Why a Postgraduate Degree is the Best and Worst Choice You Can Make—Part 1

Why a Postgraduate Degree is the Best and Worst Choice You Can Make—Part 1

Rollercoasters are not for everyone. Some celebrate the speed, courage, and maybe even fright that accompanies the ride; the thrill is exhilarating. Others, like my cousin Ahmed, sneer at the foolishness of their counterparts (me). He does not hide his glee when I stumble out of the car, confident he made the right decision when I turn varying shades of green. Seeing me return to the queue for a second round makes him wonder whether it’s more than masochism. 

Likewise, postgraduate (PG) studies are not for everyone, and the rollercoaster is an apt metaphor. The experience engenders a host of emotions. In your first month, excitement and trepidation dominate, much like the ride’s early ascent. By the third, trepidation gives way to terror as you plummet to a premature death. You’ll feel nauseous in your methods course, and talk of a theoretical framework will make you grimace. More than once, you’ll curse everyone and everything, including yourself, wishing the cars to stall so you can slide down a column and scurry away incognito.

It’s also worth mentioning that you’ll laugh and grow and bond with those around you (on rollercoasters and in PG programmes). As the cars pull into the platform and you submit your dissertation, elation will suffocate you. You might even ask your supervisor if there’s another ride you can hop on: a PhD for the LLM grad and a postdoc for the newly minted doctor. Masochism is addictive.

These contradictory emotions are inevitable during PG studies. As sure as you are to feel joy, you will experience desolation. Expect to regret your decision. Expect to lament your institution, supervisor, and topic. Those already enrolled will verify the accuracy of the metaphor: intense highs and lows abound.

In this three-part series, I share with future and current postgrads a few reflections from my supervision of LLM and PhD students and management of PG programmes at a mix of law schools. I do so as I notice the gap widening between what students enrol in and what they assume they are enrolling in. As I explain below, the consequences of this are severe with a punishing number of students succumbing to mental distress, sometimes illness, and opting to withdraw rather than suffer the ordeal any longer. I hope these reflections help prospective students better weigh the route and current students improve their experience. 

What started as casual reflections blossomed into a voluminous essay. I’ve thus spread it over three blog posts, subdivided into six parts. In the first, I provide data that verifies the evolution of PG studies and the breadth of the completion problem. In the second, I outline the PG programmes on offer, distinguishing between the master’s and PhD. The third section is the heftiest where I use Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions to adumbrate the character of academic research. A misunderstanding of what PG studies involves is, in my experience, the chief forerunner to student distress. I discuss in the fourth what to avoid for PG students do what they shouldn’t all too often. The fifth is a fitting contrast, as I provide suggestions that will help you manage the discomfort. I dedicate my last section to the seven deadly sins of academia. Sins are counterbalanced by virtues that are difficult to see when drowning in distress. Virtues prevail, however, and it is vital that you do not lose sight of them.

Please consider the requisite caveats: I’ve supervised my fair share of LLM and PhD students, some well and others not so well. My area of expertise is international economic law, and most of my charges researched this field, meaning my thoughts are of greatest purchase for law and social science PGs. Nothing I write is sacrosanct, fool proof, or incontrovertible. I do not have a crystal ball and cannot capture your story. Still, I can point you to common misunderstandings and pitfalls. Awareness of these and of the potent emotions waylaying in the horizon will help you navigate the loop-de-loops with greater poise and less terror.

1- What Do the Numbers Tell us?

They tell us that LLMs and PhDs are in fashion. Once the purview of eccentrics alone, they’ve gone mainstream. Across disciplines, programmes proliferate with novel ones springing up like popcorn (I’ve designed a few myself). During the past decade, the number of postgraduate taught (PGT) students increased by 30% in the US and by 40% in the UK. Less mature markets experienced even greater growth with Australian universities more than doubling their masters by research (PGR) and PGT cohorts, and trebling their doctoral candidates. Similar data is available from traditional destination markets such as Canada and Germany and rising ones such as China, Malaysia, and Singapore. Despite demographic and infrastructural limits to the expansionist thrust, postgraduate programmes are in demand. 

This is a good thing. As I’ve argued previously, universities are sites of intellectual communion where research and pedagogy lay building blocks for social renewal. The magnitude of the challenges we face today demand as much renewal as we can muster. A more educated populace amplifies our ability to imagine pathways that are more sustainable than the one we’re on. 

