When applying for an LL.M. in Law at the University of Aberdeen, you usually get to choose between two different routes: Professional Skills, which aims to teach students how to mobilise their knowledge in a work environment; and the Dissertation, which is an independent piece of academic research on a chosen topic.
As I am deeply interested in legal research and teaching, I knew that I wanted to choose the Dissertation from the beginning. I started my LL.M. in Natural Resources Law in September 2020. At the end of February, we received an email informing us that the Dissertation process would soon begin with informative meetings and that it was time to think about potential topics. The introductory lectures covered all the essential issues: the drafting of LL.M. proposals and plans, how to write a Dissertation, question and answer sessions and so on. The meetings were helpful, even though I would have liked to have a few more scheduled.
Choosing a subject was a stressful step. Although I already had several ideas, it took some time to evaluate which ones were dissertation material. Therefore, I did some initial research on several topics and excluded those that were either too broad or too narrow.
After choosing a subject, the next step was to find an advisor. The advisor is a Professor of the University that is competent in your chosen area of research. They are there to discuss the plan with you, share some helpful advice and answer your questions.
My chosen topic was linked to one of the courses I took during the first semester. However, my Professor was on research leave during the second semester, and therefore, she was not available to supervise me. I asked her for help to know who could advise me on my topic, and she kindly gave me the names of other Professors, one of whom I already knew. Consequently, I contacted her and proposed my subject, and she told me she would agree to supervise me. I was reassured and joined her group on MyAberdeen (the University’s Virtual Learning Environment). Usually, this process takes place in person, and you need to write your name on a list pinned to the office door of your chosen Professor. However, this year, as the dissertation process occurred during the lockdown, everything was organised online.
Then, it was time to start researching to draft the first version of the dissertation plan before the advisor meeting, scheduled for 5th March. I read, read and read again. To this day, I must have read more than a hundred articles on my subject. I drafted the first plan, trying to be as precise as possible. We were all quite stressed about it, but the Postgraduate Law Support team reassured us that the first plan does not have to be perfect or final. This email eased up the pressure for a lot of us and was most welcome.
March was fast approaching, so I sent my plan to my advisor, and we scheduled our first meeting. It was highly enriching, and she gave me valuable advice, notably to stay focused on the subject. Indeed, as we are learning and sometimes discovering new areas of law, we often tend to include everything we have learnt, even if it is not entirely linked to our subject. She taught me how to be more concise and pertinent. We also discussed the formulation of titles and worked together to find the correct thesis statement. I am incredibly grateful for her help since it is not always easy to formulate good titles when English is not your first language. Finally, we reviewed the quality of my sources. I received helpful advice on what to prioritise: peer-reviewed journals, focusing on more recent articles (since my subject was topical). My plan was approved, and I uploaded it to MyAberdeen.
After the first meeting, it was time to go back to my research to continue improving the plan while staying focused on my subject. One piece of advice genuinely helped me in the elaboration of the plan: to directly incorporate flexibility into it, mentioning, between parentheses, which sections could be shortened or extended if needed. Indeed, it is hard to envision a few months in advance how you will do with the word count when it comes time to draft the Dissertation. This helped me a lot, and I was grateful for this flexibility when I realised I was too ambitious on the length of the essay.
The second meeting took place on 26th March. I had to present the amendments I had made to my plan and discuss my new sources, but in general, it was a quick meeting. My final plan was approved, and I once again submitted it on MyAberdeen. I must admit that I then put the Dissertation on hold to concentrate on my second semester’s exams.
I finished my second semester at the end of April and took a few days’ break. From May to June, I worked harder on finding new and more specific sources on precise points of law. I drafted myself a form of roadmap, an extremely detailed plan, to make the final writing easier: this way, I only had to formulate my sentences and all the information needed was organised in one single document. At the end of June, I got really scared about starting the Dissertation drafting: what if I encountered a new article, a new law that changed absolutely everything? I wrote an email to my advisor to ask for advice. She told me to just go for it and see how it goes, and that is what I did.
Starting was not easy. My formulations were clumsy, sometimes a bit too convoluted, but they got better with time. Some parts were also easier to write than others. It is challenging to find the right balance between precision and conciseness whilst remaining within the word count, but it is a valuable exercise. It took me a month to draft the Dissertation, sometimes slightly adjusting the plan as needed. My main advice would be to reference right from the beginning, even if it is not perfect: it will save you a lot of time at the end of the drafting process.
In mid-June we also had the workshops. Those meetings were organised by the University, with numerous Professors with different specialities. We could share our topic and thesis statement, present our conclusions and ask questions. It was very enriching.
Then came August and the time of proofreading and corrections. When you are not fluent in English, it is a very long and tedious step. It takes a lot of time and effort, and I remember being stuck for hours sometimes on silly questions such as whether to put a “the” in front of a word. I finalised my work by adjusting the referencing and deciding on the page layout. The examples of past Dissertations uploaded on MyAberdeen made this part easier since we could find inspiration in others’ structures.
I submitted my Dissertation a little bit early to avoid any last-minute problems. It was an enriching experience as I had never done anything like this before. It was challenging to keep the motivation to write almost every day, but the Postgraduate Taught Summer Monitoring Forms helped me stay on track. Indeed, I filled them up in advance as an objective to attain throughout the months. I also think it is essential to be realistic and to schedule breaks you can look forward to. I took two vacations in total, during which I completely forgot about the Dissertation for a few days. Everyone functions differently, but for me, this was necessary because even when you are not writing, you tend to think about the Dissertation 24/7.
Another interesting point is that you learn so much from your research in this period that you are no longer the same person in August regarding your knowledge as you were in February/March when you decided on your subject and thesis statement. It was challenging for me to finish a Dissertation I would probably do differently if I could completely start over today. Even if it is a conflicting feeling, I do find it very positive: it shows how much we learn and evolve in the process.
All in all, I genuinely enjoyed the process of the Dissertation. I like researching, reading and discovering new areas of law. Thanks to this first experience, I know that if needed in the future, I would do similar exercises with willingness and goodwill. If you enjoy reading academic articles, and generally, you like the format of written essays, the Dissertation may be for you. On the contrary, if you are looking for more practical experiences, why not go for the Professional Skills route, which may be more suited to you.