The Ebony Tower had the pleasure to interview Dr. Matthew P. Shaw, an American Bar Foundation Law and Social Sciences Post-Doctoral Fellow and Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Education at Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University beginning in 2017. Before earning his doctorate in Quantitative Policy Analysis in Education at Harvard University, Matthew graduated from Columbia Law School, and practiced law for six years, including two years of service as a federal district court law clerk. Beyond his intelligence and absolute dedication to increasing access to educational opportunity for all, we wanted to place a spotlight on Dr. Matthew P. Shaw – don’t forget the ‘P’—because we knew that his unique path to academia and candid advice would resonate with individuals hoping to make the transition from a professional career to a research doctoral program.
Part I: From Law to Academia
Daphne: Tell us about your trajectory. What inspired you to initially pursue a research doctorate and stick with it?
Dr. Shaw: I’ve been interested in the role of education in movements of equality, and law, both as a topic and how it influences education, since I read Brown v. Board of Education and learned about the work of Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, Robert Carter, and Jack Greenberg, who, as luck would have it, would become my civil procedure professor. During my first year of law school, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Grutter v. Bollinger, and decided to uphold the holistic affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School. This event led to my being able to participate in many debates about purposes of affirmative action as a means to redress systemic inequality. Those conversations helped me think more critically about how law can be brought to bear on issues of educational access and opportunity.
I knew, then, that I wanted to pursue a doctorate, but—I’m sure a lot of people will be sympathetic to this—law school is very difficult. I also had a summer job with a law firm after second year, which I enjoyed, and I was honestly taken off my path. Following law school, I managed to get a federal clerkship, which enabled me to see cases from the trial court perspective. This was particular important for my development as a legal scholar because it helped me to understand the substance of the law and how it actually works for people.
Despite my success as an attorney, I never really got over the fact that I hadn’t pursued the doctorate in addition to the law degree. After practicing for four years post-clerkship, I simply realized that I still wanted to give the doctorate a shot. So I promised myself that I would apply by the time I was 30 and if I got in, I’d go. I applied to Harvard, got in, and the rest is history.
Daphne: Wow that is a very interesting path, but it all makes sense…
Dr. Shaw: It’s not a linear story, but I think it will resonate with a lot more people. People have dreams and they have goals, but sometimes they walk away from them. I am one of those people who believe that if something is important, even if you get off the path, you have to find your way back. Honestly, I think my non-traditional path has helped me considering that much of the work relates to higher education access, persistence, and how to structure a world where fewer people are taken off of their path.
Daphne: Considering that you completed a judicial clerkship, why didn’t you just get an LL.M and become a law professor?
Dr. Shaw: Here’s the thing, law schools increasingly prefer for their professors to not only have the traditional JD, but also have training in another discipline. Social science departments want their research to be relevant. So you’re seeing people with PhDs in Chemistry, who also have a law degree, and they teaching torts or evidence or methods in social science. My doctorate is in education, with an emphasis on applied quantitative methods in education policy, which provides me with a unique perspective on how do to bring certain types of evidence to bear on cases involving education. The academy is very interested in scholars who can bring different perspective. Of course you do have people who get the JD and get a very high profile judicial clerkship, such as the Supreme Court; they don’t necessarily go get a PhD, although some do as well. However, these people typically teach a certain types of courses at law schools. Overall, the legal academy is moving more towards professors having a doctorate in law and another discipline. Interestingly enough, having a JD, a doctorate in education policy, and experience with advance econometrics made me more competitive on the job market. One of the reasons I was interested in the Leadership, Policy, and Organizations Department at Peabody College—and I hope they were interested in me—is because of my law background and the different perspective I have on education policy as a lawyer.
Daphne: So your experiences as an attorney made you stand out on the job market. Do you have any advice for other people who don’t have a neat path to academia?
Dr. Shaw: One thing I learned very early on was that you shouldn’t discount any of your experiences—good or bad; you can’t discount your perspective. You have something really unique to offer whatever discipline you’re working in because you are the only person who’s ever done it that way. If you can find a way to market yourself and make it clear to others that, ‘while some of you may have done this or that, none of you have done it my way.’ Being able to say that is a wonderful selling point, and that’s the case for applications to graduate school, applications to law school, and particularly if you’re going in as a JD/PhD candidate.
I think too often people ask, “how did you go about accomplishing your goals because I want to do it just like you?” To that I say, NO, you don’t want to do it just like me or someone else because it’s already been done. You want to do something in a completely different way. This is your unique contribution; it makes you stand out, it makes you a valuable commodity.
Daphne: Speaking of doing things in a unique way, how might someone take a similar but different path than you?
Dr. Shaw: Well, there are joint programs that pay for both degrees. For instance, while my doctorate was paid for, the JD …(laughs). That is one thing to think about; if possible apply for the programs jointly because you can get funding for both degrees.
Part 2: Navigating Graduate Life
Daphne: Many graduate students often discuss feeling pressure to pursue an academic career. Did you feel the same pressure? If so, how did you respond?
Dr. Shaw: Well, I don’t know if I had the same pressures because my decision was made when I left. One of my professors at Columbia refused to write a letter of recommendation for me until she knew why I wanted to pursue the doctorate. I actually asked one year, and she said no, and I had to wait another year to ask for it again. Reflecting back, I understand why she said no because when I first asked, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted. I was just thinking, “Let me do this so that I can have another accomplishment,” but then I thought about it, and I said, “I really do want to teach and I really need to learn new disciplines and new fields” When I approached her again, I had a stronger plan for I wanted to pursue the doctorate, and what skills I planned to acquire.
