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Advanced Law Degrees

What is a J.S.D., S.J.D. or D.C.L.?

You have received your Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree and want to pursue further academic study in the field of law. What is the next step? For students planning a career in academic or other work that emphasizes legal scholarship, the logical step may be to apply to a doctoral program.

Research and academic-based doctorate level degrees generally fall into four categories: (1) Doctor of Jurisprudence (J.S.D); (2) Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D.); (3) Doctor of Comparative Law (D.C.L.); and (4) Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). According to the American Bar Association, approximately 20 American law schools offer doctoral degrees in law. Most of these programs are very small and exclusive, limiting enrollment to usually no more than one or two “extraordinary” or “exceptional” candidates per year.

The application and degree requirements for these doctoral programs, however, can vary widely.

At the outset, most, if not all doctoral programs, require prior completion of an LL.M. program, or its equivalent (a Juris Master, Master of Comparative Law,or Master of Jurisprudence). Some law schools, however, limit their doctoral admissions to only those applicants who have enrolled in, or completed, their school’s own LL.M. program. In other words, if you complete your masters at Law School X, you may not be eligible for admission to Law School Y for your doctorate.  Applicants who are considering a doctorate are well advised to factor this potential limitation into their decision-making process when applying to masters programs. 

A number of doctoral programs require each applicant to obtain the approval of a faculty member that he/she is willing to serve as the applicant’s faculty advisor and dissertation committee chairperson before the applicant applies to the program. Thus, it is imperative that any potential doctoral candidate evaluate doctoral programs carefully, weighing specific area of academic interest against faculty specializations at each school. As an initial step, an applicant interested in researching and writing a dissertation should consider schools where there is a faculty member that has the same or similar interest or specialization. After narrowing down a list of potential schools, the applicant must engage in a certain amount of “self-marketing” to search for a faculty member at each school willing to support his or her doctoral application and candidacy.

Once accepted, some doctoral programs require the candidate to pursue additional course work, whereas others do not. The University of Pittsburgh School of Law J.S.D. program, for example, is a research degree and there is no formal requirement for candidates to pursue additional course work. Other schools, such as the University of Virginia and Georgetown University, require candidates to complete a certain number of credit hours in courses or seminars.

Most, if not all, doctoral programs require candidates to write a dissertation of publishable quality, that makes a significant, original contribution of long-term value to legal literature.   In most programs, candidates must conduct their research under the close supervision of a full-time faculty member, a “faculty advisor.” Often, the candidate’s faculty advisor serves as chair of the candidate’s dissertation committee (a dissertation committee usually has between three and four members). Some doctoral programs require candidates to pass a formal “oral examination” administered by the dissertation committee on the student’s completed dissertation. Other schools require candidates to publicly defend the dissertation proposal, as well as the dissertation itself.

Most programs require the candidate to complete their degree within 2-5 years, with the first year or two, depending on the particular school’s requirements, being “in residence.” Often, tuition for the year(s) “in residence” is charged based on the same rate as that which is charged for students enrolled in that school’s LL.M. program. Tuition beyond the year(s) “in residence” at some schools is charged based on a “full time dissertation credit rate,” which is substantially less.

Few schools provide financial aid for doctoral studies. As financial aid is generally limited, some schools permit doctoral candidates to work part-time or full-time on-campus or off-campus upon a showing of need. For doctoral applicants with financial concerns, the availability of financial aid, grants or the ability to work are considerations that must be taken into consideration before applying to specific doctoral programs.

Article provided by Caroline S. West, Center for International Legal Education, University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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