by Mishel Bogatova
Year 4 LLB student, School of Law, UCLan Cyprus (2021-22)
Being an LLB student, I have found myself, as most students do, questioning what I should do next and ultimately what my career goal should be. There was, of course the apparent option to aim to practice law as a solicitor or go on and take the bar examination and become a barrister, however it was never something that interested me, and therefore never a part of my plan. As my fourth year was fast approaching, I undertook days of thorough research to answer one seemingly simple question ‘What do I do with my LLB degree?’. A variety of answers came back, from paralegal to conveyancer, civil service and policy making. Again, none of these really jumped out at me or really dealt with the topics I found most interesting, so I started doubting my degree choice altogether, questioning whether I should have pursued something else and not spent years studying something which has led me into a dead-end entitled ‘Practice or Bust’. Ultimately, I stumbled across internships offering research positions in various places like the Law Commission. A passion for learning in and of itself has been the driving force that has aided me through even the most tedious of assignments and modules, and research in its essence now appeared to be the most suitable path. After further reading, it seemed that along with research, a career which often followed closely hand in hand, is teaching, normally at university level. And again, after even more reading, I realized I was completely in the dark on how to pursue it, and all Google had to offer was ‘Go on and get a master’s degree and then you’ll see.’ So, I set out to find a way to lay out a plan on how to pursue this career, by interviewing my own law lecturers here at UCLan’s School of Law. Disclaimer: by the end of this article, I still don’t find a clear-cut step-by-step way how to do it, since the common impression is that there is none. But I do hope to at least identify some tips and provide some clarity for myself and others, who might find themselves at the same crossroads.
First, I spoke with Dr Andreas Marcou, who shared that initially he was exclusively interested in the humanities subjects, and studying law came out of searching for a more stable career in the humanities field. However, another thing he shared was that he enjoys teaching and since practice was never his interest, it seemed like the best option. While PhDs used to be regarded as a teaching bonus, in the last decades, they are the required norm to pursue university-level teaching and academia in general. In Dr Marcou’s opinion, however, when pursuing a PhD, it is important to look for ways to immediately put one’s skills and research to practice, for instance applying to student assistantships, where the university will offer pay as the PhD candidate begins to teach. Not only does this provide valuable teaching experience very early on, but also a possible certain discount on fees. This is most likely to prove highly beneficial, since PhD programmes fees are notoriously expensive, which prevents many from even considering pursuing this path.
Dr Marcou also shared, that his interest in theory of law and further teaching came from being taught by an excelling academic in one of his optional modules. He shared, that choosing a module that dealt with Plato and philosophy shaped his outlook and introduced him to a field he had not explored before, or even realised was an option. This brings out the next point that I have found to be true, is that despite needing to have a level of consistency within one’s cohort of chosen modules for future education and employment references, the best way to identify fields that may interest you, is if you have the option, to choose a wider variety of modules and undertake personal research outside classes. While I have enjoyed numerous modules throughout my years at UCLan Cyprus, only a handful really interested me enough to pursue a career in, mainly Criminal Law and Human Rights, foundations of which were taught to me in Criminal Law module (which is compulsory), Introduction to Human Rights and the War Crime Trials modules, which were both optional and allowed me to be submerged in new areas of law I had only been generically familiar with.
A part of the academic route, which appears to be most daunting yet most essential is publishing one’s work. Publishing is not simply a way to improve one’s academic reputation, but a vital performance indicator for many institutions, and a way to impact the intellectual community in the field. It is through publication that research, and contributions are circulated and exchanged within the field. This makes other researchers and practitioners with similar interests aware of new work in the field and facilitates to expand its application. It is more difficult to be published in higher quality journals, but it attests to the researcher’s expertise and ability to carry out grounded and thorough research. When speaking to Dr Nasia Hadjigeorgiou, she reaffirmed that publishing one’s work may just be the most crucial part of an academic career, and one that should be taken sooner, rather than later. A way to begin the process, is to send out polished parts of your student research or thesis to student legal journals, which are often Universities’ Law Review journals. Dr Hadjigeorgiou offered, that normally, chapters of one’s thesis can be developed into standalone works, as to not overwhelm the reader and ease your way into entering the academic publishing arena. Another way to be published is take part in peer review and write reviews or responses to already existing publications. It does, of course, take research and a level of expertise in the specific field; however, it is a good point to start. Dr Hadjigeorgiou highlighted, that despite it being sometimes very difficult to get your academic work published, even more so in non-student-oriented journals after graduating, the most important thing is persevering through the rejections while still incorporating constructive criticism, since the academic field is largely reliant on exchange of ideas and criticism and utilising useful critique may greatly improve one’s work. If your research is innovative and truly offers a contribution to the field, at a certain point your opportunity will come. Ultimately, she also reassured that it is perfectly natural to explore different career paths, before settling; despite having enjoyed writing assignments and dissertation, it was not her original choice of career, as Dr Hadjigeorgiou planned to be a practising barrister or solicitor. Dr Hadjigeorgiou touched upon consistency, passion, and determination multiple times, citing them as some of, if not the most crucial characteristics of someone who may wish to pursue a PhD and an academic career, due to long hours, often complex methodology in projects and largely less pay than, for instance, in the corporate legal world.
