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J.D. / Ph.D.

J.D. / Ph.D. in Law and Neuroscience

For Prospective Students

Vanderbilt offers a Joint Degree (J.D./Ph.D.) in Law and Neuroscience.
Read the press release.

Vanderbilt's J.D./Ph.D. Students in Law & Neuroscience

Matthew Ginther

Christopher Sundby



Q:  How do I apply to the joint degree track?
A:  You will need to apply to, and fulfill all the requirements for, the law and neuroscience degree tracks separately.  But in each application, please state clearly that you are applying for the J.D./Ph.D. joint degree track in law and neuroscience. 

Q:  What law and neuroscience application requirements should I be aware of?
A:  For the J.D. application, you will need to take the LSAT examination, and submit at least two letters of recommendation, transcripts of previous academic work, and other standard materials.  For detailed Vanderbilt University Law School (VULS) application information, please see the Vanderbilt Law School Prospective Students Page and information on the J.D. Application Process.  For the neuroscience Ph.D. application, you will need to take the GRE examination, and submit at least two letters of recommendation, transcripts of previous academic work, and other standard materials.  For detailed neuroscience application information, please apply through the official website for the Vanderbilt Brain Institute (VBI). 

Q:  What should applications emphasize?
A:  For your law application, you should at a minimum indicate the nature of your interest in the legal profession, the strengths of your preparation and any special skills you may have.  You should also clearly express your interest in pursuing joint degrees in neuroscience and law.  For your neuroscience application, however, you should not create substantial overlap with your law application, but rather focus on demonstrating an ability to perform good research, as you would for any Ph.D. track in the biosciences.  You should make it very clear in your statement of purpose and your neuroscience interviews that you are also seeking admission to VULS through application for the joint-degree track. 

Q:  Who should I contact if I have questions about the Joint Degree Track?

A:  For the J.D. degree, you may contact at VULS: Professor Owen Jones.  For the neuroscience Ph.D. degree, you may contact at VBI: Professors Mark Wallace  and/or Douglas McMahon .  We encourage you to contact these faculty members as soon as you decide to apply so that they are aware of your interest.

  Do applications for the J.D. and Ph.D. have to be submitted at the same time, or are J.D. students able to apply to the neuroscience Ph.D. after completing the first year of law school?
A:  Students who want to pursue a joint degree arrangement typically apply for both degrees at once.  If a student has already enrolled in the J.D. track at VULS, there is no guarantee of admission to the neuroscience Ph.D. track through VBI, so applying sequentially, instead of simultaneously, makes sense only if an applicant would want to join the J.D. track even if she or he were not accepted later to the Ph.D. track.

Q: I'm a 1-L at another law school.  May I apply to and, if accepted, transfer into the J.D./Ph.D. joint degree program at Vanderbilt?
A:  Yes.

Q: How many students are enrolled in the joint degree track each year?
A: VULS and VBI expect to admit and enroll roughly 1 new J.D./Ph.D. student per year.  It may be informative to review recent data for enrollments in the separate neuroscience Ph.D. and J.D. tracks: VBI generally enrolls 15 new neuroscience Ph.D. students each year, and VULS has enrolled an average of 194 new J.D. students each year over the last ten years.

Q:  What financial support is available?
A:   The law school offers quite considerable financial support, in various forms, to many of its incoming students.  (More than 80% of enrolled law students receive merit-based or need-based scholarships, with a median award of $20,000 per year in 2012/2013.)  All JD applicants, including all JD/PhD applicants, should therefore review the financial support described at this link and apply for that support.  In addition, the law school offers, from time to time, scholarship support specific to JD/PhD students in Law & Neuroscience.  When support is available for the current application season, it is announced at this location no later than September of the current application year. 

Q: How long does the joint degree track take to complete?
A:  Normally, if each degree is earned separately, the J.D. takes 3 years, the Ph.D. in neuroscience takes 5 years.  In the joint degree track, one semester is saved in each (2 ½ + 4 ½).  Therefore, the estimated total time to completion is seven years.

Q: Who advises me after I am enrolled?
A:  At VULS, Professor Owen Jones advises students and approves course schedules.  At VBI, Professor Doug McMahon, the Director of Graduate Studies for the Neuroscience track, advises students and approves course schedules.

Q:  Am I required to be “In Residence” for a set period of time?
Yes. For technical tuition purposes, you must be in residence for five semesters for the J.D. degree, and an additional five semesters for the Ph.D. Therefore, normally, it will take five years to satisfy these twin requirements. As a practical matter, no particular sequence for the ten semesters is required. Moreover, in theory, and—subject only to the recommendations below—any law or neuroscience course can be taken in any of the ten semesters. For the sixth and seventh years, you will not have to pay tuition but will instead pay a pro forma registration fee, which is currently set at $200 per semester. 

Are there specific course requirements?
A:  Each track has its own set of required courses. For example, law students must take all the courses typically associated with the so-called 1-L or standard first-year curriculum. These include such courses as Torts, Contracts, Civil Procedure, Criminal Law, Property and Constitutional Law, which also serve as pre-requisites for further law coursework. Similarly, neuroscience Ph.D. students must take three core courses during the first two years of their neuroscience studies, including the required didactic courses of Systems Neuroscience and Cognitive Neuroscience. However, beyond specific required courses, both degrees allow maximum flexibility in course selection so that each student can tailor his or her coursework to individual research interests and professional objectives. 

Q:  How many credit hours are required for the two degrees?
A:  88 hours are required for the Law degree, but in the case of joint-degree students, 12 of those can be hours that were taken in the Graduate track and are also counted toward the Ph.D. This means that only 76 Law School credits must be earned. Similarly, on the Ph.D. side, 12 Law hours are double-counted to yield the 60 hours required in the Graduate School. A student who is pursuing a J.D. degree only, will normally be allowed to count up to 6 credit hours of non-Law School courses toward the degree. So the joint degree student not only gets 12 hours instead of 6, but the 12 for joint degree students are double-counted (in each track), whereas the 6 for regular students can apply to only one degree track and cannot be double counted.

