Heather Katharine Allansdottir

Doctoral studies in law changed the course of my personal and professional life, and can be an immensely rewarding and intellectually fulfilling path for a law student to take. I completed my doctorate from the Law Faculty of the University of Oxford in 2016, and have gone on to do post-doctoral fellowships and hold faculty positions in a number of other law faculties across the world.

I’d recommend that every law student currently undertaking an LLB at least seriously consider and weigh the pros and cons of pursuing doctoral studies in law. If you’re in an American-style system and doing a Juris Doctor as a second, graduate-level degree the question is a little different (and the American-style SJD may be more appropriate) as a Juris Doctor is technically a kind of doctorate.

So, the advice below is focused on current and recently-graduated LLB students and LLM students.

Doctoral studies are not a vocational qualification – a PhD is a chance for intellectual exploration and to make a significant contribution to the academic debates in your field. A PhD in law is a chance, perhaps a unique chance, to carve out a place for yourself as a singular expert on one specific aspect of law. It is a wonderful chance to expand upon and explore one of the aspects of law you will have covered during your LLB, from maritime law to intellectual property law, and anchor yourself in the vast array of debates and academic discussions within that field.

Choosing a supervisor who both has expertise in the field in which you wish to produce your doctoral studies, and who is supportive of your project, is a crucial part of beginning your PhD journey. It pays to take the time to choose a supervisor whose own area of expertise and interests overlaps significantly with your own project, and also has the time and willingness to provide you with genuine support and mentorship.

I personally believe this element is even more important to success as a doctoral candidate in legal studies than which university you obtain the degree from – a positive relationship with a doctoral supervisor is of paramount importance.

With your supervisor, devise a plan for how you will implement and then write up your research. Each thesis is unique and the process required in producing it similarly varies with each endeavour but some overall steps apply to all doctoral project: the literature review an thoroughly anchoring yourself in the scholarly debates in your field including those who have come before you who have different perspectives on the topic you are studying, an empirical – whether qualitative or quantitative – direct original research, and writing up your findings and contextualisiing them within the broader scholarly field.

It can be immensely rewarding to feel you have contributed to the academic discussions and debates on law – law is a live field, it threads itself into all aspects of all of our lives, so feeling that you have contributed to its development, that you are part of a long tradition from Aristotle to Martha Nussbaum, of thinkers engaging with and developing what law should be and what justice means, is an incredibly valuable experience. Academic scholarship on the law feeds into the practice and understanding of the law.

On a more practical level, although a doctorate in law is not a vocational qualification, completing a PhD from a law faculty can stand you in good stead in your career in law even if you do not intend to continue thereafter in a career in legal academia. The legal profession, for both solicitors and barristers, is increasingly specialized and hyper-focused; having a PhD in one particular area of law will help you to stand out to clients as the go-to lawyer for cases in this field.

A PhD in law can also help open doors to other areas of law not covered in depth during an LLB, for instance a PhD in public international law could facilitate internships and placements at ICC, ICJ and other supranational courts.

A PhD is a challenging endeavour, and undertaking one requires both stamina and discipline, and the ability to ‘think big’ and work diligently to enact a large-scale idea. But it is both an extremely rewarding experience in and of itself, and could be the golden ticket to a very successful career in either legal academia or the practice of law

(Find out more about Heather in this interview we published earlier this year)