Starting a PhD… at 58 years old?

Did you know that the average age on entry to a PhD in Australia is 34 years old? Over the time I have been whispering this average age gets older and older. There are a few PhD students at ANU who enrolled in their PhD in their late sixties and early seventies. It’s never too late to pursue the PhD dream, but what’s it like for people who are older to be surrounded by younger students all the time? Catherine Racine offers her story.

Dr Catherine Racine is an independent Canadian scholar who graduated from Durham University in 2017 after living in the UK for seven years. Her thesis was titled “Beyond Clinical Reduction: Levinas, the Ethics of Wonder and the Practice of Autoethnography in Community Mental Health Care,” and examined the moral process of the clinician and the intractable problem of dehumanization in community mental health care. She is a member of several professional research organisation and is currently starting her own consulting practice.

This was the only picture I could find that did not show an older lady looking either sad, or doing domestic work. See my footnote at the end of the post.

I completed a Ph.D. at 63, two weeks before falling in love for the first time in a decade and frittering away two post-doc years swanning around Europe, circling the globe from Canada to Europe and returning at last to my tiny pied-a-terre in downtown Vancouver. At the tender age of 65 I am, this week, beginning my new career as an independent scholar and you better believe I’m scared, but also excited. I forfeited a decent pension as a government employed psychotherapist to fulfill this dream and must now support myself because my little pension won’t cut it.

Like many women who dread becoming bag ladies, I agonized over the financial pros and cons of my Ph.D. dream and not a few friends echoed my fear. “Will you ever work again? Can you afford this? What about your pension?” But pitting my yearning of many years to undertake this work against the terror of financial insecurity finally seemed a desecration and the yearning won.

I may regret the decision to have escaped the intellectual wasteland and micromanagement of my workplace for another eight years but I doubt it.  I could have stayed and still be listening to the suffering of those who come to community mental health centres for help. I could still be witnessing and contributing to their dehumanization, and enduring the appalling limits of “care” that can be offered in my role. Instead, I travelled to Durham, in North East England, to examine the ethics of wonder in community mental health care. I now find I’ve rather a lot to say on the matter and the responsibility and authority to say it.

Was I crazy? Was it worth starting this project at 58 – self-funded – when the colleagues I left behind were putting in their last years of work and socking away their pensions and RRSP contributions? Hell yes. I fulfilled a major life’s dream of doing this Ph.D. and even managed a perfect pass. I reoriented my life, my perspective and claimed a clearer, stronger unapologetic voice for the work that lies ahead. How could I regret that or the Herculean effort it took that showed me who I am?

I have a big year planned of writing and publishing, public speaking and starting an online counselling business, but who knows what lies ahead. Have I ever earned a living doing any of those things? No, but this Ph.D. guarantees that if I can’t walk on water I can dive confidently into any deep end trusting I won’t drown. That’s money in the bank. That’s also why I’m writing to extend a wholehearted plea to any woman over the age of 50 who has ever nursed the dream of doing a Ph.D. sometime in her life to get cracking! Getting a Ph.D. is not a waste of time, effort or resources just because a woman is half-way or more through her life. It is not a “vanity degree” although I have heard more than one academic asshole suggest as much. This lengthy and expensive undertaking has been the most galvanizing, transformative and confirming of my entire life.

The bloody-mindedness and stamina it demands and the suffering it pretty much guarantees makes a Ph.D. as far from a thrill-seeking venture as one can get. There is nothing quick, dirty or particularly “fun” about it as the literature on Ph.D. related depression will tell you, but it gives. Completing a Ph.D. grows you up, develops your grit, gives you a thicker skin, hones your discipline, engages with your deepest passion and vastly expands your limited self-perception and understanding of the many confinements imposed by the world around you. It is a serious, mysterious undertaking and its process and gravitas are priceless at any age.

Learning to see how power works, how it is used and abused within the university system and even by academics engaged in work attempting to subvert the “dominant discourse,” was the most surprising gift. This was the game changer that enabled me to more than “glimpse” the underpinnings of all those limitations I had thought were self-imposed, justified or impossible to overcome but never were. The process of the PhD can give the older woman the keys to the engine room of her culture, gender, race and class, and the blueprint of the precision machinery that propagates her ongoing suppression. This means she can never again seriously doubt the gravity of her situation, her capacity to respond or her ability to see beyond towhat is yet to be imagined. That’s quite a payoff.

