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The Curious Case of the Legal Academic Route

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About The Author

Ben McGuckin (Former EU and International Law Editor)

Ben is set to begin his LPC in September, having previously graduated with an LLM in International Law and Governance from Durham University and a First Class LLB from Northumbria University. nd securing an award for best performing student in final year in the process. He hopes to work in the areas of mental health and family law, with a view to eventually joining the Army Legal Services. Outside of law, Ben enjoys playing darts with his local pub team. He also has a keen interest in video games and rock music.

If I stay in academia, I might end up going someplace random

Lauren Willig

From the very first year of their degree, every law student will inevitably be bombarded with information about careers. With many potential avenues – from life as a solicitor or barrister in the legal profession to others away from legal practice such as banking and business – open to a law student, the sheer amount of options available, and free paraphernalia that find its way into their arms, can feel somewhat overwhelming. And, as all this descends upon them, law students may find that one potential career path that is often neglected during the careers talks and fairs – academia.

There can be no doubt that law schools direct their students towards a practical legal career. From the beginning of first year, careers sessions are already being organised – regular law fairs will be full of law firms, chambers and other businesses advertising themselves as the best place to begin a legal career. Careers lectures ordinarily feature guest speakers from local law firms, both commercial and high street, and chambers practising a wide variety of law from crime to corporate. Information about a career in academia seems to be absent during these events.

This article is a guide for students who wish to pursue an academic career in the law; it explains what is required for an academic career, how to go about securing funding for further study, and provides useful sources of information.

A Gentle Caveat

Pursuing a career in academia is not something to be embarked on lightly, particularly in relation to law. Unlike many other career paths, academia cannot be thought of as a ladder that can be climbed in a conventional fashion – it is more like a pyramid, the top of which is heavily crowded. Securing a permanent position (known as tenure) is increasingly difficult; simply put, more people are competing for places that are already full. Research published in THE showed that, in 2013, less than 50% of those new to research can expect long-term academic careers in the future.

It is important not to be put off by such statistics – after all, it is easy to find similarly disconcerting figures that highlight the competitiveness of other careers. But a degree of realism is also needed. Hard work and dedication can only go so far; one fundamental question a law student wishing to enter academia must ask is whether they genuinely believe that they have such an understanding of, and passion for, the subject to the extent that they can produce new ideas, theories and arguments which will add something to the field.

Pump Your Brakes, Kid: It Doesn’t End Here

The majority of students will graduate from their degrees in the summer and wave goodbye to education either forever to focus on their career. This is not so for the aspiring academic, for whom two steps are still to come: a Master’s degree and a PhD.

LLM – A Master’s in Law


In order to secure a place on any LLM programme, most universities will require that you have achieved, or are expected to achieve, a good 2:1 in your degree. A ‘good’ 2:1 is generally held to be an average of 65% or above.

The majority of LLMs will be taught postgraduate degrees. This means that it is similar to undergraduate studies in that you will prepare for, and attend, classes held with your peers. However, the level of preparation required as a postgraduate student is considerably more than that of an undergraduate student. Rather than simply knowing the law and how it is applied, there is more focus on the critique and analytical aspect of legal study. While undergraduate study, particularly towards the end of the degree, does require you to engage in a critical analysis of the law and legal concepts, at LLM level you will be expected to conduct a deeper analysis into the topic you are looking at, which will require reading a lot more academic commentary than you may be used to at undergraduate level. One of the benefits of opting for a taught LLM is that you will be exposed to a variety of different topics, which will allow you to explore more of your interests and help you formulate a clear research topic for when you come to apply for PhDs.

However, some LLMs will be research degrees. Unlike the taught LLM, your time will be spent producing a single work of considerable length, somewhere in the region of 20,000-50,000 words. This gives you the opportunity to focus upon one particular issue that you are interested in. However, going straight from undergraduate study to a research degree may be too onerous for some students. If you undertake an LLM by research, you should have a very clear idea of what it is you want to research and why. The application process for an LLM by research will require you to write a research proposal, the length of which will be dictated by the institution you are applying to. A research proposal should set out, clearly, what it is you want to research and why you wish to do so. While you do not need to make an original contribution to knowledge, like the PhD, you should be demonstrating you are at the very limit of knowledge of that particular field.

During any LLM, you will be expected to produce a dissertation over the course of the year (or two, if you are a part-time student). Some undergraduate law courses will not require a dissertation in order to get a law degree, but it will be an option. If you are thinking about pursuing a career in academia, you should undertake a dissertation at undergraduate level. This will reduce the anxieties of having to produce a piece of work that is considerably longer than anything you will have written before and it will enhance your research skills, plus familiarising you with working under supervision.

Out of the two, if your end goal is to pursue a PhD, it is arguably more appropriate to opt for the taught LLM as you will be able to explore more topics and enhance your knowledge and skills through looking at different areas, which, as mentioned, can act as a springboard for developing an idea for a PhD thesis.


