Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: Reflections from a Supervisory Role – Interview with Sundhya Pahuja

Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: Reflections from a Supervisory Role – Interview with Sundhya Pahuja

[Srinivas Burra is in conversation with Sundhya Pahuja, ARC Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Professor and Director of the Institute for International Law and the Humanities (IILAH) of Melbourne Law School, the University of Melbourne.]

Srinivas Burra: Professor Pahuja, thank you very much for accepting to share your thoughts in this symposium. As you have a long experience of supervising doctoral students, we would like to gain an insight into some of the challenges involved in pursuing doctoral studies. Your thoughts from your personal experience of supervision as well as from the general experience in the university system would be of particular help to aspiring doctoral scholars and early career researchers.

Sundhya Pahuja: Thanks Srinivas.  I am glad to participate.

Srinivas Burra: According to you,what should be the main consideration in choosing a university for doctoral studies: supervision, ranking of the university, geographical location or other factors? Relatedly, to what extent can these considerations potentially affect the research outcome?

Sundhya Pahuja: For me, the main basis upon which to choose an institution for doctoral studies is the supervisor.  I know that many practical factors will be important and may be determinative.  These will often be about where you can get funding and so on, and that is obviously also crucial.  But nothing has quite the influence over your experience as much as supervision, for better or worse.   If you have funding at an institution, it’s a great blessing.  But if you have the luxury of choice, and you have to choose between a prestigious institution which is indifferent to you, and a less prestigious institution at which you have found a supervisor interested in you and your project, I would recommend thinking long and hard about what choosing one over the other will mean.  I know some people who know in advance, that an institution is hostile to the kind of work they want to do, because it is too critical, for instance.  But they go there nonetheless because of prestige.  One can make that choice, but it will either reshape you, or make the doctoral experience something quite different to what it could be. 

The other thing to say about your supervisor is that you should read their work and choose them on the basis of their approach and orientation rather than subject matter expertise. You will quickly become an expert in your specific topic.  But it takes much longer to gain a deep knowledge of a theoretical field.  Your supervisor should be able to help you locate your work in the discipline, guide you to the kinds of theoretical approaches you might find productive, help you with the genre of PhD writing, and be willing to offer you an apprenticeship in research and writing.  In other words, if you’re keen to locate yourself in any particular tradition of thought, you will likely have a better experience with a supervisor who is working within that tradition, or adjacent ones, than someone in the same subject matter area who is working in a very different tradition. So, for example, if you are writing a Marxian or postcolonial thesis (or) about an aspect of trade law, it’s probably more useful to be supervised by a Marxian or postcolonial scholar working on some other sub-disciplinary field than a neo-liberal trade lawyer.

Srinivas Burra: What makes a student’s application for doctoral admission successful? Past academic record? Quality of research proposal? Reference letters? Other factors? Or a combination of these?

Sundhya Pahuja: In the institutions I know, selection is a combination of the supervisor’s input and the selection committee’s ranking of the applications to the school as a whole.  My experience is confined to places where full funding is offered, so selection is highly competitive.  I imagine if fees are involved, the supervisor may have more influence.  When I am asked to consider a proposal, or am approached by a potential candidate, I will be influenced by the research proposal, past research experience, and demonstrated interest and commitment in an area which I think is a good fit with my own interests and expertise.  That does not mean that they do the same things as me, but that I adjudge them likely to gain something from thinking together with me, and from joining the scholarly communities in which I move.  Letters of reference will be important and relevant too, to make sure the person is motivated, hardworking and institutionally minded.  I see myself supervising future colleagues, whether at my institution or elsewhere, so I think hard about whether people have shown that they are collegial, and generous, and interested in other people too. Selection committees will be more influenced by past academic record more than anything, and by the availability of supervisors in their own institution.  In other words, if you have a candidate with a fantastic record, but no-one is willing or able to supervise them, the school cannot offer admission.  On the other hand, if a potential supervisor is very keen to supervise someone, their view will be relevant to the committee in deciding whether or not to offer admission, but there will have to be a basis upon which to rank the student against others to justify the choice.

Srinivas Burra: What considerations should doctoral students keep in mind while choosing a topic for research? Would you like to point out any common mistakes which doctoral students make in this regard?

Sundhya Pahuja: It’s very tricky to advise on this in the abstract.  People almost never end up with the topic with which they begin.  Usually when people approach me, they have an idea, something they feel very interested in, have done a lot of reading, and present their thinking in a way which is interesting, even if it’s unformed.  Typically, they will have spoken to people about it, including potential supervisors, and given some thought to how to present it.  One of the reasons I wrote the chapter I recently published called ‘Practical Methodology’ was to help people come up with a research proposal. It’s important for students to give some thought to why the thing they are interested in matters. But humility also goes a long way, because an idea for a thesis is more like an opening gambit, if you like, than a concrete plan.