There are many reasons why pursuing the dream of a Ph.D. at 50 or 60 or even 70 or 80—why not?—could be the greatest move a woman will ever make. Even, that is, if her chances of working in the Academy are already diminished by her age and sex, which they surely are. But, then again maybe they don’t need to be if greater numbers of older women came forward to assert their place at this high table. I am preaching to the choir, but the interests of the “mature” female student cannot be overstated given what they have to offer, and their impressive under-representation in the post-graduate student body. The university is no more immune to the scourges of ageism and sexism than the rest of our culture, regardless of how inclusive it may claim to be. University is a young person’s game and this poses a significant barrier to women like me, and possibly you, and is all the more reason to confront it and break it down.

Had I known what this adventure would cost —in every way—I would never have had the courage to jump. But having become a scholar and seen all that was needed to complete this beast, having travelled, made many new friends and colleagues and joined communities within and beyond the Academy, my heart fails me to think of all I would have lost had I just stayed home.

Thanks for your courage Catherine! Are you an older person enrolled in a PhD program – or perhaps you have finished and wondering what comes next? Love to hear your about your experience in the comments.

[Later Edit}

Technically people over 60 are defined as ‘seniors’ by the Australian government and this language tends to follow through into strategy and policy documents. In previous conversations with students in their 60s and 70s, people have suggested ‘vintage’ – playfully – as an alternative, to try to shift the meaning in a more positive direction.
I don’t like either term, hence my scare quoting. Sadly the term ‘older’ is too vague (some countries where the whisperer is read do not enrol candidates over the age of 40, therefore ‘older’ is too subjective)
Ageism and discrimination are deeply built into our everyday life.  I use a site called ‘Unsplash’ to source royalty free, high quality photos. Every search of ‘older woman’ turned up pictures of sad women alone on park benches, or grannies playing with grandkids. There was a distinct lack of ‘middle aged’ looking women in there too – and the ones that tended in this direction tended to be ‘glammed up’…
This was the only photo I could find on the site that had an older woman doing something active that had nothing to do with domestic work. I like that it is a much older lady than is talked about in the post. The oldest PhD student at ANU is 82 and people have graduated with PhDs in their 90s. Our conception of who a PhD student ‘should be’ needs to be constantly challenged! Have a look at the link below to a student in their 20s complaining about being stereotyped and I welcome your debate and discussion about the issues in the comments.

Related posts

Should older academics be forced to resign?

Doing a PhD in your early 20s

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67 thoughts on “Starting a PhD… at 58 years old?

  1. Suzanne Kennedy says:

    Thank you for sharing this blog today. I am 54 and just finished a master’s degree in sociology after and 25+ yr career in the software industry. I am hoping to start a self-funded PhD next year, taking this gap year to make some much needed $. I have to keep fighting that little voice in my head that says it a PhD is a waste of time at my age. This post is so very empowering.

  2. Muna says:

    I just turned 58 and should be completing my PhD in about seven months. It’s been quite a ride! Most of the journey has been a real struggle, fraught with brain fog, doubt, self-questioning and severe imposter syndrome, but a couple of months ago something shifted in my perceptions and I found myself feeling as if I was owning it. When I set out I had little expectation other than to do something that might help me ease into a fruitful third act. I still don’t have much of a clue how I will use this experience – for even if my gender and colour precludes participation in academia in my current context, my age surely will. For now I can’t afford the luxury of entertaining postdoc possibilities because every ounce of my headspace is occupied by the challenge of writing up.

  3. Anne A says:

    This is the read I needed! Thanks. Just started my second year, recently turned 52 and navigating the ‘vanity degree’ narrative. I wish the writer all the best for her new and hard earned beginnings.

  4. carolbeckwith says:

    I am a soon to be 56 year old and am contemplating the possibility of a PhD in the (hopefully) near future. It is as you say a daunting thought but I am thoroughly heartened after reading this piece, thank you.

  5. Mary Ann DeVlieg says:

    OMG! I’m just starting – at 68! And terrified but determined. Not doing it for me (well, of course yes, that too) but my anger with unjust systems that I want to robustly criticism and change. And I share all of the financial fears, which are very real. Thank you for posting!

  6. Carol Dian Corless says:

    Thanks for this story. I am currently enrolled through UNE in a MPhil which has the potential to be upgraded to PhD. I am 54 years old and a woman. I started my BHinq at UNE when I was 46 years old. I had already written some papers on history subjects so thought I should do the degree where I could do my own research subjects. I wholly endorse the studying as a mature age student. I love the thrill of the chase for facts and bringing them together to tell a story but don’t necessarily love the writing as much.

  7. cyberjennifer says:

    I started my part-time self-funded PhD two years ago at the age of 56. I am in the processes of going through progression (passed the viva but need to make some corrections to the report) and am looking forward to both the next 6 months, but also the next six years. My husband and I have been separated for 22 years, but we never divorced. We did think we should get round to it but my solicitor said the judge would likely say the PhD was a vanity degree and expect me to go out to work. How can we even counter that attitude!
    So it is great to hear from people who have graduated at our age already. I shall soldier on!

