the ‘later on’ PhD


It not unusual to think about the PhD as a seamless pathway from undergraduate to Grad School with maybe a Masters in between. But not all PhDers do go straight through. Many work, often for quite a long time, before they begin a doctorate. Some of these ’later-on’ doctorates are also undertaken part-time.

People who do doctorates after a significant period in work may well have come from a profession – think for instance of education, nursing, law, architecture, business, theology, engineering, journalism, art, music, medicine, social work. But there are also  ‘mature age’ (as they are called in some places)  PhDers rubbing shoulders with ‘straight through’ PhDers in other disciplines. And actually in some professional areas, such as my own, Education, it is pretty rare to see ‘straight through’ PhDers at all, even among full-timers. The vast majority of Education PhDers have had experience in the field.

These ‘later-on’ PhDers have, for whatever reason, decided that more study is for them. We don’t seem to have asked the later ons very often why they took on the PhD. But my guess is that a lot of people are strongly motivated to doctoral study for intrinsic reasons – it is something that they have always wanted to do, they haven’t had the time to pursue an idea, a puzzle, a possibility, before now. Some later ons may also be interested in a career change if the opportunity arises. Others may want to stay in their profession but work differently post PhD. A few may need a doctorate in order to get promoted. But what the professional usually wants from their PhD are systematic ways into core scholarly practices in research, and academic writing, rhetoric and argumentation, as well as immersion in the scholarship in their field.

Individual faculties/schools catering for lots of later-ons may recognise the value of their later ons’ work experiences, significant prior, applied knowledges and networks. Such faculties may even have particular ways of acknowledging and building on the later ons’ experiences, particularly in the design of the PhD research projects.

Let’s just pause for a minute to list a few of the things the professional brings. The professional arrives at their PhD with detailed in-depth current experience of practice, and a good idea about the kind of research that will make a difference in their field. They may well have sophisticated skills in argument – a lot of professional work involves making a case for something, gathering evidence, synthesising information, anticipating objections and difficulties. They are likely to be able to talk to a wide range of people, make connections, organise events and work in various teams and collaborations.  Depending on their work, they may have detailed knowledge of policy-making, have a long history of working in partnership with academics, know how to work with media and/or already be deep into some of the scholarly literatures in the field. They may also be risk takers, be independent, well-organised, self-motivated and resilient.

I’d put all of these things in my own audit of pre-PhD professional work knowledges and skills. Before starting a PhD I’d worked for twenty seven years in education as a headteacher and then as a senior civil servant, been involved in policymaking at state and national level, been spokesperson for headteachers as president of a professional association ( talking regularly on radio and tele) and written a lot of professional articles. I knew first hand about the realpolitik of schools and I certainly understood organisations and public policymaking. So I arrived at the PhD with a lot of ‘stuff’ relevant to partnership working, public engagement and impact. And I see similar knowledges, attributes and resources in the PhDers I work with, all but one of them with substantive work experience behind them, and some like me with a whole career’s worth.

The funds of knowledges that the ‘later-on’ PhDer brings are often unrecognised at institutional and policy level, where the model of the straight through persists. Take the current ESRC review of the social science PhD as an important and current example. The ESRC wants to find out if the skills taught in the PhD prepare graduates for careers within and beyond academia and they want to know the best ways to teach those skills. The ESRC intends to talk with PhDers about their experiences of training and employers about what they want from graduates.

This sounds reasonable, until I think about myself as a PhDer. As a senior civil servant, and with oversight of research in my job description, I would likely have been one of the people who was consulted about what we be expected from PhDers employed in our department. But what I was expected to know and thus asked about would have been dependent on timing – if I had already moved into a PhD I would likely be asked about my experiences of training. Not about what I understood of industry/professional work.

It’s important to note that I am not claiming exceptionality here. It’s the reverse. There are loads of later-on PhDs and they are on the increase. UKRI data from 2017 suggested that only 40% of social science PhDs are under 29. And 30% are over 40.  This suggests that at least 30% of social science PhDers are likely to be highly experienced and senior professionals choosing a later-on PhD. These PhDers not only bring a lot of knowledge with them, but by definition already have what employers need, recognise, recruit, promote and pay for.

Later on PhDers are pretty likely to already possess in spades, and do not need training, in what the Rapid Evidence Review undertaken for the ESRC says are needed in the workplace – A number of studies with social science graduates and employers suggest that skills in teamwork, communication, inter-disciplinarity, project management and leadership could be enhanced during doctoral training in order to better equip graduates for a career in the non-academic sector (p. 8).

The Rapid Evidence Review also states that when asked, employers don’t value the PhD as a qualification per se, but rather the skills that PhDers usually have, critical thinking and research skills.  But look at what’s missing here. What do universities value about what work experiences PhDers already have? My hunch is that universities generally don’t even ask about the work experiences of potential PhDers – although this may be the case for some disciplines.

