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.
Debadatta Bose is currently a PhD scholar at the University of Amsterdam. A graduate of DSNLU, Vishakapatnam (’18), Debadutta chose to immediately enrol for the LL.M. programme at the Erasmus School of Law. In this FPA, he shares his thoughts on academia and research, applying for a PhD in Europe, and studying outside the country.
At what stage of your time as an undergraduate student did you start thinking about an LLM? When did you start the application process, and how did you go about selecting just where to apply?
I was clear about joining academia even before I actually decided to pursue law, so knowing that I would apply for an LL.M. was an easy process. However, if the question had been when I started thinking about doing an LL.M. abroad, that would be my second year, when my interest in international law started growing.
Before that, I was unsure of whether to pursue an LL.M. in India or abroad, which continued till I finalised on Erasmus. I think it is okay to be confused (within reasonable limits) and keep options open, but only if one does not lose track of their ultimate goal.
“I think it is okay to be confused (within reasonable limits) and keep options open, but only if one does not lose track of their ultimate goal.”
The application process began from early-2017 when I also sat down to see what scholarships are available in what universities. My statement of purpose went through numerous iterations, and changed completely from application to application. For example, the statement of purpose that I sent to Erasmus (sent in May 2018) stated completely different reasons for that choice and contained a completely different personal introduction than the one I sent to NYU (sent in November 2017). Both applications were successful.
Selecting where to apply was motivated by two factors: where are the leading academics in international law based in, and what geographical locations have an advantage so as to pursue opportunities in international law. This was, of course, coupled with the fact that I had to see which universities offered financial aid.
“Selecting where to apply was motivated by two factors: where are the leading academics in international law based in, and what geographical locations have an advantage so as to pursue opportunities in international law. “
Erasmus University is an interesting choice for an LLM – what got you to narrow down on this University?
Narrowing down on this university was based mostly on the above mentioned criteria of the presence of leading academics and geographical advantage. Rotterdam and The Hague is one metropolitan area, and is connected by metro, and was therefore an excellent choice to be based in if I wanted to pursue international law.
After all, taking the metro to the ICJ to see cases and use their library on a weekly basis is a privilege not many can have while pursuing their LL.M.! I could also be present in the court hall to hear the judgment of the Kulbhushan Jadhav case being pronounced.
“After all, taking the metro to the ICJ to see cases and use their library on a weekly basis is a privilege not many can have while pursuing their LL.M.! I could also be present in the court hall to hear the judgment of the Kulbhushan Jadhav case being pronounced.”
Then there was the additional factor of the Netherlands being a small country with excellent academics in international law in all universities. So although I chose Erasmus, I was taught by people from beyond Erasmus, like the Asser Institute at The Hague and the University of Amsterdam. I cannot name one course where we had only teachers from our university teaching us. I was aware of this advantage of a close-knit academic community in a small country and I was not disappointed.
I only applied to Erasmus in the Netherlands, and this was motivated by the fact that I ideologically lean towards critical legal studies in international law, which also constitutes the identity of the University of Amsterdam and Erasmus University Rotterdam. For example, Leiden is rather famous for following a classical school of thought in international law, and my choice would be different if I identified differently. The choice was made easy by the location.
Any advice on the application process itself?
I would say the application process becomes much easier when you can identify ideologically with a university. It becomes easier to justify your choice, it becomes easier to convey your motivation and it becomes easier for the university to select you.
First and foremost I would suggest that if one is interested in a subject, they may see the most cited papers on Google Scholar or SSRN and where the authors come from. SSRN has a list of international (non-US) law schools and US law schools by citation and paper interest which is a good resource to start with.
If you can identify a person and his/her research in the motivation letter, saying “I choose X university because the research from Y inspired me to do Z” then it makes a huge positive impact on the application. One can find general pieces of advice on writing motivation letters anywhere, saying, ‘all motivation letters should be different’ and you should ‘get them proofread’ but this is one piece of advice that really works to make the motivation letter actually quite different. It shows your effort in a few seconds.
“If you can identify a person and his/her research in the motivation letter, saying “I choose X university because the research from Y inspired me to do Z” then it makes a huge positive impact on the application.”
Did you apply for/receive financial aid of any kind?
I did not apply for financial aid of any kind at Erasmus. My LL.M. was financed by a soft loan to me from my family which I have to repay.
This is not to say that there is no financial aid available. Most Dutch universities have a financial aid programme and it is better to check the university website for the same as it changes year by year depending on the funding the university receives. However, then one has to apply much earlier than when I sent in my application in May.
I applied for, and did receive significant funding from some universities which I chose not to enrol in as Erasmus was my top choice.
How was the LLM experience? If you had to choose, what would be some of the highlights of the course?
I think the LL.M. was indeed an ‘experience’ and not a ‘degree programme’. Dutch academia works in a very different way from Indian academia. While there are upsides and downsides to both, in general, academics is really serious business in The Netherlands and you cannot just show up to class unprepared. You will be expected to contribute to the class discussion where even teachers expect to learn something new from your personal insight.
“You will be expected to contribute to the class discussion where even teachers expect to learn something new from your personal insight.”
I would say that the highlight of the course was the focus on independent critical thinking. For each article we read we were often asked, “Can you identify the biases and broad assumptions that the author had while writing this article?” and sometimes it was an article written by the person taking the class. In one such session, when no one could identify a bias, the professor said, “That means all of you have a pretty favourable bias towards lawyers; this article seems neutral but does not state why the author thinks lawyers have a monopoly on solving social problems”. This is a small example to demonstrate how each class nudged us to self-reflect, identify our own biases and think independently of what we were reading.