Since the tuition fees were increased for undergraduates back in 2011, fees for postgraduates have also been the subject of inflation. At first, this had the result of making it incredibly expensive for students to undertake postgraduate study immediately after completing a first degree. However, you can now apply for a postgraduate loan of up to £10,000. This works differently from the loans at undergraduate level as the amount is paid directly to you, and there is no separate loan for tuition fees and maintenance. £10,000 may seem like a lot, but when tuition and living costs have been paid, it can disappear quickly. Further, this loan is ‘added’ to any undergraduate student loan you had, and you will repay it alongside the undergraduate loan when you are earning over £21,000 per annum.

In addition to the government postgraduate loan, universities will offer scholarships. These will be either academic in nature or means tested. If you are considering postgraduate study, it is advised you thoroughly research the scholarships that are on offer at the universities you are interested in before applying. You do not want to apply for a place, get accepted, and realise you cannot afford to attend. Additionally, universities usually offer alumni discount if you undertake a postgraduate degree at the same institution at which you completed your first degree.

As well as government and university funding, there is the option to take out a professional and career development loan. Unlike student loans, this is repayable upon completion of your studies, regardless of what you are earning, so it is advisable to think carefully before taking out this loan to fund your studies if you are unsure of employability immediately after finishing your course.


After completion of your master’s degree, the next step will be to complete a PhD. The academic requirements for a PhD will be a good 2:1 at undergraduate level, plus an average of at least 65% at masters level, along with 65% or more in the master’s dissertation. The PhD allows you to undertake a substantial amount of independent research over at least three years which culminates in a thesis of around 80,000 – 100,000 words (this will vary depending on the university you go to). In the past, the majority of law PhDs were doctrinal in nature, in that the PhD focused on typical legal research methodologies e.g. analysing cases, commentary and other legal materials to formulate an argument. However, this is not the case now. While doctrinal research is still thriving, a lot of academics are now pursuing legal research using social sciences methodologies such as undertaking empirical research and adopting a socio-legal approach to research; that is, analysing how the law interacts with society, for example sexuality and the law. The PhD allows you to take any approach to legal research, so long as you can justify the approach you are taking. One fundamental aspect of a PhD, though, is that it must be original research. The thesis you produce must be an original contribution to the field.

The application process of a PhD will depend on the institution at which you are looking at attending, so thoroughly read the university’s website in order to familiarise yourself with the application process of that university.

Since PhDs are a three-year-long process, it will be expensive. Funding is the most contested aspect of PhD study and it can sometimes seem like a minefield to the prospective scholar. Below is a guide on some of the ways of funding PhD study.

Research Council Funding

This is probably the most competitive way of financing a PhD. For law students, your attention should be directed to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funding. The application process for this funding will involve completing an application form and submitting a research proposal. Since these are not strictly for law students and are open to all arts and humanities subjects, the competition is fierce and your research proposal must be strong. Obtaining funding from the AHRC is a considerable achievement in itself and it is an option to consider when applying for PhD funding. However, the application deadlines for these grants is usually either just before or just after Christmas. If you are also studying for a masters degree at the same time as applying for Council funding, it will be a very stressful and time intensive endeavour, but not impossible. As long as you manage your time well and prioritise work, you will be able to manage the application process and assessments. The AHRC website can be tricky to navigate, so most law schools do have condensed information about AHRC funding on their PhD webpages. If you secure Council funding, you will generally get your tuition paid for, plus a stipend of around £14,000 per annum, tax free.

As well as the AHRC, there is the Economic and Social Research Council. The process is virtually the same as the AHRC, but is slightly narrower in scope. You will only apply for funding from this Council if your research has an economic or social theme to it which will have an impact on business, the public sector, or the third sector.

University Studentships

Universities will also offer funding opportunities to prospective PhD students. These are often termed studentships. Although other names exist, such as Graduate Teaching Assistantships, Teaching Fellow, or something along those lines. The university will pay for your tuition and give you a stipend in line with the amount the Council offers (around 14,000 per annum). However, in return, you will be expected to undertake teaching duties alongside your PhD studies. The form of this will vary depending on the institution you are working at. One university may only have you teaching in one year, while others will have you teaching from the first day to the last. Teaching undergraduates will take up a large amount of your time, so be careful with how many hours you undertake to teach for (the university may offer you the choice of how much teaching you can do).

University studentships will be advertised on the university website and will require you to submit a research proposal for the PhD you intend to do. However, you can look for PhDs that are advertised by the university. These are projects that members of staff want to work on and so offer them as studentships. Sometimes (most of the time) these projects do come with full funding attached i.e. tuition waiver and stipend, but this will be dependent on the university, so do check what funding options are available for that specific project. You can find a variety of these projects on findaphd.com or jobs.ac.uk.

Concluding Remarks

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to the route of an academic career in law, and the caveat mentioned towards the start of this article very much applies. However, it is hoped that this short introduction has been helpful for clearing up some common questions that arise when one looks at the possibility of a career in academia.

The author welcomes contact via Twitter from those wanting to discuss anything raised in this article or anything else relating to the academic route of law.

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Tagged: Legal Careers, Legal Education

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