Applying for a PhD – Pravin J

I came up with my PhD research topic in the shower.

Over the previous three years, since completing the Legal Practice Course at City, I had undertaken an internship with the Environmental Law Foundation, before joining a London law firm as a conveyancing paralegal. I even narrowly missed out on a training contract, so, if things had been different, I would be close to qualifying as a solicitor by now. I was also given the opportunity to manage the firm’s corporate social responsibility policy. I became frustrated at the reluctance of my colleagues to adopt environmentally-friendly behaviour, such as switching off monitors and wasting paper. I thought there must be a better way to initiate environmentally-friendly behaviour than through compulsion or nagging.

And so it was, during a period of enforced unemployment as a result of the credit crunch, in the shower and wondering what to do, that I had my ‘Eureka’ moment.

You’ll be happy to know that I showed more restraint than Archimedes. I did not run naked through the streets.
The first hurdle was funding. At about £4,000 a year over three years full-time, the cost of doing a PhD is three times that of the LPC and GDL combined. And that’s just for home students! If there is one thing we’ve learnt from Belle Du Jour (aka Dr Brooke Magnanti), it’s the scarcity of funding for PhDs. Universities do offer studentships, where funding is provided for specific research titles in exchange for teaching undergraduates, but they are few and far between and hence very competitive. Not having had a career in the City with which I could amass large savings, my choices were either a bank loan or my parents. At 0% APR, guess which I chose?

The next thing to decide is where to do the PhD and this very much depends on your own circumstances. As I lived in London anyway, I opted to go to a local university. It is also important to bear in mind that you will be there for three years. So, I first and foremost looked at universities where I had previously studied, including City University. Indeed, a fair number of my PhD colleagues were doing a Masters there a year before. But, of course, what’s just as important is that a university broadly covers your research area – in my case, environmental law. The reason is that, during the course of your research, you will be supervised by two of three supervisors – they are not there to tell you what to do but simply to make suggestions based on their experience in research and in your area. Information about the university’s research and researchers in a particular area are all available on the website.

The university will assign the supervisors it thinks are the most appropriate. However, it is recommended that you make initial contact with a potential supervisor with expertise in your research area before you even start applying. I had a broad idea of what I wanted to look at, so I emailed an initial proposal to someone who has become my supervisor. Before I even completed the application form, I met up with him and emailed him a few times to frame my proposal. He suggested a couple of books which I might like to look at and pointed me in the direction of the British Library – membership of which is a ‘must’ for anyone doing research. We developed a pretty good working relationship by the time I applied and I was able put his name down on the form, so half the university’s work of assigning a supervisor was done.

Amongst my PhD colleagues, some, like me, came from a career in legal practice; others have recently completed a Masters. And in our group in the School of Law, the research topics are as diverse as the population in London and includes: the effect of harmonisation on insolvency law; legal conflicts arising from water use; the effect of border laws on indigenous people; sustainability in organisations; the prosecution of rape as a war crime; the influence of social factors on construction disputes in relation to the Olympic Games; The effect of big sporting events on the host city. I think you get the idea – they key thing is that it ‘boldy goes where no-one has gone before’.

My research topic developed out of my own work experience in environmental law and corporate social responsibility. The truth is though that, in just a few months, what I was researching began to take on a life of its own. Doing a PhD is like an exploratory journey. I have a rough idea of where I want to end up but I have no idea of how to get there. Often, particularly near the beginning, I start down one road only to reverse back because it was a cul-de-sac. But it wasn’t a waste of time, because I needed to do down there in order to rule it out. As every academic tells us, there is nothing quite like PhD, either before or afterwards.

More information:
Prospects: Your PhD
University websites

Pravin’s PhD topic is “The effectiveness of incentives as a regulatory technique for protecting the environment” – connect to him on Linkedin.

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