Ashna Devaprasad is an incoming MPhil candidate at the University of Cambridge. She completed her BA LLB (Hons.) from the National University of Advanced Legal Studies (NUALS), Kochi in 2022 with a specialisation in criminal law.

At NUALS, Ashna participated in moots and has emerged winner at the Stetson International Environment Moot Court Competition, Florida in 2020. She also served as the Secretary of the Debating Society and the Editor-in-Chief of the NUALS Law Journal.

In law school, Ashna was keenly involved in criminal justice research projects, working extensively on issues such as prisoners’ rights, the death penalty and child sexual abuse.

Alongside her interest in criminal justice, Ashna was an active member of the Centre for Environment and Law, NUALS. In her free time, she has volunteered with various social justice NGOs working towards educational equity and environmental justice.

1. I heard you are going for your MPhil in Criminological Research at Cambridge. How did you get interested in this area?

Throughout law school, I always enjoyed criminal law lectures. But it was not until my fourth year of law school – through an internship with Project 39-A, National Law University, Delhi – that I was introduced to the psychosocial and empirical dimensions of crime and punishment. This internship, along with some other experiences working with prison departments, criminal justice NGOs and social justice think tanks motivated me to think more deeply about how and why our legal systems punish, and the role of socioeconomic circumstances in shaping deviant behaviour. I was also fortunate to have interacted with and been exposed to the research of academics working on issues like the death penalty, sentencing policies, mass incarceration and human trafficking. The passion and rigour with which they studied and discussed these issues further augmented my interest in the field.

2. Can you tell us about the course you will be pursuing and how you chose Cambridge?

I will be pursuing MPhil/PhD (1+3 pathway) in criminological research at Cambridge. This social science course stood out to me because of its emphasis on data-driven (both quantitative and qualitative) and praxis-oriented approaches to criminal justice, as opposed to the LLM which is more doctrinal. I was fascinated by the pathbreaking interdisciplinary and comparative projects conducted by the various research centres under the Institute of Criminology. As someone interested in bridging disconnects between criminal justice theory and its implementation, I was excited to go beyond the academic curriculum and actively participate in field experiments on my areas of interest. At Cambridge, I hope to work closely with academics, NGOs, and government departments on areas like the quality of prison life, violence prevention strategies (especially serious crime) and restorative justice to investigate these subjects in greater depth. During law school, I also happened to chance upon the writing and podcast conversations of two academics at the Institute of Criminology whose work left a lasting impact on me. I suppose a combination of all these factors cemented my interest.

3. Can you elaborate on the application process, your approach to it and when you started applying?

To be honest, I only started to work on my applications in earnest a few months into my final year of law school. In terms of the process, I would say that the key to submitting a good application is doing your own research thoroughly (instead of solely relying on information available online) and being systematic. For example, I maintained a spreadsheet of universities/courses that interested me and made notes on key parameters like scholarships/fees, course options, professors of interest, application requirements/deadlines, etc. and kept updating the sheet as the applications progressed. Given how expensive each application can be, doing this will help you narrow down your choices, and identify key differences (e.g., the US application process is quite different from the UK). This will also leave you with enough time to work on personal/academic statements.

While I found most of the information I was looking for on the university websites which were quite comprehensive, do not hesitate to reach out to alumni or current students (I was pleasantly surprised by how approachable many of them were). In terms of the application itself, it is important to have a good GPA and showcase your strengths on the CV, but I found it more useful to spend time thinking about how/which personal experiences shaped my academic motivations and how I could best incorporate them into my SOP.

4. How did you plan and tailor your internships and research positions to suit your application?

The internships and research I undertook in law school were always conscious choices. I spent my first two years working with social justice NGOs and at criminal litigation offices, quickly realising that I enjoyed the former over the latter. In my third year, I interned at a corporate law firm out of sheer curiosity. While the experience taught me a lot professionally, I just did not see myself enjoying that line of work in the future. As I mentioned earlier, my internship with Project 39A and some other criminal justice organisations largely shaped my research interests. Further, during these internships, I was extremely fortunate to have had mentors who patiently guided me through complex work that I had never done before. In law school, I also enjoyed volunteering with NGOs and advocacy groups that advanced causes that mattered to me. These experiences taught me the significance of going beyond an idealistic pursuit of academic knowledge; to witness firsthand how the law is just one tool to remedy injustice in what is a profoundly unequal world. In short, rather than following a checklist of “must do” internships, explore work that speaks to you, even if it is not at a “Tier-1” law firm. At best, you find your passion, at worst, you eliminate it and learn something new.

