The Amicus Interviews are meant for broader discussions on legal education, and the legal profession at the global level. One of the goals of this series of interviews is to get the views of Indian academics on legal education, both in India and abroad.
Shilpi Nanda is currently pursuing her PhD at the National University of Singapore on a Commonwealth Scholarship. Shilpi has had an interesting journey thus far, enrolling for the LL.M. at Cambridge University right after getting a law degree from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University in 2015.
In the second part of the interview (read part one here), she shares some advice on applying for a doctorate, a day in the life of a PhD scholar, the importance of research and teaching, and a lot more.
How does one go about applying for a PhD? What would step one be?
A good starting point for anyone interested in the PhD programme is to make a research proposal of approximately 2,000 words that encapsulates the central idea of the project. The research proposal must contain the aim of the project, the key research question, the scope of the research, the relevance and originality of the study and the methodology that would be used to complete the research.
Some applicants have a clear idea about the topic of research they would like to choose for their doctoral study. However, if you have no idea where to begin, it helps to log on to SSRN or Google Scholar and read the articles that have been recently published in the area that you’re interested in pursuing the PhD.
Another helpful tactic is to research and find out what current PhDs and leading academics in your area of interest are working upon in different institutions across the globe. You can do this by reviewing their academic profiles on university websites, or looking them up on research gate or LinkedIn.
“Another helpful tactic is to research and find out what current PhDs and leading academics in your area of interest are working upon in different institutions across the globe.”
Once you have a rough draft of the research proposal, you can send the proposal to a few academics in your field to see if they would be interested in having you as a doctoral candidate. Every university policy is different, and some universities do not permit interested doctoral candidates contacting their professors before getting accepted for the doctoral programme, so be aware of this. Sometimes professors email back with some rough suggestions, but as most academics are busy, they might say yes/no answer to their interest in taking you on, of course, subject to you getting selected by the university.
The rest of the application journey is straightforward. Applications for universities abroad open from September, and you have to submit a research proposal, the name of a tentative supervisor, a personal statement explaining your motivation for applying for the PhD and your reasons for selecting that supervisor, a scholarship statement requesting funding for your project, two letters of recommendation and academic transcripts. The selection procedure usually involves one or two interviews for the programme and the scholarship.
So, the three crucial steps for a successful PhD application are drafting a robust research proposal, selecting the most appropriate supervisor who has specialised knowledge of the field and securing funding for carrying out the project. Securing all three can be difficult, and so require a lot of planning at the application stage and can take more than one attempt. It is also important to remember not to stress too much about the research proposal that you put together.
“The three crucial steps for a successful PhD application are drafting a robust research proposal, selecting the most appropriate supervisor who has specialised knowledge of the field and securing funding for carrying out the project. “
The first attempt is always not the best, but the degree will give you ample time to improve the direction of the research. This research proposal is only a rough idea of the 80,000 words doctoral thesis that you would write in the next three or four years. So, at the selection stage, it is not expected for you to know everything about the research.
How has the PhD experience been thus far? What does a typical day look like?
I have completed two years of my doctoral studies at the National University of Singapore, and these have truly been the most enriching years for my academic and personal growth!
I feel that my perception and understanding of commercial laws have drastically improved since I began my journey at the National University of Singapore. As the course has progressed, I have learnt that a PhD is so much more than gaining a specialisation in your field and writing a thesis about a problem. It is also about learning how to manage your time, how to structure a complex idea and how to emotionally manage so many unknowns of the project.
A lot of aspiring PhD candidates believe it is intelligence that leads them to complete a successful doctoral degree. But in my opinion, and I am sure several other doctoral candidates will agree, it is really diligence that helps navigate one’s way through the degree. This is probably the reason why most PhD students feel alone in the process, as they spend a considerable amount of time thinking, researching and writing by themselves.
“A lot of aspiring PhD candidates believe it is intelligence that leads them to complete a successful doctoral degree. But in my opinion, and I am sure several other doctoral candidates will agree, it is really diligence that helps navigate one’s way through the degree.”
However, once a doctoral student gets a better understanding of how to structure the workday and break down the work of the project, these can be the most rewarding years for its career. The PhD years are an excellent opportunity for young legal scholars to make an original contribution in their field and make their gateway into a career in research or academia.
How a typical day for a PhD looks like is a tough question to answer. This is because the PhD gives you extreme flexibility in the way you want to work. Every PhD scholar is different and has their style of working. Some are most productive in the mornings and like to work from a library; some like to write at night from home. However, the primary goal for every PhD is to get hours of concentrated work every day that contributes to the completion of the doctoral project.
