Dhvani Mehta has been on the list of people-I-must-speak-to for a while now. For many reasons. One, she is a Rhodes scholar. Two, she is one of the founding members of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, a think-tank that has really pushed policy work as a viable career option for Indian law grads.
Three, it is high time that academy and research is given more attention, and information on academic careers be made more accessible.
In the first part of the interview, I get Dhvani to discuss her own experiences at Oxford University as a BCL student, an MPhil and then a DPhil. She also talks about, what I consider, the lesser known facts of research.
Without further digression, the first part of the two-part interview:
So, I know you always wanted to study outside the country. Why?
Primarily just for the experience of living in another country and also, perhaps, having the chance to be tested intellectually in a way that I wasn’t at [Government Law College Mumbai]. I am not saying that I had a bad legal education – there were several things that were very interesting and informative about [GLC]. It gave me a lot of opportunities to do other kinds of non-academic activities that I may not have had the chance to do if I was in a fully residential 5-year law school.
Having said that, I did not have the chance to do any proper legal research in college or do any serious legal writing. So, one of the reasons why I wanted to do an LLM abroad was to see if I would match up to that kind of environment.
I wanted to see what it meant to really think in a rigorous way and be taught by people who weren’t really interested in seeing what the right answer to a multiple-choice question was.
[I wanted] to see what it meant to really think in a rigorous way and be taught by people who weren’t really interested in seeing what the right answer to a multiple-choice question was. [People] who make you think more about what the law should be and not what it was. I had a vague idea that’s what an LLM abroad would equip me with.
Do you think you were right?
Yes, I would think so. In going to Oxford, my expectations from the BCL were definitely matched and then some. It was one of the most exciting courses that I did. It was unlike any style of teaching or examination taking that I had ever been used to.
When you mean teaching style, are you talking about seminars?
Yes. The seminar style of teaching meant you had to do a lot of reading before class. I was taken aback in the first few weeks to know that my classmates had detailed notes on everything they had read [before they came to class]
Oxford also has this tutorial system where you write an essay and discuss that one on one or in a group of three: you, a fellow student and the professor. You have the chance to critique the other person’s work, hear critique of your own work, defend it, conceive some points and get some very detailed feedback on your writing and thinking.
You stuck around at Oxford for quite a while. Any surprises along the way?
After the BCL, I was in for a general shock as far as coping with what writing a thesis or doing a research degree meant. I did not have a very clear idea of what that would entail at all.
I would say that perhaps Oxford does not do the best job of orienting its research students about what it is really going to be like doing an MPhil or a DPhil.
And what is it really going to be like?
It is going to be lonely. It is going to involve a lot of self-motivation. Your experience is going to vary depending on the kind of supervisor you have. You are going to enjoy it only if you are really passionate about the subject you are researching. I think it is a lot about finding your own way.
How do you do that?
I suppose trial and error. Perhaps I was unduly harsh on Oxford [earlier]. Of course, we had a legal research methods course, and we had support groups for DPhil students – it helps but ultimately it is something that you have to figure out on your own. I had a very supportive supervisor, and I also had a good college advisor.
It always helped to generally talk about your woes with other DPhil students, so we would go discussion groups, everybody would moan about the stage in which their thesis was. Everyone would learn not to ask each other how their thesis was going.
We would go discussion groups, everybody would moan about the stage in which their thesis was. Everyone would learn not to ask each other how their thesis was going.
The mental health of PhD scholars is a serious issue.
I would say that there was a time when I was doing the DPhil that I was definitely depressed. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the DPhil or I was just generally fed up of spending a miserable winter in Oxford yet again.
Again, there is support from the university, there is counselling that you can go to. You can take a sabbatical. There are a lot of systems in place that allow you to find your own pace, but it is still hard.
Apart from your research, you also worked with Oxford Pro Bono Publico (OPBP)
OPBP provides legal research assistance to other NGOs who are pursuing human rights cases across the world or made submissions to parliamentary standing committees or other governmental bodies. We would help draft amicus briefs for lawyers, again, fighting human rights cases.
I won’t say I saw it as an escape from my thesis, but yes it helped having something different to do and something that had a more tangible outcome. You know with the DPhil, you can’t really see the end in sight and it is very frustrating to go to the library every day, sit there for eight hours, and have a hundred words to show for it. Which you will probably erase the next day.
What is a day in the life of a DPhil scholar?
It depends on what kind of thesis you are writing. If your thesis has empirical research or a fieldwork component, then you are not in Oxford for some time, and you are out there doing interviews or gathering data from archives or whatever.
But most legal theses are not like that, so you are just usually sitting in the library, making notes, substantiating your footnotes etc.
What drove you?
Getting the “Dr” prefix before your name. I couldn’t be a real doctor, so this seemed to be the best way to do that (smiles). No, but I suppose what drives you is that [a PhD] is the highest academic qualification that you can get. And to anyone who is somewhat nerdy, that is a good goal to have.
And like I said, for people who are really passionate about the subject matter that they are pursuing or have a real interest in an academic career, a PhD is basically sine qua non– you can’t advance without a PhD.
I suppose what drives you is that a PhD is the highest academic qualification that you can get. And to anyone who is somewhat nerdy, that is a good goal to have.