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.
Earlier this year, Ayesha Mohanty completed the LLM in National Security Law from Georgetown University Law Centre. In this FPA, she talks about her interest in working at the grassroots, her time as a law student at Indraprastha University, the LLM experience itself, and a whole lot more.
I will come to the LLM in a bit, but as an undergraduate student at Guru Gobind, you managed to do an incredibly diverse set of extracurriculars, with quite a few connected to the UN. Was this something you consciously worked towards, or things just fell into place?
This journey began way before my undergraduate course or even before I decided to study law. Growing up in two different cities in India, Bhubaneswar and New Delhi, and receiving my primary education in a Catholic school, I was exposed to different perspectives and became deeply aware of the challenges in society.
This became a catalyst to contribute meaningfully to addressing societal issues.
As I became more conscious of the inequalities that exist while also recognizing my own privileges, I felt compelled to make a difference in the best way I could. Grassroots organizations became my avenue for being an ally and actively engaging in issues I was passionate about, be it mental health, gender equality, or peacebuilding.
This drive to contribute was something that I carried with me even during high school. Interestingly, many of the UN-affiliated organizations I aspired to work with during high school had age limits that I didn’t meet at the time.
Nevertheless, I made a mental note of these organizations, their community engagements (direct vs. indirect), and the kind of impact they were making. As I progressed through my undergraduate course, I actively sought out opportunities to apply for positions within these organizations when vacancies arose. Fortunately, I was selected for some of these roles.
However, my motivation stemmed from the realization that the laws I was studying in the classroom were not abstract concepts detached from the real world. They had a direct impact on the communities I was serving. When faced with challenges in areas I was passionate about, I asked myself, “As an individual, how can I do more?” This question was the driving force behind my involvement in a diverse range of extracurricular activities.
How early on as an undergraduate law student did you begin thinking about an LLM? What were some of the expectations you had from the LLM experience?
While I had decided that I wanted to do an LLM from the first year, this was still wishful thinking. It wasn’t until my third year, as I began to select elective courses and engage in interesting research projects supporting organizations like Ara Trust and the Center for Communication Governance, that the idea of pursuing an LLM became more concrete.
During this time, I started to consciously lean towards the decision to pursue my LLM immediately after completing my undergraduate degree, rather than waiting for a few years to gain professional experience.
In terms of my expectations, several factors weighed on my mind.
Firstly, I sought a university that offered specialization programs that were unconventional and allowed for some degree of flexibility in course selection. Secondly, I valued a faculty composed of academicians, policymakers and industry professionals. Thirdly, institutional values were significant – I wanted an institute that was actively engaged on social issues and demonstrated meaningful commitment. Fourthly, diversity in the student body, not just amongst the LLM students but also a diverse JD program.
Given that LLM programs often attract international students, I believed it would be enriching to study alongside a diverse group of JD students from various backgrounds.
Fifth, I wanted the ideal school to be situated in a city like New Delhi – a vibrant urban city with diverse crowd, good pace of life and where there is an intersection of policy, private sector and research. This way, I could meet with people beyond LLM programs and understand the legal landscape.
When did you begin the application process, and what was the most time-consuming aspect of the entire process? In other words, what should prospective LLM applicants keep in mind when it comes to applications and time management?
I started making conscious efforts towards my application the summer before my final year of undergraduate law school. The most strenuous part of the application process is drafting the Statement of Purpose – which has to be reflective of your motivations and achievements but also emphasizes why you are choosing a particular course or school.
In hindsight, I wish I had started to work way earlier on my SOPs as you need to constantly revisit them and prepare a new SOP for each university.
For prospective university students applying straight from law school, striking a balance between university commitments, final year internships and thesis papers can be challenging. Yet, applications such as Notion or Evernote can be helpful.
Personally, I tend to be very methodical in my approach. I would prepare an Excel sheet of the university I was interested in applying to, the status of my Statement of Purpose (SOP), which professors I intended to request Letter of Recommendations from and what stage I was at in the application process.
[In terms of steps, I would say these would be:]
- Understanding your law school and your motivations: When advising my friends who are in the process of applying, I always emphasize the importance of truly understanding the schools they are considering. Going that extra mile to know what the things you are looking at – whether the courses, faculty members, diversity of the student body, post LLM job prospects or perhaps a childhood dream to study at renowned institution. Every single factor that inspires and motivates you is important, and balancing these interests can help provide clarity in the decision making process.
