Career Corner

AP-LS Student Committee Career Corner

Interview with Benjamin van Rooij, PhD, the John S. and Marilyn Long professor of U.S.-China Business and Law and director of the UCI Long U.S.-China Institute at University of California, Irvine, School of Law.
By Adam Fine

“Career Corner” is intended to highlight the individuals who work at the intersection of law and psychology, where they come from, how they got there and how their experiences influence their research, teaching and/or practice. This edition of “Career Corner” profiles Benjamin van Rooij, PhD, the John S. and Marilyn Long Professor of U.S.-China Business and Law and director of the UCI Long U.S.-China Institute at University of California, Irvine, School of Law. Van Rooij's research focuses on implementation of law in comparative perspective. Since 2000, he has studied the implementability of legislation, regulatory law enforcement and compliance and rights invocation and legal empowerment. A central theme is how implementation of law can be improved in the context of emerging markets where weak enforcement and widespread violations of law create a vicious circle undermining compliance. Using insights from sociology of law, criminology, political science and social psychology, he uses anthropological methods to study compliance behavior and motivations and public and private enforcement practices. He uses innovative fieldwork data both to seek improvement to persistent implementation problems as well as to reorient existing regulatory, criminological and socio-legal theories that so far have yet to adapt to data from countries such as China. Currently he is working on a popular science book about compliance.

AP-LS Student Committee: Thank you for speaking with us today, Dr. Van Rooij. Can you please describe your academic training, starting with your time as an undergraduate?

Van Rooij: In Holland where I was born and raised, you begin studying law directly out of high school, so I went to law school at the age of 17. I found the first year to be very easy, so I decided I wanted to add on another degree. That is, until I found out that the second year was much harder. I postponed my second degree ideas for a few years and focused on finishing law school. After four years of law school, in 1995, I started studying Chinese language and culture. I finished my law degree in 1997 and went to practice law for a year. After a year, I decided I wanted to finish my humanities degree, so I practiced law while taking more classes towards that degree. Beginning in 2000, I enrolled in a PhD program, where I received interdisciplinary training in qualitative methods from anthropology, social science theories, criminology and public administration, all with a focus on China.

AP-LS Student Committee: For those of us who might not be familiar, could you please explain how a PhD program differs in Europe than in the U.S.?

Van Rooij: The PhD program in Holland is very different. Your job is still to teach classes and do research, but there is no compulsory coursework, and you don't have to take the GRE to get in. You actually meet your supervisor very infrequently, and it's mostly a self-directed program. You only enroll in the classes that you need for your research and spend much of your time doing field work. For instance, two weeks after I started my PhD, I was already in Beijing doing my first round of field work. Just a few weeks in, I had to set up a training program for Chinese government and law enforcement, so very early on I began working with officials to set up training and study law enforcement of environmental law. In my second year, I did a couple other trips to China so that I could do a longer-term study in a different province interviewing local government officials. After coming back to Holland, I spent two years writing everything up before defending my thesis in 2006.

AP-LS Student Committee: Were you also teaching courses?

Van Rooij: Yes, at that time, I was also teaching law and anthropology. I soon became the coordinator of the teaching program and got to teach multiple courses. My experience was more like being a junior assistant professor rather than a graduate student. The Dutch PhD experience is very different than what happens in the US. At times, it feels a little like being thrown in the deep end of the pool.

AP-LS Student Committee: Do you think there are advantages to each style?

Van Rooij: Absolutely. For me, by the time I got into the PhD program, I had already done eight years of higher education. I wouldn't have wanted to do an American-style PhD program because I wasn't interested in sitting in classes. At the same time, the upside of American system is that you get far more training in research methods and theory, even if they are compulsory.

A second big difference other than the level of independence and compulsory coursework is that you aren't really in a cohort in the European model. You don't really have yearmates like you would in the U.S.

Finally, there's a very different speed. In the U.S., students broadly search and search the literature and then eventually derive their project. The PhD is often separated, then, into the pre-dissertation proposal research life, and then your one- to two-year post-proposal research life. In America it's like a before and after, but you have less time to actually do the project. In the Dutch system, it's all about finding your research question early and answering it through solid research over time. You often end up with a more in-depth, book-length project, but it is just one project. So they both have pros and cons.

AP-LS Student Committee: Do you have any advice to give students who are considering pursuing a PhD?

Van Rooij: First and foremost, make sure you that you really want to do this. I see two main reasons to get a PhD. The primary reason, I think, is to become an academic. But the academic lifestyle can be difficult, particularly if you don't love it. I advise my students to have a layered process to help themselves recognize if they really want that life. For me, I decided early on that I would take the first year to decide if I was good enough and if I enjoyed the lifestyle. At the end of the first year, I evaluated myself. Had I decided that it wasn't for me or if I didn't think I would make it, I would have left immediately to begin a judges training program in Holland. But I put this decision in my own hands. Advisors won't always know if the program and degree are right for you. You must be ready to pull yourself out of the program if the PhD isn't for you. You have to be honest with yourself and don't just chase degrees. They are a means to an end, so make sure you want that end.

Second, some people get their PhDs in order to gain better academic skills to use the degree for other things. I do think that's more of a gamble. You have to be certain how you want to use the degree. There are some jobs where it will be an advantage, but don't be fooled—it isn't always an advantage.

AP-LS Student Committee: One of the most challenging things is to maintain a healthy work-life balance while getting a PhD or a JD. Do you have any advice for students already in programs?

Van Rooij: Joseph Weiler, former president of the European University Institute in Florence and professor at New York University of Law, recently gave a great presentation about PhD programs. What I learned from him is that in a PhD, you have a job. You're not just a student, so you cannot operate as a stereotypical college student working all hours. If you work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and actually truly do work those hours, you can get a lot done. I believe in that. I know some people have their own schedules and methods, but if you treat it as a 9-to-5 job, it will ensure you have free time at night for family and friends.

The second piece of advice I have is that it's also just a PhD. It's not who you are. A PhD is not the end of your life. It's truly just the start of your academic career. Some people are over-anxious about it and it carries into their private, personal life. The best advice I can give is that you often get the best ideas when you're not working. If you're constantly going, those ideas won't come.

AP-LS Student Committee: The job market can be remarkably daunting. Do you have any advice for those of us about to go on the job market?

Van Rooij: The job hunt doesn't just start with your applications. It's a great idea to begin building your professional network while in the PhD program. Practically speaking, that means, go to events early and stay late (but not uncomfortably late). That's when the interesting conversations happen. That's when you meet speakers. Of course, the good questions during the actual talks and presentations add to the conversation, but talking to speakers and professors afterwards and not being afraid to talk to them is important.

Second, this may be an overstatement, but finding good titles for your papers and talks is critically important. Thinking of how to package your work to people outside your field is really important. Having a public persona and using your science to get into public sphere is critical.