Writing to Pass: My Dissertation Advice to Law Students
By Elias Munshya
Occasionally, law students from Zambian law schools do contact me for some “dissertation ideas”. Some find our blog very helpful in helping them narrow down a topic or two. While http://www.eliasmunshya.org is meant for the general audience, we are humbled at how we are contributing to the budding legal scholarship in Zambia. Here then are some dissertation ideas.
First, you need to know that the more specific you are in your dissertation, the better. For example, a study focussing on Zambia or Zimbabwe might be much more focussed than one that deals with Africa as a whole. Further, instead of trying to deal with all the areas of laws, focus on one. You cannot write a successful undergraduate dissertation if you have to incorporate every area of law out there – torts, crime, and constitutional law. It will be wise to focus on one area. Leave the complex inter-law analysis to later studies.
Second, do not take the middle way of what interests you. This is what I mean – choose a topic either of your highest interest or passion or of your least interest and passion. Do not go in a middle way, because you will not be motivated enough. I advise that if you are taking a topic of your “least” interest, make sure that you learn one thing or two from it. Your curiosity is what will motivate you. Do the hard work. If you chose the topic of your highest interest, go for it as well and let your interest drive you.
Third, tailor your proposal to your school’s policy. Do not forget that the school’s policy is as good as the dissertation professor assigned to you. Listen to what she has to say and work around her requirements. Do not go on choosing a topic or taking a step without, first of all, checking with what the school has to say. Academia sometimes is all about pleasing the sensitivities of your supervisors. And so pay attention to what they want. Let them challenge you.
Fourth, invest in excellent English writing skills. No one gets to become a good writer suddenly. By investing, I do not mean that go and spend a lot of money. You will be surprised at how much you will learn from posting your thoughts on Facebook or a blog. You will see the response from friends and from critics. Learn from that criticism. There are so many good grammarians on Facebook that have nothing better to do than correct wrong syntax and grammar. It will cost you a lot of money if you were to hire them; however, they come free on social media. Write – and let them critique you. It will do you right.
Additionally, avoid using complicated English. As a law student, and particularly, one that is training in Zambia – there is this tendency to try and use big and useless words. Do not use those useless words. They are useless. Stop the corrupted Latin. If a legal concept can be expressed in English, use English rather than Latin. If you use a Latin expression, make sure that you define it.
Fifth, find someone who can review your work. Now, this is a considerable challenge. Most reviewers and editors are extremely busy. I personally struggle to find time to write my articles, and so your writing or your essays will not be a priority for me to review or proof-read. However, work with the schedule of the person you wish to discuss your work. Kindly ask them if they can read your work and make some suggestions. I do not know about others, but for me, I would rather discuss with the student via a phone call than give them written feedback. This way, I save a tone of time for myself. And so, if you have someone to review your work, treat them well, tell them when you are open for a phone call and when the phone call rings, answer. Your professors and other mentors are busy people. You may wish to know that most law professors in Zambia have massive side gigs going. Pay attention to them. Work around their schedule.
It is bad manners for you to contact a professor or mentor, and then conveniently forget about the fact that you contacted them in the first place. Some of them want to help genuinely. Be the one to follow-up on them. If you are using social media to contact these people, here is a simple rule about social media, do not take it personally if they do not respond to your inbox message. However, as a general rule, give it a week or two and then contact them again. You may repeat this weekly or so. But if they do not get back to you, move on and do not take it personally. If you have other ways of reaching them – do that.
Another tip for social media is this. If you have to contact any prospective mentor, please avoid starting the conversation with the annoying “hi”, or “hello”, or worse still the hand memes or stuff like that. Be direct and straight to the point. Remember that most mentors use Facebook to socialise and not to work; however, the direct you are with them, the better. For example, greet them and then introduce what you are looking for. This person will have a few minutes to decide whether they will respond or not. If they choose not to respond, at least let them be aware of what you are about. You can say something like:
“Dear Ms Chite or Mr Chite – I have written Chapter One of my dissertation, I am looking for someone of your calibre to have a look at it. It will take no more than an hour, but your help will go along way in helping me complete my studies…blah blah…blah.”
Sixth, avoid plagiarism. Do not steal someone else’s ideas as your own. Make sure that you cite all the borrowed materials and designs. Saying “stolen” on a Facebook post does not cut it. Make it a habit of having correct citations in your documents. If you have to quote as an article on eliasmunshya.org blog, we have suggested citations on many of our items. Use those guidelines. But as a general rule – do not steal written material that is not yours.
Lastly, here are some dissertation ideas and topics. They are still in their infancy here, and it will take time to perfect them. I generally lean towards more fundamental questions of the law. And so I hope this will give you some ideas:
- A comparison of the composition of the Zambian and South African Constitutional Courts;
- A review of the growing Constitutional Court jurisprudence in Zambia;
- Zambia’s Women Judges: An analysis of their stories;
- Legal Regulation in Zambia: A comparative study of Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe;
- Disbarments in Zambia: The law and practice;
- Zambia’s Chief Justices: their history and philosophy of the law;
- Child marriages in Zambia: the law and the constitution;
- A review of law school curricula in Zambian law schools;
- The ethics of bar admission in Zambia and Namibia;
- The Constitutional Court of Zambia and its jurisdiction over the Bill of rights; issues and solutions;
- The dissenter: An analysis of Justice Munalula’s dissenting opinions in Zambia’s Constitutional Court;
- A review of Justice Mumba Malila’s judicial philosophy;
- Syntax and grammar – a review of the language used by the Supreme Court in the 1990s;
- Simplifying Zambia’s civil procedure rules;
- Facebook Lawyers: implications of the rise of social media on lawyer ethics;
- Studying the Law in the age of Facebook: An analysis of Facebook lawyers and Facebook groups for law students;
- Practice Beyond Borders: Implications of the transnational practice of law;
- Judges and Magistrates: An analysis of their conditions of service and its impact on judicial independence;
- A review of local court practice;
- Access to Justice – a review of the Zambia Legal Aid Board’s work in Milenge;
- The Law of the Seas and Waters in Zambia;
- Climate Change and the law in Zambia;
- Who Owns the Mosi-O-Tunya?: International Law and tourism cooperation;
- Meheba Camp and Citizenship: Implications of Zambian citizenship for regional refugees;
- The Laws of identity: a comparative study of National Registration Identity Cards in Zambia and Malawi;
- The law regulating accountants in Zambia;
- The law regulating engineers in Zambia;
- Nurses and the Law – implications for practice ethics;
- The Barotseland Agreement of 1964: its constitutional place in the new Zambia;
You can add to this list and I hope these topics can spur you towards more study.
Elias Munshya is a legal practitioner of the Alberta bar, and holds several degrees in law, counselling (psychology), business administration and theology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org