First Person Accounts: Sapna Reheem Shaila on an LLM from SOAS, academic careers & more

First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian law graduates who have pursued a masters course from schools across the world. One of the purposes of the FPA is to also provide greater insights into the world of academia, and how Indian law graduates who are interested in this field can use a master’s program to achieve their goals.

Law graduates who are academically inclined, and who have pursued higher education outside the country, are also interesting to speak to since they provide perspective on the state of Indian legal education, and Indian law schools.

Which is why I am particularly excited about this edition of the FPA.

Sapna Reheem Shaila

Sapna Reheem Shaila

Sapna Reheem Shaila completed her LLM at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Class of ’15), two years after finishing the BA LLB course from NALSAR University. Sapna also happens to be PhD candidate at Kings College London (KCL), as well as a Teaching Fellow at UCL, as well as a Visiting Lecturer at KCL.

At what point in time did you decide to do an LLM? Was it always the plan while you were an undergrad student at NALSAR, or was this something you decided to do after the stint at CCG?

I always planned to do an LLM as I thought it could help me to specialise in an area that fascinated me. This goal was reaffirmed after my exchange semester at Griffith University in the third year of my undergraduate degree.

The only doubts were about what would be my specialisation, which university and when?

How did you go about selecting your graduate school, and why did you narrow down on SOAS?

This is an interesting question, and I don’t think I have a straightforward answer for this. In my fifth year, NALSAR gave us the opportunity to pick courses that were interdisciplinary. I did Law and Anthropology; and Law and Subaltern studies. This opened up a  range of scholarly works I wasn’t familiar with until then. I remember discussing with my Constitutional Law professor about interdisciplinary LLM degrees.

She suggested I look into LSE’s MSc in Law, Society and Anthropology course or SOAS’s LLMs. I applied to both programmes and was accepted, but I couldn’t decide as to which college to pick.  That year I didn’t manage to get any full funding- which made the decision process easier, so I decided to wait it out and figure out what I wanted to do in the future.

That year in July, I started working at the Centre for Good Governance as a Legal Researcher. It was an exciting time to be based at the Centre in Hyderabad as the state of Andhra Pradesh was planning to bifurcate into Telangana and State of AP within a year. The Centre received a couple of exciting projects from the World Bank on land rights and public governance. I was involved with the teams working on these issues. Throughout that year, I remember looking at the governmental policies and development agendas and wondering what role law plays in all of this. After that experience, it made perfect sense to pursue SOAS’s LLM specialisation on Law, Development, and Governance.

I remember looking at the governmental policies and development agendas and wondering what role law plays in all of this. After that experience, it made perfect sense to pursue SOAS’s LLM specialisation on Law, Development, and Governance.

SOAS’s LLM provided various modules to study how international organisations assist countries in the Global South to undergo legislative reforms with promises of development or as part of rule of law reforms. Luckily that year it all worked out with the funding  as well from  SOAS.

How early did you start the application process, and was it difficult to do so while also balancing your work?

As I mentioned earlier, it was a reflective process over a year that helped me to develop a coherent statement of purpose for the LLM at  SOAS. 

Definitely having a clear plan and reasons as to why I was pursuing the specialised LLM made it easier to work on the application and convince the admission and funding committees.

Did you view the LLM as a step towards a doctorate degree? Or was this something you decided to do well into the LLM course?

Yes, I did see my LLM as the step towards a doctorate. Again, the topic for my doctorate became more evident after I finished writing my Master’s dissertation.

During my LLM I worked very hard to make sure that I had a Distinction for my degree so when I applied for a doctorate, I could get accepted by the supervisor I had in mind.

What were some of the most enjoyable moments of the LLM at SOAS?

SOAS was an amazing experience – if I could relive my Master’s again, I will do it all over- including the coursework! At SOAS  you meet students from across the globe. I made friends from  Fiji, Madagascar, East Timor, and so many other countries that were never on my radar!

It was also a humbling experience to realise how little I knew about the legal cultures, society, and politics of countries other than the UK, US, Canada or Australia. SOAS used to have regional music concerts every week in the common room – this was fun! Also, the student protests (on cleaners’ rights/green investments) made it a fascinating learning space.

Trying to understand how one works towards the PhD – any advice you would have for those looking to do something similar? How does one go about setting up RA’s and internships?

