Doctorate in juridical science (SJD)
About the SJD
The doctorate in juridical science (SJD) is considered to be the highest academic degree in the legal field. Graduates of this program are highly sought after by law schools seeking to hire the next generation of top legal minds.
Although the SJD is similar to a Ph.D., there are some differences: Ph.D. programs tend to offer comprehensive knowledge of a particular field, whereas the SJD focuses on a very narrow legal area of interest. Students pursuing a SJD are usually interested in researching a specific aspect of the law, or looking to teach it. They are often more interested in jurisprudence, the theoretical study of law, than the practice of law itself.
SJD programs often attract foreign students who want to teach law in countries where a Ph.D.-level degree is required. The program also appeals to talented students who want to undertake a rigorous, extensive scholarly pursuit in a specific field of interest.
How long is an SJD program?
A typical SJD includes 2 years of full-time coursework. After this, students are required to complete a dissertation, which can take an additional 1 to 3 years.
In some programs, the first 2 years are considered a probationary period, during which students have to reach certain milestones and demonstrate the requisite scholarly prowess. If these intermittent markers are met, the student becomes a doctoral candidate and continues within the program.
How much does an SJD cost?
This can vary greatly, depending on the program, the university, and the type of institution. At some public universities, tuition costs $20,000 per year. However, at private institutions, it can be more like $40,000 or $50,000. The price of accommodation, books and supplies, can also vary based on whether students are living in university accommodation, or elsewhere.
How is the SJD structured?
Again, this varies between programs. In general, though, there are several core elements:
- basic coursework, which often takes several years to complete
- advanced coursework
- an oral and/or written examination
- completion and defense of a written dissertation
What does the coursework look like?
Students develop a unique study plan, consisting of courses from across the law curriculum. This is often done in partnership with a faculty advisor, who helps to guide students toward classes that may lead to an eventual dissertation topic. Each year, students need to have their study plan approved, and demonstrate that they have met their targets for the previous period.
An SJD contains much less of the standard, rigid, curriculum you might find at regular law school courses. The bulk of the program is made up of seminars, where students work closely with lecturers on a research project. It also includes higher-level law school classes, multiple research assignments, and copious amounts of reading outside of the classroom.
Are there residency requirements?
Some schools require SJD students to live at the university for the first 1 or 2 years. The aim of this is to provide access to advisors, promote active in-person participation, foster interaction with other students, and create a scholarly community within the program.
Once the residency period has been completed, students can continue with their research from any location, provided they frequently check in with their advisors to discuss progress. In most cases, the final dissertation defense takes place in person.
What is the colloquium?
The colloquium consists of classes that give students a grounding in the tools and approaches necessary for success within the program. These can help with the early research stage of the dissertation, offer guidance on how to make scholarly presentations, and provide a space for students to discuss their ongoing work.
Some programs require students to present 1 or 2 research topics as part of the colloquium. Toward the end of this period there is often an oral exam, during which students respond to questions from their advisor and faculty members. This rigorous question and answer session assesses the student’s mastery of the academic area they intend to pursue.
Typically, students only attend the SJD colloquium during their first year of study, although in some programs it can last for 2 years.
What happens during the dissertation phase?
Upon successful completion of the colloquium oral exam, students move on to the dissertation phase. This is an intensive period of research and writing, designed to make the student an expert in a specific area of the law. The aim is to produce a comprehensive piece of original work that advances knowledge within the field.
This phase is often completed independently, without the need to attend other courses. The student works closely with an advisor or dissertation committee, submitting drafts, reviewing progress, and discussing issues and theories. The committee provide detailed feedback that usually leads to multiple revisions of the dissertation.
The typical timeframe to write a dissertation is 3 years. During this period, students may also be required to publish multiple pieces of work with academic rigor.
Once a candidate has completed their dissertation, they submit it for approval. There is then an oral defense, which the entire law school community is entitled to attend. After the defense, the faculty vote on whether to confer the degree or not.
SJD admission requirements
Requirements vary from program to program. However, applicants usually need a juris doctor degree (J.D.), and a master of laws (LLM) to be accepted into an SJD.
Some schools only accept previous degrees from schools accredited by the Association of American Law Schools or the American Bar Association. If an applicant attended an international law school, the academic rigor of this institution is evaluated during the admission process.
On occasions, a student is accepted into an SJD program with just a J.D. They can then complete the LLM during the first part of their studies. There are even cases when a student is admitted directly into the SJD program without having to complete an LLM. However, such instances are rare.
Ordinarily, admission committees seek the following from candidates:
- copy of a master’s thesis, or published academic work
- dissertation topic or research proposal that has been approved by a faculty member who has agreed to be the applicant’s advisor if accepted
- resumé or curriculum vitae
- personal statement
- academic transcripts
- academic or professional letters of recommendation
- English proficiency test (for international students who have not completed university-level courses in English)
The admission procedure tends to be extremely tough. Even applications from the most qualified candidates are rejected. In their admissions information, schools refer to their SJD programs as “highly selective.” They only seek candidates with “distinguished academic records,” and who demonstrate “promise of outstanding scholarship.”
Highly selective admission ensures that program sizes are kept small. The aim is to foster a small collegial community. SJD program admission documents indicate a desire to “create a vibrant intellectual community of young scholars.” The small number of students allows them to openly debate each other’s work, and ensures they have direct access to faculty members throughout their degree.
Part-time study options
Nearly all SJD programs require students to participate on a full-time basis. There are at least 3 programs in the U.S. that allow part-time study: the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University, the Golden Gate University School of Law, and the Suffolk University Law School.
Blended and online study
Currently, no universities offer the SJD as an online option. But following completion of the 1- or 2-year residency requirement, most programs allow students to carry out their dissertation work elsewhere.
Is it possible to work while doing an SJD?
Many schools which offer SJD programs do not allow more than 20 hours of work per week: students may be required to disclose this work to their faculty. Due to the rigorous academic requirements, some universities prohibit students from working at all during the first year of the program.
To assist with funding a SJD, many schools provide full tuition funding and a living stipend. Note, these benefits are not always enough to fully cover the cost of tuition and living expenses.
When deciding on which SJD to choose, it is advisable to select a program that is approved by the American Bar Association.
What can you do with an SJD degree?
Most SJD graduates go on to pursue a career in the academy. Others become legal scholars, work for think tanks, take jobs at government agencies, or move into academia in related fields. Those who have completed this degree have proved themselves to be among the top legal minds in the country, and are often highly sought after for various legal positions.
Promotes the best quality legal education, and serves members who are already in the profession.
Helps with the advancement of the science of jurisprudence. Advocates for the welfare and professional development of attorneys involved in federal law.