  8. Jim Gritton says:

    I’m 66 and nearing the end of a part-time EdD which I started 7-8 years ago. I should have finished it sooner but took an unscheduled “sabbatical” to undertake an MLitt in Viking Studies which I completed last year (with distinction, he said immodestly!). As I have now retired, the EdD will not advance my career in any way – it’s always been about the learning and proving to myself that I can complete a doctorate, irrespective of age. When I question whether I am capable or too old, I remind myself that Anton Bruckner didn’t really get going as a composer until the last 25 years of his life. Ditto Theodor Fontane, arguably Germany’s greatest 19th century writer, who wrote his best novels well into his 60s and 70s. Age is no barrier to learning!

  9. Mike says:

    Inspirational story Catherine – thank you for sharing the blog. At 73 I am into the first weeks of a part-time PhD with not a little trepidation! At last week’s induction there was a sprinkling of grey heads so I am not completely alone in this year’s cohort which is a slight consolation – although I guess most were not children of the 40s and just a tad younger.

    It’s good to know you are not alone and far from unique.

  10. Adina says:

    At 58, I’m in my third year of a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in the UK. I’m a distance learner, living in the US. Sometimes that can be frustrating, missing out on creative events and guest speakers, but with the help of Skype and A/V technology, I participate when and where I can. After a 20-year career as a genre fiction writer, the biggest challenge is not that the programme lacks respect for me, because they’re wonderful! but for the markets where I choose to write. Needless to say, a steampunk novel wasn’t going to fly as a thesis. Instead, my thesis is a cap-L Literary historical women’s fiction. But as my supervisor says, I got into this to stretch myself and learn, so that’s what I’m doing. I feel like a detective, hot on the trail of facts and references, and I’m having the time of my life! Just launched a research website about the world of the novel: .

  11. Ann Erskine says:

    I graduated last year at 77. Now I am working on a book of my thesis to be published next year. I wanted to do this for 40 years but as a sole parent with two children it wasn’t possible!
    When I retired at 73 I finally had time for the PhD.

  12. goingback956 says:

    An inspiring story! I completed my PhD in 2013 at the age of 59. (Coincidentally, I also live in Vancouver and took my degree at Durham University.) My degree is in the field of archaeology and was a pure labour of love for me. Despite, or perhaps because of, the many challenges of undertaking this project, I loved every minute of it and would encourage anyone thinking about it to jump in with both feet. I too faced a steady stream of questions about why I would undertake this degree at my age, it didn’t make financial sense, etc.. as if that is the only possible reason one would want to undertake a PhD. But my answer was always the same – I’m doing it because I love it and surely there is no better reason than that… at any age.

  13. Chris Mitchell says:

    I’m just completing my PhD. My standing joke is that as a result of being a student, despite being 59, I have a “16-25 railcard” that gives me cheap train travel in the UK. By the time I finish next year, I’ll be eligible for a Senior Railcard, that gives me the same discount. I’m jumping from being officially young to officially old overnight!

    • cyberjennifer says:

      I hadn’t thought of trying to get the “16-25” rail card, thanks for the tip! I am a distance learning and the train fares to the university are not cheap. I do have my student card from the university, but I rarely find places to use it. It does feel good though to tick the ‘student’ box on forms. I still feel 19 inside, so it isn’t that much of a leaf for me!

  14. goingback956 says:

    An inspiring story! I completed my PhD in 2013 at the age of 59. (Coincidentally I also live in Vancouver and took my degree at Durham University.) My degree is in the field of archaeology and was a pure labour of love for me. Despite, or perhaps because of, the many challenges of undertaking this degree, I loved every minute of it and encourage anyone who’s considering it to jump in with both feet. I too faced a steady stream of questions about why I was doing this at my age, it didn’t make financial sense, etc.- as if that is the only reason to do a PhD. My answer was always the same – I’m doing it because I love it. Surely there is no better reason than that, at any age.

  15. Wallaroo says:

    I have just turned 60, been doing my PhD part time for about 3-4 years. I have a background in education and now teach as a sessional in that area and followed a dream that is about 20+ years old of doing a PhD in children ‘s literature. A change of discipline and not much time due to workload, I switched from school teaching to university sessional in my mid 50s. I love my PhD, it is my fairy bread, my work is nourishment that keeps us going financially and my PhD is mine . I am learning so many new things and to look at literature differently.Loving it, best thing I ever did, I hope to finish by my mid 1960s then explore the questions that are coming up but just outside my PhD topic. Also to start combining literature theory and children’s books with education and environmental themes. Sometimes there are twinges of regret about not doing it earlier but mostly I am just thankful that I followed this path. My career doesn’t depend on graduating but wow I will hav learned and grown so much. A gift at my age.