Having done that, I was in a different mindset; so I never had the pressure to go into academia because that was a decision I had already made.
Daphne: Why do you think that sense of pressure to go into academic is so prevalent among graduates in many different disciplines and from many different backgrounds?
Dr. Shaw: I think some of that pressure is related to not understanding what one really wants to do. I would advise that people really think hard about what it is that they want to do before they apply because, even when you get funding to attend graduate school, there’s still a cost. There are huge costs associated with pursuing a research doctorate, such as not working for a period of time. These are costs that you must be willing to absorb; costs that you’re not going to be happy with if you pursue doctorate without a plan and end up doing something that you could’ve done without it. If you graduate and there is no real value to your degree, or at least the value that you originally attached to, that’s sad.
Of course, this is not to discourage anyone because I don’t think anyone should be discouraged from pursuing further education. I think education is wonderful in and of itself, but be thoughtful about committing five years of your life to something—six years if you’re doing a JD/PhD. Just think about it; think about it.
Daphne: What was most difficult about your transition from a professional career to a doctoral program?
Dr. Shaw: Maintaining friendships with those who aren’t in the academy was difficult. Although it seems like it would be really easier than what it is, it’s actually really hard because after a while your world narrows, and your network becomes the five or six people—that many if you’re lucky—who are also in the struggle with you.
Daphne: What were some of the other challenges you faced as a doctoral student?
Dr. Shaw: Really the challenges that everyone faces; you’re doing this alone. Yes, you start in a cohort, but at the end of the day you’re the only person that’s going to get yourself across that finish line. Focusing on one project, and seeing it through was very difficult. Funding is also difficult. Figuring out how to fund the rest of my life—because though my program funded my studies, I still had to survive in a very high cost area. This is a big deal that many discount when thinking about graduate studies.
Also, keeping track of time, and I mean that in the very immediate since, as in the days of the week, but also years. When writing my dissertation, I realized that I had lost an entire year; I had no idea that friends of mine had been married for as long as they had been married; I missed birthdays. I couldn’t tell you anything that was going on related to pop culture related because I had lost an entire year. It’s actually a really bizarre feeling, but that’s something that happens.
It’s a very difficult journey, but at the same time, how do you get through it…because I feel like that’s the next question.
Daphne: You’re right, how do you get through it?
Dr. Shaw: Well, honestly sometimes you have to let things bother you. You don’t have to be strong all the time. There are going to be times during the doctoral process you’ll have a meeting with your advisor, and you’ll leave the meeting feeling like, “I know absolutely nothing.” But you have to remember that you are an intelligent person, and you also have to recognize that you know something different than what your advisor knows. Otherwise you would not be in the program to come up with research.
Also, be willing to go to therapy; pay someone to listen to you because that can be very cathartic. Also know that it’s just as much about good mental health as it is about good physical health. I wish I had gone to the gym more when I was in my program; I go all the time now. Go out with your friends. Sometimes, when you feel like you can’t write anymore, just stop because you will have that 18-hour workday where you just push through it. For people who have supporters, family members, partners, or friends, let them support you. If somebody wants to come over and cook a meal for you, let them! If someone just wants to sit there and look out for you, let them!
I know these things sounds crazy, but self-care is a big issue. I think self-care is one of the things that stops people from finishing. If you get into a program it is because they know that you’re capable of finishing. However, whether you finish is as much about your mindset and your determination as it is your ability. At the end of the day, you just have to have those supportive outlets.
Daphne: Before I let you go, do you mind sharing what you’re currently reading for our Ebony Tower book club? They can be for academic purposes or for fun…
Dr. Shaw: Let me grab my book bag. I am reading an edited volume published by Harvard Education Press. It’s called The Enduring Legacy of Rodriguez. The editors are Charles Ogletree and Kimberly Jenkins Robinson. The forward is by Harvard University Graduate School of Education dean, Jim Ryan. This is a book of all-stars who are writing about educational opportunity, an important topic.
What am I reading for fun? This is going to sound terrible, but I haven’t read anything for fun in quite a while. I generally read books on planes for fun, like real history books. Honestly, I don’t think you can always just read. If it’s something you do every day for a job you have to have something else. What I do more than anything is I watch television. I have a lot of series to catch up on. I would like to start Game of Thrones. I watched all of Downton Abbey, the Crown, and Black-ish. I want to watch Greenleaf; everybody tells me that I should watch it. I want to start watching Power!
Daphne: Thank you Matt; now I don’t feel too bad about my tendency to binge watch TV in my down time. Are there any other words of advice you want to give to current or future graduate students?
Dr. Shaw: I would like to close with five things:
1) You can do the JD/PhD as either a joint project process, or you can do it as separate projects.
2) You should get with people who traveled the path you want to take. If you can’t find people, e-mail me because you should just apply and hope for the best. That might happen, but at the same time you might be missing out on funding opportunities, and money is a really big part of this, so don’t miss out on that
3) Seek out networks and mentors. The only reason that I made it is because I had a really strong network of people who I could not only talk to about academic life, but, non academic things as well, which is what we mostly talked about. Most of my friends, we’d got to church together, have brunches, dinners, and hang out. That’s how you finish it. That’s how you make connections and accomplish those milestones.
4) Be willing to learn from people who have ‘done that,’ and are trying to pay it forward to the next generation because you don’t just do this on your own. Also if anybody who tells you that they did it on their own, you should go ahead turn the other way. Those are not your people; you can’t learn anything from them.
5) Be kind and generous to other people, and that’s it.