The other major highlight was the international group of both peers and teachers who provided excellent insights of how their own legal systems and country positions fared against the law being discussed. The student group was a small one of about 25 people and was extremely well-knit so that we had feedback from peers on every single assignment and individual opinion was valued the most. The focus was “criticise, criticise, criticise, but constructively” and this was even expected in examinations where our own independent reasoned criticism held much more value than just writing what the literature said.
“The focus was “criticise, criticise, criticise, but constructively” and this was even expected in examinations where our own independent reasoned criticism held much more value than just writing what the literature said.”
I am presuming that you started researching on PhD options during your time as an LLM student? Again, how did you go about selecting just where to apply?
Yes, I started looking for PhD positions during my time as an LL.M. student but had a rough idea of where I may fit well from the time of my LL.M. applications. I got the opportunity to interact with leading experts in international law through conferences and got to know them better.
The application process in continental Europe works a bit differently than in other parts of the world like USA, UK or Australia, for example. A PhD candidate is a full-time employee of the university (other than self-funded external PhDs), and in the case of (only) the University of Amsterdam, they are Dutch civil servants due to the special legal status of the UvA. Therefore, one can apply only if vacancies are advertised.
“A PhD candidate is a full-time employee of the university (other than self-funded external PhDs), and in the case of (only) the University of Amsterdam, they are Dutch civil servants due to the special legal status of the UvA. Therefore, one can apply only if vacancies are advertised.”
The PhD application process, apart from the standard application package, also requires a letter of support from a prospective supervisor about the quality of research and how it fits with the research goals of the university. This is then followed by academic screening, committee interviews and HR interviews (or screening) after which one is appointed to a probationary position of one year, extendable to another three years after satisfactory performance. This is because the PhD candidate receives fringe benefits similar to full professors and the cost of hiring has to be justified to the board of the university.
As can be understood, only a select few applications are possible under this procedure. I made about three applications in continental Europe and was in the process of sending in another one when I got appointed at the UvA. Selecting where to apply was an easy choice because most PhD positions are exclusionary by means of specifying a narrow research topic, e.g. “Doctoral position on how international sanctions are implemented in the law of Anglo-Saxon countries” which is then coupled with a really elaborate research description within which the PhD has to fit.
The position I applied for was really narrow as well, and my research was within the framework provided (which had to be discussed with the professors at UvA before the application). Knowing where to apply is therefore more straightforward than it seems.
Early days I know, but what is your take on research and academia in Indian law schools as compared to international law schools?
From what I understand at this point of time, there is a stark difference between the research culture in India and abroad but the difference is significantly less in teaching. Teaching is taken seriously in Indian academia but research, well, not so much.
The first noticeable difference is the preference of quality over quantity.
Even undergraduate students here do not have regular classes, which gives time for them to study the reading material and develop their own understanding before the material is discussed in class. The level of teaching is similar otherwise, but the method of teaching is not.
One more point I feel I should mention is that Indian academia is usually averse to cutting-edge legal developments being taught in class, which is not the case abroad. A legal document published a week ago may not be studied in detail in class in India, but that is not so much the case here.
The same goes for research and publications: quality over quantity. People are more interested in what you have published and how much its impact is rather than how many articles you have published. More importance is given in sharing of ideas and peer review here even at the stage of idea formation.
“People are more interested in what you have published and how much its impact is rather than how many articles you have published. “
At the UvA, we have bi-weekly seminars where anyone who wishes to publish can pitch their ideas at whatever stage of research they are in to receive feedback from the entire department that will be attending.
There is a lot of focus on methodology, objectivity and feedback here in research: the part that most of Indian research culture lacks. I think, again, there is an ideological difference in research between research in India and abroad: the former aims for a ‘good publication’ and the latter aims at a ‘contribution to knowledge’. Surely this generalisation cannot be universal though, as I cite many really good new Indian academics who are equal, if not better, than their European counterparts.
So while Indian students are not missing out too much on the teaching front, I think the research culture has a lot of potential to develop. Nonetheless, nothing can be generalised to the point of saying one is better than the other: both have to be understood in context.
There will obviously be constraints in Indian academia due to lack of resources as there is only so much that the brilliant Indian academics can do without funding. Most NLU budgets are about 20-40 crore INR per year, compared to about 850 million euros (6,700 crore INR) for the University of Amsterdam, both being public universities.
Lastly, any advice for Indian law graduates who are considering a master’s (and possibly a doctorate degree) abroad?
I would say if you are thinking of a master’s degree abroad: go for it. It is an experience in itself and will teach you a lot of different things other than law. While I pursued a master out of academic interest, you can also pursue a master out of professional interest and that is totally fine.
However, research well on the qualifications to become a foreign lawyer in that country beforehand. If pursuing a master for professional reasons, it is best to choose a Commonwealth country as the license to practice in India may not be recognised in the host country in most cases.
Nonetheless, I cannot emphasise this enough: an LL.M. is not the gateway to getting a job on a platter.
For those who wish to pursue doctorates, I would say you really need to have some dedication towards a cause to consider a doctorate from abroad, not for any other reasons. Networking with professors may come in handy to know about vacancies that may come up and start preparing your application beforehand.