Before you Apply: The Postgraduate Research Experience in Law

Welcome to the University of Sydney School of Law. Thank you for your interest in our Postgraduate Programs.

Undertaking postgraduate research is both a rewarding and challenging experience. At the outset, there are a number of important issues that prospective and recently enrolled students should consider carefully.

Postgraduate research is rewarding because it provides students with the opportunity to make a distinctive and original contribution in a specific area of intellectual enquiry. However, it is challenging because of what this entails. The particular issues new and prospective students should be encouraged to think about, as early as possible, include topic selection/project design, expectations of supervisors and student, and balancing the demands of postgraduate research against other potentially conflicting demands such as work, financial and family responsibilities.

In contemplating undertaking postgraduate research degree, you may wish to consider specific questions such as:

  • Whether the topic of research you have chosen is one that will sustain your interest and motivation for 3 or 4 years.
  • What value you perceive your proposed supervisor(s) can bring to the supervision process and their proposed research project.
  • Whether your proposed supervisor has a strong interest and expertise in the student’s chosen area of research and in the methodologies the project will demand. In this respect, law may be different to other disciplines, as postgraduate law students often develop their own research project and are responsible for finding a supervisor.
  • What expectations you have of your supervisor and vice-versa and whether these are shared expectations and are compatible.
  • What skills are demanded by the specific project you have chosen? Is there a need to fill gaps in your knowledge or skills base and how this can be best achieved?

A common challenge faced by postgraduate research students is maintaining motivation and momentum in their research work. Also it is not uncommon for postgraduate students to feel overwhelmed by the demands of their research at times and at some point feel isolated and stressed by these demands. One way of dealing with this is to stay as involved as possible with other postgraduate students and Faculty activities and to communicate with your supervisor(s) or other staff members. It is also important to seek help with stress or burnout or any other problems that might arise as early as possible.

At the outset, you should also consider how you will balance the demands of postgraduate research with other demands in your life, such as work, financial and family responsibilities. Personal issues or difficulties may be induced by the strenuous demands of a postgraduate research degree itself or may reflect ‘normal’ life events and stressors that are inevitably part of life and which arise independently of the student’s course of postgraduate study. Often postgraduate research students have financial commitments that must be met despite their study, for example, due to family responsibilities. In particular, students may be faced with substantial financial pressures if they had to give up full-time work to undertake postgraduate study. Balancing a research degree with family life and commitments can be challenging - this is particularly so for those students who have parenting or other care responsibilities. An understanding of the personal challenges that face students is also critical in order to assist individuals avoid or overcome the isolation that may be felt during postgraduate research, and help students to understand they need not feel alone in their experiences.

Thinking about these issues - sooner rather than later - will help make your postgraduate experience as positive and enjoyable as possible!

In sum, it is a good idea to think about the postgraduate experience as a “process.” Your proposed research thesis is likely to evolve and be shaped and reshaped throughout your candidature as you evolve into an expert in your chosen field. Furthermore, there are some key skills you will need to work on, and develop from early on; one of the most important is the skill of writing a thesis. Writing a thesis, particularly, a doctoral thesis, is likely to be very different and be a much more substantial writing exercise compared to any you have previously undertaken in undergraduate studies or in the course of working as a lawyer.

You may wish to discuss these issues with your (potential) supervisor(s). In addition, you may wish to consult some of the resources provided below:

Dr Arlie Loughnan

Dr Rita Shackel

Resources

1. Law-specific resources

  • Terry Hutchinson, Research and Writing in Law (2nd ed, 2006)
  • Arlie Loughnan and Rita Shackel, ‘The Travails of Postgraduate Research in Law’ (2009) 19(1) Legal Education Review pp 99-132.

2. Work-Life Balance

3. A Community of Scholars

4. Thesis Resources

5. Supervision

  • University of Sydney
  • Desmond Manderson, ‘Asking Better Questions: Approaching the Process of Thesis Supervision’ (1996) 46 (3) Journal of Legal Education 407