Starting a PhD later in life can be exciting, but it isn't without its challenges. Emma Burnett has a Masters, four years experience running a start-up. . . and a small child. She explains why she feels now is the time to take on a doctorate.
It was recently my birthday. Thank you, thank you, yes it was a lovely day. Literally, kilos of cake. Gifts. Good friends.
Shortly, I’m due to start my PhD. What does this have to do with my birthday? Well, aside from it being two quite cool things in close succession, it got me doing some basic maths. Turns out, at the end of my PhD I will be, minimum, 37. That’s if I’m lucky. I could be as old as 40, if it’s very part-time or I need to take a break along the way.
Now that’s not particularly old, in the great pattern of time, but I will be over a decade older than most of my research buddies. I am definitely a ‘mature’ student (never mind that you saw me out dancing till dawn the other day).
I didn’t start a PhD right after my Masters. I got kind of busy co-founding a local food startup in Oxford (fun, right?).
It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done, but four years with a startup is exhausting. You’re constantly reacting to change, or putting out fires (both literal and figurative), with little to no time for reflection.
This is my chance to take a step back and reflect on what we were doing, why we did it, whether we had any social impact whatsoever. I’d like to think we did. But I won’t know till I check. Now’s the time for that.
In those intervening years, I also had a child. But, she’s two now, goes to nursery, and loves hearing about transformative social change in agriculture (I’m sure she does).
I know this is a bit personal, and we’ve only just met, but I’m only planning on having one child, so actually this is a good time to take the leap into research.
Her formative years will include seeing women in academia, understanding that doctors are not just medics, and getting involved in research as and when she can. Meanwhile, I’ll be kept to strict working hours, and motivated by the fact that I’d quite like a decent salary again. Win, win.
No doubt, approaching a PhD in your 30s makes you stop and consider some complicated stuff, like: Did I waste time when I was younger? Will I be able to keep up with the young whippersnappers? Will I have enough of a career to contribute anything to my field? Will anyone hire me after the PhD, or will I be an old fogey?
And, here’s a toughy – is it fair for me to do this at all when I should be helping pay a mortgage, cover childcare costs, or be a responsible, contributing, consuming adult?
I wish I could say I had easy answers to these questions (or, like, any answers at all). If you’re in a similar position, I feel you.
And if you’re a sprightly young thing deciding what to do next, know that whilst I fully support you going out and getting ‘real world’ experience, re-entering academia can be rock hard.
You'll be doing things out of a prescribed order, and that’s no easy thing.
A lengthy chat with a friend convinced me that whilst it is harder now, I'll only live to regret not pursuing this opportunity back when I could. So, in agreement with my partner (and with the tacit consent of my two-year-old), I’ve gone for the ‘sod it, I’m doing it anyway’ approach.
Really, true story, I’ve only got the one life, and I’m doing what I enjoy. And, to cap it all, I’m really proud of myself for getting this far. I intend to work hard, I plan to have a long career, and I refuse to be put off by fear or inertia.
So, mature student in the wings, mama (or papa) wanting to go back and study, thinking of taking on a PhD? Go for it! And, true fact: if you don’t apply, you definitely won’t get in. Be bold. You got this!
Emma Burnett is a first-year PhD student and third-year mum. You can read more about her experiences at Medium.
Like Emma, Rachel King also began a PhD later in her career. She explains how nursing lead her to research.
The obstacles you face on a PhD can also help drive your success. Read Tamar's story of postgraduate research with a long-term health condition.
Getting ready to start your PhD? Read Gaia's advice for new postgraduate researchers.
Great! We're always adding new advice articles, funding tips and student stories. Our free newsletter will keep you updated.