Today I was struck by this article in the New York Times about the US trend toward ‘older people’ taking on the challenge of doctoral studies. The piece talks about how although the average age of the doctoral student in the US has dropped over the last decade, there has been a noticeable increase in people over 40, mainly women, who are starting doctorates. The story opens by discussing Robert Hevey, 61, who is in the second year of his PhD. It moves on to discuss the resilience and motivation that older doctoral students bring to their research. Not forgetting to mention that making doctoral programmes accessible to the older candidate is good business sense given the ageing population.
I know that there is a clear difference in the accessibility of higher education in the UK compared to the US and our approaches to doctoral education differ greatly, but I read the article with a smile. This is also a trend in the UK, or at least at the University in which I work. As I doubt that we are that different to most Post 92s, it’s probably a trend elsewhere too. In the University where I work widening access is central to the organisation’s raison d’etre and as a result we have an established cohort of ‘distinguished doctoral candidates’. A recent press release relating to this very topic discussed how our ‘ group of older students’ have a combined age in excess of 1000 and our eldest doctoral candidate is currently 85 yrs old.
What I feel is missing from the New York Times article is an acknowledgement of the benefits that mature doctoral students bring with them. They offer a host of transferable skills, years of professional knowledge often in the areas in which they chose to research and professional contacts that enhance the University’s links to industry, to name but a few. The doctoral supervisors at the University in which I work offered a multitude of examples of what their mature doctoral students have given to the University. One supervisor discussed how his student had taken him and a group of masters students to Westminster and introduced them to ministers who wished to discuss his research. Another supervisor told of how her student was an inspiration and support to other doctoral students. My own doctoral student has taught me so much about being a research supervisor, which I have used to enhance my practice with my other students. So yes, ensuring our research environments cater for the ageing population is a good thing but the financial benefits are the tip of the iceberg. Older doctoral students enhance our research environments in hundreds of other ways too.
Our distinguished doctoral student celebration (with thanks to the University of Wolverhampton for the photo)
Elke, who I had the privilege to supervisor and who has taught me so much.
Goodbye for now,