My guess is that graduate schools don’t think a lot about what might be valuable in the professional and industry experiences of later on PhDers. How they might be built on. How they might be shared.  It is as if placements and collaborative schemes are the key to employability and careers. I suspect grad schools worry more about ‘later stage’ PhDers, as they are also called, looking for a career shift into academia. They worry about there being more supply than demand. That is a worry, but it’s not all that there is to be concerned about with the later on PhDer, and their experiences.

I speak to a lot of PhDers who feel as if their previous work history is actually seen as problem, that they are seen as deficient and ‘behind’ compared to ‘straight through’ peers. They fear they may be disadvantaged post PhD because of their age. (See here for one version of this sentiment.)

I am not the only one to see the lack of recognition of the later on PhD as a problem – see  here, here and here)

Failing to differentiate the different backgrounds of the PhD cohort really misses a trick. PhDers of any age are important and all have strengths and specific needs and goals. While they are not perhaps the majority of the overall PhD population, later on PhDers have important life and work experiences and funds of knowledge that they might share. They are a ready-made and on-hand resource. Training programmes might call, if not gleefully fall, on them. Graduate schools might pay their later on PhDers (who usually have mortgages and families to support) to co-design resources and programmes that ‘teach about’  beyond-academia work.

And yes, I know I can tell the ESRC all this. And I will. Maybe I’ll just cheekily send them this blog post. And hope they take note of the key point. The later on PhDer exists and in considerable numbers. They don’t have the same training needs as the straight through PhDer. They also may have different aspirations. What’s more, they should be considered assets, rather than aberrant. Later on PhDers are actually a potential resource for each other and their straight through peers.


A prickly post needs a prickly photo, this one by FloorTwelve on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, later on PhD, mature age PhD, part time PhD and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to the ‘later on’ PhD

  1. leohavemann says:

    Yes yes yes to this Pat. I’m studying at a university which is very welcoming of later-on PhDers but even so I feel like the ‘onboarding’ process could consider career to date better. As someone working towards completing my part-time PhD by 50 I am doing the PhD 1) to get a PhD as a credential that authenticates my knowledge and expertise, 2) to become a better researcher, 3) to create new knowledge in my discipline and disseminate my research findings, 4) to improve my networks, and 5) to gain or enhance skills as needed while pursuing the above. But if i primarily was after new skills I would just go after those directly, which would be about a thousand times easier.


  2. Yes! You have said far more eloquently and with authority what I have been trying to say to my school. I have to fill out their Professional Learning and Development Plan every 6 months, ticking off all the training modules, following the framework from Vitae and so on. I asked if I could be disapplied from some of it (happy to report what I have learned every six months) but it was refused. So instead of deepening my knowledge I have to spend time trying to figure out how to shoehorn a lifetime’s experience into a form written for straight through young people.

    I am so tempted to tell them either I do a PhD, or I do that, I can’t do both, especially as I am a 59 year old part-timer who is also a full time carer for my disabled son.

    Oh yes, they don’t get that caring responsibilities might mean that not only do we have skills related to caring that we can bring to the table, but that it might mean that even if we wanted to waste our time attending sessions for skills we already have, we might not be able to attend due to to caring responsibilities.

    Please do take this up with the ESRC.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Firstly, I want to say how much I enjoy your blogs. I’ve been meaning to say that for years. So there, done; finally! The other issue with later-on PhDers is they’ve been out of education for a while and so can take a while to adapt to the flow and culture of academia again – particularly l-o-n-g w-i-n-d-e-d academic writing (after a career that teaches you to be direct given workload and responsibilities). On occasion, they are treated as a bit of a hinderance for daring not to do the degree-MA-PhD route in one continuous flow. This can lead to unhelpful presumptions that can impact on confidence. Getting later-on PhDers back into the flow of academia requires training, support and lots of encouragement. For some, it’s a big step and a move into unfamiliar territory. PhDers with life experience are invaluable (more so given the drive for embedding employability skills into modules) and provide perspectives that can be lost in environments sometimes dominated by ‘academic lifers’ (people who went straight from education into a teaching/research role).


  4. Ally says:

    Yes to all of this. I started my PhD a few months before turning 40, and while my previous experience & skills have been valued by colleagues, I also feel that life beyond the PhD isn’t valued by universities and research funding bodies who only ask about previous research outputs and rarely ask about wider skills & experience. Was it worth doing the PhD mid-career? In some ways, yes – I made a positive decision for change and satisfied my curiosity; in other ways, no – I have no love for the precarity & presumed mobility of the post-doc life in my mid-40s (although I was happy to do that in my 20s), and feel my career has taken a substantial step back by going back to the beginning. In academic institutions it rarely feels like previous experience is given any merit at all, which is something I wish I’d known before taking this path.


