PhD Study as a Mature Student: Mid-life Crisis or the Perfect Career Move? |
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Posted on 13 Jun '19

PhD Study as a Mature Student: Mid-life Crisis or the Perfect Career Move?

Not everyone goes straight into a PhD after a Masters. Rachel King is a mature PhD student at the University of Sheffield. In the first of a series of posts she describes her experiences of returning to do postgraduate research later in a career.

After 15 years of working as a nurse I’ve recently embarked on a new challenge: a full time PhD in Health Research. So, was this a mid-life crisis? Or will it end up being one of the best career decisions I’ve ever made?

My friends and family mock me by suggesting the former. Personally, I’d argue that 38 isn’t nearly mid-life – and surely my husband’s obsession with lycra and road bikes is a much more common symptom! In any case, this blog series will follow my PhD and find out!

Making the decision

So why, at this time in my life, have I decided to make this move?

The opportunity to study for a doctorate was first offered to me immediately after completing a Masters degree, however I had been working as a nurse for a year, and was newly married.

That certainly did not feel like the right time to be starting a PhD. I was a novice in my chosen profession and needed to pay the mortgage. Then came kids! Juggling part-time work and childcare left little time to think about myself, let alone a career change.

I steadily progressed from a hospital staff nurse to a primary care advanced nurse practitioner for substance misusers. My nursing career has been extremely rewarding, and, at times, challenging. It has also raised numerous questions about why - and how - groups of people behave the way they do.

I found myself pondering, while bandaging the leg ulcers of injecting drug users, the most appropriate qualitative methods to explore certain questions, like ‘what motivates people to stop injecting drugs?’.

So, two years ago I decided that it would be a good time to start looking for PhD opportunities. I was hopeful that I had the academic background to manage the transition into full time research.

As with many vocations, nursing requires continuous professional development. So, in developing my clinical skills I have undertaken a number of Masters-level modules; in physical assessment, non-medical prescribing, and the management of specific diseases. I’d also already performed a qualitative study as part of my Masters degree which I really enjoyed; fuelling my desire to study for a longer period of time.

Finding a PhD

The first step was to find a PhD that would interest me and utilise my previous nursing experience.

I applied to an advert for a PhD at The University of Sheffield, funded by Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care Yorkshire and Humber (NIHR CLAHRC YH) in a department that I was keen to study in.

The project had a strong focus on health, and offered excellent support for PhD students. I was overjoyed to be offered the scholarship.

Getting started

After 1 year of PhD study I am thoroughly enjoying the experience. I’ve accessed relevant University research modules, received excellent support from my supervisors, and made some great friends.

The first year has been focused on planning my qualitative study; using ethnographic methods to explore how decisions are made by Advanced Nurse Practitioners.

I have also continued working clinically through an agency. My background in nursing has been invaluable in planning the study, communicating with clinicians, and understanding the literature.

So far, this has been a wise decision!

Acknowledgements: My PhD is funded by the Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care Yorkshire and Humber (NIHR CLAHRC YH). The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the University of Sheffield.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this blog was published on 09/08/16. We've checked and updated it for current readers.

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Last Updated: 13 June 2019