PhD at 38



I have a place and full funding to study for a FT PhD, starting in September. I wondered whether anyone could give me any advice about doing a PhD as a mature student? I'd welcome in particular:

- any advice on balancing study and family commitments (I have two young children)
- how it feels to return to FT study after a long period working
- how being older is likely to affect my chances of getting an academic position at the end of my PhD. This is the real kicker for me- one of my aims in doing a PhD is to move into an academic career, but I'm aware that this is by no means an easy thing to do. I'm worried about the prospect of not finding a position at the end of my PhD and not being able to return to my old job either, having taken 3+ years out. It feels like a huge risk. On the other hand, I feel that if I don't do the PhD and stick with the security of my current job, I'll always regret it.

Any thoughts or advice would be gratefully received.

Avatar for Mackem_Beefy

I went to do a PhD at the age of 30. In answer to each of yor concerns.

1) I was single at the time I did the PhD. I know there's plenty with family on this forum who've tackled one. It's about you time management.

2) I'd left after Masters at 24 feeling I was too old at that stage, however, upon returning having other older fellow PhD'ers around me helped. The main point for me was the nature of a PhD meant it felt more like a job than studying. PhD'ers are "separate" from the general student population unless there are teaching requirements thus to me there was no feeling of "going back to school".

I met one man taking a PhD part-time in his late 50s. Also during Masters, there was a man on my course doing it full time with a family in his mid 50s.

3) The normal route is PhD, followed by post-doc then going into teaching. The PhD helped me into two post-docs in succession and you generally need the PhD in scences, maths and engineering to to start an academic career. Finding a job after depends upon your ability to sell yourself just as much in academia as in the real world. There's a risk, but there's also a risk on changing any job.

4) Your last point sums it up for me in that had I not done a PhD, I'd have always regreted it. So I did one and have no regrets. