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Tackling the GDL Independent Research Essay as a STEM graduate

One of the best things about the legal industry is that it is open to people from all different subject backgrounds. There is often a stereotype that only history, classics and politics students end up in law. Whilst it is true that many graduates from these humanities subjects do end up taking the GDL, those with a STEM background also make the jump into law. If you don’t yet know what the GDL is, take a look at our post which breaks down the GDL here. This post focuses on the Independent Research Essay (IRE) which is the one piece of coursework assigned on the GDL.

As a side note, it is not just STEM students who might be unsure about how to go about completing the IRE, so feel free to share this with students from all backgrounds.

How will I cope with the Independent Research Essay?

One of the biggest worries about the GDL that STEM graduates might have is whether they’ll be able to cope with a subject which is more essay-focused. On the GDL, most of the exam questions will be essays or problem questions.

The only piece of coursework you will encounter on the GDL is the Independent Research Essay (IRE). This is a 4,000 word essay where the title is chosen from a list provided towards the end of the first term. It will cover an area of law which is not covered in detail on the GDL, so it will be up to you to research and learn about this topic. Due to it’s ‘independent research’ element, the only help or guidance given to you will be a a handbook and a presentation explaining how to approach the task.

However, don’t let this intimidate you. There will be some online lectures and guides outlining how you should structure and research your essay. In addition, most essay topics will have some guidance notes to help direct your research and potentially suggest a more specific essay structure.

Scientific writing can help improve your IRE structure

Many STEM degrees themselves will have a coursework assignment which requires you to write a lab report or a project write up. If you take a lab report for example, you generally have Introduction, Materials & Methods, Results and Discussion sections. If you have experience in writing a lab report, then you’ll already have many of the skills you’ll need to structure a law essay. Each section in a scientific report will be analogous in one way or another, to parts of your IRE.

Inevitably, you will need an introduction section which is similar to a lab report introduction. In this, you need to ensure that the reader is aware of all the relevant background facts in order to understand the rest of your essay. Whilst the Materials & Methods and Results section do not have a direct analogous part in law essays, they are, to an extent, incorporated in your chain of reasoning in a law essay. One of the advantages to having a STEM degree is that you’ll most likely be used to writing in a way in which you clearly and logically develop your chain of reasoning. One of the key marking criteria of the IRE is that you write a clear and coherent argument. In this way, you might be more well-equipped for writing the IRE than you think!

The Discussion section in scientific papers is often one of the sections which can bring in the most marks and bring up your mark significantly. It is your opportunity to show the examiner that you understand the subject to the extent that you can analyse and critique it appropriately.

In the same way, you can improve your IRE mark by including a deeper evaluation of your argument and showing the examiner that you know the strengths and weaknesses to the argument. This may sound tricky to do for a subject that you’re not familiar with but throughout your reading, you’ll find other opinions and critiques of the subject which you can go on to incorporate into your essay.

Legal research can be similar to scientific research

In terms of research, legal research is similar to scientific research, but without the experimental aspects. In order to find your information for your essay, instead of NCBI PubMed, you’ll most likely use websites such as Westlaw, Practical Law and textbooks which you can access via the library.

I would recommend learning the background law related to your topic by finding textbooks in the library. This will give you a basic overview of the area and can hopefully direct you to relevant case law and further reading.

Another tip to help you get started with research is to go to Practical Law and look the area of law which your essay is on. Practical Law often has clear summary with links to key cases and texts, helping you to direct your research.

Much of the research often involves reading a key paper and then looking through its references. Eventually, you’ll develop a bank of evidence/opinion to back up your argument and write a nice essay.

I found that scientific papers felt more structured than reading a case report. Despite this, judges will often provide subheadings to help guide you through their thought processes. As with reading scientific papers, not all the details will be directly relevant to your essay. It’s a good idea therefore, to first skim read the case report for the information you need. Then, if the judge’s points are relevant to your essay, go back over and read it again in more detail, picking out the key points.

Don’t panic!

One of the most important bits of advice I would give STEM students attempting the IRE is to remember that most other students are in a similar position as you. Most people on the GDL will not have covered these legal areas, nor will they have had much experience in legal research either. Don’t think that just because you have a STEM degree, you’ll automatically find it harder than a humanities graduate. Instead, identify the skills that you have learnt from your degree and leverage them to help you in the IRE.

At the end of the day, what examiners are simply looking for is someone who can research a topic and form a clear, coherent argument around it. It’s something that people from all degrees should have encountered before, so I’m sure you can rise to the challenge.

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