While I celebrate higher enrolment, I lament dubious completion rates; the only figure more staggering than enrolments is the withdrawals. Consider that only one in two PhD candidates completes their PhD, representing a 50% pass or fail rate depending on outlook. LLM degrees, too, suffer withdrawal syndrome with drop-out rates hovering around 25%. In relative terms, this is not as devastating as the 50% rate. However, in raw numbers, this percentage is much more disturbing since LLM students outnumber doctoral ones, translating into greater aggregate pain for individuals and institutions alike.  

When combined, these statistics paint an unflattering picture of programmes that have grown too big, too fast. Few sectors would tolerate the departure of half its participants, precipitating the retirement of the initiative. Not only do universities survive, but they expand, sometimes using success stories to deflect attention from withdrawals. As students (should) realise, anecdotes are weak evidence: we use them less to substantiate than to lobby. Students should treat these numbers as a warning and a wake-up call. Even if you succeed, you can infer from the numbers that the experience is more gruel than ganache and you will sip a fair few bowls of it before reaching your destination.

Precise data on withdrawals is difficult to locate. Merging experience with investigation, I’ve ascertained that three reasons dominate. First, students do not cope well with the emotions the exercise precipitates. Uncertainty is common, with many complaining about feeling confused and overwhelmed. From there, it’s an easy slide into exhaustion, dejection, and surrender. Second, students misunderstand the programmes. For example, many cannot distinguish between PGRs, PGTs, hybrids, certificates, and diplomas. I’ve met students enrolled in a hybrid, dumbfounded when they learn they must take a methods course and write a dissertation, neither of which they had any interest in. Third, students are often disappointed by the institution, peers and professors included. Because of misguided elitism, students enrol in the highest ranked university to admit them. Rank says little about the place or people or personality, and thus nothing about suitability.

When seen together, I surmise that scores of students withdraw because the experience does not live up to their expectations. What is a postgraduate degree and what purpose does it serve? Do your aspirations gel with those of your supervisor? Other than rank, what motivated you to apply to ‘that’ institution? Students sometimes allow presumptions to dictate their decision. Since universities cannot satisfy presumptions, disappointment is inevitable. To be clear, I do not blame students. Emotions run high when choosing a PG programme and market principles (and pressures) are shrewd advocates. How to ensure this fate does not befall you?

Before applying to or settling on a programme, familiarise yourself with the types available. For example, one-year LLMs differ from two-year ones (the latter are going the way of the Dodo). PhDs differ from SJDs and, as a note to our American readers, JDs do not belong in this category at all. British doctorates differ from Canadian doctorates, and so on. Research and reflection are key, as is opting for a pathway that coheres with your ambition. The numbers matter but not as much as your effort at looking beyond the numbers.

2- Should You Pursue an LLM, a PhD, both, or neither?

A Master of Law

Masters have come a long way. Today, students regard these degrees as pathways to disciplinary specialisation, with many choosing this option to gain greater nuance than they achieved during their undergrad. An additional year will remedy any inadequacies and bolster their expertise. The individual might already have a job and see further specialisation as key to career advancement. What better way to improve their comparative advantage than by acquiring innovative knowledge in their field? In some sectors, a promotion is contingent on it. A third motivation is the holding pattern. Upon graduation, some doubt their readiness for the next step (or are unsuccessful in securing it). They may have felt overwhelmed during an internship or walked away from interviews empty-handed. A master’s will spruce up their CV, and is a productive way of biding time until that elusive job materialises. They might even learn something along the way.

These reasons are far removed from the ones that informed masters in the past. In its origin, the degree attested to an individual’s personal rank, equipping them to teach at the university level. Even the doctorate proffered a teaching licence to the holder. The difference was of prestige: at the lower levels, teachers were masters while their counterparts in the higher ones were doctors. What united both titles, however, was the authority it provided to educate others. 

Today, the master’s is unrecognisable from its antecedent. Specialised is the most common: taught programmes where students take advanced courses in a field and complete associated coursework. If these PGTs involve research, they shoehorn components into an assessment. Students might have to write a dissertation of 10-12000 words and study research methods. Still, the research seems subsidiary, and a teaching qualification is absent altogether.

In contrast, some programmes remain research-focussed. Sometimes described as thesis-based, they require the student to complete an advanced research project. These works are more substantial—40,000 words—and of stronger scientific rigour. Running two years, PGR masters are often pathways to doctoral programmes (some even allow levelling up). They equip students with expertise in the basics of academic research, which they can transfer to a related research career. In keeping with history, some are tasked with teaching tutorial groups.