  5. Kimberly says:

    Thanks for this post, Pat. I’ve responded at length on my own blog:


  6. Jill I. says:

    Absolutely yes to all of this! I went back to school to pursue my PhD after working in my field for over 10 years. I found my work-related skills and experience was critical to my success – but it went unacknowledged by my department and institution. Also, the faculty policies related to funding and degree completion were based on the “straight through” student, not one who was working full-time and had children / caring responsibilities. This led to some challenging times when I needed to shift my priorities to focus on my family and not my studies as the faculty didn’t demonstrate a great deal of compassion or understanding.
    Recently, my institution asked for feedback from it’s PhD students on our overall experience and the subsequent conversations that I’ve had with faculty leadership does give me hope that they are starting to recognize (albeit slowly) the new face and reality of PhD students.


  7. Aruho says:

    Dear Pat,
    I am grateful I found your article. I am wondering, did you write it looking at me?😏
    It directly spoke to me. I think, further to your account, some universities do not have time for the extra skills beyond research work! It is your personal effort to make sure you get that. So if you are a straight ‘PhDer’, as you put it, this is so critical for one to think of life after the research and what skills they badly need and incorporate that in their time before graduating. I had lots of expectations as a later-on phDer, but am now calm!! At least I know what I want!!
    Your article reinforces my thinking and reassures that I am not alone to be going through such experiences.
    Thank you.


  8. kawilco says:

    Ahh – thank you, Pat, this speaks to me in so many ways.
    Another issue for ‘Later-ons’ is the supervision relationship, which may be (subconsciously) geared to the ‘throughput management’ needs of early-ons, who haven’t the experience in project management and on-time delivery that a professional career engenders.


  9. Well said. I’m starting mine at age 58 from Sept!


  10. Reblogged this on Sir John Wolfe Barry and Tower Bridge and commented:
    Great post on later PhDs. Mine will start in September and focus on architectural and construction history in late 19th and early 20th Centuries. See past blogs.


  11. Sandy Rodger says:

    Yes!!!!! About to start PhD age 58 and great to know I’m not unique!


  12. Sarah says:

    Thanks Pat,
    This really spoke to me. I was a “later-on” PhD, but only in my late 30’s. My experience as a part-time PhD student was not great – working and caring for family, which were perceived as a hindrance, supervisors more focused on their academic career than supporting their students. There were a few of us older students and we tended to be marginalised within the department. I now “run” a professional doctoral programme and we try to embrace all the wonderful skills and experiences that our students bring with them. It means a lot of advocating for the students with faculty who are more used to the traditional PhD with straight through students, but I want them to have a better experience than I did!
    I’ll be sending your blog and the comments around to my staff. They also did their PhDs a bit later on so completely get what we’re trying to achieve with our programme. Hopefully we can change the academic world one step at a time!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Jane S says:

    Dear Pat: As Sarah commented yesterday, this post spoke to me, too ~ in particular the links you give for the lack of recognition of the later-on PhD. I’ve heard all the withering remarks ~ ‘vanity project,’ ‘hobby PhD,’ and the rest. It’s not been easy to remain emotionally detached, especially when unexpected challenges and emergencies have happened in life. Self-doubt and anxiety go with the territory.
    However, after years of feeling neglected, a poor relation, the Covid crisis has brought some improvement. It seems, in general, that the universities have not only woken up to the problems some of us experience, in finding time for research and writing vs our responsibilities in the ‘real’ world, but also that same outside world’s forcing it to reassess much of what it’s always taken for granted. The market has changed, and older PhDers tend to be more reliable, less likely to drop out. Plus, we’ve got our lives sorted ~~ haven’t we?
    (I’ll get back to you on that one!)


    • Ah, the old ‘vanity project’ one. I had been separated from my husband for many years. when I had an appointment with a solicitor to enquire about getting a divorce, the solicitor said that the judge would expect me to go back into full time employment and would see the PhD as a vanity project.

      I didn’t bother pursuing the divorce!


  14. loretta ann good says:

    I’m not a PhDer (maybe someday!) but I am an older student. I am soon to be 58 and I am working on my 2nd Master’s. I will graduate 3 months before I turn 60 years old in 2022. Maybe by then I will make a decision on whether or not to pursue a PhD.


  15. dfptaylor says:

    Just to say that both universities where I have been studying, Dundee and York (I moved to York with my supervisor) have been supportive, helpful and caring, so I think finding that “fit” for me, along with suitable supervisors, was/is key.


  16. bhunting58 says:

    Bless you Pat Thomson for writing this blog post. A colleague and myself are writing an article on “academic friendship” and we are both later on Phders. We know our own value; at least there is that. My colleague’s institution is much more supportive of her ongoing desire and work towards a PhD. The institution that I work in is still in the “dark ages” where they treat their contract faculty as slaves. It has made me rethink what I will do after my PhD is complete. I undertook a PhD with so much preliminary support and then life matters took over for awhile. I have risen above those life matters and continue to move forward. I love to learn and consider myself a lifelong learner; at first I had difficulty in the PhD process because not everyone does love to learn. That was a big eye-opener for me. In any case, thanks for the blog post(s); they are inspiring!!

    Barbara Hunting, PhD (ABD) McGill University, Dept. of Integrated Studies in Education Contract Faculty Instructor, Department of Sociology, Bishop’s University (Sherbrooke, QC)


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