Photo: H. McPherson
I have not counted the number of times that someone has asked: So why are you doing a PhD? The question does not stem from genuine interest in my proposed research, nor does it come from an interest in my possible future career aspirations in academia. Rather, the question arises because I am clearly old(er). Over 50 older.
In our department (DISE), the age of doctoral students is more or less 1/3 under 30, 1/3 between 30 and 45, and yes, 1/3 between the ages of 45 and 60. No one asks the under 30 crowd why they are doing a PhD. It is understood that they wish to challenge themselves, or they feel a driving force to explore and learn new things, to improve their abilities to understand and solve problems, and they all hope to find a career in academia. This is obvious, and to ask this demographic why they are doing a PhD would be superfluous. The trajectories of 30 – 45 group are similar, with the added experience of engaging in the job market for a number of years, and a sense of certainty that research and academia are truly where they want to be. Again, this is not questioned.
And that leaves the last third. Myself and the other late entrants. So here is why we are doing a PhD. We are all in the last 10 years of our career. We all have unanswered structural questions about how things are organized in our respective professions, and so back to school we went. I think the main characteristic we all share is curiosity and a sense that completing a PhD will be personally fulfilling. Our careers are rewarding and we are happy in our careers. We are all working full time or part time, and are pursuing a PhD full time. But there is that intangible something that meant, for all of us, that this journey had to be initiated. This was made possible because all graduate courses in the Faculty of Education are offered at night. Which implies that the nature of education, being an applied discipline, genuinely values/needs PhD students who possess a clear intellectual and academic thread to their portfolio that is combined with previous work experience in the field of education.
Each age group in our program has unique strengths that we bring to our studies. The under 30 group has no responsibilities, no money, and a clear and concise vision of where they are going. Late nights are just late nights. The 30-40 age group bring experience to the table, and a drive that comes from having done something else and knowing precisely why they are pursuing a PhD. Many of the students in this demographic have young children, and are juggling job, family, and school. Hats off to them – their juggling expertise has the respect of all. Finally, the late entrants have adult or almost adult children, which means free time, a fulfilling careers, and a thirst for answers. Just please don’t ask us, “So uh, WHY are you doing a PhD?
When is the right time to do a PhD? Well, when the time is right for you. Anytime is the right time. Enjoy the journey and embrace the roller coaster ride. Just do it!