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

Rupavardhini B R, LLM at Harvard Law School
Rupavardhini B R

Rupavardhini B.R., a Deputy Director in the Indian Audit and Accounts Service, completed an LL.M. from Harvard Law School in 2018 as a Fulbright scholar.

Graduating from NUJS in 2010, Rupavardhini enrolled for the master’s course after close to half a decade in the civil services.

In this FPA, she discusses the Fulbright Nehru application, the Harvard Law School experience, and a lot more.

What got you thinking about a master’s course once you had joined the IAAS? Was a master’s you had always wanted to do even as undergraduate law student?

After spending a few years in the Indian Audit and Accounts Service, I found myself wanting to work in specific areas like gender and environmental policy.

These were the subjects I had been interested in right from my days in NUJS. It seemed like the right time to go back to an academic environment and specialize. The idea was to gain some exposure, domain knowledge, and come back to work further in those fields within the government.

“The idea was to gain some exposure, domain knowledge, and come back to work further in those fields within the government.”

The civil services are still fairly a generalist’s domain but I hoped a masters would allow more opportunities for me to work in specific areas. An LLM felt like a better fit with my law degree rather than a public policy course.

I had always wanted to pursue a Masters even from my undergraduate days especially after hearing about the experience from my seniors. But the timing of it was vague as I was more focused on the civil services exam after graduation. I don’t think I actively worked on the goal while at law school. It was only after entering the civil services that I started seriously thinking of applying.

You attended HLS as a Fulbright scholar – can you tell me a bit about how you went about the scholarship application process? Any advice for prospective applicants?

The Fulbright Nehru Masters Fellowship on which I attended HLS is a two-stage process. There is a written application which one submits online and is usually announced in February each year. It asks for the study objectives, a personal statement, future plans, apart from a few questions designed to offer more insight into your personality and motivations. The shortlisted candidates are called for an interview at the USIEF office in Delhi.

The Fulbright is one of the earliest scholarship applications and the process starts a year and a half before the course starts. So for 2021 masters course entry, the scholarship is announced in 2020. It is important to plan ahead and get the application materials ready well in advance. The USIEF also holds events at various cities offering information and helpful advice about applying. So it is a good idea to check in with the local Fulbright chapter or check their website for events in other cities.

“The Fulbright is one of the earliest scholarship applications and the process starts a year and a half before the course starts. So for 2021 masters course entry, the scholarship is announced in 2020. “

In my opinion what the Fulbright and most other scholarships are looking for are candidates with a clarity of purpose. It is important for applicants to clearly state why they are applying for a masters, why they have chosen a particular area of specialization and how it fits in with the work they have done in the past and more importantly how it ties in with their future career plans.

Having strong recommendations is essential for a successful application, both for an LLM and scholarships. I would advise anyone thinking about a masters to get in touch with professors in time. The Fulbright and many other scholarships require work experience. So a professional recommendation would be as important as an academic one. Approach people who know your work well and can give anecdotal evidence of academic and professional attributes rather than someone who is likely to write a generic reference because they are not well acquainted with your work.

“Approach people who know your work well and can give anecdotal evidence of academic and professional attributes rather than someone who is likely to write a generic reference because they are not well acquainted with your work.”

While most other scholarships expect the candidate to have independently applied to the masters programs and to have appeared for other necessary tests like the TOEFL, the Fulbright stands out because on selection, the entire application process is paid for and facilitated by USIEF. This is a huge relief as one can then just focus on the LLM application without the stress of arranging funding.

How did you go about selecting just where to apply? Did you ever consider a specialised LLM directly connected to your work at the IAAS?

Since I had secured the Fulbright fellowship, I received a lot of guidance from IIE (the organization which handles the admissions process for the Fulbright scholars in the US) on University selection. A Fulbright scholar can apply to four universities and the IIE provides inputs on Universities which would be best suited to the candidate’s profile and area of interest.

I narrowed in on Harvard, Columbia, Stanford and NYU based on the mix of courses on offer, the overall quality of the campus experience, and the diverse cohort. I suppose if I hadn’t received the Fulbright award I would have applied to a few more Universities.