A typical day for me starts early. I like to wake up by 7 am, as I am most productive in the morning. I usually spend the first half of my day working from home or a common workspace area. The work in a PhD is endless, so I typically give myself a 30-day deadline to come up with a draft chapter. I also have stretches of days, where I just read several academic articles to understand the literature in the area to come up with innovative ideas and solutions.
“The work in a PhD is endless, so I typically give myself a 30-day deadline to come up with a draft chapter. I also have stretches of days, where I just read several academic articles to understand the literature in the area to come up with innovative ideas and solutions.”
After lunch, I make my way to the university. I sometimes have doctoral reading groups, where I meet with my other fellow PhDs to attend their presentations and discuss their work. I also sometimes have supervisor meetings with where I get to discuss my ideas on a more one-on-one basis. My supervisor and I go back on forth on arguments for an hour to understand where I am headed in my work. If the semester is ongoing and I am interested in a particular module, I might take up teaching assistant duties or audit relevant lectures.
Last semester I assisted Professor Hans Tjio and Professor Luh Luh Lan for Capital Markets and Securities Regulation where I enjoyed giving a guest lecture on my work regarding insider trading to masters and undergraduate law students. If I have nothing planned, then I try to get more hours of research and academic writing at the university. I finish working at 6 pm and usually never work after that time of the evening. I enjoy working out, and so either complete a kilometre swim at the pool adjacent to the university or attend a running boot camp with my friends (which is really fun). I usually end my days relaxing with friends or hanging out at the porch in the university housing.
As a PhD, weekends can look very similar to weekdays, but they are usually lighter in terms of workload and involve some exploring of the island city, rock climbing session with friends or university leadership activities!
Cliched question perhaps, but what do you think is more important – research or teaching?
I think research and teaching are both incomplete without the other. They each facilitate the efficiency of the other. As a scholar, if you research and find something ground-breaking in your field, the value of it significantly diminishes if you don’t share it with others in classrooms or conferences. This is the reason why academics make efforts to visit universities and present their work at conferences in different parts of the world.
Research helps you find and create knowledge, but teaching within and outside the classroom enables you to disseminate and discuss that knowledge. Teaching also helps simplify complex ideas, which is vital as an idea only has merit when it can be explained to someone.
“Research helps you find and create knowledge, but teaching within and outside the classroom enables you to disseminate and discuss that knowledge.”
I like a balance of both and so have tried to get as much teaching experience I can while pursuing my PhD. Besides teaching assistantship duties within NUS and I have had the opportunity to travel back to India on a regular basis and give guest lectures at leading Indian law schools.
Of course, the preference for either is an individual choice. Some jobs in academia require minimal or no teaching but a lot of research and also vice versa.
An academic career is slowly beginning to gain favour with today’s Indian law graduates. Any advice you would have for those who are considering this option but not quite sure if it is for them?
My advice would be to apply for research associate positions in leading law schools to get a taste of what it would be like to undertake full-time research. Students can also try and give guest lectures at their alumni law college to get a feel of a career in teaching.
Another route that students can take is to apply for one-year research degrees at universities abroad. For example, the postgraduate diploma in legal studies or international law offered by the University of Cambridge provides the student with the opportunity to decide if a career in legal research is for them and if they would want to apply to continue as a doctoral student once the one-year research diploma is completed.
Of course, taking into account that they can arrange a scholarship or finances to pursue the same.
Lastly, what is your opinion of legal research and pedagogy in Indian law schools? I suppose what I am also asking you is what would it take to get you into a teaching position in India?
In my opinion, legal research and pedagogy at Indian law schools are still at a nascent stage. Law students in India don’t read and write as much as they should in their early years of legal education. This lack of training and practice reflects in the non-conceptual thinking amongst law graduates. Some Indian law schools also lack the support and resources to encourage law students to develop their research and academic writing skills within the law school.
“Law students in India don’t read and write as much as they should in their early years of legal education. This lack of training and practice reflects in the non-conceptual thinking amongst law graduates.”
However, this deficiency in robust Indian scholarship, especially in areas of commercial law, can be viewed as an excellent opportunity for law students who are interested in undertaking a career in academia in India. The first step in securing a teaching position in an Indian law school is to pass the National Eligibility Test (NET) qualification examination that takes place twice a year. The top rankers of the NET examination receive the junior research fellowship which finances them to pursue a doctoral degree in India.
“However, this deficiency in robust Indian scholarship, especially in areas of commercial law, can be viewed as an excellent opportunity for law students who are interested in undertaking a career in academia in India.”
Unlike in the UK, a doctoral degree is not a pre-requisite to securing a teaching position in India and several teachers undertake part-time PhD’s while teaching at a law school.