5. How did you go about finding scholarships? Is this separate from the college application?

During the application process, I realised that most of us are familiar with the more popular scholarships that require separate applications (Rhodes, Commonwealth, Chevening, etc.), but know less about the abundance of university-specific scholarships offered by different trusts, councils, philanthropists/donors. While the former are separate from the college application, you can be considered for most university-specific scholarships by simply ticking a box indicating interest for funding consideration, provided of course, you meet the varying eligibility requirements. Some of these scholarships may also require you to explain (in a line or two) how you fulfil the eligibility criteria or after being shortlisted, require you to submit a short application form/give an interview before final selection.

If you are someone who cannot pursue higher education without some external funding, the best way to maximise your chances of securing funding is to apply for as many scholarships as you can. At the cost of repetition, finding the best scholarships is all about being thorough with your preliminary research and starting early.

6. I see that people in Tier-2 NLUs often get intimated by these applications. How would you describe your experience?

Thank you for asking this question, I think it is so important to address the difference in outlook among students from “Tier-1 NLUs” and other NLUs/non-NLUs. I believe that more self-doubt and underconfidence among the latter (myself included) stems from stark differences in academic exposure, co-curricular, extra-curricular and research opportunities, funding/scholarships, access to alumni, and even unfair comparisons made within the industry. While these differences can and do affect the success of applications, it is important to recognise that this is but one of the many problems in a system riddled with inequalities, so please do not disqualify yourself at the threshold. That said, many universities (especially post-pandemic) do provide you with an opportunity to describe any specific setback you faced that may have affected the quality of your application. Do not shy away from using this space to explain any genuine difficulties you experienced.

Speaking from experience, my advice to applicants second-guessing themselves would be twofold. First, challenge yourself and actively seek out opportunities beyond law school, including the possibility of remote work. Second, rather than taking on too much to craft an “impressive” CV, focus on improving the quality of your work, honing key skills, and of course, enjoying the process.

7. What do you plan on doing after your studies at Cambridge?

On a lighter note, I find solace in the fact that there is still a long way to go before I have to make that decision. Criminal justice research/policy or even academia are some of the areas I am considering. At the moment, I am really just looking forward to diving into the depths of criminological research and exploring everything else that Cambridge has to offer.

8. If you could give law students applying for their masters one piece of advice, what would it be?

Do not be afraid to let your authentic self, shine through in your application. We are often our worst critics and the application process can tempt you to make unhealthy comparisons and magnify your weaknesses. Remember that Admissions Committees want to see you for who you truly are and learn about distinct experiences that moulded your character. So if your first draft statement reflects your strengths and aspirations as others perceive them but your last draft displays more honesty, clarity, or even vulnerability, choose the latter. Getting your family or a close group of people (including from non-law backgrounds) who know you best to give you feedback and proofread your essays can considerably improve intelligibility.

9. I think it is fair to say that applying for postgraduate studies and scholarships can be very stressful. What/who kept you motivated throughout the process?

I cannot emphasise how much of a team effort this entire process is. From the day I started my first application to the day I was offered the scholarships, my family (especially my sister), professors at NUALS, mentors and a close group of friends have been my biggest sources of love and support. I am incredibly grateful to my recommenders, be it my professors at NUALS or mentors from internships and school who patiently worked with me on each application, motivated me through the low points, and believed in my academic and personal capabilities. I am also thankful for the kindness shown by all the individuals I reached out to, who, despite their busy schedules, took the time to share advice, read drafts and conduct mock interviews. None of this would have been possible without their encouragement. For me, it was also extremely important to spend time doing things I loved – regular exercise, listening to music, and relaxing with friends and family during this period kept me in good spirits.

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