Monday, May 25, 2020
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Graduate or Law School?

After graduating college, law and graduate programs become an available option to us. Students curious or interested in pursuing a professional degree should research the opportunities these degrees can lead to. Research by connecting with professors and current graduate or law students about their experiences is an essential part to this process. If students discover they want to complete a graduate or law program, then they need to make themselves competitive candidates for admission.

Last year, I began contemplating what career paths to follow after graduation and graduate and law school came to mind. I started reviewing different programs around the country and found out that there are several degrees to leverage and commence your climb up the socioeconomic ladder. Out of all the available degrees, the J.D. and Ph.D. programs stand out.

Law school, unsurprisingly, delves into many areas of the legal system. UCI Law students can take courses in business law, immigration law, environmental law, intellectual property law and more. If students find that these topics resonate with them, then I recommend exploring this option. I would also provide the same suggestion to students looking at Ph.D. programs.

Similarly, college graduates can apply to a myriad of doctoral programs, and all of the topics vary. They are the same subjects undergraduates can choose from, but are taught at a more sophisticated level. Regardless of the subject matter though, doctoral programs require years of research. For example, UCI’s Ph.D. in Psychological Science has its students conducting psychological research and completing dissertation projects for an average of five years.

If reading about these programs is not enough to make a decision, then meet with professors and ask about their graduate school experiences. They can discuss the programs they did and provide sage advice, which can help narrow your interests. In my past conversation with professors, I’ve learned that if anyone is going to commit to a doctoral program, they need to enjoy both conducting research and acting as a teaching assistant.

Also, if current undergraduate students are interested in receiving research experience, they can apply for research assistant (RA) opportunities around campus. Students can contact professors to determine if they have RA openings or other opportunities to get involved in research. What better way to determine if research is something we’re interested in than by actually doing it? RA experience will also make you more competitive for graduate programs.

Aside from professors, students looking into law school should find a way to connect with law students. Not many of our professors have attended law school and a law student’s perspective could be beneficial. One of my professors recently connected me with a UC Berkeley law student, and soon I will be able to hear about his experience and ask about admissions. UCI students can also utilize the Anteater Network to make connections with law students. 

Graduate and law admissions operate a little differently than undergraduate admissions. In addition to high GPAs, strong personal statement essays and impressive letters of recommendations, these programs want to see our LSAT or GRE test scores. These standardized tests are similar to the SAT and ACT, but are astronomically more challenging. Graduate and law programs will use these tests to predict your academic performance in their institution. The most reputable and competitive programs in the nation put a significant emphasis on these tests. 

In the fall of 2019, for example, UCLA Law received over 6,000 applicants and only a little over 300 accepted their admission offers. The 75th percentile for LSAT scores was 169/180, with the average score being 151. As such, law schools require the LSAT and graduate programs require the GRE. It is important to note, however, that some law schools have started accepting the GRE — one of which is UCI Law

Both tests require thorough preparation to produce a competitive score and it is possible to earn one; it just takes extra support. LSAT and GRE prep courses are extremely helpful in meeting this goal. For example, Kaplan is known for providing strong preparation courses. I took a Kaplan GRE prep course last summer and the instructor helped me through the practice booklet and practice tests. I studied for the GRE for two months, but when the test day came, I learned I needed more time to prep and decided to postpone it. 

The instructor set a strong foundation and helped me improve. With more time, I could have earned a top score. Although, it must be noted that test preparations depend on the person. If you naturally excel at these tests, then it might not take as long to study. The best way to find out how long it will take is by taking a course and exposing yourself to the material. This shows you what you need to work on and how long it will take to learn it. I learned what sections I needed to focus on and that the GRE will take me months to study for. 

Furthermore, students interested in these programs also need to take career options and tuition costs into consideration. A law degree can open up several opportunities to get involved in the American legal system. J.D. holders can pursue criminal prosecution, education law and environmental law to name a few. Doctoral degrees are similar to undergraduate degrees in that the career options depend on the area of focus. For instance, a Psychology Ph.D. can secure positions in government, academia and the healthcare industry; the list is endless.

Tuition cost is one of the largest distinctions between J.D. and Ph.D. programs. Annual tuition at UCI Law for the 2019-2020 academic year was $11,442. Factoring in three years of law school comes out to a whopping $34,326 — and that’s just tuition costs. Taking into account any other additional fees, one year could come out to cost $51,492. Students need to ask themselves if they believe the degree is worth getting in thousands of dollars in debt. The median starting salary is significant though, with UCI Law graduates working in the private sector making around $170,000. On the other hand, the majority of Ph.D. programs like UCI’s doctoral program in Psychological Science offer funding and stipends to their students for a given amount of time. The salaries of this degree vary depending on the occupation. 

Ultimately, students considering graduate or law school must meet with their instructors, research the programs extensively and contact alumni before making their decision. If you decide to apply, then you must use every available moment to prepare for either the LSAT or GRE. While GPA, personal essays and recommendation letters play a significant role in the admissions process, these standardized tests scores hold a unique weight. Pursuing a professional degree is not easy, but any determined and hard-working individual can do it.


Thomas Solano is an Opinion Intern for the 2020 spring quarter. He can be reached at twsolano@uci.edu.