So, you want to do a PhD in international law?

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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.

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Kevin Jon Heller says

August 22, 2012


Great post, and I look forward to the others. But I question [3], about the value added by a PhD. I doubt whether the research in the article you link to can be so easily applied to international law. You only discuss academic positions, but many students who want careers in international law will compete for other jobs -- in government, with NGOs, at tribunals, etc. I think it is safe to say (based on anecdotal evidence regarding our graduates) that a PhD makes it far easier to get a full-time paid position outside of academia than an LLM, not only because there are far fewer candidates with a PhD, but also because completion evidences the kind of ability to do research and write than employers seek out. I also think that the value of a PhD will only increase as the number of international criminal tribunals decreases -- we are only four or five years away from the ICC being the only international criminal tribunal in town.

As for the financial cost, there is a saying in the US that if someone isn't paying you to do a PhD, you shouldn't be doing it. I think that is good advice, unless you're rich and can easily afford to finance your own education. But if you do have a fellowship, I think the value added by a PhD more than justifies the extra time -- especially if you can complete it in three years. (Which many of our PhDs do.) Two extra years isn't that long, especially if you are doing the kind of networking -- publishing essays, attending conferences, etc. -- that will facilitate finding a good position inside or outside of academia afterward.

Douglas Guilfoyle says

August 22, 2012

Hi Kevin

Thanks for the comment! Despite the length of my reply, I don't think we're miles apart on this. It's about an assessment of the odds and what you think the relevant comparison is.

Your point on value-add is certainly reasonable.

I agree we have to treat all data on employment outcomes with caution. And I do note above that there is more reason to be optimistic about the availability of academic sector jobs in Law than some disciplines (a theme future posts will cover).

However, I think we need to hold two possible outcomes apart: (1) the odds of getting a job in academia or international law more broadly; and (2) lifetime earnings - irrespective of the sector you work in.

Does a PhD in international law help get regarding (1)? Certainly. I'm not arguing it doesn't, but it's certainly no guarantee. Public international law jobs remain highly competitive.

Does a PhD necessarily boost lifetime earnings (my point (2))? I'd suggest no, not necessarily.

Even if you get a job in (1), many international law/academic jobs are not necessarily as well-paid as commercial sector alternatives. (For every well-paid academic or international civil service role, there are many underpaid contract research or NGO roles, etc etc).

Alternatively, if you don't secure an international law related job, are you likely to get a significant pay 'bonus' for a PhD over a Masters? The general answer seems to be 'no'.

You might, in looking for employment outside (1), be advantaged with a PhD over job applicants with an LLM - but LLM students have a head start of several years looking for jobs (and earning money). I suspect that any difference largely washes out over the long run.

Also, I'm not sure there's *any* hard data suggesting PhDs get a significant salary 'bump' for the fact of having a PhD in the general employment market outside their field of specialism. (Some, of course, may but there's not a lot of evidence general employers 'get' the transferable skills of a PhD.)

In addition, the difference in years of lost earnings between the two qualifications isn't usually 2 years - it's 3 or 4. An LLM is now normally expected for entry into a PhD and relatively few students complete the PhD in less than 3 years.

I thus think it's fair to warn students that over a lifetime, the difference in *earnings* between a PhD and LLM is not likely to be much and may come out not in your favour.

You're right: the difference in career prospects is certainly different, but a job in your preferred sector will remain highly competitive and is not guaranteed.

On your second point: I largely agree. A PhD is a big risk to undertake self-funded.

I am somewhat less optimistic that publishing, attending conferences, networking etc helps secure jobs outside academia one would not otherwise have had a shot at (compared with an LLM student who spent that time working or interning, networking, etc). But, in making any of these assessments the question is 'compared to what?' - and we have more anecdote than data on this.

Anyway, career development will be a recurring theme in these posts over future weeks, and I hope you'll continue to prod me any time you think I'm being overly pessimistic.

ranjeed says

August 23, 2012

Hi Kevin,

I am not sure about this statement: "I also think that the value of a PhD will only increase as the number of international criminal tribunals decreases — we are only four or five years away from the ICC being the only international criminal tribunal in town."