  16. Lynne Kelly says:

    Lovely post. I completed my PhD at 62. I found that as a mature age student, I was able to focus and enjoy my research more than many of the younger students who were still struggling with all the identity and career aspects of their lives. I loved every minute and am continuing my research as an Honorary Research Associate. I am writing books and articles and living what I consider the dream life.

    The younger students treated me as an equal. I can’t remember my age every being a consideration in any way.

    I had no idea that doing a PhD as a mature age student would be such a fantastic boost to every aspect of my life.

  17. Anita Lynn Kelley says:

    Thank you for this encouraging message! I started my PhD part-time at age 48. I stopped my
    studies due to financial reasons. I am now 60 and seriously considering going back to finish it.
    I am inspired by your blog, as well as the comments and stories that have been shared here.

  18. Marian says:

    I echo all of the above and many thanks for this fantastic post. I’ll be submitting in 3 months time, just after my 59th birthday and will become a grandmother around the same date as submission. Doing the PhD has been a labour of love indeed and I have loved every minute of it. For a while I envied the younger ones who at least have a chance of an academic career, but like Lynne I now realise that they have a hard road ahead carving out a niche, whereas I can be an independent scholar without workplace politics and personalities etc. To anyone who’s considering a PhD at a mature age, go for it. You’ll be so glad you did.

  19. Tanya Breen says:

    Thank you for writing this. I’m 56, and I gave up a lot to start my doctoral studies three and a half years ago. Although this journey has had challenging times, I’ve mostly loved it. It’s changed me in so many ways, and I’m excited to see what the next phase of life brings for me. I’d wanted to do a PhD since I was in my mid-20s, but put marriage, motherhood and financial security ahead of this personal goal. I’m glad I finally had the courage to go for it, and I’m on track to soon become a Doctor of Health Science.

  20. Julie says:

    I am 49 and have just finished my first year as a PhD candidate. I have two children – 15 and 11 – and a husband who works insane hours. I gave up a job which I liked but no longer loved to pursue a lifelong dream. My PhD has absolutely NOTHING to do with my job which has regularly resulted in scornful questions, eye rolling and general WTF from many people (including my friends). I cherish those who support me. It is absolutely not easy, I’ve thought about throwing it all in more times than I can count. I totally needed to read this article today.

  21. Tracy says:

    I, too, feel encouraged by your post. I’m nearly 56, started in mid-2014 and plan to complete early next year. With teenage kids and working full-time, it has been hard to stay on track and I’m sure if I had not been working I would have finished sooner. I work at a university and I do get asked what good a PhD is going to do for me ‘at my age’. I work in English language assessment and learning support and am investigating why students who need support don’t generally seek it. That is what I want an answer to, and that’s why I’m doing my PhD.

  22. Sarah says:

    This is such an inspiring article. I may be a relative youngster (47) but can totally relate to the imposter syndrome, the WTF attitude from others, and the insane juggle that is working, doing a part-time PhD and bringing up a family. It’s so good to know I’m not alone! Thanks for your honesty and insight.

  23. Kaboom says:

    I finished mine in 2015 at 54. Although I loved the entire experience of the PhD, the ensuing two years were the hardest of my working life. It was just soul destroying being disregarded for positions that I wanted and for which I was suitable. Minus 5 crucial years of networking and industry change on the consulting side didn’t help either. I did feel rather washed up. Without details, I changed everything up a couple of years ago and now have a truly breathtaking path ahead with a startup. (And yes, it will work.) Anyone else feeling marooned? I say, new paradigms needed, ones that don’t rely on prejudiced minds. Baby out with the bath water. We can think, people.

    • Mary says:

      I’ve just submitted and feel marooned, yes. I moved away to do a funded PhD at 52, on the back of a divorce request, and in between have had amazing experiences but also some of the hardest times of my life. I’ve taken the whole (unfunded) fourth year, and have been unable in that time to get an academic job – bearing in mind I was lecturing before, and took the PhD partly as a way to future-proof myself. Meanwhile HE seems to be becoming more and more difficult.
      I’ve found the experience confronting, at times challenging almost beyond my limits, alongside some extraordinary and exhilarating experiences – but at the moment marooned and deflated, very lacking in self-esteem. I’m hoping it will come back, and that I will be able to see the whole experience as an overall good. Looking for my next step – but taking a few deep breaths first…

  24. Liz Charpleix says:

    When I started my PhD 8+ years ago (part-time), at the age of 51, it was because a) I’ve always loved studying and researching (I have more tertiary qualifications than many people have had hot dinners); b) I needed a distraction from the tedium of the accounting business I had been operating for over a decade; & c) I saw a report of a 96-y-o chap graduating with his PhD in Spanish Literature (if I remember rightly) – proof to me that adding to the knowledge in the world is reward enough, without needing to plan for an academic career to follow.