Most of the courses I did at Harvard were directly connected to my work in the IA&AS. We do a lot of work in the area of environmental audit and sustainable development and the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India has a specialized international centre (iCED) that engages in research in the area.

I also took courses in other schools at Harvard on a range of topics like public policy, entrepreneurial solutions to problems in developing countries etc. as the chance to learn about diverse issues was important to me. I feel the exposure across disciplines and the interaction with professional across fields that a masters offers is as important to a civil servant as subject matter specialization would be.

“I feel the exposure across disciplines and the interaction with professional across fields that a masters offers is as important to a civil servant as subject matter specialization would be.”

Also curious to know how easy or difficult was it to get the requisite permissions to enrol for the LLM – anything that future applicants from the civil services ought to keep in mind?

Apart from a few initial hiccups with getting the requisite permissions, I did not face too many issues with it and my department was generally supportive. My boss at the time and my former Director at the National Academy of Audit and Accounts where I had trained, happily wrote recommendations for me and helped me out at every stage of the process.

While in general most departments are fairly supportive of officers pursuing higher studies, the process of getting the permissions on paper could take longer than anticipated. So it is necessary to start the process at work well ahead of the application deadlines.

Many scholarships require a clearance or endorsement in the form of a NOC from the employer. So not getting the paperwork processed on time could lead to missing out on scholarship opportunities.

Am sure you get asked this all the time, but when it came to the HLS essay questions – how did you approach the personal statement part of the written requirements?

The personal statement should have a clear narrative of how prior study, work and life experiences have motivated the applicant to pursue the masters and the career path they envision after that. As the term indicates, it should give a picture of the individual journey so far and how one has arrived at the particular stage in one’s life and career and how the LLM experience would facilitate one’s future plans.

“As the term indicates, [the personal statement] should give a picture of the individual journey so far and how one has arrived at the particular stage in one’s life and career and how the LLM experience would facilitate one’s future plans.”

The other part to it is the essay which asks the candidate to identify a problem and the lacunae in the law or policy relating to it and propose solutions. It is helpful to narrow down on a specific problem rather than a generic and wide ranging issue so that one can suggest feasible legal or policy solution to tackle it.

For example, I had identified inadequate incorporation of gender concerns in environmental programs in India as a problem and proposed solutions at the policy formulation, implementation, and evaluation stages. This tied in with my primary areas of interest in gender and law, and environmental law. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions.

I think the aim is to assess whether the candidate has the capacity of critical analysis and the ability to coherently write on a legal issue.

Looking back, what were some of the most valuable components of the LLM experience? Are there any skills gathered during the LLM that you now find yourself using in your professional life?

I think the most valuable part was the chance to meet people from across the world. Apart from the friendships I formed, it has been wonderful having a network of people whom I can contact for professional input and support.

Being a Fulbright scholar also gave me the chance to meet people from other professions. I have been consistently turning to the friends I made there. From getting brilliant people to lecture as guest faculty for my courses at the National Academy of Audit and Accounts to putting me in touch with the right people for work related queries, I have found the LLM experience has widened the range resources available for me to use for my work.

“Being a Fulbright scholar also gave me the chance to meet people from other professions. I have been consistently turning to the friends I made there.”

Attending lectures by eminent personalities from various fields was also exciting. Meeting the people whose books one had read and relied upon professionally was a great experience. One becomes better at presenting work and speaking in public by listening to such speakers. My research skills are also much better after the LLM.

Lastly, anything you would like to tell the Indian law graduate who may be considering a master’s abroad?

The biggest caveat I would like to offer is to be realistic about what you expect from a masters in terms of placements. While the experience is invaluable and definitely improves work prospects, it is also expensive without a scholarship. The experience with job seeking is not the same across the board, even in very reputed universities.

So, try and envision what you want to do after the masters and speak to people working in the same area who have done their masters abroad. This will help in making an informed decision about whether to invest in a study loan.

“Try and envision what you want to do after the masters and speak to people working in the same area who have done their masters abroad. “

For those wanting to pursue their masters in the US, getting the documentation in place for the New York bar exam has to begin early. Most universities have good resources for students appearing for the Bar.

But one has to plan ahead.

 


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