What's it Like to Start a PhD in Your 50s?
I’ve long been a follower of the blog and newsletters here on FindAPhD and have enjoyed reading other students’ stories. Recently though, I found myself asking why more isn’t written about doing a doctorate at a later stage in life, i.e. in your mid-forties or fifties.
I recently completed my own Masters degree at Manchester Metropolitan University between 2016 and 2018, studying alongside many other students. A good number of us decided to pursue doctorates after finishing the Masters. While the more traditional approach for doctorate studies is along the Bachelors-Masters-PhD route, done in the twenties, there are also plenty of potential students considering the PhD option later in life. I am one of them and so is my fellow student, Helen Connor.
In this post, I want to share our different reasons for considering and eventually undertaking a PhD.
Both Helen and myself had completed Masters Degrees before (Helen in her twenties whereas I finished my MBA in my late thirties) but sought new challenges to take on. Helen looked for a “kick up the bum” to study again and explore different challenges, having spent some time as a working mother.
For me, it was a time where I had been in leadership for some years and wanted the latest academic knowledge to be blended with my professional experience. I also wanted to get some fresh insight and time to reflect, but for this to be embedded in an academic framework leading to a degree.
I have started to research different universities already, browsing websites and thinking about a possible theme / title for my research proposal. So far it is clear to me that the programme needs to be part-time as I have to accommodate studies alongside work and family commitments.
I want to research a leadership topic within a small and medium-sized (SME) company context. The next step is to narrow down the possible choices and to start looking for suitable supervisors who might be interested in my topic. I plan to visit some potential universities in person at open days and PhD study events, in order to see the facilities and to speak to staff, students and potential supervisors.
Helen’s reasons – professional development and new horizons
Having been in employment for many years now, Helen feels that opportunities to develop professionally have been limited. In her own words, she sees further study as a way to progress, bringing in a range of new skills, and honing existing ones: “At the very least it is a way to keep my brain functioning well, and keep me excited about my work and about life in general. It will add to my satisfaction and happiness.”
Helen also sees the PhD as an opportunity to develop within her existing career: “I work in a university, in a support staff role; having a PhD could enhance opportunities for me in the future if I wanted to lecture, or collaborate with academic staff. So in some ways, it is a means of future-proofing myself.”
The experience of heading back to university for an MSc has also played a role – as it has for me – as we both see a PhD as an opportunity to follow up on our Masters.
Helen writes: “I thoroughly enjoyed the experiences during the MSc-course, the discussions and the time spent with my inspiring and creative colleagues definitely encourages me to consider undertaking a PhD. The opportunity to spend focused time, examining a narrow topic in great detail is a real treat. It makes my heart sing to consider this and to think about different aspects of leadership to study. The opportunity to spend time in Kenya as part of my research is a real attraction too, and something I’ve wanted to do for some time. This would offer me a framework to guide my project.”
She also sees the PhD as an opportunity to give something back to society at this stage in her life: “I think that I could make a positive difference to peoples’ lives through rigorous and well-designed research. Society can certainly benefit from the right work being done at PhD level and I want to contribute to that.”
My reasons – flexible study for a flexible career
I had so many enlightening moments during my Masters: both during the taught study and during the research for the dissertation. By the end, I knew that I wanted to continue with some more studies.
Doing a full-time PhD was not feasible due to financial commitments (as well as not wanting to give up my job), doing a part-time PhD was a more practical option. I want to use the PhD as a platform for a career-change, reducing my full-time job to part-time and opening my own business in the coaching / consulting area. The PhD will give me a framework to really work on one subject and become an expert in it, with the doctorate to prove that. I also hope that some teaching/sharing opportunities will open up along the way to give back some of my professional experience to society in general. Helping others is a key motive for me.
Professionally speaking, I have found that a PhD gives a lot of credibility in the consulting business I wish to work in. It can be a door opener that, backed up with industry / life experience, can help to differentiate yourself in the big sea of consultants and coaches.
A PhD will also give me opportunities to reflect on professional observations I have made, challenging them along with other assumptions and (hopefully) adding some new insight or knowledge to a small area of the business community.
Unlike many younger students, my goal is not necessarily to become a university lecturer but rather to develop into an ‘informed practitioner’ – someone who has researched a topic and can then incorporate these findings into their day-to-day coaching or consulting practice. I also think that the days of a streamlined career are over – it is no longer common to stay with one company and one industry from your early days until retirement. So, preparation with additional knowledge, but even more with tools to do high-quality knowledge creation or collection is pivotal in the ever-changing job market.
After spending many years in the corporate world, the switch back to accademica will be a challenge. Even it is not full-time, there needs to be a balance between research, professional and family life, hopefully enriching each other. I think that my life experience will help me to put demands and challenges into more perspective. Also the clear goal I have for this PhD will hopefully help me to finish successfully!
Helen Connor (51) is the Staff Development Manager at the University of Huddersfield. Christian Kastner (50) is a Sales Director for an SME in Germany. Both are graduates of the Manchester Metropolitan Business School.
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