Yes. The most important advice I want to give for an aspiring Ph.D. candidate is to read widely around the area of your interest and ask yourself as to whether you would have the energy and excitement to work on that topic for the next three years or so. 

Research assistantships/internships could give you a practical edge over your thesis proposal. For me, the RA I had at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law helped me to consolidate my thoughts for the final thesis proposal. But make sure the RA/internship is in the area of your research interest, or you are pursuing it for specific skill development.

The most important advice I want to give for an aspiring Ph.D. candidate is to read widely around the area of your interest and ask yourself as to whether you would have the energy and excitement to work on that topic for the next three years or so.

Since last year, you also got a Visiting Lecturer post at KCL – how has the teaching experience been? Any practices at KCL that you think Indian law schools can or should adopt?

The teaching experience has been excellent so far! In the beginning, I was a bit nervous, but King’s provide extensive training for young lecturers and teaching fellows on evidence-based teaching methods. The training was useful in evaluating how I could improve and help my students to engage critically with their course materials. I  handle seminars and tutorials – they are mostly discussion based. For me, teaching reminds me of how learning is a continuous process – as I am always picking up on a new idea or a thought-provoking question from my students.

I definitely believe that Indian law schools should think about adopting different teaching methods beyond lectures and seminars- for example, court visits or familiarising students with sample affidavits could assist those who retain information especially through experiential learning. I also think it is crucial to encourage students to engage with their course materials critically. Therefore the faculty members should try to evaluate how their teaching practices are supporting students and how to help them to be more proactive.

I also think it is crucial to encourage students to engage with their course materials critically. Therefore the faculty members should try to evaluate how their teaching practices are supporting students and how to help them to be more proactive.

Last question – would you consider moving back to India as an academic? I suppose what I am asking you is what would Indian law schools have to do to encourage academics like you to come back to the country.

To be honest, this is a difficult question to answer. After my Ph.D I want to look for a position that helps me to pursue my research interests in socio-legal studies, comparative law or transnational law. During my undergraduate years,  I noticed there was limited enthusiasm for interdisciplinary approaches to law within the Indian law schools. 

The majority of Indian law schools seemed to predominantly follow narrow notions of law as a ‘black-lettered’ normative institution and the role of lawyers  to be limited within courts or private firms. So in a way, I do feel my research interests might not be appreciated within the current educational structure. Another factor is the limited exposure of research and publications to a broader global audience. This is a sad aspect for the academics in the Global South ( for no fault of theirs!).

There are very few reputed academic national law journals/mediums through which young scholars can engage with a wider academic community. I think Indian law schools need to think about how to make academic research valuable for policy decisions in the country. This needs lobbying from the universities, and a change of mindset regarding academic legal research from the wider society itself.

I think Indian law schools need to think about how to make academic research valuable for policy decisions in the country. This needs lobbying from the universities, and a change of mindset regarding academic legal research from the wider society itself.

 

The Amicus Interviews: Dhvani Mehta, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy (Part 1)

Dhvani Mehta, VCLP

Dhvani Mehta

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.

Listen to the entire conversation here:

No NET for Assistant Prof. post if you have a foreign PhD from a top-500 University

For those Indian law graduates looking to join academia, here is a development that ought to be of interest. As per multiple reports last week, the University Grants Commission has allowed foreign PhD holders to be directly recruited as assistant professors. Most significantly, this does away with the requirement of the National Eligibility Test – a factor that has discouraged many in the past.

This development can actually be traced back to July last year when the UGC published the succinctly titled UGC Regulations on Minimum Qualifications for Appointment of Teachers and Other Academic Staff in Universities and Colleges and Measures for the Maintenance of Standards in Higher Education. [pdf]

Amongst other things, the Regulations state to be eligible for direct recruitment to the post of Assistant Professor, you can either go through the established route of the NET (although there are some exceptions to this) or have a PhD from a foreign degree that has,

“obtained from a foreign university/institution with a ranking among top 500 in the World University Ranking (at any time) by any one of the following: (i) Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) (ii) the Times Higher Education (THE) or (iii) the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University (Shanghai).”

These regulations have been notified in October last year so I am not sure why this has been picked up only now. In fact, this particular provision (of PhD from a foreign university) was mentioned in this news report from June of last year.

Whatever be the reason for the recent reports, what this effectively means is that Indian law graduates can consider different pathways to entering Indian academy. And, also, the NET is no longer a mandatory requirement for becoming an Assistant Professor.

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