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 (an LLM or otherwise) from different universities across the world.
Subornadeep Bhattacharjee is a 2018 graduate of the National Law University and Judicial Academy in Assam, and former judicial clerk at the Calcutta High Court. In 2021, he enrolled for the the LLM at SOAS University of London. In this FPA, he shares his experiences of applying in the midst of a pandemic, the LLM experience thus far, some advice for prospective LLM applicants, and a whole lot more.
Were you considering a foreign LLM right after you finished your law degree? Or was this something you decided to take up after gaining some work experience?
Well, honestly speaking, I was ready to pursue an LL.M. as soon as I had completed my undergraduate studies in law in the summer of 2018.
Early in 2018, I was invited for the interview rounds of the Commonwealth Scholarship that year and I was in the process of applying to my short-listed universities in the United Kingdom.
However, three specific events delayed my plan. Firstly, my mentor, the late Prof. (Dr.) Shamnad Basheer, who I had the privilege of working with at IDIA, suggested that I pursue an LL.M. only after I had acquired some qualitative, post-qualification experience.
He opined that the Masters, post the work experience, would provide me with a much more nuanced take on the law, which would also delve into its praxis, and not merely the theory of law.
The second reason, and the more pressing reason, was the moment when my father was diagnosed with terminal illness. Everything (including the processes of applying to universities abroad) took a backseat from that moment on, up until, we as a family, successfully battled the disease head on.
It was during this tumultuous time, that I aligned myself to the idea of a judicial clerkship, in line with the advice rendered by Dr. Basheer.
Eventually, things fell into place; I succeeded in the clerkship exam that was conducted by the Calcutta High Court in 2019 and was assigned as a law clerk to the Mr. Justice Dipankar Datta, who is now the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court.
Eight months into the clerkship, when I again commenced with the process of applying to universities abroad, the tsunami that was the Covid pandemic, engulfed all of our lives. However, this time around, I completed the processes of applying to my shortlisted universities in its entirety.
And when you did start the application process, what were some of your expectations from the LLM experience?
As I’ve made it clear, I was raring to go when it came to pursuing my Masters.
But certain events, in hindsight, gave me more time to reflect on my choices. I was certain that public international law was my calling, and I’d specialise in it. I started preparing for my application towards (what now seems to be) the end of 2019, not knowing what awaited all of us in 2020!
All established notions of what I sought from my Masters experience had to be reconfigured purely because of the uncertainty arising out of the public health emergency.
My foremost consideration was if one of my shortlisted universities was going to provide me with a deferral, if my application was eventually selected by the Admissions Committee.
How did you go about shortlisting just where to apply? Why narrow down on SOAS?
It was an emotive but a straightforward experience when it came to short-listing my preferred universities. Once I had zeroed in on specialising in public international law, it was a two-way competition between the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and the Graduate Institute of International & Development Studies (Graduate Institute) in Geneva.
Both are excellent institutions, not only in terms of the faculty members and resources available at their disposal, but also in terms of locational advantages (Geneva and London) when one considers specialising in public international law. However, three specific factors, led me towards SOAS.
First, my guru, and the founder Vice-Chancellor of my alma mater at National Law University, Assam, the late Prof. (Dr.) Gurjeet Singh, had once made a very passionate request to me in my second year of law school; that when (and not if) I contemplated my options about pursuing a LL.M., I should opt for SOAS. In his opinion, alongside the excellent, academic eco-system which was widely known for positively disrupting ‘business as usual’ mindsets, SOAS was also an excellent institution where one ended up ‘forging personal bonds for a lifetime!’
His quote had a profound impact on me, and eventually, SOAS was right up there when it came to making my decision.
Second, SOAS is a niche institution, which specialises in teaching and exposing the subject of public international law from the perspective of the Third World (Third World Approaches to International Law or TWAIL, as it is referred to in academic literature).
It’s at the forefront of challenging the Eurocentric notion of the discipline and that was also a decisive factor in my decision making process.
Lastly, because SOAS is overtly focused on the needs of Asia, Africa and the Middle East and caters to the very realistic needs of students who largely hail from developing economies.
I can’t speak about other universities which might have done this, but the Admissions Office at SOAS had immediately offered students an option of deferring their offers without the stipulation of payment of the GBP 1,000 deposit, to confirm their acceptances of the offers that were on the table.
Faced with a climate of uncertainty because of the Covid pandemic, it ended up providing succour to a lot of students.
Any advice on how to go about the application process? Was there anything specific about the application process that you think prospective applicants ought to know about?
I chuckle as I write this, but I honestly hope that prospective applicants do not end up applying to their dream universities, in the backdrop of a (hopefully, what will remain to be a once in a century) pandemic.
However, I can suggest two crucial insights, that might prove to be helpful for applicants in the future:
First, please bear in mind that there are universities which do not charge you any non-refundable amounts for the application forms. For candidates from working class families with limited financing options, this is an element that is often overlooked.
Candidates have often crafted their list of preferred institutions which end up charging non-refundable amounts merely for applying, to various degrees, and applicants may, as a result, end up spending a small fortune, given the multiplier effect of applying to multiple institutions.
Instead, you can apply to institutions like SOAS and the Graduate Institute (which did not demand a single penny for applying to them) and you can save the amount for more, meaningful expenses in the future, in furtherance of your LL.M.
Second, please personalise your personal statement to a degree where your voice and identity is omnipresent. It is a daunting task, no doubt, to represent yourself meaningfully before the Admissions Committees in a few hundred words and that is exactly why, you need to get creative!
Please do not feel compelled to write a very ‘formulaic’ personal statement, based on sample statements that Google might offer you!
Be genuine and humane; that resonates with the Admissions Committee.
What have been some of the more rewarding aspects of the SOAS LLM experience? Any memory that you particularly cherish?
The most rewarding experience, in my opinion, has been how interdisciplinary SOAS is, in its teaching pedagogy. Off the 120 credits that are reserved for taught modules, 30 credits are at a candidate’s disposal to study any module being offered by any department at SOAS!
I’ve had my batchmates dabbling with many diverse modules from different departments – be it development studies, history, politics and international studies, etc.
I ended up opting for one such module from the department of politics and international studies and I was the only lawyer in the class!
The class offered me with a diverse range of perspectives on the issue of global energy and climate policy, with people from the energy sector, mining sector, public sector, construction sector, and banking sector providing their viewpoints on an issue which will prove to be the most defining issue of this century.
Having struggled with the challenges of Covid collectively, I cannot isolate any particular memory that I cherish but the manner in which we’ve had each other’s back, people who waltzed into the classroom as mere course-mates, are now, as Dr. Singh once famously remarked, my friends (at least) for this lifetime!
Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who is considering a master’s abroad?
Please ask yourself why you want to do the Master’s degree and be certain that you’re doing it for the right reasons.
For individuals who may be attracted to countries on the promise of a post-study work visa, as is the case with the UK with its Graduate Route, please bear in mind that it comes with its fair share of challenges, considering an extremely competitive economy, which is also plagued by the post pandemic recovery, high inflation, cost of living crises and the consequences of an invasion in East Europe.
As they say, the law does not operate in vacuum to societal realities; your decision to pursue a Master’s should also conform to the same dictum.