First Person Accounts: Ayushi Agarwal on the BCL, Weidenfeld-Hoffmann scholarship

First Person Accounts (FPA’s) are meant to provide a first-hand account of Indian law graduates who have pursued a post-graduate course from different schools across the world. In this edition of the FPA, we get talking with Ayushi Agarwal who is currently reading for the BCL at Oxford University.

Ayushi also happens to be a Weidenfeld-Hoffmann scholar at Oxford, something that she talks about in the course of the interview. 

Ayushi Agarwal

Ayushi Agarwal

At what point in time during your undergrad did you decide to pursue a post-graduate degree? 

I finalised my decision to pursue a post-graduate degree midway through my fourth year, when it became clear to me that I would like to specialise in human rights law, and did not want to take up any of the corporate law jobs on offer.

How did you go about selecting law schools? 

Once I decided that I wanted to pursue a post-graduate degree straight out of law school, I knew that I only wanted to study at Oxford because of several reasons: first, its’ tutorial system gives the kind of learning that seminars simply cannot match; second, it had two modules that I was particularly keen on taking up: comparative human rights law, and comparative equality law; third, the chances of securing admission were much higher in comparison to Harvard which is known to prefer students with work experience. Therefore, I applied only to Oxford University.

The Weidenfeld-Hoffmann scholarship – any advice on how to go about the application process, in particular the scholarship statement?

The Weidenfeld-Hoffmann scholarship only processes the applications of students who have already gained admission to Oxford University–which means the academic credentials are already taken care of.

The scholarship’s application therefore focuses on demonstrated leadership potential and commitment to a make a change. My application, for instance, drew heavily on my experience of starting my University’s feminist alliance and my vision of a gender-just India.

It would be a good idea to visit their website and look at the scholar profiles to get a better sense of the diverse backgrounds and motivations that scholars have.

How has the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann scholar experience been thus far? 

I have to say that the being a Weidenfeld-Hoffmann scholar has been the most enriching experience of my life so far. First and foremost, the community is like no other I have been in–there are 28 scholars from 23 different countries, all in different fields and at different stages of their lives.

First and foremost, the community is like no other I have been in–there are 28 scholars from 23 different countries, all in different fields and at different stages of their lives.

There are scholars with several years of experience (to name a few) in the NGO sector, in the government, as a whistleblower, as a journalist, as an environmental conservationist, as a water management specialist, as a human rights attorney, as a social entrepreneur, as an economist, and as a doctor.

Since I’m the youngest in this year’s cohort, I have had the honour of learning from the vast experience my fellow scholars have. Their ideas, passion and commitment are very motivating.

The scholarship events are designed to help us grow individually, form a more informed world-view and build strong bonds with the fellow scholars. Before the term began at Oxford, the scholars attended the Robin Hambro Moral Philosophy seminar organised by the scholarship. We had round table discussions on important scholarly writings on human rights, justice, leadership, liberty etc. Through the term, we have been getting several workshops and trainings on entrepreneurship, since the scholarship wants us to think of innovative ways of making a change.

At the end of the first term, we were taken to Windsor, where we received training on interview skills, career building, pitching ideas etc. We have also several casual lunches which gives the scholars the opportunity to touch base despite our busy term, and ‘collections’ where we can share our progress and concerns with a senior member of the scholarship. And this just the end of one third of the journey! I’m very excited for everything else that is yet to come.

Early days yet, but what were some of the bigger changes that you have observed in the learning experience at Oxford as compared to NLSIU?

I think the most important change has been that the period at hand is a lot shorter than what I had at NLSIU, while the opportunities available are a lot more. Therefore, a lot of choices have to be made everyday about how to make the most of this year.

There is no doubt that the academic rigour is leaps and bounds ahead of NLSIU, the peers are all extremely hard-working and driven, and the professors are amongst the top in their respective fields. This can be intimidating at first but as long as you try your best to keep pace, it is manageable.

It also depends on your specific goals for the year– some students come here only for academic learning, while others come here hoping for a mix of different opportunities. I’ve joined the fencing club, which is a new and exciting sport for me, and I also attend many talks outside of my field (for example in philosophy, literature etc) because Oxford always has something or the other going on, and it would be foolish to miss it while one is here.

Looking back, anything that you wished you had known before enrolling for the BCL?

I can’t think of anything specifically, because I remember nagging a lot of my seniors with lots of silly questions before I enrolled in the BCL. One thing that I could have researched on more perhaps is colleges. Each college at Oxford has a very different character, history, and facilities.

This is important especially because most colleges don’t give accommodation to graduate students on site, so it’s important to look at where exactly the college you are applying to would give you accommodation.

Lastly, any advice for Indian law grads who are looking to pursue post-graduate degrees outside the country? 

I would say that it’s crucial that you don’t view a post-graduate degree simply as a way of deferring the moment that you join the workforce because you’re not sure of what you want to do.

