The Amicus Interviews are meant for broader discussions on legal education, and the legal profession. As I may have mentioned earlier, one of the goals of Amicus Partners is also to explore some of the slightly non-traditional education paths that have been taken by the Indian law graduate.
In the second part of the interview (read Part I here) with Lakshmi Neelakantan, I get her to discuss how she went about planning her doctorate degree, what exactly a doctorate degree entails, the future of Indian law schools, and a whole lot more.
The PhD – How do you go about choosing your supervisor?
I can speak about the UK because that is what I am familiar with.
There are essentially two ways: one, you apply for a studentship. This is when a professor has received a grant to do research on a particular topic. And as part of this grant, they have received some funding to hire PhD students who will work on, say, a particular aspect of this research.
So, when you apply for a studentship, all you have to demonstrate is that you are capable of doing this research. And if you get this studentship, then all your fees, your living stipend is all taken care of.
The upside of this is that you don’t have to sort out your own funding, but the downside is that you have less flexibility of what you research. All studentships in the UK are advertised on jobs.ac.uk. So, if you are keen to pursue a studentship in the UK, you would be hard pressed to find something that is not on the website.
It is important to mention that with regard to studentships, many of them will pay the fees at the UK/EU level. So, as an Indian student you will have to pay the difference in fees between the UK/EU and international rate. But many universities do have some scholarships that make up that gap.
“It is important to mention that with regard to studentships, many of them will pay the fees at the UK/EU level. So, as an Indian student you will have to pay the difference in fees between the UK/EU and International rate.”
The second route is that you come up with your own research proposal, and you find a supervisor you can work with. Ways of finding a supervisor include reading papers in your field, looking at University websites, Google Scholar, Research Gate, and drawing up perhaps a potential list of supervisors you can work with.
It is really important in the UK system that you have some contact with your supervisor before you apply because that carries a lot of weight in the admission process. Many academics are happy to chat about this process if you email them. So, if you apply with your own research proposal, you are responsible for sorting out your own finances, usually by applying for PhD scholarships offered by the university or another institution (like the Commonwealth scholarship).
“It is really important in the UK system that you have some contact with your supervisor before you apply because that carries a lot of weight in the admission process. Many academics are happy to chat about this process if you email them.”
Alright, so apart from gallivanting across the world, what does a PhD student do?
Obviously, my main job is to do my research, and to do this within three years because that is when my funding will run out. But I also do other research projects. For instance, I am working on another research project for my supervisor at the University of Oxford.
I did some tutoring as a teaching assistant. I really enjoyed my teaching time, and I just love interacting with students. The process of talking to students, who really push you to be prepared, to question your own thinking and assumptions, and just to help them figure out what they want to do is pretty awesome.
Part of being a PhD student is to be plugged into the research community, and as a PhD student your primary research community is probably your department. At my department we have seminars where PhD students regularly present their work. We have a student-run conference which I am helping to get organized. We are going to start a blog for our department. I edited a newsletter for the department as well.
“Part of being a PhD student is to be plugged into the research community, and as a PhD student your primary research community is probably your department.”
And if you go back, say 2014-15 – is this something you thought you would be doing?
Not at all. I just knew that I wanted to explore what was outside of law. I really didn’t know where it would take me. I changed my mind a lot during that one year I was doing my master’s. And there are times even now when I question what I can do and what I cannot.
Research is filled with doubt. I have a lot of moments when I am definitely unsure of my place within this research community but also my future in research. But thankfully, I have gotten through those periods. It is always good to introspect, to question where you are and to think about where you want to go.
“It is always good to introspect, to question where you are and to think about where you want to go.”
Any advice for law students who are thinking of a doctorate?
Well I would say I think it is important to be, not sure, but at least reasonably certain of wanting a research career. Doing a PhD is a lot of time to invest if you are not planning a research career. And if you are not sure, put it off, work for a bit until you are quite certain.
But I do know of many people that finish a PhD and then go into non-academic careers which is also perfectly fine. So, if you do start it, it is not a bad thing to finish it, enjoy that process and then decide that you don’t really want an academic career.
I would be careful about choosing the field of study; it is important to know what you want. And to be quite careful about the department, and the course of research that you are going to pursue.
I think it is also important to be careful of choosing your supervisors. They will be your mentors, who will have a big impact on your research and you as a person. It is important to talk to them, to find out if you are compatible, and figure out if what you consider important is agreeable in that person.
And sometimes it is not easy to find out, they are probably a stranger to you, so how do you find out? You will never really know, but at least you can put in that effort to try and figure out.
“And sometimes it is not easy to find out, they are probably a stranger to you, so how do you find out? You will never really know, but at least you can put in that effort to try and figure out.”
And while doing the PhD? How do you keep yourself motivated?
Well, sometimes, motivation is irrelevant. Sometimes you just have to show up, and do what you can, and keep that process going. If I had to be motivated every single day to do the PhD, I would probably take ten years to finish it.
It is not about having amazing days all the time, it is about having consistent days where you put in work over a period of time that adds up.
“It is not about having amazing days all the time, it is about having consistent days where you put in work over a period of time that adds up.”
But I love what I do, and I take time to look after myself in this process. For instance, I try not to do anything PhD-related for at least one day of the week.
I know this is a broad question, but what do you think is the purpose of legal education?
When I started off as a law student, I thought legal education was meant to start someone on the path of being a complete lawyer (which one then spends their entire career becoming).
I have since had some time to think about what that purpose should be.
I think one purpose is to make students familiar with legal concepts, institutions, and legal reasoning. But I think a more important purpose should be understanding law, in a broader, social and political context.
In this day and age, a legal education should probably allow to some extent a diverse set of careers. Some even outside law. I don’t necessarily think that law schools are just for preparing students for legal practice. They have a larger goal.
“I don’t necessarily think that law schools are just for preparing students for legal practice. They have a larger goal.”
A good legal education should probably equip someone with the core training along with some complementary modules. But also to teach someone to be critical and questioning in their thinking, and equip them with the skills to adapt to new and challenging situations.
That is probably quite a broad answer no? (laughs)