Online PhD in the Science of Law

A Doctor of the Science of Law, also known as a Doctor of Juridical Science, is a research doctorate in law. It is the equivalent of the Philosophy of Law, or Ph.D., and is abbreviated J.S.D. or S.J.D. According to Michigan Law, this program is “intended for individuals who have exhibited outstanding scholarship and capacity for advanced legal research.” This degree is geared strictly toward those who have completed their professional training in law, such as a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) or a Juris Doctor (J.D.), and sometimes their first graduate-level training in law, also known as a Master of Laws (LL.M). This degree is typically the most advanced law degree awarded and can take two to three years to complete.

During their J.S.D. students have the opportunity to conduct research and produce scholarly writing with the help of advanced seminars and colloquia, facilities for independent research, and the advice and guidance of members of the faculty. The degree culminates in a dissertation — an original contribution to the scholarly field of law. Upon graduating students might go on to work as professors, legal scientists, or other scholars in law.

About Online Doctorate Programs in the Science of Law

Since most students come into J.S.D. programs with their J.D. or LL.M., they do not have to take any basic level or introductory law courses. Students can expect to take a few classes during their first and second semester in advanced law topics that stress academic legal writing and then spend the rest of the time working on their dissertation, conducting research and writing, and potentially teaching. Since students work closely with their fellow doctoral candidates, meet regularly with their dissertation advisor, and rely heavily on their school's facilities to conduct research, there are limited opportunities for online study in this degree. For an idea of what types of classes are offered, here are some course selections from the law schools at Columbia University and Harvard University:

Year One:

  • American Constitutional Law. This course offers an introductory survey of core concepts and canonical cases in U.S. constitutional law.
  • Legal Research and Writing. This is a basic introductory course in contract law designed for students familiar with other legal systems.
  • Roman Law, Civil Law, Common Law and the American Constitution. This course explores written constitution and judicial review, and the differences between common law, civil law, and Roman law.

Year Two:

  • Independent Study/Research. Students in this course conduct research, attend writing seminars, and discuss their work with faculty.
  • Doctoral Workshop. In this course J.S.D. candidates meet weekly to present their doctoral work to each other, as well as the chair of the graduate committee and members of their dissertation committees.

All students in a J.S.D. program are required to complete a thesis or dissertation. As noted by Michigan Law, this dissertation should be of publishable quality and provide “lawyers, scholars, or governmental officials with a useful understanding, not previously available, of a particular area of the law.” During or after they take their core courses, doctoral candidates research and write their dissertations and meet regularly with their advisors. Once it's finished, they must then conduct an oral defense of their dissertation before they can graduate.

Value and Criticisms of a Doctorate in the Science of Law

For lawyers who want to challenge themselves and pursue the most advanced academic degree in the field possible, a doctorate in the Science of Law is a good option. This degree program produces the best, brightest, and most forward-thinking scholars in the field, as it's primarily geared towards training law scholars and professors who will then lead the next generation of lawyers. A doctorate also adds to the law canon as students are able to develop and contribute unique work that adds value to the profession.

At the same time, a J.S.D. is a highly competitive, demanding degree. Harvard University, for instance, only accepts 10 to 12 applicants each year, and there are fewer than 40 programs across the country. By that token, a J.S.D. simply isn't for everyone. Since the opportunity to study the degree online is limited, students may need to uproot themselves to attend a program.

Application & Admission Requirements

Admission requirements vary by program. Some schools may require that applicants have both their J.D. and LL.M., while others accept students with just a J.D. In the cases where an LL.M. is required for admission, students might also have to earn the degree from the same school they wish to attend to earn their J.S.D. Students are considered for admission based on their academic credentials and capacity for effective legal research and writing. Students may be required to submit their master's thesis as part of the application process, or a dissertation proposal and bibliography of relevant works that indicates a capacity for significant, original contribution to legal literature. Since the dissertation involves significant faculty supervision and expertise, if an appropriate faculty member does not endorse a student or is not available to serve as a dissertation supervisor then applicants may be denied admission.

Career Options & Job Market

Graduates of a Doctor of Juridical Science program can be found working in nearly every sector, including private law firms, judicial chambers, non-profit organizations, and government agencies. The primary purpose of these degrees is to produce legal academics who go on to work in universities as full-time professors or academic fellows. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of post secondary teachers is expected to grow by 17% from 2010 to 2020, buoyed by increases in enrollment at post secondary institutions. The median annual salary of post secondary teachers was $62,050 as of May 2010, the BLS notes.

Where to Find Information

  • Association for Legal Career Professionals The legal association provides a variety of resources for individuals in the professions of career counseling, legal recruitment, and professional development, as well as for law students and graduates.
  • U.S. News & World Report The premier guide to higher education publishes a list of the top law schools in the country.
  • The Princeton Review The college rankings guide also publishes an annual list of The Best 168 Law Schools, based on surveys of more than 18,000 students and organized in 11 categories, including “Best Career Prospects,” “Best Professors,” and “Toughest to Get Into.”

How to Get Funding

By the time you've thinking about applying for admission into a Doctor of the Science of Law program you've already gone through years of undergraduate and graduate education. The last thing you want to do is accrue more debt. Fortunately help is available. Tuition assistance programs, such as federal loans, grants, scholarships, and fellowships are available to doctorate students. At this point you're probably familiar with the workings of student aid, but as a reminder, to receive federal aid you must be attending an accredited institution of higher education and fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

  • Federal Direct Stafford Loan. This aid program provides low-interest loans to students up to $20,500 per academic year. There is a fixed interest rate of 6.80%.
  • Federal Perkins Loan. Another federal loan, this offers on average $3,500 per academic year at a fixed interest rate of 5.0%.
  • Campus-Based Aid. Students can also look into opportunities for aid — that, unlike loans, they don't have to pay back — through their school, including merit-based scholarships, grants, and fellowships. These opportunities are often competitive and only for full-time students.

Essential Advice

  • A Doctor of Judicial Science can take several years to complete, including countless hours spent researching and writing a dissertation. Before you apply you'll want to make sure you have the time and resources to devote to this academic challenge. Schools offering this degree are also limited and highly selective so you'll also have to decide if you're willing to move to wherever you're accepted.
  • When you decide to apply you should know the application process is quite involved. You may have to submit several pages of a dissertation proposal, along with a bibliography of sources, to be considered for admission. Some schools consider this to be an important part of the application, in addition to your academic credentials, so you'll want to leave enough time to put together your materials and have the strongest application possible.
  • Given the demands of classes, research, and teaching, a J.S.D. is often a full-time commitment. Before you apply you should figure out how you're going to pay for your tuition and your living expenses. Find out what types of fellowship opportunities, grants, and scholarships are available through the schools you're applying to and make sure to get your FAFSA submitted in time if you're applying for federal aid.
  • One thing to keep in mind about the J.S.D. is the value of work experience. Columbia Law School notes, “As substantial experience beyond earning the law degree is generally seen as a prerequisite for pursuit of this degree, applications from very recent law school graduates are discouraged.” It can be very beneficial to spend a few years in the field gaining experience and figuring out what you'd like to pursue a dissertation in before applying to a doctorate program.