Jenny Johnstone, Lecturer
Newcastle Law School
Humanities and Social Sciences
What did you do?
The Law School offers LAW8152, a two semester module on theories and methods of research specific to the field of law.
Who is involved?
Professor Chris Rodgers and Jenny Johnstone organise the module, and several other members of staff lead seminars throughout the year. The module is required for all PhD, MPhil and research LLM students.
How do you do it?
Several years ago, the Law School introduced this module to provide subject specific training that would complement the interdisciplinary training offered by the Faculty. Recognising the inherent challenge of providing appropriate training across a variety of student research interests and educational backgrounds, the staff have tailored the module so that it focuses on specific projects and is as student-focused as possible. Indeed, the research methods programme has given rise to a number of student-led activities, including a PGR seminar series.
In Semester 1, the module includes a library session (covering legal databases, referencing guides and plagiarism) and an introduction to legal research skills. Students are then asked to complete a literature review that incorporates research skills from the sessions and identifies principal texts for their chosen research topics. The literature reviews are marked by students’ supervisors and moderated by the LAW8152 module leader. For research LLM and MPhil students, this module provides a starting point for future work on a PhD research proposal; for PhD students, it serves as a useful exercise at the start of their research.
Students who begin their studies in January can complete the literature review in Semester 2. In Semester 2, the module includes a series of sessions on such topics as ‘Qualitative Methods in Legal Research’, ‘Confidentiality and Data Protection’, ‘Sharing Experience of Fieldwork’ and ‘Writing Papers’. The sessions are organised so that members of staff talk about how they have used specific research skills in their own projects – for example, in talking about qualitative research, one member of staff circulates copies of a questionnaire that he has used in an AHRC-funded project and talks with students about how it is structured. Another member of staff looks at a number of projects, including one involving mixed research methods, both qualitative and quantitative. These projects also act as a catalyst to discuss issues such as ethics in research.
In another Semester 2 session, students are grouped into pairs based on their research interests and given a previous PhD/MPhil thesis to review. The pair must prepare and present a thorough critique of the thesis’ topic, methodology, hypothesis, structure, and conclusion, including positive comments as well as constructive criticism. This exercise encourages students to think beyond their own educational background and work with another student; it also helps them to begin thinking about how best to structure their future theses.
Why do you do it?
Although the Faculty research training programme provides students with crucial time management and research skills, the Law School wanted to provide more subject-specific training tailored to students’ needs as well as more concrete advice on the structuring of Law PhD/MPhil theses.
Does it work?
Students greatly appreciate the opportunities to learn Law-specific research skills and to review previous theses. Even advanced students benefit from the opportunity to critique an existing thesis and think about how they might have structured the research and/or presentation differently. From a staff perspective it is useful to be able to use staff members’ existing research projects, which assists in the time needed for preparation.