How to become an academic in law
Are you considering a career as a law academic? Or have you decided that this is the career path for you?
This article will step through some of the key things you need to know about how to become a law academic in Australia.
How to become an academic
Almost all academic jobs in Australia require you to either have your PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) or be on your way towards finishing one. This step often comes after an undergraduate program like a Bachelor of Laws (Honours). Some academic jobs will also have other requirements like teaching and leadership experience.
When you’re tackling a PhD, it can often be completed in any field you choose – from economics, law and biochemistry, to things like engineering and medicine – as long as you have some background in that area.
However, if you want to be a law academic, you’ll need to have done your PhD in law or a related field (such as criminology). You also don’t necessarily need to be admitted as a lawyer or have had experience in legal practice. Although, if you want to research areas like the criminal trial process, it can be good to have had some exposure to practice.
Getting into a PhD
Getting into a PhD can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. Most students get into a PhD by achieving at least Class IIA Honours in their Bachelor of Laws (Honours) degree. But don’t worry if you haven’t achieved this class – you can still get into a PhD program by showing that you have relevant research experience.
Examples of relevant research experience can include:
- publishing academic articles in peer-reviewed journals
- preparing research reports for industry, business or government
- work experience where you can demonstrate that you have planned and executed a project with a high level of independence.
The more research experience you can show, the more likely it is you’ll get into a PhD – and the better chance you have of being awarded a scholarship for your studies, too.
Another pathway to securing a law academic job is starting a Master of Philosophy (or MPhil), which has less stringent entry requirements. From here, you can then transfer into the PhD program.
This is how Dr Joseph Lelliott started his research journey. He’s now a Senior Lecturer at the UQ Law School.
To apply for a law PhD at UQ specifically, you’ll also need to submit a research proposal. This means that you need to find a supervisor for your PhD and develop a rough idea of what you want to research.
Finding a supervisor and writing your research proposal
Before starting your research proposal, you should find one (or two) academics who will agree to supervise you if you get accepted into the PhD program. You can find potential law supervisors on the Law School website.
It’s best to look for academics whose research areas align with what you want to research. You might even find that some academics advertise PhD positions through UQ websites or via their social media accounts. Approaching a potential supervisor might seem daunting, but you’ll have gotten to know academics during your time as an undergraduate at UQ Law School.
Once you’ve identified a potential supervisor, the best way to get in contact with them is to simply send an email. Alternatively, you can drop by their office during office hours (often listed on their profile page).
Yvonne Breitwieser-Faria, a PhD student researching international law, believes finding the right supervisors is paramount.
“After all, you have to work with them for 3-4 years,” she says.
“The same goes for deciding on your research topic – you don’t want to spend years researching something you’re not passionate about.”
While it’s beneficial to have an idea of what interests you, you don’t need to settle on your exact research topic before approaching a potential supervisor. In fact, they’ll help you narrow down your area of interest and decide on a feasible project, as well as write the research proposal. So don’t panic if you’re not sure what to do yet.
What to expect during a PhD
Doing a PhD is an incredible journey where you’ll learn a whole lot about your area of research – and yourself. By the end, you’ll have:
- written an 80,000-word thesis that makes an original contribution to the field of research
- orally defended your work
- passed 3 ‘milestones’ (confirmation, mid-candidature review and thesis review).
Some students also teach and/or publish articles during their studies.
Most importantly, at the end of your PhD, you’ll be considered an expert in your chosen field.
During the PhD, you can expect many ups and downs. After all, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“A PhD is a training ground for academia," Yvonne says.
“You’ll have days where you can’t wait to get into your research and other days where you will sit staring at your screen all day, trying to find words to write. This is normal, and it’s something you will experience throughout your academic career. What’s important is learning how to get through those difficult times – if you can do that during your PhD, you’ll set yourself up for a successful career as an academic.”
It's important to remember, though, that while completing a PhD can feel isolating at times, you’ll still develop a sense of community with your peers throughout your candidature. At UQ Law School, we’re a friendly and welcoming bunch of students, often hosting regular social events like HDR morning teas – we love it when new people join the team.
Funding a PhD and supporting yourself financially
Before you apply for a PhD, it’s important to think about what kind of income you’ll have while you’re studying. It might seem daunting, but don't worry – there are many options available to you.
In particular, some students will do casual tutoring or paid research work. Most students also apply for a scholarship such as the UQ Research Training Program Scholarship or a number of other school-funded options.
Completing a PhD is one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do, and it’s the first step you’ll have to take if you want to become a law academic.
If you’d like to discuss applying for a PhD in more detail first or want more information about pursuing a career as a law academic, get in touch with Sarah Kendall at email@example.com or learn more about the process.
About the author
Sarah Kendall is a current Higher Degree by Research (HDR) student, Research Assistant for UQ’s Press Freedom Research Project, and president of the community UQ Legal Researchers at the UQ Law School.
Sarah has identified a gap in the knowledge of what it means to be a law academic, and she recently prepared and hosted a panel discussion with 3 esteemed law staff to share their insights and inspire the next generation of students.
Watch the event featuring Dr Rebecca Ananian-Welsh, Dr Joseph Lelliott and Yvonne Breitwieser-Faria to further explore what it means to pursue a career as a law academic.
If you’d like to explore pathways, learn more or express your interest in more events on this topic, please contact Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org.