Glasgow Alumni, ‘Joanna Wilson – Research and Teaching Associate in International Law’

As part of one of the Law Review’s projects this year we are undertaking written interviews with various law graduates to showcase the variety of career paths available to law students.

Kicking us off with October’s edition, we have the lovely Joanna Wilson who has kindly shared her experience and advice on her current roles at the University of Glasgow, as both a current postgraduate student and staff member.

After graduating from the University of St Andrews with an MA (Hons) degree in International Relations and Spanish and undertaking her year abroad teaching EFL in Santander, Joanna began her time at the University of Glasgow as a master student – LLM International Law and Security. Joanna has also completed an internship at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, British Institute of International and Comparative Law (London).

Joanna currently holds a staff position in the Law School as a Research and Teaching Associate in International Law, Conflict and Security and is also undertaking her PhD on the legal and ethical challenges raised by the use and regulation of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) – her thesis title being “LAWS, Laws and Humanity: “Ancient Freedoms”, “Modern Dangers”.


What were your motivations for undertaking a postgraduate research degree in international law at UofG?

My LLM was an interesting year as, having come from a largely theory-based International Relations undergrad which had turned me into quite an idealist, I was shocked, and, to be honest, a little disheartened, by the apparent inflexibility of the law in the face of real life danger and distress. I had the choice at that point to leave the field all together, or to stay and try, through my research, ‘do something about it.’ I chose the second option!


What areas of international law research are you interested in and why?

International Humanitarian Law/Laws of Armed Conflict: I admire its overarching aspiration to, in even the most dire of circumstances, make humans’ lives/experiences better, safer, more ethical, together with the opportunity and indeed necessity to consider the challenges posed by contemporary warfare to an existing set of rules and to strive for improvement and dynamism through commitment and creativity.

Critical international legal research offers the opportunity to question existing, largely accepted principles and demand more of them. I’ll never forget hearing, at the beginning of my studies, the words “No, the law can’t do that,” and thinking to myself “Why not? Let’s try!”


What are your current areas of research?

The legal and ethical challenges raised by the use and regulation of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS)

(Thesis Title: LAWS, Laws and Humanity: “Ancient Freedoms”, “Modern Dangers”)

I’m also interested in/ have previously researched in Peace and Conflict Studies, International Security Studies, Law and Technology, Law and Morality, Critical Approaches to International Law.


What were your motivations for undertaking a graduate teaching position? How did you go about applying for these roles? What are your long-term career aspirations?

I grew up in a family of educators and performers and always had a feeling that teaching ‘something, to someone, somewhere’ was where I was ultimately meant to be. My undergraduate year abroad in Spain cemented this idea as I so enjoyed the rewarding experience of teaching English as a Foreign Language to the students there. Upon my return to University, though, I really didn’t want to give up on my research which I was enjoying so much and felt so strongly about, and an amazing female lecturer (‘you can’t be what you can’t see’) provided the inspiration for the path I would eventually take. I am therefore carrying out my PhD with the ultimate ambition of becoming a University Lecturer, as a passionate belief in the joy and value of education. I enjoy working interactively with others and thrive on the stimulating reciprocal process of knowledge exchange.

It was therefore really exciting when, half way through the 1st year of my then self-funded PhD, that a job came up as a part-time, permanent Research and Teaching Associate in International Law, offered alongside a fully funded part-time PhD. I applied, interviewed and was appointed in January 2017. There are now 5 of these roles, one for each research group in the Law School and we work together in the same office.

Since then, half of my time has been allocated to my PhD, reading, writing and attending and presenting at conferences, with the other half of the week spent organising International Law events, coordinating activities (both curricular and extracurricular!) for fellow PGRs, and teaching.

The teaching is wonderful. Challenging, and tiring, but wonderful! I am consistently committed to enhancing student learning. I am a particular supporter of the use of inclusive, non-traditional pedagogical techniques, particularly in lectures, where I believe it is important to encourage active participation from the students to improve their focus, learning experience and grades. I’m so fortunate to be getting experience of both tutoring and lecturing this early in my career and I really enjoy it. I have worked to develop my own collaborative lecturing style, encouraging the students to get actively involved in class, take responsibility for their own learning and apply the lecture material in a useful, thoughtful and critical way, both to aid exam/essay preparation and to increase their capacity to apply their learning in the wider world. I also supervise honours dissertations and organise field trips for Masters students. It’s all an extremely rewarding experience, especially when you see the students really engaging with a subject and becoming passionate about it.


What advice would you give anyone thinking about undertaking either a graduate teaching position or PhD in international law?

In terms of applying for a PhD, if it’s something you decide you’d like to do, your first port of call, assuming you have a topic in mind, is to find a member of teaching staff to be your supervisor. They will guide you through the application process, firstly to the University, and then to funding bodies. You’ll need a really good research proposal with ideas on how your work is important for the ‘real’ world: the key word is impact! Once you’re in and started, my main advice would be to manage your time in a realistic way: try to work regular working hours and avoid all-nighters – it’s a long slog so your work it to be sustainable! On that note, remember that it’s your PhD – what works for others in terms of writing style, working hours etc, might not work for you and that’s ok! Find your own rhythm and have faith in yourself! However, it’s always good to befriend people who are further through the PhD than you, to give you advice and prove that it can be done: I attended my friend’s PhD graduation in June and it was amazing to see one of us finally reach the finish line! And while your PhD friends will undoubtedly, at least in my own experience, be the most lovely, supportive bunch you will ever meet, it’s also good to have a life outside the university and your research, whether it’s a hobby, exercise, a family dinner, trip to the cinema or a holiday – it keeps you grounded, and you’ll come back to your work fresher and more focused!

In terms of applying for teaching jobs, I was lucky that the permanent part-time position/programme came up just at the start of my PhD, where a number of teaching responsibilities are built into my work model. As I said there are 5 positions and each lasts 5 years, but if one is available at the time of applying for your PhD, it’s a super way to fund your research and also gain some brilliant experience and training in how to be an academic and manage your research/admin/teaching balance.

However, there are also opportunities to apply to be a Graduate Teaching Assistant, where you help out the main teaching staff by taking tutorials in one or multiple subjects. This is definitely something that I believe all PhD students should do as it cements your own knowledge of your wider subject area and allows you to spend some time in the real world, away from your thesis for a while. It’s also great work experience for a job in academia, and indeed in any industry, and a nice pocket money earner too!

Whether it’s the RTA position or GTA tutoring, I highly recommend existing and potential PhD students to apply and give it their all – just don’t forget to write your thesis as well!!


If you have any questions for Joanna, don’t hesitate to email and a member of our law review team will get in touch!


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