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Starting a PhD as a mature student - is it daft?

Susan Brush is a PhD candidate in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Centre for Doctoral Training in Smart Grids and Future Power Networks, which is run by the Departments of Electronic and Electrical Engineering of both the University of Strathclyde and Imperial College London. Here she discusses her decision to start a PhD a little later in life.

Strathclyde PGRs from the Electronic and Engineering Dept. at Explorathon, September 2019, Riverside Museum Glasgow. From left: Ian Kiely, Ruaridh MacPherson, Allison Strachan, Susan Brush, Euan Andrew, Hengqing Tian
Strathclyde PGRs from the Electronic and Engineering Dept. at Explorathon, September 2019, Riverside Museum Glasgow. From left: Ian Kiely, Ruairidh MacPherson, Allison Strachan, Susan Brush, Euan Andrew, Hengqing Tian

I fell into doing a PhD as part of a career change, when a sector I’d previously worked in had severe downsizing. As a first step, I did a Masters in Renewable Energy Systems and the Environment. Looking at options for “where to go next”, I saw doing a PhD in Smart Grids and Future Power Systems as a way of continuing my interest in how people in Scotland, UK and the world can address huge questions regarding our energy use, in the face of “game-changing” climate change goals and technological advances. Nothing short of a transformation in the way we source, distribute and use energy will be enough, and there are so many outstanding questions about “how best to do it” and “how to get it to work”, which continue to challenge academics, decision-makers and many others. It is the most exciting field anybody could be working in right now!

It is decades since I did my Bachelors’ degree. (And that was in a very different discipline.) I have kids in primary school. Even with a supportive husband, my evenings and weekends are largely occupied with taking the kids to their various activities. And I’ve had a very long time for my maths to go off the boil.

I enrolled in a Centre for Doctoral Training (a “CDT”) which takes annual cohorts of students: in our year there were ten of us. We all did a taught year at Masters’ level, before commencing our research. For me, though the taught year was busy, challenging, and at times gruelling, we made strong friendships with our colleagues, contacts with others in our programme, and it gave us a solid introduction to our department and many of the teaching and supervisory staff. During this taught year, in group projects, I found that my skill set did actually complement those of my younger colleagues surprisingly well. Sure, some of them were way ahead of me in some of the taught material (especially those with an MEng on the topic!) and were faster at picking up some concepts, or to master the use of new technical models or programmes.

But my years in different workplaces during previous careers have given me a broader view of the world, an ability to see other related matters, to use experience gained in different sectors, and to understand that every field has its own language and customs. Not to mention experience of planning and simply grinding through work. Maybe it’s easier to have a longer term view with more years behind you. Along the way, my younger colleagues patiently helped me get sorted with some of my IT and set up problems! And they keep me right on “what everyone uses these days….” It is actually a joy having colleagues half one’s age.

Perhaps I’m not at the white-hot cutting edge of developing new methods, calculations, or fundamental theory as I might have been if I’d done a PhD straight from my first degree. However, I’m far more confident about reflecting on “why I’m here”: what are the key things that motivate me, that get me out of bed, that I have a real desire to dig into. About deciding what to do and “getting on with it”. About seeking information and support from all sorts of sources, including from friends and acquaintances in other institutions, industry, and other walks of life. About navigating around stumbling-blocks. About bearing in mind the virtues of good planning - something I have to force myself to do, but I know from experience (some of it bitter) how important it is. About asking the “So what?” types of questions (What does this finding mean? Should we believe it? What should we do with this knowledge? What does it mean for the wider world?) About expecting that some avenues of my study won’t work out, and that’s OK. About understanding that my work pattern must be compatible with my own health, and my family’s well-being. So, overall, I’m doing a very different PhD to the one I would have done in my early twenties.

I’ve also been lucky to have the chance to pause my PhD to do two very interesting short-term jobs within my department, which has given me an “industry view” and a “broader society view” of where some of our work could be applied.

I’m not saying it’s all been plain sailing. The last 18 months have been trying for everyone. I’ve also had a couple of pandemic-related breaks, when I found home-schooling and progressing my PhD didn’t mix. Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t have the stamina to do home-education of children during the day, and work on my PhD at night. Fortunately, my supervisors have been very supportive, and I was able to arrange a few months Voluntary Suspension during the spring 2021 lockdown. This option may help some colleagues, if circumstances arise which make studying impossible or really hard for a while, and the newly set up PGR Leave Support Fund may be able to provide financial support in some cases.

I have also chosen to take Voluntary Suspensions for the last two summers during school summer holidays. Yes, I have worked during previous summers, and I know it’s what most of us do in the world at work. However, I found it a pretty frazzled experience, trying to get a few hours work done between drop-offs and pick-ups at kids’ drama school, swimming clubs or wherever. Overall, I found productive working quite a challenge during the summer, and quite frankly, by the time my kids went back to school, I was ready for a holiday. I have found that taking a solid summer break has allowed me to return to study feeling rested and ready to jump back in. I’m not saying there are no downsides to taking a break (there certainly are, I could talk about them all day), just that overall, this works well for me.

So, I’m preparing to re-start my studies. I have a busy few months ahead. I’m going to have to fit lots in, and master the use of new tools. We’ve had well over a year of seeing colleagues online only (except the odd social lunch with one or two friends) and don’t yet have visibility of if or when that will change. But despite all the hurdles, I’m looking forward to “getting on with it”.

If you are reading this, as a mature PhD candidate, you might still be wondering “is it daft?” Well, perhaps it is. But you might be surprised to see how many other mature PGRs there are on campus and in our virtual PGR community. There are different approaches to doing a PhD, and there are provisions at the university to help. (Though it might take you a while to find out what they are and how to access them… I have another blog in prep on this!) Use your own unique skill-set to your advantage. Best of luck!

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Thanks for sharing your journey, Susan. I am 38, and starting my PhD in Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship and I totally feel what you are saying about starting it as a nature student.

Best wishes and good luck with your studies!

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