    Three years ago I sold the accounting business with the aim of getting the PhD finished before the proceeds of the sale ran out. Unfortunately, I have suffered severe impostor syndrome (despite having published two of my PhD chapters already, to very positive response), depression, anxiety and chronic fatigue syndrome throughout the whole process. I have a feeling that this has a lot to do with the fact that I am studying via distance ed (through UNE), so I never get to hang out with fellow-students, with whom I could share the experiences, good and bad, of this study. I Skype with my supervisors once a week and I have had a couple of travel scholarships and attended several conferences through my study period, but I still feel very isolated. On top of the distance study, I have no family, and my friends are all madly busy with family, kids, elderly parents, work, etc, so my rescue cats and possums are my study partners (their cuddles and silliness are very important!).

    I’ve now run out of funds from the sale of the business and am subsisting on Newstarve, with all the cruel, humiliating complications that imposes upon me. I am determined to finish my PhD, but my brain is not the most cooperative of study partners, sadly. In addition, the worry about how to support myself once I graduate is very real. Naively, I thought that something (post-doc, research work) would just fall in my lap. I don’t know why I thought that, as I have never found jobs easy to get, which is why I started my own accounting business.

    I thought I knew what study involved, having completed, with great satisfaction and high distinction mostly, everything up to and including a Masters in the past – all while working, part-time or full-time, all self-funded, while suffering the same health issues and social isolation. In theory, I agree with and support wholeheartedly all the comments above, about the worth of doing a PhD as a middle-aged or older woman (or man), but I’m not sure that I would ever have started it if I’d known how extremely difficult it would be to get through.

    • Melanie Monk says:

      Hi, Liz (and you other inspiring women),

      I’m just starting an MEd at age 49. I work full-time in research administration at a Canadian university and am of the “sandwich generation” taking care of a teenager and aging parents.

      I’m considering putting together a proposal to develop a mentorship or cohort program at my institution to better support women in academia at all levels (students, staff, PDFs, faculty and administrators). In addition to financial support, it seems that social support is a massive issue for women, who are more likely to pursue academic careers in the first place due to the encouragement of a supportive person (Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. (2007). Nomination circles where women nominate one another for research awards is one such way that we can begin to gain visibility as leaders and tackle Imposter Syndrome.

      What support and resources would have been helpful to you to make your Ph.D. experience a more positive one?

      • Liz Charpleix says:

        Hi Melanie
        While doing my PhD, I decided to add a string to my bow (assuming that post-doc work would be v. hard to come by) and did a Grad Cert in editing, by distance through Macquarie University. One of the women in the class suggested starting a Slack group, to act as a virtual coffee shop where we could all ‘gather’ after class for a chat.
        It worked incredibly well; a core group of us found it a great support, whether to comment on the course work, or to encourage each other, to share our stress in the middle of the night when we were pushing ourselves to submit work by a midnight deadline, etc.

        By contrast, my two brief periods of studying overseas on scholarships (6 weeks in Delft, 4 months in Vienna) were notable for my total inability to make connections with the people around me (and language was not the problem – everyone spoke excellent English). I’m shy in social circumstances, but generally not so if I know what I’m doing (eg at professional conferences back when I as an accountant). I found my shyness and impostor syndrome, plus a goldfish memory that prevents me from remembering anything about my work when I’m not actually reading out loud from a prepared statement, totally isolated me.

        Another thing that I find isolates me is the promotion of amazing women’s achievements. When I was younger, I loved reading about successful women, thinking I could learn from them and grow in productive ways. Now I’m a grumpy ‘old’ woman whose achievements are in no way of the kind generally promoted as amazing, I am always reminded of how much [of what the world appreciates] I haven’t achieved when I see these promotions, which sends me further into my hiding places.
        The benefit of the Slack group at MQ was that we all felt equal. Some had better marks/understanding in some areas, some in others. We didn’t feel the need to look up to any single one of us, even though I’m sure some of us were much higher achievers than others, either in this study or in other areas. But it was a really welcoming, egalitarian forum.

        My PhD supervisors have been excellent with our face-to-face (Skype) and email contact. I’ve been to four conferences, where I had some comfortable social interactions, but then we all go home and the connection is forgotten.

