Between Law School and Graduate School: An Interview with Jace Cookson
For the last two years, Jace Cookson (BA 2022) has been torn between becoming a lawyer or a history professor. Cookson came to FSU with the firm intention of going to law school after his BA, but he will be leaving the university with a new plan: going to graduate school to study American religious history.
Why did you want to be a lawyer?
I decided on becoming a lawyer because I did not know about other career options. My dad is a lawyer. I grew up with law. Being a lawyer has always felt like the standard for success and going to a very good law school (preferably better than my dad’s) felt particularly important.
In high school, I was on the debate team. That is a very competitive environment in which almost everyone wants to go to law school. If you like debating that’s a reasonable career choice. I went into college with law school as the goal and I was very ambitious during freshman year.
I started planning very early on how to get into the right law school. I sat down with one of the pre-law advisors, and she gave me a card which had all the important points listed: have a good GPA, get a good LSAT score, do extracurriculars. I put that card up on my wall and planned out how I was going to meet those goals.
I started thinking about the LSAT in my sophomore year, two years before the actual test taking. I realized pretty quickly on how important my LSAT score would be. Five points can mean the difference between a full ride scholarship and decades of law school debt.
The best advice that I was given was that you should treat LSAT prep like a job. Because if you do well enough, you will get paid in scholarship money. For my LSAT, I studied three hours minimum every day for four months. I lived like a monk for those months. I took about 30 to 40 practice tests; each one is about two hours long. You answer a question, and if you get it wrong, you do it again, and again, and five more times, until you really understand what is being asked. Then you move on to the next question. The LSAT is testing a very specific skill set, so it is all about training. You practice and practice until you are as close to the top score of 180 as you can be (average score is a 151).
By the time I decided against pursuing my law school plan, I had taken the LSAT, gotten a great score, knew which schools I was going to apply to, and was working on my personal statement. I had been planning to retake the LSAT just to be safe because law school admissions have become increasingly competitive. I wanted to feel confident I would get a full ride at a good school.
What made you think about graduate school in history?
The first time I walked into class freshman year and I saw my professors do their thing, it clicked with me, and I thought – I would love to do that. I didn’t take it seriously at first because I had never actually considered it as a career. I went into all of my professors’ office hours to ask about their jobs and got some great, honest responses. I spent the next few years weighing the pros and cons in the background as I continued on the law school track.
The biggest downside is that professor jobs are extremely hard to get. Yet, I thought to myself – at some point I will look back and regret not even trying it. It is worth giving it a shot just to avoid the regret.
I also learned that the same is true for law. Those legal careers where you work in a comfortable office with a great salary are rarer than I thought. I figured, if I am going to end up working hard for a job no matter what, I might as well like the job I am aiming for.
I am looking at American history for graduate school. I am looking at departments and faculty right now. The University of Virginia, which was my top choice for law school, is still on my list.
Over the last year, I have been working on an Honors in the Major (HITM) thesis. I have read countless books – too many – but that helped me understand what my interests were. Now, I am looking back at those books to see which ones I enjoyed the most to find the professors I would like to work with.
What drew you to doing an HITM project?
I thought of my HITM project as a farewell. I was still planning on law school when I decided to do it, and I thought of it as the last academic history project that I was going to work on. But then as I was researching my thesis and got drawn into more and more books, I became torn between studying for the LSAT and reading my books. My schedule told me I had to study, but my inclination was to read my books. The fact that I preferred (and enjoyed) reading these dense textbooks over studying for the LSAT gave me pause to think and reevaluate.
I spent about a year trying to figure out my HITM topic. Coming up with the topic was a nightmare. I started with a book on utopianism and a year later I am reading books on Mormonism. My wall is covered in sticky notes with old thesis ideas and none of them are relevant anymore. My biggest struggle was with other academics. I would pick a topic and then someone would publish a book on that same topic in a month. That happened to me twice. Deadlines approached and I would freak out. I easily went through about a dozen topics I was seriously considering.
I finally settled on investigating early Mormonism and dreams. I love dreams. They are unbelievably strange, and we know so little about them. How you view them, whether as chemical signals or messages from God, says a lot about how you view reality. One of my driving questions is, how did people experience the world without having scientific explanations for natural phenomena. Since the early Mormons were rural and lacked a formal education, they make for great test subjects. Magic, visions, the supernatural, and (of course) dreams were all important parts of their world view. It is fascinating and wonderful but more than anything it makes you realize just how different we are from people even a few generations ago.
Do an HITM project if you are passionate about research and writing and have a topic that you are interested in. I view doing the HITM project as an extra class that I am taking where I really have to do the reading. It is a wonderful introduction to graduate-level work where you generally read a book per week. You get to know your topic and the characters up close. In my case especially, since I am looking at their dreams which often give you very intimate insights into their mind.
What advice would you give other students?
Make sure that you do something you care about. Whether it is law school or graduate school – or anything else.
For students looking at law school: a lot of them think, “I might as well go to law school.” My advice: Don’t go to law school unless you actually care for the work. You need to enjoy the subject. Work at a law firm or get an internship so you are not surprised when you get your first legal job and find yourself sitting in a cubicle reading contracts all day.
You should also figure out what law you like to do. I knew I wanted to do either environmental or labor law. Even if I worked in a cubicle all day, I could walk away and say I did something worthwhile. Sometimes what you work on is very minute and it can be hard to see results – so your passion needs to sustain you. You will also deal with bad actors all the time; people who set out to violate codes because it serves their interests. And you might lose to them in court. You have to be able to take that.
Make sure you know what you are signing up for.