If you are passionate about human rights, pursuing post-graduate studies specialising in this topic is a wonderful opportunity. Not only will you be increasing your employability in the human rights sector, you also give yourself the chance to broaden your academic horizons and acquire new skills. This article gives tips regarding how to conduct a research study as part of your LLM in human rights.
What is an LLM?
An LLM is a masters in law. Usually, to be eligible to apply for an LLM you will need to have completed an undergraduate degree in law. However some universities offer this course to those who have studied other related disciplines such as psychology, sociology and philosophy. One of the many advantages of a multi-disciplinary course is that you will have the chance to discuss human rights issues with colleagues from diverse academic, social and geographical backgrounds.
Usually, an LLM is between 12 months and two years long. A human rights LLM can be coursework only, or dissertation only, but is often a combination of both. You can expect to take elective coursework components on topics such as International Law, Refugee Law and Women’s rights. Most LLMs require the student to submit a dissertation, for the whole, or part of their course credits.
What is an empirical research study?
An empirical research study is an original project, where you gather and analyse your own data, rather than relying on data from someone else’s research. Whilst often a dissertation will be a desk-based exercise, some universities allow the student to undertake their own independent research project.
Empirical research projects take longer, and involve more practical challenges than simply using the existing literature. However, getting out into the field and conducting your own research can be immensely rewarding and you will walk away with a researcher skill set that will set you apart from your fellow students.
What are the main stages to an LLM human rights research study?
The process for conceptualising and undertaking a human rights research study can be broken down into the following stages.
Check the protocol at your university: Each university has its own policies surrounding research studies. The first step is to speak with your course convener to find out if it is possible to do empirical research as part of your course. Then check what steps you will need to follow to obtain approval from your university to undertake the research.
1 Find a supervisor: Good supervisors get snapped up early in the academic year, so waste no time in finding a supervisor who is willing to work with you. Meet with a few different potential professors to get their perspective on your ideas, and to see who you click with. If you get brushed off, don’t be disheartened, but do take on board constructive feedback at this early stage of your thought process.
2 Pick a topic: Easier said than done. You may know that you want to look at the financial struggles of undocumented migrants, but how will you access this population to gather data? What kind of data will you measure, and how will you check if the information is correct? Remember, an LLM research study is likely to be a time-bound exercise, with limited resources. Therefore you need to pick a small and manageable topic. You should also consider if there are likely to be significant obstructions in gathering your data – for example, will you have to wait for many months for government approval to access the data that you need? If so, think about the impact of this delay upon the completion of your studies. Is it worth it? If your supervisor thinks your idea is unrealistic, pick a more straightforward subject to research.
3 Read, and then read more: So you’ve got an idea, and your supervisor agrees that it is a worthy topic of research. The next step is to read as widely and deeply as possible. Break your idea down into key concepts and research each of these individually. For example, say you are looking at rates of recidivism amongst juvenile offenders in New York City. You would want to read around understandings of recidivism more widely, and how the term has been defined by different authors. You would also want to look into previous studies in the same area on the same topic. Think about which studies draw you in and which you instinctively reject. Explore why. What has not been covered? Try to find a small niche for yourself where there hasn’t been any recent research.
4 Write a research proposal: This is possibly the trickiest part of the process. Having read far and wide, you now need to zone in, in order to define your research question. Make sure you set yourself a question that you can answer with the data that you intend to collect. You then need to condense what you have read into a succinct summary. Try to avoid simply describing the topic; instead, move into an analytical space where you are framing the information that you have absorbed in your own words, in a way which is tailored to your research question. Write some persuasive prose about why your proposed study is worthwhile.
5 Decide upon your methodology: You need to decide how you are going to go about obtaining the information that you need in order to answer your research question. Are you a numbers person, if so you might lean towards quantitative research, which involves working with large volumes of information, such as survey data, and interpreting the findings as statistics. Or perhaps you are someone that prefers to paint a picture with words? If that is the case then you might prefer to conduct qualitative research. This is more likely to involve periods of observation, and/or in-depth interviewing of your participants. Perhaps you can do a mixture of numbers and words; this is known as mixed methods research. Whatever you choose, you need to explain why your chosen method is the best and most practical way to approach your study.
6 Obtain ethical clearance: Where you are working with human participants, it is very likely that you will need ethical approval from your university to complete the research. Usually this will involve you making an application to the ethics committee, where you submit your research proposal and explain how you are going to protect the individuals involved in your research, and the wider community, from harm. You will need to think about whether the proposed benefits of your study are likely to outweigh the risks. For example, say you are working with former gang members. You may feel that they would benefit from the opportunity to reflect on their experiences, and get their voice heard. Perhaps their story will help the government understand what kind of interventions are effective; maybe it will help other young people avoid falling into the same trap. However, is there a risk that they may be identified in your research, even if you take steps to protect their confidentiality? What kind of issues could this cause? Before approving your research, the ethics committee may ask to meet with you to discuss this balancing exercise.
7 Collect your data: This is the fun part! Now you get the chance to go out into the field, and putting your hypotheses to the test. Perhaps you are going into different courts, police stations or prisons. However, research can be just as interesting when it is close to home. You could collect information from internet forums or from your local neighbourhood watch scheme. Wherever you are, keep a notepad with you and, in addition to your data, record your personal observations as you go. How did you feel walking into the space? Did you feel safe? If not, why not? How did you feel when you got home at the end of the day? What was similar to expected, and what was different? If an aspect of the study did not go as intended, note this down. When you come to your write up, these reflections will comprise an important part of your findings.
8 Analyse your data: Now, you’re back at your desk. You may have a stack of audio recordings to transcribe, or a pile of surveys that you need to transfer to a spreadsheet. Once your data is all in one place, you need to develop a procedure for interpreting it in order to draw conclusions from your research. Often, this will involve coding, where you thematise your participants’ responses into different categories. For example, say you ask your participants what could improve the criminal justice process. You may want to categorize their answers into groups such as: access to information; better legal representation; shorter wait for a trial date, etc. Analysing your data in a logical way will help you identify patterns.
9 Write up your findings: This is your time to shine. You need to lay out your literature review, methodology and findings. Then, you need to take a step back and discuss the conclusions that can be drawn from your findings. What does the research tell us as a whole? Does a certain piece of data fall outside of the norm. If so, what might have caused that? You can also explore the limitations of the study, and the potential subjects of future research.
Conducting an LLM human rights research study is a rewarding process. Whatever the fallibilities of your project, you are guaranteed to learn from your experiences. Empirical research can help you realise where your passions lie in the human rights field, as well as giving you an insight into how researchers develop an evidence base for new law and policy. Participating in a research project will also offer you new perspectives and resources with which to tackle human rights conundrums in your future career.