. That’s a lot to juggle. 

So in evaluating these types of programs, pay close attention to the exact teaching load. Are you teaching during the entire academic year? Are the materials and assignments already prepared? How many students will you have? 30-35 students is a lot! Indeed, at my institution (Richmond Law), that’s a full-time job for our legal writing faculty. Unless the class is much shorter than the average semester, you should assume that the vast majority of your time during the academic year will be spent teaching, so you’ll have to make a lot of progress on your scholarship during academic breaks. More than 30 students is really tough, in my view, especially when the class lasts through all/most of the academic year and involves intense feedback and individual conferences with students. Finally, legal writing VAP/fellows can be isolated from the rest of the faculty. Being in a cohort of 5-10 other fellows has its benefits, but it can also mean that you have to really work to make contacts out of this cohort. 

Doctrinal VAPs/Fellowships: Some schools only hire a few fellows, and these fellows teach traditional doctrinal courses. Of the programs I covered, those at DukeIllinois, and Stetson, as well as the Sharswood fellowship at Penn, fell into this category. In these programs, the fellows are more a part of the regular faculty – their offices are on the same halls and they teach the same sorts of classes they’ll be teaching later on. 

After talking to lots of program directors, I’ve become partial to these kinds of programs. They seem like the best of both worlds. Fellows get some teaching experience, and they are prepping courses that they’ll teach later on, which makes this prep time a decent investment timewise. And they’re integrated into the faculty in a way that VAPs/fellows at other programs may not be. The downside is that there may not be a sizeable cohort of other fellows, so the fellows may not have other people around them going through what they’re going through. I imagine that can be a little isolating, so you’ll have to work hard to build your community, either among other faculty at the school or with fellows at other schools.

Center-Based VAPs/Fellowships: Some programs hire VAPs and fellows to run an academic center. I didn’t talk to as many of these programs as I planned, but the Center for Private Law at Yale and the center-based fellowships at Penn fall into this category and there are a lot more out there. These fellowships tend not to have teaching responsibilities; instead, the responsibilities focus more on running a center (handling the logistics with speakers, running workshops, etc.). That can be a plus or a minus, depending on what you want to get out of the fellowship. On one hand, administrative responsibilities tend to take less time than teaching responsibilities, which frees up more time for writing. On the flip side, teaching is a significant part of an academic’s job, and you don’t get to hone those skills, which will lead to a steeper learning curve when you start a tenure-track job. 

Another upside/downside is that you are working really closely with the faculty member who runs your particular center. That’s great if they invest in you, read your work closely, help you develop your own voice, and introduce you to others in the field. It’s not so great if they are less hands-on and leave you to figure things out on your own. And, of course, it’s hard to suss out on the front end how much assistance you’ll receive, at least without talking to former fellows from the center. 

Writing-Based VAPs/Fellowships: A few programs have minimal/no teaching or administrative responsibilities, with the idea that the fellow will spend nearly all of their time working on their scholarship. The Hastie fellowship, for example, falls into this category, as does the Lewis fellowship at Harvard. Both of these fellowships are aimed at candidates who will enhance the diversity of the profession, but there may be other fellowships out there without significant teaching or administrative responsibilities. 

The pluses and minuses here are similar to the center-based fellowships – more time to write, but less/no teaching experience. At the Hastie, it sounds like the fellow is fairly integrated into the faculty, but that may not always be the case. And these fellowships often come with a lower salary than other fellowships since the fellow is not teaching or performing other responsibilities for the school. 

Podium-Filler VAPs: Plenty of schools hire VAPs and fellows as podium fillers on an ad hoc basis. I didn’t include any of these VAPs in my interview series because these schools typically don’t have established programs, but I think these positions are really common. My guess is that they also have far lower success rates when it comes to landing a tenure-track job. Landing a tenure-track job requires lots of time to write, lots of mentoring, including people reading your drafts and offering feedback, and connections. If you’re a podium-filler VAP at a school where you’re teaching a lot of classes (and with new preps, even 3 classes is a lot) and no one is really that invested in you, that can be a recipe for disaster. A VAP at one of these schools will have to be a lot more entrepreneurial in terms of finding mentors, asking for feedback, and protecting writing time. 

The challenge is that these programs can often masquerade as another type of VAP – the doctrinal VAPs/fellowships described above where a school hires a few fellows and has them teach doctrinal courses. The main difference is in the level of institutional support that the VAP/fellow receives , and that can be hard to figure out during the interview process where schools are trying hard to paint themselves in the best possible light. Ask hard questions – how many VAPs/fellows has the school had in the past?, where have they landed?, how many times did they go on the market? And talk to the prior VAPs if you can – how much time did they have to write and how much mentoring did they receive? If the school doesn’t usually hire VAPs, , find out if they have a plan for helping you land a tenure-track job or if they just need you to cover classes.

Law Ph.D. Programs: Finally, I also did two interviews of law-related Ph.D. programs – Berkeley’s J.S.P. program and Yale’s Ph.D. in Law program. These programs reminded me a little of the writing-based VAPs described above – the Ph.D. candidates do not have significant teaching responsibilities so they get more time to write, but the financial support is far less than a traditional teaching fellowship. Of course, Ph.D. programs offer something that these fellowships do not—coursework and an opportunity for intense study. Berkeley’s JSP program offers this study through an interdisciplinary lens, while Yale’s program is focused on law more as a standalone discipline.

I’ll have more to say on these different paths in my next post, but I’ll end here with a thank you. When I started this project, I wasn’t sure if any program would be willing to talk to me, but as it turned out, not a single one turned me down. As a profession, we still have work to do to make our on-ramps as transparent as possible, but I’m grateful that so many people were willing to share the innerworkings of their individual programs.

Stay tuned for more!

This series is cross-posted on PrawsBlawg.