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.

In the second part of the interview (read Part I here), Umika Sharma shares her thoughts on the PhD application process at NUS, a day in the life of a PhD scholar, and some advice for the Indian law graduate who may be considering a postgraduate education outside the country.

How did you go about selecting your thesis topic, and then, your thesis guide/supervisor? 

The easier bit of the question first, about the supervisor. At NUS, the law faculty chooses your supervisor. Generally, a specialist suitable for your research. You do have the option of putting forward your preference at the time of the online application, but the final decision rests with the Faculty of Law, I believe.

Unlike European universities, one doesn’t need to go through the whole process of choosing a supervisor and then convincing them to support your topic. If you are chosen as doctoral candidate, your supervisor is chosen for you. I feel, it really cuts down on a lot of effort while you’re trying to make a strong application and saved a lot of my time.

” If you are chosen as doctoral candidate at NUS, your supervisor is chosen for you. I feel, it really cuts down on a lot of effort while you’re trying to make a strong application and saved a lot of my time.”

As for the topic, it was something that I got interested in early during my master’s at QMUL. During one of my lectures, an off-topic comment by one of my professors made me curious about diversity in international arbitration.

As an Indian lawyer, I had already assumed that first, the presence of diverse arbitration practitioners (in terms of gender, race, age or nationality) would be good in London as the city itself was such a diverse place. Second, as international arbitration is ‘international’ there is bound to be better representation of lawyers from all parts of the world.

A deep research on these questions demolished both these assumptions.

Then I spent the next ten months or so speaking to professionals about this topic. I did some informal interviews, small scale empirical researches and finally narrowed down on my central thesis idea about the issue of diversity in international arbitration. As there was barely any concrete existing empirical research on this topic, all I could do was draw parallels with research in other areas of law and often from the field of business to try to understand how the lack of diversity has the potential to affect the arbitral process. Once I had defined the bounds of the diversity issue in international arbitration, I decided I wanted to delve deeper into the topic and fill the gap that currently exists in terms of empirical data. That’s how I came around to the idea of doing a Ph.D. on this topic.

“Once I had defined the bounds of the diversity issue in international arbitration, I decided I wanted to delve deeper into the topic and fill the gap that currently exists in terms of empirical data. That’s how I came around to the idea of doing a Ph.D. on this topic.”

Could you tell me a bit more about your PhD thesis? And any advice for law graduates who are interested in applying for a doctorate degree? 

My PhD thesis is still a work in progress. I am trying to understand how a lack of diversity affects the business of international arbitration. It’s an inter-disciplinary topic and will draw research from many areas outside of law-like social sciences and business.

Currently, I am also designing an empirical research model where the main aim is to collect diversity data in the international arbitration community based on gender, race/ethnicity/nationality and age. My research will also involve conducting a lot of interviews. Realistically, I will be spending a lot of time with spreadsheets and complicated data.

Of course, having said all of this, a Ph.D. is always a work in progress and might end up on an absolutely different tangent to where it started from. Let’s see where mine will go.

As far as giving any bits of advice are concerned, I will share one. Choose your topic wisely. You will live with it for years to come and will spend every waking moment, and sometimes even dream about it, either working on it or thinking about it. It better be a topic you enjoy and have a deep interest in.

“Choose your topic wisely. You will live with it for years to come and will spend every waking moment, and sometimes even dream about it, either working on it or thinking about it. It better be a topic you enjoy and have a deep interest in.”

Right now, I am extremely happy with my topic and the direction it’s going in. It helps in keeping me motivated and not feel any pressure. So, just make sure that your topic is of interest to you. Not something that’s popular or which others think should be researched on. It should be a reflection of your interests as it will become the centre of your universe for years to come.

Early days yet, but what does a typical day look like?

I received excellent advice from one of my professors here at NUS, that a Ph.D. should be treated as a full-time job. I took it to heart, and that’s how I look at it now. Though I am still trying to design and set my typical day, it usually begins early at around 7 am (I am most focused and productive in the first half of the day).

“I received excellent advice from one of my professors here at NUS, that a Ph.D. should be treated as a full-time job. I took it to heart, and that’s how I look at it now. “

I set a few big goals for the day and build my day around those goals. What I’ve realised is that as a Ph.D. scholar you will not have a set structure to your day like your LL.M., where you will need to attend classes, tutorials and cover a set number of readings. It’s very flexible, and your research will probably never end unless you don’t check yourself. Therefore, planning a schedule and being disciplined about it will be key.

After all the planning, I block the first half of my day into big chunks (with a few short breaks) where I do my work before lunch. As I’ve just begun my degree, I foresee deep-diving into a lot of research and spending a few months only reading. Then I take a two-hour break to absorb all the material and grab lunch, roam around the campus or wrap up on any pending miscellaneous tasks like emails, calls and so on. I go back to my readings in the second half for a few more hours.

Generally, I squeeze in a workout if my brain feels too saturated and then go back to reading for a few hours more before I call it a day. At NUS, all the first year Ph.Ds. have been allotted research spaces which is our own and one we often refer to as our “office” on the campus. It’s quite helpful to have these as then you can do uninterrupted work as per your convenience.

“At NUS, all the first year Ph.Ds. have been allotted research spaces which is our own and one we often refer to as our “office” on the campus.”

Then I head home and cook myself some food (one can never get over Indian food, no matter how many years you spend abroad), only to crash soon to begin an early day the next morning.

These are not the days when I have classes or other research tasks to complete. Here at NUS, the research community is vibrant and very active and invites all the doctoral students to research workshops where doctoral candidates as well as faculty present their research and seek comments.

Honestly, I find this exercise the best way to expand one’s mind to learn about research in other fields and share research ideas.

Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who may be considering studying outside the country? 

I do not consider myself any authority to give any advice as my own journey has been a trial and error exercise. I will try to share my opinions based on my experiences (albeit, limited and individualistic experiences).

Please do not look at a degree abroad as a magic portal to a job. That, in my opinion, is a flawed assumption and will only lead to disappointments. Also, undertaking an expensive degree (if one doesn’t obtain a scholarship) and spending so much time and energy should never be seen as a means to an end. The end being a short-term goal like a high paying job in a foreign country or even your own.

Think long term.

Think in terms of how studying in an international university will add to your skillset and make you a better lawyer. Think in terms of how interacting with people from all over the world will add to your personality, maybe make you a better communicator but most importantly, add a whole new dimension to your understanding of people and cultures.

A degree abroad should not be seen as a fall-back option if you don’t find a job you like or want to continue being a student for some reason. Rather, look at it as a life-altering decision that has the potential to completely change who you are as a person and often, shake up your core belief systems.

Look at a degree abroad as a long-term investment in yourself. It might or might have no short-term returns, but if you’re mindful of making the most out of your degree, it will most certainly yield a very high long-term return.

“Look at a degree abroad as a long-term investment in yourself. It might or might have no short-term returns, but if you’re mindful of making the most out of your degree, it will most certainly yield a very high long-term return.”

Finally, be mindful of the course and the university you choose. In India, we have been taught that brand names open up a lot of new possibilities, which is sometimes right. But be wary of this thinking while choosing your degree abroad. Go beyond the brand names.

Make your choices based on- first, where your interests lie. Second, the quality of the courses and the professors in addition to the methodology of teaching. Some universities abroad are known for specific programs and might be better choices over other better “ranked” universities — lastly, the alumni network and reputation of the university. Often, I have made choices based not on the status of institutions or their brand value but their value addition to what I want to do. Not once have I regretted these choices.

“Often, I have made choices based not on the status of institutions or their brand value but their value addition to what I want to do. Not once have I regretted these choices.”

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