I’ve become frustrated recently at the lack of practical information for those contemplating PhD level study, especially in my own field. Information about the practical pitfalls, perils and joys of further study. So I decided to write a series of blog posts on the topic, pointing to relevant resources. (This is aimed at graduate students in the English speaking Commonwealth: Europe, the US and elsewhere I can’t necessarily vouch for.)
This will be a longish post, and you probably think: ‘Ah, this will be about writing a killer application to my preferred school!’ Yes, that will be covered briefly. But first, grab a seat, we need to share a few home truths – and ask some hard questions.
What’s my motivation?
If you do want to do a PhD in international law the first question to ask yourself is: ‘Why?’
I was rather offended when an economist friend (himself with a PhD) asked me this in Cambridge pub towards the end of my LLM. But it remains an important question. The three typical answers are: (a) ‘because I want to, I feel I’m not done studying and learning’; (b) ‘I want to become an academic’; (c) ‘I’ve got good marks in law up ’til now, I’ve no other career plans, so this seems like the next thing – and worst case scenario, I’ll just teach, right?’
The only good answer is (a). If your answer includes (b), there’s some further information you really need. If your answer is (c), this is probably a terribly bad idea.
Here’s several things few people will tell you straight out.
(1) As more PhDs come onto the employment market, a PhD is increasingly necessary for an academic post but it is not sufficient. At least 50% of PhD graduates do not go on to academic jobs, and in a squeezed university sector many jobs will not be well-paid or secure. (We’ll come to what you do need to secure an academic post later, but it includes both merit and luck.) So, idea (c) is deeply flawed. A PhD does not entitle you to teach. An academic career is not a fall-back plan, it’s highly competitive. There are some reasons to be slightly more optimistic in Law as a field (see later posts), but most PhD graduates will not go on to academic careers.
(2) Doing a PhD is going to be hard. A former LLM student wrote to me recently. She has started a PhD at an excellent university and has a wonderful supervisor. ‘I had no idea how hard this would be,’ she wrote. We’ll come back to why – and how to cope – in a later post. Completion rate statistics are notoriously unreliable for graduate students, but probably 30% of PhD candidates in the UK (across all fields) do not complete. (Numbers in the US and Canada are as bad or worse.)
(3) A PhD has a measurable economic cost to you. At best it has an earnings premium of 3% over a one-year master’s degree. However, even if you’re lucky enough to have a scholarship, three or (likely) four or more years of foregone income is a big setback by the end of a working life. Essentially, you are becoming more qualified in order to earn less.
So, doing the maths, even if admitted to a PhD programme, your chances of completing the PhD and finding an academic post are about 35% at best. The remaining 65% who do not complete or find an academic post may carry a crippling sense of failure for things which are generally not their fault. (Again, more on this in the next post in this series.)
Undeterred? Fine, let’s talk about your proposal and where you should send it.
Writing an application and a research proposal
The admissions committee will be interested in the following things in roughly this order: your grades (including evidence of writing a substantial dissertation), your research proposal, your references, your work experience, your personal statement. All are important, but a great personal statement or fabulous work experience with UN agencies will not compensate for a bad proposal.
Most UK PhD programmes now require a prior one-year LLM including a written dissertation. At UCL our minimum requirement is a good Merit level LLM with a Distinction in the dissertation. (Australians take note: UK marking scales usually stop at ‘Distinction’ so read this as meaning ‘High Distinction’ in Australian terms.) This LLM dissertation mark is vital.
On references: you need referees who can speak to your research potential. Ask academics who know your work to write references, not the most senior people you’ve had contact with. A reference that speaks in detail about your LLM dissertation-writing is worth more than a few sentences from your Dean.
Alright, let’s talk about the all-important research proposal. Here are the things a good proposal must do:
(1) Identify ‘a gap in the literature’. Your PhD has to either ask a question that has not been asked before, or bring a new angle on an existing field. This can be done in a number of ways but you have to explain why this is something that has not been done before.
Here’s where your LLM studies help. Do you recall thinking: ‘There must be a book on X?’ but not finding it? Or, ‘Yes this article is great, but why doesn’t it deal with Y?’ Or, ‘Everyone seems to agree on Z, but surely there’s something not very convincing about that proposition … ’ Or, ‘Huh, there’s an interesting comparison between how the World Trade Organisation deals with these environmental issues and proposals before the UNFAO.’ Any of these thoughts might be the core of a PhD topic.
Other important attributes are:
(2) methodology (how will you go about this? do you need to acquire skills you don’t have, e.g. statistics?);
(3) realistic scope (e.g. can you really survey all internationalized or ‘hybrid’ criminal tribunals’ sentencing practices in the time available?);
(4) a clear grasp of the existing literature (a provisional bibliography of six or seven items clearly isn’t enough); and
(5) a provisional argument or goal – what do you think this study will reveal? What are your reasoned views (subject to further research)? If you don’t have an argument, you don’t have a proposal.
Finally: get feedback on your proposal. Ask former teachers to comment, friends from the LLM – or better friends who have gone on to PhD programmes themselves. E-mail an advanced draft to possible supervisors to ask for comments. (The worst they can do is never answer.)
Where should I apply?
You’ve come up with an astonishingly good proposal on sentencing practices in international criminal tribunals, distinguishing what you will do as different from the two major books in the field. You also know the University of Camford has an incredibly prestigious law school, so you want to send it there. However, if Camford has no international criminal lawyers you are wasting your time. Even if they do, and you’re proposing use of statistical methods in a proposal to a Faculty where no one does empirical legal studies, you are also likely wasting your time. Worse, if they admit you and have no relevant specialists, how can your project succeed?
(1) Do your research first. Nothing makes an application look less promising than the fact the candidate hasn’t bothered looking at the website, but has just assumed a good Faculty can offer supervision in anything.
(2) Don’t change your proposal to fit the Faculty. You have to live with this project for three years, you have to do all the work. Why pitch something you’re not interested in?
(3) Never, ever write to a member of Faculty asking for them to suggest a topic for you, or asking how you could change your topic to fit their research interests. As above, do write to potential supervisors asking if they have time to comment briefly on your proposal.
(4) An uncomfortable truth is not all PhDs are created equal (for an exaggerated account see this US piece). A school with a world-renowned reputation is clearly going to help your CV and employment prospects more than study elsewhere. Certainly, some Faculties in less well-known universities may have centres for excellence in specific fields. But doing a PhD at a university without a strong research profile is a definite risk when you go looking for a first academic job.
Essentially: apply to a good Faculty that can support your topic. If you got a Distinction in your LLM research dissertation, speak to your dissertation supervisor/examiner. They will be in a good position to discuss ideas and options. There is an obvious advantage in applying to law schools where you are already known from undergraduate or graduate study.
Why have I been rejected?
You have a great proposal, references and marks. Why would a good school not take you? Well, PhD recruitment is different to other programmes. A PhD student is a big responsibility for a supervisor, and your proposal needs to be close enough to their own expertise that they can competently supervise it. Further, most universities will need to find a second supervisor for you, someone who’s specialism is at least a broad fit for the topic. Finally, there is a limit to how many PhD students a supervisor can responsibly take on. Big names in your chosen field may well be fully ‘booked up’, possibly for years. Hard as it may be to believe, it’s not personal. It’s often not a rejection of you: it may be a question of fit or timing.
OK, you’ve decided to do this. You’ve written your application. You’ve got an offer of a PhD place. But you still have no idea what you’ve let yourself in for. Next up: surviving and thriving during a PhD.