First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian law graduates who have pursued, or are currently pursuing, a post-graduate course (be it an LLM or otherwise) from different schools across the world.

In this edition, I speak with Chithra Powathikunnil George who is currently enrolled for the NUS-MIDS double degree. In this interview, the ILS graduate (Class of 2015) shares advice on how to go about applying to both, NUS and the MIDS course, the differences between the two institutions, and what Indian law graduates should keep in mind while looking at an LL.M. abroad.

(Edited excerpts)

What prompted you to take up the LLM? Did you consider enrolling for an LLM right after your time at ILS Pune?

I hail from a family of academicians. Having grown up in an academic oriented background, I have always been inspired to enjoy the process of studying and to never give up on it. Therefore, pursuing Masters was a long cherished dream, particularly on account of encouragement by my father Dr.K M George who himself retired as a Professor from Govt. Law College, Kerala.

Regarding enrolling for LL.M., I did not want to do it immediately after my graduation from ILS, Pune. A master’s is a specialised programme for which I believe it is better to gain some practical experience before joining the course. That will enable a person to interlink practice and theory and make the best use of the master’s programme. Hence, before joining for Masters, I worked for two years.

” A master’s is a specialised programme for which I believe it is better to gain some practical experience before joining the course. That will enable a person to interlink practice and theory and make the best use of the master’s programme.”

How did you go about selecting universities to apply to? And why narrow down on NUS?

The first stage when a person decides to pursue Masters is to decide the branch of law that one intends to specialise in. Accordingly, the choice of Universities has to be made. For example, if one intends to specialise in Constitutional law, then one could opt for Yale or Harvard. In case of Intellectual Property Law, then Max Planck, Germany is a good choice.

As I intended to pursue LL.M. in International Arbitration, MIDS, Geneva (Masters in International Dispute Settlement jointly conducted by Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and University of Geneva) is the best in the world.

Also, National University of Singapore (NUS) is the best in Asia for LL.M. in International Arbitration, especially as Singapore is Asia’s arbitration hub. So, as I wanted to pursue LL.M. in International Arbitration, I narrowed down on my choice of NUS and MIDS. So, in the first instance, I applied to NUS for LL.M. in International Arbitration and fortunately I received admission with full scholarship and stipend.

Any advice on approaching the applications at NUS? How should one write a personal statement, who should one seek Letters of Recommendation from? Also, any advice on scholarship applications?

The first step in approaching application to any University is to study in depth what the University offers and whether what it offers matches one’s expectations. The personal statement is extremely crucial in the application process and it is expected to be a true reflection of the candidate’s personality. Ideally, it should contain what motivated the individual to choose a particular specialisation, why the candidate has narrowed down on that particular University and suitability of one’s candidature. Brevity, simplicity and clarity of thoughts and expressions are qualities of an exceptional Personal Statement. Also, it is always better to get it vetted. In my case, I vetted my brother Mathews P.George’s (Graduate Scholar in LL.M. at Max Planck, Germany) Statement and he vetted mine.

“Ideally, it should contain what motivated the individual to choose a particular specialisation, why the candidate has narrowed down on that particular University and suitability of one’s candidature. Brevity, simplicity and clarity of thoughts and expressions are qualities of an exceptional Personal Statement. “

Regarding the Letter of Recommendation, it is advisable to obtain the same from Professors with great academic standing or Partner or other Senior Professional under whom the person has worked.

The primary aim is that the person who endorses for a particular candidate, should have had the opportunity to constantly monitor or supervise the candidate and is in a position to vouch for the candidate.

Personally, in my case, I had Letters from Prof.Vaijayanti Joshi, Principal of ILS; Prof. Sathya Narayan, Director, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies; Dr.Nitish Nawsagaray, Professor and Editorial Committee Faculty Head (I was a member of the Editorial Committee); and Prof. Sonali Jadhav who taught me arbitration.

For my admission to MIDS, I was recommended by Dr.Michael Hwang, Chartered Arbitrator and Former Chief Justice of Dubai International Financial Centre Courts; Prof.Lucy Reed, Professor and Director of National University of Singapore – Centre for International Law; and Dr.Vincent Joel Proulx, Professor at National University of Singapore.

In terms of scholarship application, there is no clear cut formula. However, giving scholarship is a financial burden on the University and therefore, it is an extremely competitive process. Generally, it is very rare and difficult to secure full scholarship and stipend for LL.M. and I personally think that it is awarded to a candidate with a holistic personality. This means, it is generally awarded to someone with an outstanding academic record, very good track record of extra-curricular activities, pertinent work experience, excellent letters of recommendation, impeccable personality reflected through the personal statement, active participation in social service activities etc.

“In terms of scholarship application, there is no clear cut formula. However, giving scholarship is a financial burden on the University and therefore, it is an extremely competitive process. “

Was one of the reasons behind enrolling at NUS, the chance to study the MIDS course? Or was this something you decided to do only after starting your semester at NUS? Could you talk me through the process of applying for MIDS while at NUS?

