The Amicus Interviews are meant for broader discussions on legal education, and the legal profession. One of the idea behind these interviews is to get a wider understanding of just what the Indian legal graduate is looking for in terms of a post-graduate, international education.

In fact, one of the goals of Amicus Partners is to explore and chart the non-traditional educational choices made by the Indian law graduate. Which is why I was particularly keen on hearing from Pallavi Sharma, who not only possesses an Indian law degree (NUJS ’13) but has also completed two courses at Oxford University namely, the part-time Master of Studies in International Human Rights Law, (MSt.)  and the  full-time Master’s of Public Policy (MPP).

The first few years after your undergrad were fairly traditional – you worked as an associate with AMSS. What prompted the move to higher education? And that too, not an LLM, but the part-time Masters in International Human Rights at Oxford University? 

While at Amarchand, I was toying with the idea of a pursuing a master’s in human rights, but was not ready to take the plunge into the niche field yet, without testing the waters. The MSt in IHRL afforded me this flexibility of dabbling into human rights work, without physically being out of the country and committing to a full-time niche graduate degree.

“The MSt. in IHRL afforded me this flexibility of dabbling into human rights work, without physically being out of the country and committing to a full-time niche graduate degree.”

After some intense snooping around, I saw that the faculty at IHRL was stellar and it came with opportunities for scholarships for young human rights advocates. This was an important consideration for me in making the decision.

You were also a Commonwealth scholar while doing the MSt – any advice on how to go about the application process? Some of the writing requirements are fairly challenging.

To clarify at the outset, the Commonwealth grant associated with the MSt. is different from the Commonwealth scholarship for graduate studies (the two step process with a national panel interview).

This grant is renewed for each admission cycle subject to the availability of funds. In the writing sample, it could be useful to draw out from your experiences and make it personal, instead of negating them, especially if you are transitioning into a different field, like I was.

And at the risk of sounding like a broken record on-guide-to-master’s-applications, it really helps to keep the writing sample clean, and using simple language to express complex ideas. My ex-boss gave me a useful tip on writing pitches – one idea in one sentence, and that seems to have worked for me, in applications and work, generally!

“My ex-boss gave me a useful tip on writing pitches – one idea in one sentence, and that seems to have worked for me, in applications and work, generally!”

While pursuing the MSt, you continued working in India with Common Cause as a legal consultant? How easy or difficult was it to balance the two?

Thankfully, Common Cause was reasonable in terms of time commitment, perhaps because I was used to working the law firm hours. They were also very considerate of my Oxford commitments, and allowed me the flexibility to work from home on submission days or when I was in Oxford.

I have to add, the MSt. is flexible in terms of geographical location, but as academically demanding as a full-fledged degree at Oxford. For the first year, I was putting minimum 20 hours a week to keep up with the readings and course work. For the second year (when I wrote my dissertation), I spent an average of 30 hours per week.

“I have to add, the MSt. is flexible in terms of geographical location, but as academically demanding as a full-fledged degree at Oxford. For the first year, I was putting minimum 20 hours a week to keep up with the readings and course work. For the second year (when I wrote my dissertation), I spent an average of 30 hours per week.”

Looking back, how demanding would you say the course was? And what were the summer sessions at Oxford like?

As I said, the course is pretty demanding in terms of readings and tutorials. (Now that I have been through it) I would advise applying for it only if you can afford some flexibility at work. This being said, I cannot recommend the course itself enough!

The faculty works hard to curate it towards the needs of working professionals in terms of the course content and structure. Summer sessions are Oxford’s best neatly packaged in six weeks, with sunshine sprinkled on top! They spread out the course work to give students the opportunity to interact with the faculty, guest lecturers and each other, while leaving sufficient time to explore the city and the University on their own.

“The faculty works hard to curate it towards the needs of working professionals in terms of the course content and structure. Summer sessions are Oxford’s best neatly packaged in six weeks, with sunshine sprinkled on top!”

The last week has formal written exams, similar to law schools in India, which could be a little intense for those not used to the format. This said, the summer sessions were, for me, undisputedly the best part about the course.

Clearly, the MSt. was not the only degree you had in mind. A year after the first master’s, you enrolled for the MPP, again at Oxford – Why?

When I started the MSt., I had not imagined that I would be going for another master’s this soon. Halfway through the Mst., and a year and half in Common Cause, I saw myself getting increasingly interested in their policy work. I was looking to skill up for the next career move and started generally exploring policy programmes for more formal training.

Though the MPP was new, I found the programme well-structured, with sufficient exposure opportunities. It was one year, as opposed to most other policy programmes which require a two-year commitment. I was also familiar with the Oxford application process and available scholarships, which, as previously, was extremely important to me. I was determined to not take a loan, especially as policy and human rights studies may not open up profiles which are financially very lucrative in the short run.