        I’d find a mentorship/cohort group great, but I’d find a nomination program disheartening. Either everyone has to nominate/get nominated to encourage inclusivity, which means that you couldn’t be certain that people were getting nominated for valid reasons, or the nominations work organically, in which case there are going to people either left out completely, or left until last, perhaps even having disputes over who is going to be required to nominate the last person – shades of picking teams in my PhysEd classes back at high school 🙁 .
        I’m not sure how you would encourage a workable cohort program. I’ve been involved in building up social associations at study institutions and they can be stymied by having the wrong person leading the group, or by other invisible barriers (eg marketing not demonstrating sufficiently the group’s value). The Slack group at MQ worked because we were linked by our shared study; maybe it would be enough to be studying at Uni, without needing to be studying the exact same thing.

        As a graduate of three different Unis, I get invited to alumni activities, but rarely go because I know I won’t know anyone. Perhaps some kind of cohort program could utilise unis in a similar but different way – eg gathering women who live in a particular town but are studying elsewhere to participate in social activities at that town’s uni, with women who are studying at that uni? Extending distance student’s special access to the local uni library by giving them access to that uni’s other facilities, even maybe PhD study rooms?

        I’m just brainstorming, and I’m very much aware that there are $$$$$ involved in who gets access to what, so sharing of this kind might not work for economic reasons. Stopping the brain-dump now.

  25. Miriam says:

    I would not be classed as an older PhD student, but even so I am inspired by Dr Racine’s eloquent post. I am finding my own PhD journey hard to press through, and her enthusiasm, determination, acknowledgement of how difficult it is, and ultimately how rewarding, has lifted my spirits.

  26. David Lissenden says:

    At 80 years young I’m 2 years into a PhD and as the song says ‘regrets I have a few ‘ but I’m with you Catherine I now have a worldwide network of acquaintances who have been more than generous in giving me their time, help and advise in my chosen field The ‘Buzz’ is still there as it is in my new pastime of jumping out of perfectly good aeroplanes and droving with a friend and his family on their property Sure, somewhere down the track when I reach a quite place and looh back and can say ‘you’ve done good ‘ for me it all started with a PhD

    • Ann Erskine says:

      wonderful. nice to see someone older than me here! Love, love, love my PhD and being Dr Ann😘

  27. Kate Evans (@Daydream512) says:

    Thanks Catherine, this post has filled me with inspiration! I started my PhD (self funded) when I retired and 18 months in, part-time, it is just beginning to feel like ‘me’ instead of something slightly left-of-field that I took on as an indulgence!! I think women often spend so much energy making sure that other people’s lives are working – how wonderful to have time to just do what I want! This post spoke loudly to me and I love the thought that all you other PhD students are out there too..

  28. Sarah Howard says:

    not suggesting you should, but I like this woman’s passion!

    also, here is a succinct non-academic article by my co-supervisor:

    hope all is well with you, and it has been good to see John – what was his not-girlfriend like?

    we are all fine, except for some colds, and I am just about managing to write enough each day to stave off panic…

    Elsa asks about you a lot and ‘can I go on my aeroplane now, to see my granny now’. Henok is so into the alphabet flash cards ‘just one more go, just one please’!

    hope we can speak soon



  29. Margaret Branch says:

    This is exactly what I needed to hear! I am working on a doctoral program and at age 66. I know I might never use it, and I have been questioning the necessity of it as well as the reason why I am spending the money I could be using for something else. But I keep going, and I am almost at the point of starting the dissertation. It’s nice to know there are others who have questioned the sanity of a doctorate especially after or close to retirement. Thanks for the encouragement!

  30. Sally Cooke says:

    Oh my, how timely! This is just what I needed to hear. I started yesterday, having just turned 50! It’s been a long time coming and is a very exciting prospect. I have some worries like others, including whether that rising warm feeling is excitement of a new adventure or menopause related – you can do both right?! While aware of potential challenges (and scared by some of the mental health warnings) I am also hugely optimistic. Having changed disciplines through a process of hard work over many years my greatest hope is that this is a chance to find the voice that failed me as an undergrad in an all-male faculty 30+ years ago.

    • Anne A says:

      I am 52 and just starting my second year as a full time doctoral researcher. I am also living with the physical/emotional/psychological symptoms of perimenopause. Some days I can’t function, and barely have the energy to get out of bed. I am still learning how to take care of myself through diet and supplements. I don’t get enough exercise. I frequently – most days – feel like I’m not being productive enough especially when I compare myself to others. A huge weight was taken off my shoulders when I told my supervisor – she is an older woman who have lived through the menopause herself. Yes, you can do both but you need to work out what that means for you in terms of self care and study. All the best for your new adventure!

