let’s hear it for the ‘mature’ doctoral researcher

I was a late academic starter. Or perhaps I should say that my academic path was interrupted by well over two decades of professional work, and a life. I’m not the only one. I find lots of people with similar lengthy, and apparently non-academic, backgrounds in university meetings and workshops – and many of them are doctoral researchers. These are people who have given up a well-paid job, security, a sense of achievement and often considerable professional authority and autonomy, in order to return to study to get the ultimate qualification, the PhD. Some are still working, juggling the demands of a full-time job and various life obligations with part-time enrolment. Quite often, but not always – and it doesn’t matter whether they are full or part time “students” – they hope that the doctorate will allow them to move into a job in higher education.

Those who hope to transfer from their current work setting into HE often feel that they are starting all over again. They are behind, they fear, those who haven’t diverged from a straightforward academic path. Well, this post is for these people. I’m here to say it’s important to remember what your other job does for university work.

Now I don’t want to spend time in this post talking about how lousy the job situation is for doctoral researchers. It is. Nor how hard it is for people juggling a job and work. It is. Neither do I want to focus on how much is now crammed into the full-time doctoral experience – courses, public engagement, work experience, publishing in all manner of media, even achieving impact – it’s true, it’s a pretty big ask. And I don’t want to defend higher education institutions that often don’t have part-time doctoral researchers at the forefront of their mind when they plan events, courses and audit requirements. Yes, yes, to all of this. What I do want to say, here and now, is that the “mature” doctoral researcher does actually have some advantages in the higher education job market, if they think about how to put them forward in their cv.

If I think of someone who has worked in a professional capacity – as an administrator, social worker, teacher, nurse, lawyer, public servant, or in industry for example – then they probably already know how to do a lot of things. A lot. These may include some – or indeed all – of:
• multi-tasking as a way of life
• documenting everything
• meeting deadlines
• organising themselves
• organising other people – often inducting, supervising and training them
• organising information and having good information retrieval systems
• communicating in a range of ways to a range of people in a range of circumstances about a range of issues
• managing projects
• managing budgets
• planning strategically
• working to targets
• working in teams often as team leaders
• negotiating, exercising initiative, being flexible
• developing networks

These are all handy competencies in doing research but they are also extremely useful for working in HE. Unlike new doctoral researchers, those with previous work histories don’t have to acquire these habits and skills through work experience or internships, the “mature” doctoral researcher has them already, often in spades. In addition, different occupations also produce particular sets of competencies – so teachers are often good at presentations, training and of course teaching, social workers at supervision and group work – and so on. These occupation specific competencies are important in universities too and can certainly be highlighted in academic applications for work – and evidenced.

Wait, that’s not all. When people come into HE from life-work they also bring with them networks and work-related knowledge which can be crucial in achieving current public engagement and impact focused agendas. This is not to be sneezed at.

Take me as an example. I finished my PhD in pretty rapid time because it was closely related to my professional work. I had unprecedented access to people, and I had over two decades of professional, policy and academic reading in the area. Doing the lit review and the field-work were a breeze and I saved a lot of time because I already knew how to write and argue, it was in my job “skill-set”. And when I started work in HE I knew lots of people already in the field so developing practice focused courses wasn’t difficult. None of this was because I was particularly clever, it was simply a case of knowing how to transfer my knowledge and know-how from one sector to another.

Why am I saying all this at such length? It’s obvious isn’t it? Well no. I often see people who devalue what it is they bring with them from their other lives. They compare themselves with doctoral researchers who have gone straight through from school to university, who are up to date with the literatures and current debates, who are in the swing of academic writing, and who seem to be less burdened by mortgages, aging parents, putting kids through university and the like…. And they don’t need to. I really want to shout out very loudly that this sense of inadequacy isn’t necessary.

It’s simply a shift of mind… focusing on what the “mature” doctoral researcher brings, rather than what they/you don’t have. It’s about being able to talk about what they/you already know how to do, who they/you know and what they/you know, and seeing the continuity between work in one setting and another. You are already streets ahead in areas that are important to the actual work in HE. And that’s something to be quite pleased about.

(This post was prompted by a particular doctoral researcher. You know who you are. You also know what you can do. Flaunt it.)

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in 'mature' doctoral researcher, work experience and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to let’s hear it for the ‘mature’ doctoral researcher

  1. I’m not the person you wrote this for, but thank you for this, Pat. All very true, and a comforting reminder.


  2. Jane S says:

    Thank you, Pat ~ as Karen said, a salutary reminder. When the going gets tough (which it frequently does!) it’s difficult not to feel inadequate, comparing oneself with Bright Young Things who appear to have this process all sussed out. I’m not doing research as a careerist but for love of the A&H subject field. However, it doesn’t matter what the reason – the demands are the same. ‘Multi-tasking as a way of life’ – and then some.


  3. cathannabel says:

    Indeed, as someone who’s just started, at the age of 56, on a part-time doctorate, alongside a full-time job, every word in this rings true and is hugely encouraging and motivating. Thank you so much, I will save this to read whenever I get discouraged and disheartened.


  4. Robin says:

    So true. As a mature research student I treated my phd like every other job I’d had and worked 9-5. For me full time study was a luxury (first time in 3 degrees) and I picked up a tenurable job based on a decade in corporate training. My research outputs are still ordinary compared to those who started decades earlier, but overall life experience has been infinitely valuable in my academic career. You are NEVER too old to do anything!!!


  5. Reblogged this on FESTIVAL VOLUNTEER RESEARCH and commented:
    This is a great blog – and one which resonates with me. Returning to academia after 17+ years corporate human resources experience was a massive culture shock for me. It is strange to feel that a future academic employer might not value the business experience I have to offer, plus the management and leadership expertise I have. Fingers crossed (and a lot of work to sell myself) that it won’t come to fruition!


  6. This will be me in a few years. I had always wondered about this. Thank you. You’ve put my mind at rest.


  7. Shubhashnee Subryan says:

    Thank you for this!! I can identify with it and to the responses. I started my PhD at the tender age of 62 not for professional advancement but to keep my sanity while I stay at home to be my husband’s companion. I am what you would call a full-time distance student and I love it. This does not mean that I do not have moments of questioning my sanity for this venture nor dealing with the despair of the future for my ‘expensive hobby’. But when I am asked what happens after the PhD, I smile pensively because, Pat, for a while I find myself dreaming of the possibilities you have mentioned.


  8. Love my dose of Patter. Fantastic! Helped with writing, lit review, have not yet used abstract advice but plan to. I am a mature academic and loving it!


  9. Elizabeth says:

    All very well except the people who are responsible for making hiring decisions in HE went the direct route and have very little appreciation of ‘outside skills.’ Even in law, where one would expect actual practice experience to be a huge asset – it is largely frowned upon by academics who have never set foot outside the university. I certainly feel that my academic work needs to be significantly better than younger peers to get over the ‘practice handicap.’ The ability to administrate is pretty much taken for granted at post Phd level, and is not a huge selling point.


    • pat thomson says:

      I know it doesn’t always count. But it is worth trying to talk it up and make it matter. There are some people, me included, for whom it was counted not only in getting a job, but also for the level of position on offer. And of course, people like me sometimes get to influence HE practices once we’ve made it “in”.


  10. Thanks for this Pat. Having spent the past 8 years working with ‘mature’ doctoral students on a professional doctorate I can vouch for everything you say. I was amazed at how these incredibly talented people, many of whom carried enormous responsibility at work, somehow felt lowly, insecure, and out of place. You could see it in their physical posture as they came through the door. Too often, though, university learning seems to require locating them as ‘lacking’, and quickly disregards their knowledge. Mature, distance learning doctoral students is another matter again.


  11. Robyn Ward says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I am a mature age part-time doctoral researcher and your words have come at just the right time and I was having a moment! Again, thank you for reminding me of the skills that I have and had forgotten about.


  12. Brian says:

    Hi Pat

    As a midlife doctoral student, and “early career” hopeful academic I have often wondered how I can use my life experience and skills and now you have offered some guidance. Thank you for this post and/or your post this year.


  13. Liz Monaghan says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! As a part-time, very mature Masters student, hoping (needing!) to progress to a doctorate, I appreciate your recognition of the distinctive nature of experiences and skills earned over many years. I have swapped comfort and security for intellectual challenges and thrills and, yes, there are days when my choice feels just a little too risky, but mostly that is the effect of others around me who would not have dared to embark on such a demanding learning journey. Happily, I guess I am not one of life’s ‘cruisers’, but a ‘lone trekker’ who loves getting ‘lost’.


  14. Many. Thanks for this. As someone in my upper mid 40’s finally doing the PhD I never thought I would, I found this massively reassuring.


  15. LInda Baines says:

    Pat. Thank you for this, It’s reassuring to read this. Sometimes, I think that universities have not yet really worked out how they can best support mature PhD students, especially those of us who live away from campus and/or are part-time.


  16. Roma says:

    Brilliant post – really encouraging. Just what I needed to hear without even realising I needed to hear it. I always look forward to reading your posts, this one was particularly personal.


  17. Just Frances says:

    Thank you, Pat! I began my undergraduate studies at 25 so I don’t really understand what a “traditional” student life is all about anyhow. After many of life’s wonderful (and scary) detours, I am now just beginning my PhD – two months’ shy of turning 40. And I must say that I’ve been extremely pleased to see that I am no longer the “old” one at school – as most of the other doctoral students I’ve met have already reached 40 and beyond! (I feel like the YOUNG student for a change!)


  18. Meaghan @rovermog says:

    Speaking as exactly one of these myself, it’s so nice to read this and feel part of the ‘norm’. I would be really interested to compare attrition rates for this group compared to others – I can’t help feeling that our life-experience helps us endure some of the more gruelling PhD times. I reckon endurance is the single most valuable asset in surviving and succeeding in a PhD. Again, talking from personal experience, this spills over into EVERY facet of your life – both the good and not necessarily so good.
    Speaking as an HDR recruiter, this is clearly a growing and successful market.
    Speaking as someone working in research management, it’s so great to see the contribution that mature doctoral researchers contribute to the research environment that everyone benefits from.
    It’s great to be part of it.


  19. Julie Douglas says:

    Thanks for this! After a varied but non-academic life. I did a masters at 53 (cum laude, to my astonishment) It was very much unfinished business from my youth! I then worked mostly independently for 12 years in research/evaluation in South Africa and at 64 registered for the PhD. I feel very old indeed. But I wanted to probe something experience told me was crucial and under-researched and thereby raise awareness of it to provoke some repair/restoration. I have all the feelings of inadequacy and being an imposter that you describe – and more! At times I wonder what the point is at my age, and where this will lead – if anywhere – but hopefully one more year should do it..


    • Deborah Schaler says:

      Hi Julie

      Your post really resonated with me and I can assure you that your feelings are shared by many. I am also of non-academic background and a non-traditional academic journey which I entered late but with a great deal of work/life experience. I have worked in various roles in the health field in Australia. I am now 58 years of age and about half way through my PhD journey. Like you my field of research is very important to me and I would like to make a difference and I am optimistic that I can add to knowledge in my field.

      As for the longer term question of what comes next, well I will be satisfied if I have added to knowledge of and/or contributed to better processes in my field if study. And I plan to continue on in my field of study post-doc just because it is so interesting to me and an evolving field that I think I can continue to contribute to. Through our research we are continually expanding our networks and therefore opportunities so you never know what opportunities will be knocking on your door.

      As to the ‘bright young things’ mentioned elsewhere in this blog I just love them!! They invigorate me (and I never feel old when in their company) and I admire them to bits and pieces but I have also found that they really value some mentorship and encouragement from their more mature and life experienced colleagues. We are all in this journey together and have much to gain from each other’s company. And re your ‘cum laude’ that is proof enough that you are more than up for the task of completing. I wish you all the best in the final stage of your PhD.


  20. Barbara says:

    Thank you Pat, What a great post! Yes, that is me too! I came to the academy as a late life-long learner. It is the most satisfying journey that I have traveled in my many jobs in life. I have felt that imposter syndrome, and great insecurity–yet I have also been able to build a wonderfully supportive network of colleagues. My adviser is an exceptional leader and sets the bar at a reasonable level. I am well into my 3rd year and am beginning to feel like an academic. I also have a colleague who is doing research about late-entry women in the doctoral process. I thank you for a great post a great way to reflect at this time of year.


  21. Pingback: Are you a supervisor of choice for mature age students? – Becoming a PhD supervisor

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