What were some of the highlights of the MPP course? And how did you find yourself using your law degree, as well as the Mst while doing the MPP course?

This is a question I have been asked by many prospective applicants. The MPP is a professional degree, where the assumption is that you know the basics of your field and the focus is to equip you with the right skills to polish that knowledge and translate it in the policy space.

Some of the highlights were modules on policy drafting, communications, negotiations and simulations on real world policy challenges like climate change and Brexit. The Blavatnik School of Government also works hard towards bringing in speakers and luminaries to interact with its students, which is fantastic!

“Some of the highlights were modules on policy drafting, communications, negotiations and simulations on real world policy challenges like climate change and Brexit. The Blavatnik School of Government also works hard towards bringing in speakers and luminaries to interact with its students, which is fantastic!

They have a summer project built into the curriculum-somewhat similar to MBA internships, which gives people the flexibility to transition out of the Master’s into the next job profile, or try something completely different that they would not ordinarily do in the course of their regular work (the direction that I went in).

I built these policy skills on the knowledge acquired in my legal experience and previous master’s. I was given this advice from seniors who had pursued this degree, to have some clarity and knowledge of the foundation you want to rest this policy degree on before jumping in. To that extent, it is very different from an academic degree like BCL or the MSt.

Slightly off-topic here, but could you tell me a bit about your work on smart cities? 

Another highlight from my MPP, I was selected for a capstone with the Government and Public Sector Practice of WPP, London for the summer (MPP requires you to do a policy related summer project of your choice and submit a report towards requirements of completion of the degree).

As I still hadn’t zeroed in on what policy profile I would like to work in the future, I wanted to explore a little and decided to pursue this communications internship. I worked with them to develop an integrated communications strategy that cities could adopt at every stage of transforming into ‘smart cities’.

I also worked on how countries and cities could brand (or re-brand) themselves to carve a niche space in the market for bringing in tourism, investment etc. The experience was absolutely fantastic, couldn’t have asked for a better environment for exploration!

Why did you choose an internship at the ILO? And could you share a bit about what kind of work you did there? 

The ILO had come on my radar after a few interesting courses I did in the MSt. Additionally, my work on a Common Cause petition for rights of domestic workers gave me a closer insight into the ILO mechanisms.

I applied to the Sectoral Policies department at the ILO for an internship, where I could converge all that I had done so far, in terms of my legal experience and knowledge from the Mst., with my newly cultivated policy skills and because it was one of the few well paid UN internships (see above for how I refuse to pay for experience from my pocket on a human rights salary!).

I worked on policies for decent work in global agriculture supply chains like tea and palm oil. I am now continuing with the same team as a Junior Technical Officer and currently engaged in policy work on tobacco.

Presuming you now have a global outlook on things, how do you view the career prospects of the Indian law graduate who is looking to work outside the country? 

I did not give employability outside India much thought while choosing my masters’, which was not a priority then. I admit, it was an oversight on my part. If you are interested in working outside, look for schools in countries which absorb their graduates. The track record for UK and US is not great in this respect, unfortunately.

“If you are interested in working outside, look for schools in countries which absorb their graduates. The track record for UK and US is not great in this respect, unfortunately.”

Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who is looking to pursue higher education? Particularly non-LLM, courses? 

Some useful things to think about before zooming in on a non-LLM masters, which may not have a set career trajectory: the reason for doing the masters (skilling up, taking a break, feeling clueless, looking for a career shift, academic pursuits etc), faculty, duration, scholarships (if important), where you would like to be after the masters’.

It’s not important to know exactly what you want to do after graduation, as exploring and experiencing are some of the most important parts of doing these courses abroad, but it helps to have a sense of whether you would want to come back immediately, or dabble internationally before coming back or stay outside the country for good.

Each person has a different motivation behind going for a master’s. Being brutally honest with yourself about your motivation behind pursuing a master’s outside India can help zooming in on the right programme in the right country. Do reach out to seniors or people who have done the programmes you are interested it for an insider’s opinion.

“Being brutally honest with yourself about your motivation behind pursuing a master’s outside India can help zooming in on the right programme in the right country. Do reach out to seniors or people who have done the programmes you are interested it for an insider’s opinion.”

As for the applications themselves, one sentence-one idea and don’t shy away from making them personal. In my experience, they are better received than template driven statements of purpose. Policy schools in general also have a requirement for strong commitment to public service, which needs to be clearly demonstrated in your statement of purpose and writing sample. Commitment to public service is not abandoning all things commercial or business, but rather how you can integrate it with social policy.

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