Srinivas Burra: What challenges do applicants from the Global South face in seeking admission for doctoral studies in universities based in the Global North?

Sundhya Pahuja: In my experience, applicants from the Global South face two main challenges.  The first is financial capital, the second is something like academic capital. Financial capital can only be addressed by finding a place to do your PhD where you can access a full scholarship which covers fees and a stipend, as well as a system which allows you to work for proper wages.  Otherwise, it is difficult without family support. In my own Law School at Melbourne, we only take people we can fund, and we offer a pretty generous scholarship in global terms. But that means there are not that many of them, and people still struggle for all kinds of different reasons particular to candidates coming from the Global South. The second difficulty is that candidates who come from universities that are not well known in the western academy will struggle to convince committees that they should be selected.  Most of my PhD students from the Global South have done an LLM from a university with an international reputation.  Not necessarily located in the North, but almost always from a university where the academic staff have an international reputation. It’s not fair, and we try to judge applicants as fairly as we can, but it’s noticeable. One path that people from the Global South may take is to apply for government funded LLM’s, or Masters in other disciplines in a different country, before they do a PhD. This is a good strategy if you can manage it. I realise not everyone can though.

Srinivas Burra: What are the major challenges a doctoral scholar should be prepared to face during their doctoral studies?

Sundhya Pahuja: Every candidate will face two kinds of struggle.  First there are the ones particular to them, which usually involve life getting in the way of the doctorate. Four years is a long time, and stuff can happen.  Second there are the ones every candidate faces to a greater or lesser degree.  These can include loneliness, lack of confidence, periods of lack of motivation, sadness about the world, struggles with money…  The two things often merge as well…  Understanding that the psychological effects of a long solitary research project will be palpable on some level might be helpful. Having friends will always help in my experience.  So, whomsoever the candidate is, I would suggest getting involved with the institution.  Find communities of graduate students through reading groups and writing groups, without worrying about whether they are doing the same type of research. If they don’t exist, start them.  If you can’t find a community, create one. If you’re in a new city, try to emplace yourself.  Visit museums, learn about the city, volunteer in some capacity. Ground yourself in place if you can. A mooring may help when the seas get rough.

Srinivas Burra: As a supervisor how do you balance the academic freedom of the doctoral scholar and the need for the supervisor to give scholarly orientation to the doctoral research?

Sundhya Pahuja: I think I would put this question slightly differently, not so much in terms of academic freedom, versus being oriented by the supervisor, but by how being in a doctoral program shapes our work.  This is governed by slightly different things than freedom and constraint. 

I understand my role as a supervisor to be to help the student to pursue the project they want to pursue, but also to make sure that they are able to present it within the form of a thesis suitable for public examination, which meets the requirements of the genre, which makes sense on its own terms, and is fully justified, explained and defended, within those constraints.  It also has to be something achievable in a fixed timeframe. 

I have not had much conflict with my own supervisees, but I think that helping students to reign in their question to something specific, small and precise enough to be completed in three and a half years, and to pass examination can be felt by students as a constraint on freedom. That is because it is a constraint on freedom. But it is a necessary one because of what a PhD is.

I think the other part of this question might be asking how directive I think I should be…?  I suspect that I am more directive than some, not in terms of giving students an external agenda about content, so much as telling them what I think the most logical structure for their own work should be.  This is mostly about the organisation of the argument rather than its content.  I know I am quite directive in that regard….

Srinivas Burra: How significantly does the ideological orientation of the supervisor impact or impede the freedom of the doctoral scholar?

Sundhya Pahuja: Supervisees are in charge of their own research in terms of what topic they choose, what they read, who they choose to supervise it, and where they study.   They should not be surprised that their supervisor will demonstrate the kind of political and intellectual commitments that their work displays.   Hopefully the student will have chosen them on that basis, as someone they respect and want to learn from, precisely because of their work.   For me, it would have been difficult to have been supervised by someone with very different political commitments than mine.  A way of being in the world – a politics, ethics, world view and mode of conduct – is too important, and too connected to my scholarship for it not to be central. I chose my own supervisor, the late Professor Peter Fitzpatrick, because I admired his work and wanted to learn from him.  If you’re lucky, being the student of a great teacher is to be carefully trained in a form of life.  That’s a deeply political proposition.

Srinivas Burra: Do research proposals with critical methodological perspectives receive a similar evaluation as the proposals involving mainstream and doctrinal studies?

