A Blog 30 Years in the Writing

In September 1994, when I was 18 years old, I started my undergraduate degree at Napier University in Edinburgh – in a case of ‘stating the obvious’, that was thirty years ago. I am now 48 years old.

As a fresh-faced, straight-outta-school student, I recall being somewhat surprised to learn that my cohort included students of varying ages—some even in their late 30s (insert shock-horror expression). At the time, and from a place of ignorance and naivety, I remember questioning why someone would start an undergrad when they were so old. Surely actual adults did post-graduate stuff, like PhDs? I remember the older students gravitated towards each other during those first few weeks, and things stayed the same for most of the succeeding four years. From my perspective, it seemed like they felt as if they didn’t quite fit in.

Fast-forward the almost 30 years mentioned above. In September 2023, I started my PhD at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh. I was surprised to learn that my cohort was a mix of students of various ages but much younger than me. I was wrong; old(er) people are not the only ones who did stuff like PhDs, and this time round, I was the one who felt as if I didn’t quite fit in.

There is a difference, of course, between undergrad and PhDs. For the most part, we are on our own journey with the latter. We’re not corralled as a collective into lecture halls or huddled into seminar rooms, nor are we subjected to the mandatory group work project (which is the very best prep for working life, especially if you don’t get to pick your group); no, with the PhD we only formally come together for three weeks per year for our development sessions and informally if a few of us happen to be in the library or cafe.

However, during these infrequent times of togetherness, I feel my oldest, and during (and after) these times of togetherness, I reflect on my challenges and perhaps the benefits I experience as an older student.

Young students, especially those who have gone from undergrad to master’s to PhD without time in the world of work, benefit from an academic focus in their thinking. Of course, they don’t know anything else, so they are highly tuned into all aspects of academia and quick, too. Reading, analysing, evaluating, recalling, articulating, writing, and referencing – they appear to do it all with an enviable ease. In contrast, it is as if I have to make a laboured conscious shift in track to get my academic train of thought moving.

Then there’s the tech; they get it; they are technology natives. Heck, when I was a student, open access to the internet didn’t even exist, and for the most part, we handwrote our submitted work. I don’t know what happens when I go near a digital device, but I lose a good percentage of my time to technological glitches that I have little to no idea how to resolve. Rarely do I see the same level of frustration on the faces of my younger colleagues.

Again, for the younger students, the ones working on their studies full-time and don’t have work (or run a business) and/or a family to think about, it is within their give to be able to focus all their energy and efforts on their studies. Oh, how this seems like such a privilege. I am not ungrateful; I love my family and am energised by my business, but fitting the PhD into the mix is, at times, mind-bending.

But then I think about where I may benefit from my age and stage in life. I am a mother of two (now adult) children and run my own marketing agency, so what edge do I gain from these?

Firstly, resilience. On more than one occasion, I have listened to the younger cohort talk about the need to ask for extensions on deadlines for, say, frequent migraines (which I sympathise with as I suffer from migraines too), and I reflect on how it would have played out asking my children or their primary school teacher if I could get an extension on making a fancy dress costume for World Book Day as I had a migraine. Nope, it would not have washed so I don’t even think about asking for an extension of my deadlines.

Then there’s my network. With a PhD, a person’s thesis usually relates to their area of work or interest, but this doesn’t always mean they have an easier route to research. Sometimes, I have listened as younger colleagues lament how no one responds to the emails they send inviting people to participate in their study. I have been out in the big, bad world for 26 years, and during this time, I have established a network that is proving very useful when looking for participants for my research. I know people or someone who knows someone, and everyone is happy to help. People are genuinely interested in the subject of my study and are going above and beyond to help me reach the quota I need for my sample. The value of the network is immeasurable for my studies.

And then there’s the work itself. Carrying out a PhD level research project is no minor undertaking, but I have ‘been in marketing’ for the last three decades, and research is what I do for my day job. I am very comfortable with the entire process, as managing large-scale research projects like social impact evaluations and impact assessments in my professional role gives me transferable skills to carry out a research project in my academic role. It may even help me speed things up a little!

So, I’m an older student, and this has its challenges, but there are also benefits. For me, the main thing is that I focus on what I am doing, and if I can inspire anyone my age or older who might be thinking about starting a PhD as I progress in my journey, great. I say, “Go for it.”

Side note: It does make me smile when I am on campus to see so many Nirvana hoodies going about.

And the song choice? How about something from 1994 – Edwyn Collins A Girl Like You.

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