Q:  May I receive law credit hours for special VULS course and student work outside the scope of traditional required and elective VULS courses?
A:  Yes. You may receive up to 5 credit hours for extracurricular work on law journals or Moot Court. You may also receive credit hours for Supervised Independent Study, Summer Externships and Research Assistantships.

Q: Will I be able to do laboratory work?
A: Yes. Most students will begin doing laboratory work after they complete the Qualifying Examinations for the Ph.D. degree. VBI has a fairly flexible policy for laboratory rotations. In the standard case, a student will rotate through three labs; such multiple rotations are generally seen as in the best interests of the student. However, some students may rotate through only two labs, and others may have well-developed interests such that they will go directly to work in just a single lab. The flexible VBI policy on rotations allows such decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis. Some students may express a lab preference during the admissions process, and some may formally request permission to work in one or more specific labs after they have matriculated, while others may be placed in a rotation through normal administrative processes. Bench and office space are limited across the various participating labs, but every effort is made to accommodate the preferences of students and the investigators whose labs have openings.

Q:  Must I take law or neuroscience courses in any particular order?
A:  Most students will take the standard first-year law curriculum as a coherent “block” during the first year of their seven year track, and will take those courses exclusively. Similarly, most students will take their didactic neuroscience courses as a coherent “block” during the four semesters of their second and third years of the seven year track. Most students will take neuroscience courses exclusively during the first of those four semesters, but during each of the second, third and fourth semesters will take both their neuroscience courses and one law course. During the fourth and fifth years of the seven year track, students will be free to mix and match law and neuroscience courses as they wish. But in most cases, students will have completed all required neuroscience coursework, and will be engaged in neuroscience-related lab work. Therefore, most will only take one or two additional law courses each semester in order to complete the law degree. 

Q: When will I take the Qualifying Examinations for the Ph.D.?
The Qualifying Examinations take place after a student has completed their two years of didactic neuroscience coursework, which will normally be at the end of the third year of the seven year track.  The Qualifying Examinations have two phases.  The Phase 1 exam typically occurs in August (or in some cases as late as October).  It tests a student’s knowledge of the didactic course material, and his or her synthetic thinking skills.  The Phase 2 exam typically occurs three months after the Phase 1 exam.  It requires the student to submit and then be examined on a dissertation research proposal in the style of the NIH National Research Service Award (NRSA) predoctoral fellowship proposal.  After the Phase 2 exam, he or she will officially become a doctoral candidate, and in the standard case the student will then focus on neuroscience research from that point forward (rather than further neuroscience coursework) while also gradually completing additional law courses.

Q:  May I begin the seven year track by taking neuroscience courses?

A:  Most students will take the standard first-year law courses during the first of the seven years, and will take their didactic neuroscience courses during the second and third years of the seven year track. This sequence is strongly recommended so that the neuroscience coursework will be fresh when a student takes the Qualifying Examinations for the Ph.D. degree. Except in unusual cases, those exams will occur shortly after the completion of the coursework, and lead directly to research, laboratory work, and the eventual completion of the dissertation, all of which occur during the last four years of the seven year track. Furthermore, this sequence ensures that the student will be able to integrate first-year law coursework, and other law courses, into his or her neuroscience coursework, lab work and the dissertation. On a case-by-case basis, other
sequences will be considered and approved if circumstances warrant. 

Q:  Is it possible for law and neuroscience J.D./Ph.D. students to apply to participate in law review?
  Yes.  And this is a particularly good idea for those interested in an academic path – given that the law review experience and credential can be very helpful.  Students apply for law review during the write-on competition at the end of their first year of law school.  If accepted, joint-degree students typically have the option to begin their law review commitment the following fall, or the fall after that.  Once a student starts the law review commitment, it generally extends for 4 consecutive semesters. 

Q: Will I get to/have to work as a Teaching Assistant?
A:  Every effort is made to accommodate the preferences of students with respect to teaching opportunities. For those with academic aspirations, teaching assistantships and similar positions are generally available that provide opportunities to lecture, lead discussions, prepare lesson plans, write and grade quizzes and exams, and the like. For those whose interests do not include teaching, every effort is made to provide exposure to tasks that suit their career goals.

Q:  Will I be able to publish research results?
A:  All J.D./Ph.D. students are encouraged to contribute to the scholarly literature in their respective specialties whenever possible during their careers, and are particularly encouraged to aim to do research while enrolled as Vanderbilt graduate students that will lead eventually to scholarly publications. The Neuroscience Graduate Program requires a minimum of one first-authored manuscript in a peer reviewed publication prior to graduation.

Q:  What possible careers does this joint degree prepare a graduate to pursue?
A:  We anticipate that most graduates will choose to seek a tenure-track academic appointment (or joint-appointment) in law, neuroscience, and/or psychology.

Q:  When will I actually receive the degrees?
A:  The two degrees will typically be awarded together at the end of seven years, though in special circumstances, it may be possible to earn the J.D. after five years. In the latter case, a student will have to have taken law-eligible courses worth at least 88 credit hours, including no more than 6 credit hours of appropriate non-law courses. 

Q:  How can I learn more about the field of law and neuroscience?
A:  The best way to stay abreast of new developments is to subscribe to Neurolaw News (the free e-newsletter from the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience): 
You can access a variety of other resources online including:
The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience:
The Law and Neuroscience Bibliography:
“Law and Neuroscience in the United States”:
“Law and Neuroscience”:
Law and Neuroscience Blog: