First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of law graduates who have pursued, or are pursuing, a post-graduate course (LL.M. or otherwise) from different universities across the world.

Umika Sharma is currently a PhD Scholar (Law) at the National University of Singapore (NUS). A graduate of the University School of Law and Legal Studies (’17), Umika enrolled for an LL.M. at Queen Mary University of London right after her undergraduate course. She then spent a year working before enrolling at NUS.

In the first part of a two-part interview, Umika shares her thoughts on the journey thus far, her LL.M. experience at Queen Mary, applying for a PhD, and a whole lot more.

You have had quite a whirlwind journey over the past three years – an LLM right after your undergrad, followed by a mini-pupillage, then traineeship at the Asian International Arbitration Centre, all the while also marketing for ArbitralWomen, and now a PhD – tell me, how much of this was carefully planned out? 

Yes, quite a rollercoaster. Good thing I seem to enjoy them. Chronologically, the LL.M. was completely planned. In fact, it had been in the works since the first year of  law school.

Though I did not plan which LL.M., but I knew I was going for higher studies for sure.

I had also planned on gaining post-LL.M. experience. That was also meticulously planned and implemented during the degree. I had made and continuously updated a list of firms, institutions and individuals where and with whom I could gain experience and had sent out applications all throughout my degree and some even before I had set foot in London.

Undertaking the mini-pupillage and a few shadowing experiences were a part of that plan. I wanted to see how cases were handled in the U.K. and, was fortunate enough to find barristers and solicitors who gave me that opportunity. AIAC was one of the institutions on my list where I wanted to gain experience. So, when I got the traineeship, I packed my bags and moved from London to Kuala Lumpur.

” I wanted to see how cases were handled in the U.K. and, was fortunate enough to find barristers and solicitors who gave me that opportunity.”

As for ArbitralWomen, I had been a member and had attended many of their fantastic events in London. When they sent out a call for these positions, I responded, got selected and then started working with them on their marketing activities.

Lastly, the Ph.D. was more of an idea that developed purely out of interest. Because of a lack of focus on research and training during my first degree, I hadn’t seriously considered it as a career option.

But at Queen Mary, where I was given access to the field’s best professors- who had a strong understanding of the academic world and also worked as counsels/arbitrators-along with proper and complete guidance, I got interested in research.

I had chosen many modules with a substantial research component and was expected to produce multiple well-researched papers by the end of each semester and also a fifteen-thousand-word thesis by the end of the degree. In total, well over thirty thousand words by the end of my LL.M. Therefore, it was here that I was challenged to go out of my comfort zone and produce in-depth research.

Turns out, I really enjoyed doing it.

My good grades also gave me the confidence that in addition to liking what I was doing, my professors liked my work too. Consequently, by the end of my LL.M., I had seriously started considering a Ph.D. I shared my plans with my professors and mentors and all of them unequivocally supported the idea that I should take my research career forward. Their confidence in my work and my interest in my research topic helped me make up my mind and then apply to NUS.

“By the end of my LL.M., I had seriously started considering a Ph.D. I shared my plans with my professors and mentors and all of them unequivocally supported the idea that I should take my research career forward. “

When you graduated in 2017, was a PhD always on the cards? Or was this something you decided to take up only after the LLM?

In 2017, a Ph.D. was not something I had seriously considered.

But by the end of my LL.M., I was sure I wanted to pursue a research degree. It was a gradual change of heart because of the exposure and training that I received during my degree and also my deep interest in the topic.

By the time I finished my LL.M., I was already looking at Ph.Ds. As I wanted to head back to Asia, NUS was an obvious choice.

I am also curious to know what you thought were some of the differences in your undergraduate education and the LLM. Specifically, from the point of someone who is interested in research?

There were many. While during my undergrad, there was a focus on the “black letter of the law”, my LL.M. focused more on critical thinking and in-depth analysis of legal concepts as well as trying to gain a practitioner’s perspective.

The course delved into the nitty gritty of the procedural aspects of international dispute resolution. Even though, international arbitration can be seen as a field of law build around procedural issues of law; it also has some very interesting conceptual frameworks. So, it seems to me that it attracts people who like to dab both into practice as well as maintain a strong academic connection through teaching, publications, talks and so on.

That’s the most prominent contrast that I saw from my Indian undergrad.

In India, most of our teachers tend to be pure academicians. While that’s not necessarily bad, it does limit their reach in some respects, especially while teaching subjects that have a significant procedural (and often practical) component.

“In India, most of our teachers tend to be pure academicians. While that’s not necessarily bad, it does limit their reach in some respects, especially while teaching subjects that have a significant procedural (and often practical) component. “

Whereas, during my degree at QMUL, I was taught by academics who also practice in the field. They often shared their experiences as practitioners. Moreover, the School of International Arbitration also hosted regular seminars and networking events where practitioners from all over the world were invited to teach and also interact with us. Learning from their war stories and understanding what I was studying in classes from a practitioner’s perspective were invaluable insights into the subject matter.

That is something that I feel Indian law schools miss out on. I also found this interaction of academics and practice especially useful for my research. I felt that it gives one’s research an edge because then you can bring many different perspectives on a particular topic to the table.

Ultimately, it enhances the quality of your research and takes it beyond the realm of abstract theories to a solid foundation in how that research question that you’re exploring can be grounded in real-world scenarios. It also ensures that your practical worldview is not only limited to your experience but also has influences of other professional’s experiences from almost all over the world.

Additionally, the networking opportunities that universities like QMUL and NUS provide are unparalleled. Through these events I got access to the best practitioners in the industry. I feel the constant interaction of academics and practice was the most exciting element during my LL.M. and again during my Ph.D.

Another stark difference that I saw was the institutional support and access to (almost) unlimited resources. The online library and all its resources provided to me during my LL.M. felt like a golden ticket to the world of research. The advanced tools that were at my disposal made the process of research both interesting and enjoyable.

I also had access to researchers who could help me gain research skills reasonably quickly. I had opted to take extra classes and tutorials to learn how to research thoroughly and sometimes distil the research process to its very basics and build my skills from scratch.

“I had opted to take extra classes and tutorials to learn how to research thoroughly and sometimes distil the research process to its very basics and build my skills from scratch.”

Most importantly, every professor, researcher, as well as all the supporting staff were extremely approachable and helpful. Having access to all of these resources and resource persons was what helped me quickly adapt to how research is done at an international level. Many Indian universities generally (in my limited experience) have this shortcoming.

Because of a lack of access to advanced resources and also accessible well-trained researchers, it’s quite hard to develop your researching skills. To me, it seems that there is a gap between encouraging research during law school and provided the tools to learn and undertake advanced research.

“To me, it seems that there is a gap between encouraging research during law school and provided the tools to learn and undertake advanced research.”

Lastly, international universities also provide you the opportunity to interact with an excellent peer group. I studied in a class with around fifty nationalities. Most of them were seasoned professionals in their respective countries. Many spoke half a dozen languages or so. They opened my eyes to how differently the same principles of law operate in different jurisdictions. The opinions and experiences that they brought to the classroom were sometimes so unique that we spent hours discussing how law functions in our respective countries.

That sort of an engaging environment was also the driving force behind many of my research ideas. I had access to this peer group which could be my soundboard for these ideas and teach me novel ways of looking at the same problem but from a completely different perspective. I feel it immensely helped me to develop as a researcher both in terms of my thinking process and also employing comparative techniques to refine on that thinking. During my Indian education, this diversity of opinions and experience was something that was missing.

“During my Indian education, this diversity of opinions and experience was something that was missing.”

This peer group also turns into lifelong friends, supporters of your career and many have become mentors. All of this is in addition to the vast alumni network that I have access to. Since completing my degree, I have lived in two more countries, and I find QMUL alumni from my course everywhere. Having a well-developed alumni network is another thing that has helped me immensely. In India, that is not necessarily the case except for the well-established universities. Even if there is a vast network, tapping into it can also be quite challenging if the university specifically doesn’t support that network.

“Since completing my degree, I have lived in two more countries, and I find QMUL alumni from my course everywhere. Having a well-developed alumni network is another thing that has helped me immensely.”

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