First Person Accounts: Sapna Reheem Shaila on an LLM from SOAS, academic careers & more

First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian law graduates who have pursued a masters course from schools across the world. One of the purposes of the FPA is to also provide greater insights into the world of academia, and how Indian law graduates who are interested in this field can use a master’s program to achieve their goals.

Law graduates who are academically inclined, and who have pursued higher education outside the country, are also interesting to speak to since they provide perspective on the state of Indian legal education, and Indian law schools.

Which is why I am particularly excited about this edition of the FPA.

Sapna Reheem Shaila

Sapna Reheem Shaila

Sapna Reheem Shaila completed her LLM at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Class of ’15), two years after finishing the BA LLB course from NALSAR University. Sapna also happens to be PhD candidate at Kings College London (KCL), as well as a Teaching Fellow at UCL, as well as a Visiting Lecturer at KCL.

At what point in time did you decide to do an LLM? Was it always the plan while you were an undergrad student at NALSAR, or was this something you decided to do after the stint at CCG?

I always planned to do an LLM as I thought it could help me to specialise in an area that fascinated me. This goal was reaffirmed after my exchange semester at Griffith University in the third year of my undergraduate degree.

The only doubts were about what would be my specialisation, which university and when?

How did you go about selecting your graduate school, and why did you narrow down on SOAS?

This is an interesting question, and I don’t think I have a straightforward answer for this. In my fifth year, NALSAR gave us the opportunity to pick courses that were interdisciplinary. I did Law and Anthropology; and Law and Subaltern studies. This opened up a  range of scholarly works I wasn’t familiar with until then. I remember discussing with my Constitutional Law professor about interdisciplinary LLM degrees.

She suggested I look into LSE’s MSc in Law, Society and Anthropology course or SOAS’s LLMs. I applied to both programmes and was accepted, but I couldn’t decide as to which college to pick.  That year I didn’t manage to get any full funding- which made the decision process easier, so I decided to wait it out and figure out what I wanted to do in the future.

That year in July, I started working at the Centre for Good Governance as a Legal Researcher. It was an exciting time to be based at the Centre in Hyderabad as the state of Andhra Pradesh was planning to bifurcate into Telangana and State of AP within a year. The Centre received a couple of exciting projects from the World Bank on land rights and public governance. I was involved with the teams working on these issues. Throughout that year, I remember looking at the governmental policies and development agendas and wondering what role law plays in all of this. After that experience, it made perfect sense to pursue SOAS’s LLM specialisation on Law, Development, and Governance.

I remember looking at the governmental policies and development agendas and wondering what role law plays in all of this. After that experience, it made perfect sense to pursue SOAS’s LLM specialisation on Law, Development, and Governance.

SOAS’s LLM provided various modules to study how international organisations assist countries in the Global South to undergo legislative reforms with promises of development or as part of rule of law reforms. Luckily that year it all worked out with the funding  as well from  SOAS.

How early did you start the application process, and was it difficult to do so while also balancing your work?

As I mentioned earlier, it was a reflective process over a year that helped me to develop a coherent statement of purpose for the LLM at  SOAS. 

Definitely having a clear plan and reasons as to why I was pursuing the specialised LLM made it easier to work on the application and convince the admission and funding committees.

Did you view the LLM as a step towards a doctorate degree? Or was this something you decided to do well into the LLM course?

Yes, I did see my LLM as the step towards a doctorate. Again, the topic for my doctorate became more evident after I finished writing my Master’s dissertation.

During my LLM I worked very hard to make sure that I had a Distinction for my degree so when I applied for a doctorate, I could get accepted by the supervisor I had in mind.

What were some of the most enjoyable moments of the LLM at SOAS?

SOAS was an amazing experience – if I could relive my Master’s again, I will do it all over- including the coursework! At SOAS  you meet students from across the globe. I made friends from  Fiji, Madagascar, East Timor, and so many other countries that were never on my radar!

It was also a humbling experience to realise how little I knew about the legal cultures, society, and politics of countries other than the UK, US, Canada or Australia. SOAS used to have regional music concerts every week in the common room – this was fun! Also, the student protests (on cleaners’ rights/green investments) made it a fascinating learning space.

Trying to understand how one works towards the PhD – any advice you would have for those looking to do something similar? How does one go about setting up RA’s and internships?

Yes. The most important advice I want to give for an aspiring Ph.D. candidate is to read widely around the area of your interest and ask yourself as to whether you would have the energy and excitement to work on that topic for the next three years or so. 

Research assistantships/internships could give you a practical edge over your thesis proposal. For me, the RA I had at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law helped me to consolidate my thoughts for the final thesis proposal. But make sure the RA/internship is in the area of your research interest, or you are pursuing it for specific skill development.

The most important advice I want to give for an aspiring Ph.D. candidate is to read widely around the area of your interest and ask yourself as to whether you would have the energy and excitement to work on that topic for the next three years or so.

Since last year, you also got a Visiting Lecturer post at KCL – how has the teaching experience been? Any practices at KCL that you think Indian law schools can or should adopt?

The teaching experience has been excellent so far! In the beginning, I was a bit nervous, but King’s provide extensive training for young lecturers and teaching fellows on evidence-based teaching methods. The training was useful in evaluating how I could improve and help my students to engage critically with their course materials. I  handle seminars and tutorials – they are mostly discussion based. For me, teaching reminds me of how learning is a continuous process – as I am always picking up on a new idea or a thought-provoking question from my students.

I definitely believe that Indian law schools should think about adopting different teaching methods beyond lectures and seminars- for example, court visits or familiarising students with sample affidavits could assist those who retain information especially through experiential learning. I also think it is crucial to encourage students to engage with their course materials critically. Therefore the faculty members should try to evaluate how their teaching practices are supporting students and how to help them to be more proactive.

I also think it is crucial to encourage students to engage with their course materials critically. Therefore the faculty members should try to evaluate how their teaching practices are supporting students and how to help them to be more proactive.

Last question – would you consider moving back to India as an academic? I suppose what I am asking you is what would Indian law schools have to do to encourage academics like you to come back to the country.

To be honest, this is a difficult question to answer. After my Ph.D I want to look for a position that helps me to pursue my research interests in socio-legal studies, comparative law or transnational law. During my undergraduate years,  I noticed there was limited enthusiasm for interdisciplinary approaches to law within the Indian law schools. 

The majority of Indian law schools seemed to predominantly follow narrow notions of law as a ‘black-lettered’ normative institution and the role of lawyers  to be limited within courts or private firms. So in a way, I do feel my research interests might not be appreciated within the current educational structure. Another factor is the limited exposure of research and publications to a broader global audience. This is a sad aspect for the academics in the Global South ( for no fault of theirs!).

There are very few reputed academic national law journals/mediums through which young scholars can engage with a wider academic community. I think Indian law schools need to think about how to make academic research valuable for policy decisions in the country. This needs lobbying from the universities, and a change of mindset regarding academic legal research from the wider society itself.

I think Indian law schools need to think about how to make academic research valuable for policy decisions in the country. This needs lobbying from the universities, and a change of mindset regarding academic legal research from the wider society itself.

 

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