The ICC will need people with practical background. And they will be easy to find with all the tribunals shut down. With the last ASP in mind, the ICC will lack resources and there will be dozens of qualified lawyers who left ad hocs and hybrids for many, many years to come. Starting a PhD in the international criminal law these days with the ambition to get a job with the ICC seems a bit naive to me.

Anvil says

August 24, 2012

I concur with Ranjeed on the need for the ICC to hire people with practical background as opposed to academic one. The ICC judiciary had an (un)fortune of having people from highly academic backgrounds work as legal officers - we know how that turned out. They spent days writing 50 pages memos and submissions on minor procedural issues - which often got scuttled on appeals. 700+ pages Lubanga judgment on two minor counts is also an indication of what academic graphomania leads to. A waste of court's time and money. People forget that the ICC is not a university or any other academic institution - it is a COURT. Guilt or innocence with an utmost expediency is all that matters.

Stuart Ford says

August 24, 2012


I think Kevin's point was that as the other tribunals shut down there will be a glut of former tribunal personnel competing for the ICC slots. It is in this situation that a PhD might help you out vis a vis these ex-tribunal folks, most of whom will not have a PhD. I must say that having been on some hiring committees at a tribunal that (generally) all those with PhDs made it past the first cut. Obviously most still got cut at the second or third stages, but it certainly seemed to help get you through the initial stage of cutting down the 700 CVs to the 50 or so you intend to seriously consider.


Kevin Jon Heller says

August 24, 2012


Stuart made my my point perfectly. I was thinking not about current tribunal employees, but about the new graduates who are going to have to compete with them once they are cut loose from other tribunals. I think having a PhD will be one important way for new graduates to distinguish themselves.

Dapo Akande says

August 26, 2012


Many thanks for this post. I agree with much of what you have to say and I am sure many will find your points particularly helpful in thinking about whether to embark on the Phd enterprise. I do disagree with you on one issue though. In your section on the motivation for doing a Phd you list three possibilities, including (b) ‘I want to become an academic’ but then say that (a)[‘because I want to, I feel I’m not done studying and learning’] is the only good answer. However, I think (b) is also a good answer. I do agree with your point that having a Phd is not sufficient for embarking on an academic career. But it is now close to being a necessary condition.

It has long been the case that a PhD was necessary for an academic career in most disciplines and even in law in continental europe. In most English speaking countries, law stood out as an exception - PhDs were usually not required. But in England that is changing [has changed?]. It is not long ago that most people starting out as academics in law would not have had PhDs but no longer. It is now the norm that most people starting out academic careers in law today will have a PhD and also that a PhD will be sought by those hiring for that stage of career.

Even in the US I suspect that things are changing. They certainly seem to be changing at the top ranked law schools, many of which now require PhDs for entry level positions. Usually, these will be PhDs in a discipline other than law but there is still this noticeable trend to go for those with PhDs rather than those without.

Stuart Ford says

August 27, 2012

I think the last statistic I saw for US entry-level law school hiring was that 30-40% of new hires now have a PhD. Since there are very few US law schools that offer PhDs in law (although I think Opinio Juris noted that a couple of US law PhD programs are in the works) most people here get their PhD's in Economics or Political Science, but we are seeing PhD's in other topics, including Sociology, Anthropology and others. We are also seeing more SJD's which are more like a PhD than an M.Phil (at least as I understand it).

Douglas Guilfoyle says

September 3, 2012

Hi Dapo

Thanks for you comment. I may be overstating my case somewhat.

However, I simply wanted to make the point that if one is doing a PhD solely for reasons of (b) (becoming an academic), the odds of disappointment are high.

For example, I am not sure I would recommend to anyone that they undertake a 3-4 year training course with a 65% chance of it not leading to the job they wanted.

Obviously any number of factors may shave these odds up or down in individual cases - but we have to acknowledge the fact that many PhDs who want academic posts will not get one or will only get quite insecure posts.

In my view, (b) is a good reason - but only so long as it is coupled with (a).