A third type is the professional variety: a Master of Business Administration, of Social Work, or of Project Management. Designed to service a professional cohort, these programmes expect a different type of rigour. For example, eligibility is contingent on professional experience. They edged out academic research in favour of reports, spreadsheets, and strategic planning. Sometimes students need to complete an internship or work placement. 

Where do we place the LLM? It is in all the above! To accommodate the rise in demand, law schools adapted and now deliver a variety of taught, research, and professional LLMs. In the UK, some even combine legal professional qualification with a master’s. While the fusion might be valuable for those who wish to supplement their vocational training with subject specialisation, it is an inadequate preparation for a doctoral programme as many graduates of this pathway come to learn when they submit their PhD applications. From a market perspective, the variegation makes sense. Universities employ experts in their respective fields and programmes can cater to a range of constituencies. This premise holds so long as students understand the nature of the programme they enrol in. Each will open some doors while shutting others, bolstering the importance of learning about the programmes and institutions beforehand if you wish to avoid disappointment. 

Prospective LLM students should contact programmes and request copies of course syllabi. You may wish to know what you will study and how your future professors will assess you. Do any of the professors have a podcast, a YouTube channel, or are they scheduled to deliver a public lecture? If so, regale yourself with these resources. If the university is nearby, visit the campus and attend a lecture. I’ve never turned away a visiting student and don’t expect my colleagues would either. Both parties benefit if you recognise what you are getting yourself into. Do not dismiss the value of due diligence; your future, your professional aspirations, and your mental health are too precious to abandon to chance.  

Doctoral Studies

A PhD varies in length, but the decision to commit 4-6 years of one’s life pursuing independent research should, at a minimum, compel deep levels of introspection. It’s worth mentioning that PhD programmes are not as varied as masters. This makes sense since the number of doctoral candidates is tiny in comparison. Save for a minutia of programmes known as professional doctorates, PhDs are sustained exercises in research training, yet most applicants do not grasp this quality.

To appreciate my point, consider the distinction between research as a noun and as a verb. Students obsess over the noun version, reducing their doctorates to a dissertation. There is reason for this: PhDs culminate in the submission and defence of a lengthy text. However, by shifting from a noun-based perception to a verb-based one, your understanding of the pursuit will improve. Students enrol in doctoral programmes not to complete a dissertation but to learn how to conduct (academic) research. At a micro-level, your goals include learning

  • To design a research project;
  • To adapt a research project when problems arise (which they will);
  • To frame research questions and fields of study;
  • To identify relevant variables and eliminate irrelevant ones;
  • To settle on a suitable method for gathering data;
  • To evaluate theoretical angles and their impact on a project;
  • To account for and critique researcher bias; and
  • To contribute and advance a scholarly debate.

Notice the active nature of the lessons: candidates must learn to design, adapt, explain, and defend academic research. Application and evidence of these lessons manifest in a project and dissertation, to be sure. However, your supervisor mentors you in the axioms, languages, and structures of academic research throughout the process. This character is evident when we situate the PhD alongside the other stages of tertiary education. During a bachelor’s, the focus is on acquiring, processing, and critiquing information. At the master’s level, we add to this trinity knowledge production. The depth of the production depends on the type of master’s, but it is undeniable that students are ushered toward intellectual exploration. The third phase is more complex. Besides higher levels of knowledge production, we expect PhDs to become adept at the process of knowledge production.

What does knowledge production look like? Knowledge can be critical, descriptive, or experimental. We might produce it by exploring a new topic (e.g. artificial intelligence), solving a fresh problem (e.g. vaccine hoarding), or testing an alternative theory (e.g. de-growth). PhDs can carry out qualitative observation or collate quantitative data. They might build their research around the study of scholars, of matter, or of practice. Variations are ‘almost’ endless as, despite the range in types of research, certain characteristics are universal (or should be).  

First, research is rigorous, meaning the scholar can defend before experts the choices they made when designing the project. This does not mean making the right choices, but choices that verify your understanding of the issues. You also convey that there is an internal and external logic to your project: it coheres with itself and with the scholarly debate in your field.