The double degree programme is structured in such a way that a person gets double LL.M. each from NUS and MIDS over a span of three semesters instead of four semesters (Usually, LL.M. at NUS/ MIDS is two semesters each). So, under this double degree programme, candidate pursues LL.M. for two semesters at either of the Universities, i.e. NUS/ MIDS, and the remaining one semester in the other University.

I had aimed at doing LL.M. in international arbitration at NUS and MIDS to study the discipline from Asian and European perspectives. So, I was eyeing on the double degree programme.

However, enrolling at NUS does not de facto guarantee admission at MIDS. The selection for the double degree programme is a two tier process. Firstly, one has to be nominated by NUS based on academic performance at NUS and secondly, out of the nominated candidates, MIDS decides on whom to admit.

“However, enrolling at NUS does not de facto guarantee admission at MIDS. The selection for the double degree programme is a two tier process. Firstly, one has to be nominated by NUS based on academic performance at NUS and secondly, out of the nominated candidates, MIDS decides on whom to admit.”

Personally speaking, I had an added obligation of performing well at academics on account of my being a Scholar (scholarship contractual obligation). So, in a way, being a Scholar facilitated me to perform well at academics and thereby easily clear the first step of nomination process. The second step is completely in the hands of MIDS and I was fortunate to get admitted. In my batch, four students were nominated by NUS and out of the four nominated candidates, two of us were admitted by MIDS – myself and Mr.Yao Ruochen from China.

Again, any advice on how to go about applying for the MIDS course?

MIDS gets the largest number of applicants from India. So, in order to maintain diversity, applications from Indian applicants are strictly scrutinised. As said before, if you have a holistic personality, then chances of getting admission are higher.

Along with the mandatory documents that one has to submit, most of the Universities offer an option for submitting English Language Waiver Request letter. Both NUS and MIDS offer the same and therefore, it is not mandatory to give TOEFL/ IELTS test if one has ample evidence to prove proficiency in English.

Comparing your time at NUS and the Graduate Institute, what were some of the differences in the learning experience?

The LL.M. at NUS and at the Graduate Institute are indeed rich experiences. Both the institutions are located in arbitration hubs of the world and have well designed curriculum, stellar faculty, Socratic method of teaching and a cohort of passionate arbitration enthusiasts. Also, both of them are located in clean and safe cities in the world with high standard of living. A few differences are:

  • In NUS, one gets the option to learn modules from different branches of law along with one’s area of specialisation. Of course, majority of the credits should be from one’s area of specialisation. Therefore, at NUS, a student who has arbitration major could do modules on other areas like Behavioural Economics, Criminal Practice, Freedom of Speech, etc. This is generally not the case in MIDS. All the modules are either purely focused on arbitration or have some nexus with arbitration.
  • Both NUS and MIDS offer general modules on international arbitration and specialised modules on arbitration from Asian and European perspectives. However, in NUS, there are more specialised arbitration modules from Asian perspective and in MIDS, there are more specialised modules from European perspective.
  • MIDS has number of training workshops, field trips within and outside Switzerland etc. that help you to widen your practical exposure in arbitration. Also, it strengthens your bond with your classmates. Further, gatherings of students and Professors organised by MIDS are quite frequent. On the contrary, field trips at NUS, especially outside Singapore, are not common. However, NUS also has trips within Singapore and I made my best friends during the city tour that happened at the beginning of our course.
  • MIDS has mandatory thesis submission as part of the curriculum. This gives you the opportunity to sharpen your analytical skills under the supervision of a faculty member. On the contrary, NUS evaluation does not have mandatory thesis submission and there remains an option to carry out research under the supervision of a Professor.
  • MIDS has exams all throughout the semester as exams take place immediately after a course finishes, whereas NUS has exams towards the end of each semester. I personally prefer the NUS system as it gives more breathing space during the semester.

Lastly, any advice for Indian law graduates who are planning to move jurisdictions? Do you think an LLM acts like a good stepping stone for the same? 

Of course! There is no doubt regarding that. Pursuing an LL.M. abroad reforms and refines your personality in multiple ways. It gives you access to the international landscape, facilitates in building contacts, widens your exposure, gives you the opportunity to engage in discussions with world-renowned personalities, sharpens your analytical thinking and above all makes you a global citizen.

“It gives you access to the international landscape, facilitates in building contacts, widens your exposure, gives you the opportunity to engage in discussions with world-renowned personalities, sharpens your analytical thinking and above all makes you a global citizen.”

However, one should tread on this path only for the right reasons because otherwise you may end up regretting of having taken that decision.

I have seen some of my classmates dropping midway, finding it hard to cope with the pressure of the Masters Programme and facing difficulties in confining themselves to a hectic schedule with very little breathing space. But if a candidate has made an informed decision, then the sky is the limit!

On a personal note, I’m humbled to have received this coveted opportunity of doing the NUS-MIDS Double Degree Programme and will certainly cherish it all throughout my life. I hope this  turns out to be a helpful guidance to all the aspirants, and my best wishes to them!

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