I have known Dr Demetra Loizou the longest since she has taught me from my very first day as an LLB student at UCLan. I have always found it interesting, that she teaches a variety of substantially diverse modules. This is something almost all my interviewees also touched upon, which is the fact that due to the academic field being so competitive and difficult to break into, one must often adapt to various opportunities that arise. All, however, view it as a positive thing, and as something which allows them to further develop as academics and explore other topics without hindering their original research interests. This is something I have personally found to be true while searching for internships and general employment opportunities for new graduates – while you have the opportunity to study and research what you find most captivating, it is still important to acknowledge that often you can benefit from a plethora of opportunities in various ways that you may have not considered before, therefore rejecting certain types of training programmes or internships may be unwise. Additionally, Dr Loizou is also my only interviewee who prior to teaching entered the legal profession as a practicing attorney. Having consciously chosen all essay-assessed modules throughout her studies, Dr Loizou shared that enjoying writing assignments instead of exams and exploring new topics was what sparked her interest in academic research over practice. However, despite leaning towards research, she shared that even though she did not want to train for a long time, she decided to pursue it, which ultimately landed her a corporate legal job at a good law firm. Dr Loizou also shared, that having knowledge of a third language and pursuing corporate opportunities that have unexpectedly arisen gave her valuable experience in a field she previously did not consider, ultimately strengthening her academic profile. A beneficial aspect of temporarily pursuing a route not originally intended, is the well-rounded knowledge of all the similarities and differences between pursuing an academic or a practising route. This allows one to make a conscious choice as to the benefits or downsides of both, and carefully consider the best path forward, which is something Dr Hadjigeorgiou also touched upon, when discussing how to move forward after one’s studies.
Now, in terms of acquiring additional qualifications, after completing a PhD degree, one can apply to lecturer positions as is. However, as all my interviewees mentioned, a qualification that is on the rise in popularity amongst academics and employers respectively, is a variety of types of fellowships at the Higher Education Academy. Higher Education Academy is an institution which advocates evidence-based teaching methods and awards fellowships as professional recognition for university educators, to improve the higher education systems for both professionals and students. While it is not mandatorily required by most universities as of now, many believe that its importance is increasing, since it is seen by many as a token of commitment to continuously improve on the part of the lecturer, and a desire to provide the best possible learning environment for their students. A path that may be gradual and beneficial is beginning to pursue the first stage with the Higher Education Academy, which is an Associate Fellowship, while you’re working towards a PhD. In total there are four levels (Associate Fellow, Fellow, Senior Fellow, and Principal Fellow) and acquiring the first while being a PhD student may signal to employers that you are willing to pursue it further and are motivated to stay up to date in the fields of teaching and research.
Dr Lida Pitsillidou shared, that she felt lucky to have discovered her passion for teaching in the early years of her undergraduate degree, which is earlier than most. While speaking to me, she reiterated multiple times the importance of being passionate about what one does, especially in the field of teaching, since it deals daily with young minds, who may not always be willing to put 100% effort into all the material or activities equally. It is partly the reason why Dr Pitsillidou believes strongly in professional development, namely by pursuing fellowships with the Higher Education Academy, and is currently working towards her Senior Fellowship. She believes that in order to take up a PhD it is not enough to be interested in research or teaching separately, but that an academic must be prepared to pursue opportunities on both of those fields. Naturally, while university teaching may appear to be focused on the material, since it is largely taught to adults and not school children, it is not the case in the digital age. Especially in times of COVID-19, which has been an unfortunate constant in our lives for the past two years, Dr Pitsillidou highlighted the importance of professional development. She spoke about how important incorporating new methods of engagement to stay in the loop with the constantly changing technology and modes of teaching has been, as to not hinder the quality and flow of the learning process of the students during the months of the pandemic. Another issue she made note of, is the fact that beyond being interested and passionate about what one is doing thematically, one must keep in the value of attending networking events with other professionals in the field and specially tailored programmes to continue excelling in one’s work. For an educator, these may range from seminars on their field of interest to specialist training in new modes of teaching, tools, and techniques for delivering material, etc. Continuous Professional Development (CPD) points that may be granted for involvement in these programs may not be compulsory to acquire, however employers are more likely to interpret it as an indicator of a stronger, more involved candidate.