- Complete all pre-application checklist before September: The period between September – November is quite hectic, so having all your documents ready can significantly ease the burden for you.
- Revisit Resume and SOP for every school you apply – Customizing your resume and Statement of Purpose (SOP) for each school you apply to is a critical step in the application process. Certain elements of your background, like coursework completed during your undergraduate studies or participation in summer school programs, may hold particular relevance to specific universities. Emphasizing these experiences in your application documents is essential. Generally, your resume should be 1-2 pages in length.
- Finally, surround yourself with friends and family who can really support you in this journey and general well-being. It can be a very challenging and stressful period, but having a great support system and taking breaks helps you to visit the SOPs and all application related documents with fresh perspective every time.
Were you always contemplating a specialized LLM? Which schools did you end up shortlisting, and what got you to narrow down on Georgetown?
While supporting the Center for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi, I developed a keen interest in topics related to national security and technology. This was also during the time when the Personal Data Protection Bill was tabled and there was a lack of consensus on the ‘interests of the state’ vis-a- vis the interests of the people.
Gradually, I delved deeper into this subject and engaged in discussions on international politics with my father, it became increasingly evident to me how national security interests often served as a source of conflict between states. I also observed a shift in focus from traditional notions of military might to non-traditional domains such as gender, cyber issues, and economics in the realm of global interests.
Georgetown University, perfectly aligned and covered all the expectations I had from an LLM program. It boasts the best national security program in the world. Additionally, being located in DC and studying at the political capital of the world, when global interests were undergoing significant transitions– nothing better could I asked for.
While I did consider few other schools, Georgetown was always the first on the list. There was no place I would have rather been than here!
It has not been too long since you completed the LLM, but what have been some of the most rewarding aspects of the GULC LLM? And some of the most challenging?
To say that I had just a single most rewarding experience would be an understatement. Every experience and aspect of my program was unique and rewarding in its own special way.
However, if I must pick one, it would be gaining incredible life-long friends who I always was inspired by.
Within the national security cohort, I studied alongside brilliant woman and non-binary members whose experiences and careers far outlived my life. These were congressional officers, US Army, Marine Corps and Navy Judge Advocate Generals (JAGs) who had served their countries in different parts of the world, policymakers who drafted first technology-related legislations, represented their governments and states at international bodies and diplomats of different nations.
In a world where these spaces are often representative of only a few, it was refreshing to just break bread and share perspectives on anything and everything.
As the youngest person in the room with these incredible individuals, there were also moments of doubt and feelings of impostor syndrome would kick in. However, as the program progressed and I gained a foothold of the subject-matter, I was able to actively contribute to many classes and it really helped my self-confidence.
Lastly, any advice for the Indian law graduate who is considering a master’s abroad?
First, during the initial two years of your legal studies, aim to gain practical experience in various legal settings, such as litigation, law firms, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). By doing so, you’ll get a clearer understanding of your strengths and interests within the legal field.
As you progress into your third year, it’s wise to start narrowing your focus on a specific area of law that you can envision yourself practicing for the long haul, possibly over the next two to three decades. This focused approach will enable you to align your academic coursework, work experiences, and extracurricular activities.
When it’s time to apply for your LLM, you’ll likely find that you’ve already built a strong foundation and won’t need to go to extraordinary lengths solely for the sake of pursuing a master’s degree.
Secondly, during the pre-application phase, I would strongly advise revisiting and revising your Statement of Purpose (SOP) on a regular basis. This proactive approach, even if it involves making minor edits such as punctuation changes, can have a significant impact.
I recall my own experience of writing my SOP for Georgetown University just three hours before the application deadline. However, the continuous process of drafting and refining SOPs was instrumental in helping me clarify my motivations and aspirations. It was through countless iterations, with some drafts never seeing the light of day, that I was able to present a compelling case for my admission to my dream university.
Thirdly, it’s essential to understand that while having professional work experience can be advantageous, it’s not an absolute requirement for pursuing an LLM. While some LLM programs may prefer applicants with a year or two of work experience, not having it doesn’t necessarily put you at a disadvantage compared to peers with professional backgrounds.
Academic excellence and professional experience are distinct factors, each contributing to an individual’s qualifications in its unique way. The relevance and importance of these factors can vary depending on the specific area of legal practice.
Lastly, believe in yourself throughout this journey. From the pre-application phase to the selection process and even after enrolling as a student, you may encounter moments of doubt and uncertainty. However, if you have faith in your own capabilities and recognize that each person has a unique mission of their own, you will navigate this path successfully.