Sundhya Pahuja: Being critical might disadvantage you if it’s not a good fit with the institution. If you have a supervisor in mind who is interested in your work, and you have good marks in prior degrees, being critical would not disadvantage you in the selection and scholarship process in the institutions with which I am familiar.  But if the institution is known to be conservative, and there is no one there doing critical work, it may be difficult to interest a supervisor in your project.  Without a supervisor, there would be no offer.  Another reason to choose the supervisor first and the institution second…

Srinivas Burra: From your experience, do you feel that it is necessary that for doctoral studies, universities should institutionalize flexibility in terms of timelines, funding, and other issues to address the challenges based on gender, geographical origins, class, language, and other structural impediments?

Sundhya Pahuja: Yes, it’s important for institutions to be flexible, particularly when things arise during the candidature that are outside the candidate’s control. Many of us continue to be involved in our institutional processes to make sure that selection and support both help us to recognize and support excellent research that cares for PhD students as junior colleagues, and which does not just reproduce prevailing hierarchies.  I realise that many people don’t experience their institutional life in this way as PhD students or academics, particularly at this moment.

Srinivas Burra: What role can universities/institutions and supervisors play in helping overcome anxiety and mental health issues which doctoral students may face?

Sundhya Pahuja: This is a difficult question. I try to understand my students as whole people and help them and support them as much as I can. This can include helping them to access professional support when they need it.  Universities should provide some free counselling to all students.  I don’t know if they all do.  Having a person involved in supervision whose role is pastoral rather than intellectual is important. At Melbourne we have several people called ‘graduate research coordinators’, a role in which an academic will chair the committees of a number of students, not to provide input into the project, but to help manage the candidature and care for the student, providing a faculty member to whom the student can turn if there are problems with supervisors, for instance.  It also helps if there is someone to whom the students can turn to get help with funding and university rules, as well as available supports.

Srinivas Burra: Is it necessary that early career researchers should be selective about where they publish; like the reputation of the journal, blog, publisher, or editors of books?

Sundhya Pahuja: I think when we start out, trying to publish is hard enough without worrying too much about the status of the journal.  Choosing the outlet based on likelihood of acceptance in the first instance is pretty practical and good for your confidence! The rejections will come, and they will hurt, so I would start off modestly, and build from there. Some people arrive with a bang, but it’s probably better to plan for a slow to medium burn. More substantive considerations are interest and integrity too, rather than status.  I think we are all involved in creating the hierarchies which govern us. So the more we do things based on status and not on substance, the more we will make a world built on hierarchy and not on meaning.

Srinivas Burra: Do you see that there is pressure on early career researchers to publish more? Does that affect the focus of the researcher?

Sundhya Pahuja: Yes, it’s true that it’s difficult to get a job without publications.  It is an additional demand on the student.  But it can be very helpful to think of individual chapters as publications too.  Not all supervisors agree that this is a good way forward, but I encourage my students to publish as they go in ways that progress the work rather than impede it.  I think it’s also a good discipline to share work early, and not develop a desire to hang onto things until they are ‘perfect’.  The old adage is true that perfection is the enemy of completion. Joining the scholarly community with your ideas in print is great, and you don’t have to – and won’t – think in the same way for your whole career. So you have to publish as you go…

Srinivas Burra: In what ways, do you think, has COVID-19 pandemic affected doctoral scholars and early career researchers?

Sundhya Pahuja: Amongst my own students, the most difficulty has been felt by overseas students who are far from home, living in small flats, and watching their families suffer through waves of COVID, particularly when Australia had so few cases. They have felt isolated and helpless, and some have felt very guilty for being away from home when things are so difficult.  Also tricky has been the situation of those who have small children.  Home schooling for little ones was not possible alongside full -time work and yet that was what we were all meant to be doing.  For some, the monastic life of lockdown may have been productive up to a point.  But I think that the isolation, and thinking alone, were strongly felt, even with regular virtual contact.

Srinivas Burra: What is your advice to those who just completed a doctorate and are on their way to building an academic career?

Sundhya Pahuja: Well, it’s hard to say something of general applicability without sounding glib.  But I would say be flexible about where you apply. Practice your interview technique and talk to people who have done interviews to get a sense of the questions.  Have crisp answers to the main questions and don’t waffle. Remember that treating people with generosity is important, so when you rely on your mentors, see what things you can also do for them.  If you find a situation you don’t like, think about how you can lead.  Throw your hat into the ring for lots of things.  I have always found that getting involved has taught me lots, introduced me to people and led to opportunity.  When opportunity comes your way, share it.  When people give you critical feedback, take a step back and take a breath, don’t take it personally.  Try to learn as much as you can from it.  

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