  31. Wendy Hartford says:

    Thanks Catherine, your words are inspiring and encouraging. A mutual friend (Sharon D) forwarded your blog. Thank you also to all the responses that your blog has inspired. At 64, I have been contemplating a PhD. since I completed my MA in 2011. It is time to take the next step.

  32. PhD Almost there says:

    Encouraging reading, as I move to the PhD finishing post and realise my 60 + silver hair mix is not so silver now!
    Equally fascinating are the stories and comments to your post.
    We are a cohort of opportunistic learners – leaving the comforts of regular salaries for the life of non-paid study – who will continue to bring valuable contributions to global societies for the next third of our lives.
    Inspire the next generations and our global cohorts not to sit and naval gaze, but be proactive, intellectual explorers. Approach philanthropists and businesses to fund scholarships for more mature learners (not all have the economic resources to commit to a 3-6year PhD) who will contribute to their own communities just by role modelling life-long and life-wide learning.

  33. Karen says:

    Fantastic post, and galvanising, too.
    Started my PhD 18 months ago in the fifty-somethings. Am absolutely loving it and it is life transforming. Definitely a career-shift kickstarter for me, coming with considerable financial and personal sacrifice. A ‘Vanity degree’? I hadn’t heard that one but am sure it is a commonplace view. I don’t care – that’s the beauty of being mature 😉
    Ageism abounds in the student body (my campus’s recent Diversity Week marketing had wonderful pics of students of diverse cultures, ethnicities, abilities, genders, sexualities etc but every shot was peopled by under 30s!).

    • cyberjennifer says:

      I am glad I am not the only one that feels left out of the diversity activities. I found out that my university has a ‘mature post graduates’ facebook group, but it turned out that their definition of mature was anyone in their 20s, which makes sense if you consider many undergraduates will graduate at age 20. but it was clear very quickly that I was the oldest by a good 20 years. And I guess it isn’t helped by being a distance learner; I can’t sit quietly in the post grad bar looking for others who are older.
      Don’t get me wrong, I love being around young people, it keeps me young, but sometimes it is nice to talk to someone who understands some of the health and age related differences like not being able to party all night and having to put family members first.

  34. simplypatti says:

    This post resonates so deeply with me! I started my PhD in Mind Body Medicine at age 59 and at 61 am in my third year! It is by far the greatest gift I have ever given myself. The personal growth as I learn, stretch and grow has been tremendous! It was a bucket list item and in a few years I will be checking that off. I have absolutely no regrets!!

  35. Joy Ivill says:

    I won a bursary to do PhD. at Deakin University in the Wyndham art prize, and I’m concluding my second year now, I’m 72 and loving it.

  36. salvorj says:

    Thanks for an inspiring article. I started my PhD last year few months before my 59th birthday. My subject is on sustainable agricultural land use; but after having worked with politicians and policymakers for over 30 years I felt I needed to use the productive years that I have left to do something meaningful. Plus I’m a farm-kid and food production is what I grew up doing. The only downside starting so late on the PhD is that you can’t get student loans at my age so I must do some consulting work on the side that slows me down.

  37. debsadac says:

    This is a wonderful article, thank you. I’ve just finished a masters degree and am hoping to start a PhD in October next year. From all the above comments it makes me realise just how many of us there are!

  38. Kieran Egan says:

    After 34 years in full time employment in education I embarked on an Master of Philosophy. I recently converted to PhD and am chapter writing and collecting data. I retired as a fully self funded retiree after studiously paying my superannuation come rain hail or shine. This article resonates deeply with my experience. My focus is on contextualising learning trajectories in mathematics and numeracy and how teachers are applying them in K to 6 classrooms. Thank you so much for sharing.

  39. Nancy says:

    Thank you, Catherine! It was delightful to read your wonderful blog along with all of the outstanding comments. Ah yes, the challenges of doing a PhD as a “mature” female student…I graduated with a PhD a few months ago at age 68. The obstacles were great as well as the moments of ecstasy. I echo Catherine’s call out to all older and not-so-old women to “START the PhD TODAY!” if at all possible.

    As for my future, I plan to turn my thesis into a book and see where that goes. While our individual and collective insecurities, especially economic, may never end, paradigm shifts can provide openings. For me, this means appreciating every moment, even the difficult ones, if I can. The sun has just come out and I’m loving it.

  40. Alec Grant says:

    Catherine, this is excellent. Hats off to you!
    I completed my PhD in my late 40s and am an indie scholar, having retired from the uni system. I’m co editor of *International Perspectives on Autoethnographic Research and Practice* (2018, Routledge). I also write, including autoethnographically, within critical MH.Would be nice to stay in touch.