Second, research is searching. Just as a PhD amounts to research training, your project is an investigation and not an argument. Your dissertation will contain an argument, but it will only surface once you analyse the data you gather and relate it to the findings of others. Social science students—especially law students—have a hard time with this feature, insisting on arguing about something (anything). But academic research is a dialogue between scholars in the field. To take part in the dialogue, you must understand its contours, methods, limitations, and so on. In a doctorate, questions are more important than answers. 

Third, research is critical. Students recognise that to critique is to unpack, to analyse, and to evaluate. You unpack the relevant literature and elements of your project, just as you analyse these in relation to whichever theoretical frame you choose. As PhDs learn early on, the position an academic adopts is peripheral. What matters is the data or evidence upon which their position rests. A critical disposition ensures your data is systematic, reliable, and valid. 

Fourth, a hypothesis guides your research. It is worrisome how few researchers recognise this. A hypothesis is a preliminary conclusion based on limited evidence that frames the project, providing parameters for the enquiry. It also furnishes a yardstick against which we measure progress and findings. Researchers rely on their expertise and their proclivities when formulating hypotheses. Indeed, what you hope to find is as important as what you expect to find. A researcher must learn to mitigate the subjectivity that colours their judgment. Hypotheses enhance a project’s structure, encouraging reflection on both the trajectory and itinerary of the research. 

Fifth, research is qualified. PhD students are gluttonous. They wish to measure data across centuries, to examine the evolution of matter in multiple ecosystems, and to interview heads of states, supreme court justices, and billionaire philanthropists. Their ambition is commendable, albeit misguided and counterproductive. Like ambition, a researcher must circumscribe their project as breadth inversely correlates with rigour. We make informed choices about which elements to engage and which to set aside. Geography, temporality, and theory are common qualifiers. The project and discourse inform each choice, ensuring that the research coheres with the field and scholarly debate.

I’m aware this sounds like a lot and I may have exacerbated the distress of some students. What seasoned academics take for granted can feel coded to an amateur. Yet, as you struggle to appreciate the intricacies of your training, your focus will shift to the intricacies of your project. To be clear, the project is essential. However, your project will only take shape if you pursue your training with purpose, structure, and zeal. To illustrate, I always ask my PG students what they hope to learn via their project, before we design their project and training regimen. It’s an effective – though not infallible – strategy for averting a crisis down the line.

If considering a PhD, contact prospective supervisors and enquire about their approach to supervision. Ask them to put you in contact with previous or current PhDs and give them a call. Read their scholarship. Apply to more than one programme. Once admitted, schedule a video chat with each proposed supervisor and introduce yourself. There’s no need to hide your options; we know that if we’ve admitted you, chances are another institution has as well. Your due diligence is welcome since supervisors are motivated to test the waters beforehand as well.


I am fond of literary devices and conclude the first part of this series with an analogy: PG studies are not just roller-casters, they are a lot like painting as well. For a painter, two questions shape every piece: what will they paint and how will they paint it? It could be a landscape or a portrait or an abstract impression. They might go Victorian (Rembrandt), meta (Hokusai), sociological (Yoruba), or subversive (al-Ali). 

Still, irrespective of the starting point, they cannot be certain where they will conclude. Painters adapt their art as it evolves. No painter expects to produce a mirror image of their imagination. To illustrate, Van Gogh was notorious for layering, the practice of painting over a previous image. Art historians rationalise the practice: it adds a distinct dimension to the work. Painters know better. Piques of frustration can prompt layering too as the painter covers up that which grates them. Layering is adaptation. Last, painters celebrate and lament the production for what it becomes, often dissatisfied with their work. They also notice that equal numbers love and loath their work, meaning a thick skin is essential. Paintings may enliven the spectator, but they brutalise the painter.

The same is true for research, and PG students can glean much from painters. What are you researching and how are you researching it? Are you investigating an old law or a new one? Do you aim to solve a problem or critique it from a unique angle? Whose footsteps will you walk in? Which theory and methods will you deploy in your investigation? And, of course, how will you layer when your preferred method does not yield the requisite data? 

Research projects are as dynamic as paintings. You follow in the footsteps of masters but will always produce a bespoke picture. Some scholars will love your work and others will not. If lucky, you will at least feel lukewarm about it. Take a page from Van Gogh: painters suffer their craft. While I urge you to avoid self-immolation, I encourage you to accept that research is a cruel companion.

In the next part, I comment on Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions, highlighting the usefulness of his normal-revolutionary science frame in guiding PG research. It’s invaluable when trying to make that fabled contribution to an academic debate.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.

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