Question. I'm going into my third year as a PhD student in oceanography, and due to my interest in law, I'm considering applying to the concurrent PhD/JD program at my university. I’m wondering whether this might damage my future prospects as an academic scientist.

My background. I have long been interested in both law and science, but I'm not sure whether I would end up pursuing law, science, or both after graduation. My scientific research (computer models of the global carbon cycle) has implications for law and policy, but is completely independent from law and policy in itself. I think my background places me at the very top in being able to understand the science, but that is only one of my interests in law. My interest in science has not waned at all, and my scientific career is going pretty well. It’s my interest in law that has grown.

The program. I've come to learn my university has a pretty flexible joint program (7 years instead of 4-5), and they’ve stressed that the course load can be made flexible to accommodate thesis research in my home department. At this point I believe I could maintain a level of scientific productivity even when studying law half- or three quarter-time. Financially, I think it's likely I could do the program for free, but worst case I might no longer be eligible for my $25K/year stipend. This would not be a dealbreaker, and I would find out before having to commit

My concern. My concern is that I don’t know exactly how I would want to use the two degrees. I'm interested in many different types of law. I would never be unhappy that I took the time to study law, if only to quench my intellectual interest. I would only regret the decision if I decided to pursue an academic career in science and this damaged by chances. Specifically, I'm worried that:

  • It could suggest a lack of commitment, i.e. a kind of 'Carl Sagan effect', where a professional interest outside your area of research is counted as a lack of seriousness.
  • A JD would obviously reduce my scientific productivity for a few years while studying. While I believe I can maintain some productivity, the number of papers, citations, etc. would necessarily decline over that period.
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    What is the cost of pursuing JD pathway, in time and money? (For Example, 1 year longer to graduate, and additional 30k in tuition/room and board) – J. Roibal - BlockchainEng Jun 23 '16 at 20:42
  • Thank you for that question! That's an important point which I accidentally left out. I will edit my question. – Greg Jun 23 '16 at 21:11
  • Two thoughts: (1) I feel like a previous version of this question (or someone else's similar question?) was far more answerable because it made clear the goal was to end up researching in the PhD field rather than I've hit an impasse as my once certain future as an academic scientist seems not so sure. I don’t know what I would end up doing after such a joint program, whether it be as a full time lawyer with knowledge in science, a full time scientist with knowledge in law, or someone who toggles between the two – perhaps with an academic professorship and a personal legal consultancy. – virmaior Jul 4 '16 at 2:29
  • Given (1), (2) is that you're now asking random strangers on the internet to decide what is the best life for you and best plan to consider. My self-referencing advice on that point is to not let the Internet decide such important questions for you. – virmaior Jul 4 '16 at 2:30
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    That's an incredibly unfair reading of what I wrote. I asked for advice in making my decision which is of course different than asking someone to decide for me. A similarly unfair reading of your comment would have me think you are advocating decisions in the absence of advice. – Greg Jul 4 '16 at 15:10

Interesting question. There are so many factors to consider, including time, cost, workload, etc.

It does seem though that having credentials in both disciplines can give you both a unique perspective and a means through which you can influence public policy. Forward-thinking academic departments may see that as a plus. Of course, others could see it as a lack of commitment to pure science, but I'm speculating.

You should consider that the merging of science and law is not uncharted territory. A great example is Vanderbilt's law and neuroscience initiative, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. See Vandy Law & Neuroscience for details.

However, Vandy does not have a 'law and neuroscience' department, and I doubt that the law school or school of psychology (housing neuroscience) would specifically look for a candidate with both a PhD and JD. But, it would certainly fit. This may be true of other institutions as well.


To me, the answer is simple. If you prefer being out in the open, setting-up field labs and are not too worried about the loss of revenue (in the near to medium-term) that will be lost by not pursuing Law, then go for the Oceanography research. However, if you are more of a people person, looking to change personal outcomes of clients and would welcome the extra certainty and financial security of being a successful law practitioner, then law is the way to go. Law is always changing -- just as science -- so both topics will keep you stimulated. Always go for the topic that you would do for fun, then you will succeed as enjoyment will be a huge motivator for achievements in your chosen field of endeavour.

IF CASH IS A PROBLEM IN THE NEAR TERM... Look into the most attractive, yet future-proof, and marketable combination of unique research interests in oceanography and/or Law that can be pitched to funding stakeholders. A good, well planned and articulated PHD proposition and pseudo-business plan can be all that's needed for great PR for the university and guaranteed funding, together with a pathway into business afterwards.

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