  41. Thesis Whisperer says:

    Catherine is having trouble posting, so she asked me to pass on the following comment:

    WOW! What a thrill to read these heartfelt responses from women and men taking the PhD plunge later in life. Thank you, dear Dr Inger Mewburn, for publishing my blog post and making this big conversation possible. I’m over the moon.

    If anyone undertaking a PhD over the age of 50 needed proof that they are a force of nature, then look no further than the evidence shining out of each of these responses. This is what it is to be part of a tribe of tough, visionary women and men who are changing the rules, taking risks, making sacrifices, aiming high and overcoming obstacles to claim their rightful place in the conversation while continuing the work of making their voices heard. This is especially true for women and it’s wonder-full to remember you’re out there. We are ground breakers in the Academy and there is much work to be done.

    Thank you for your affirmations, your inspiring stories and for underscoring the vital importance of seizing our lives, our dreams and passions and making them real for ourselves and the world around us, no matter what age we are.

    My own story continues, the work is ongoing along with the challenges. I can now call myself “Dr” but I still have to generate some real income. The book proposal for my thesis is almost ready to be sent out to the publisher and I have ideas for future books I yearn to get underway. I have given two talks on my work in the past few months to academic audiences that were well received and I am slowly re-establishing myself in Vancouver having been away for over seven years now. My new counselling business is on the immediate horizon as is my future website which represents another huge learning curve.

    But I am not alone, as you have all reminded me in the past twenty-four hours. Nor, for that matter, are any of you!

    Sending you my deep respect and much courage for your journey.


  42. thomsb says:

    Great article. I am completing a Masters at age 66 and I can empathise with many of the coments. Ageism is alive and well when you look around at the negativity suffered by those trying to get mobs later in life when they are the most experienced and most current for the particular jobs. Academia is no different. This article was inspiring do continue.

    • catherineracine says:

      Thanks for this and keep going as we can and must change the narrative for elder, older, senior, brilliant women embracing academia at any point in their lives. Catherine

  43. Muriellahor says:

    I am 51 and doing a self-funded phd in educational philosophy on a sensitive topic whilst holding a teacher position. It will take at least another two years of patience with systems and people. Will it yield? In terms of capitalist criteria, no idea but in terms of wellbeing and happiness, definitely. I just feel very strongly I have to do it and nothing will stop me!

  44. Madeleine Nicole says:

    Thank you so much for your article. I have often been told that I was “different” from well meaning individuals. I successfully defended my PhD Dissertation last May (2019) at age 61. I have a good job and do not wish to enter academia, however this new academic license gives me some standing in my all male environment. Furthermore it provides me with the administrative support that I need to keep on working in research after 65.
    Like you, I also found academia lacking in understanding that education is more than the search for future work. Higher education actually teaches women courage in order for them to speak up and to feel valued. Particularly when she has learned to present ideas and findings with qualitative and quantitative backings.
    In saying so strangely enough, my research learning habits help me argue with some Union representatives when I asked about harassment complaints that appear to be put aside or discarded as being “too weak”. During a steward training day, my simple questions appeared to disturb our representatives?
    A simple: “What criteria is being used in order to classify a complaint of harassment as weak?” ” Can you present them and clearly assigned a weight to each one of them?” left many individuals with their mouth opened and struggling to answer these two simple questions. The “this is a very delicate and personal matter” so we do not keep track of the number was their answer.
    In the past, I would not have asked such direct questions, but now I feel capable of doing so.
    So yes, doing a PhD at a later age will give someone the confidence to question the status quo.
    After all after reading the many posts, I may not be so different.
    Thank you again for your article.

  45. madvdialogMary Ann DeVlieg says:

    So reassuring to read all of these! As a life long policy activist (not an academic!), at the age of 68 I do not look for more work (although i need to keep working/earning) but rather to transform my activism discourses into a more robust argumentation to fight for what I believe in, in a different environment, adding to the spheres I’ve entered already. But my goodness, it’s so difficult to learn to write in this stiff academic way! Will I ever manage to do it?! My Profs are very supportive but my brain feels like lead when it tries to grapple with this style, so unlike how I normally write!

    • madeleine nicole says:

      You are not the only one with that feeling of lead. It takes time but anyone can achieve it with a lot of determination and a lot of support. Good luck, we need more individuals like you who are activists and now want to support their views with robust research.

  46. DORIS PIPI says:

    I Thank all the posts! Its so inspiring and empowering. I have just affirmed to considering starting my PHD in 2021. Core parts of my questions have been answered.

    • carolbeckwith says:

      Inspiring! I’m 56 and in the midst of writing my funding application for a ‘practice as research’ PhD which will start in September this year- fingers crossed it makes it over the line!

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