It is crucial that you don’t view a post-graduate degree simply as a way of deferring the moment that you join the workforce because you’re not sure of what you want to do.

The BCL, as well as LLMs, are only one year (or even shorter) and are specialised in the sense that you have to pick your own modules, which means who should have a good idea about the direction you are going in.

It’s going to be a huge investment, if not in money then at least in time, and it’s important that you take it up when you are actually ready for it.

The Amicus Podcast Episode 05: Dhvani Mehta (Oxford University, VCLP)

Dhvani Mehta is one of the founding members of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. The Rhodes scholar has spent a considerable amount of time at Oxford University; after her BCL, she went on to complete an MPhil and then a DPhil in law from Oxford. In this podcast, she talks about legal education, her time at Oxford, the life of a researcher and a whole lot more.

You can read edited excerpts of the podcast here and here.

 

The Amicus Interviews: Dhvani Mehta on Indian legal education, LLMs and more (Part 2)

Dhvani Mehta, VCLP

Dhvani Mehta

In the second part of the interview (you can read Part 1 here), Dhvani talks about focusing on academy and research in Indian law schools, the kind of lawyers that VCLP is looking to hire, and a whole lot more.

 

 

How do you encourage academic research in Indian law schools?

One [way] is to have good professors themselves. If you see someone who is vibrant and dynamic and can think differently, that kind of motivates you to pursue that kind of work yourself.

[Another way is] showing students what the value of good academic research can be. A good idea in a law review article can perhaps someday be the basis of a legal argument before a constitutional bench or lay down the foundation for a new law.

Thoughts on how legal education can improve in India?

Perhaps a more rigorous clinical legal education may also have helped. We were required to do some internships in a district court, keep a journal of court proceedings. But everyone copied the journal from the previous year, no one actually went to court.

I had a series of internships all through the five years, but I don’t think I knew what it meant to be a practicing lawyer. Now that I think about it, I wrote a thesis on how the Supreme Court decides environmental cases without ever actually having been in court during an environmental case [hearing] ever.

Of course, you can write a purely academic thesis that dissects the jurisprudence and that is what I did. But it might have been so much richer if I had a pulse on what was happening in India.

Is that what got you back?

Definitely. As I said, the DPhil was such a difficult experience and perhaps made me realize that legal research and academia was not the path I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life.

Why?

I just did not enjoy that kind of research. To me, it is an experience that is intrinsically important – you must encourage academia for the sake of it because that is where new ideas come from. I would be the first person to support any type of academic endeavour irrespective of whether it had a tangible outcome or not.

You must encourage academia for the sake of it because that is where new ideas come from. I would be the first person to support any type of academic endeavour irrespective of whether it had a tangible outcome or not.

But for me, that was not enough. I was not sufficiently engaged with the intellectual exercise of it. I needed to do something that had some sort of “instant gratification” if I had to put it that way.

What are the kind of lawyers VCLP is looking for?

[We look] for people who want to engage. I am not saying you should not have strong ideological positions, of course you should, and you must. But we are also looking for people who understand the importance of talking to different stakeholders, engaging with different actors, and understanding that law making and policy making is sometimes, or most often, a question of compromising. Of figuring out the best balance between competing interests.

If you could speak to your 18-year old self, would you tell her to study law?

No. I always wished that I had done medicine and I still wish I had. Not because I don’t find the law rewarding or intellectually satisfying. It is all these things for a lot of people just not for me in the way I had imagined it would be.

I don’t find legal problems intrinsically exciting. It is not my thing.

Which is why the work I do at VCLP – health and environment – involves a lot of interactions with people working in that field. Non-lawyers. I am more interested in what I can do with my skills as a lawyer to change actual outcomes on the ground.

I didn’t expect that at all.

(grins) I love my job here, and I love the work I do. This is a purely personal [opinion] that could just be something to do with my bent of mind. Which is why I really think that law shouldn’t be something you do after graduating from Class 12.

I really think people should seriously consider doing a 3-year course rather than a 5-year course if they are not entirely certain about the law as a career. You get a degree in either arts, or commerce or science, and also a better chance to explore what you really might be interested in. And then if you still think that law is the answer for you, you always have the option to do the 3-year law degree.

I really think people should seriously consider doing a 3-year course rather than a 5-year course if they are not entirely certain about the law as a career. You get a degree in either arts, or commerce or science, and also a better chance to explore what you really might be interested in.

Any advice for those interested in an LLM?

One I would say, think about waiting a little bit after you have graduated from law school. Work, figure out what it is that you are really interested in, and apply accordingly.

Also, obviously we have our set of Ivy League schools and Oxbridge but if there is something in particular that you are really interested in, and it is taught at some not very well-known law school, that is okay. Do your homework and go to the place that you think is able to provide the most to you.

 

You can also listen to the interview here:

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:

%d bloggers like this: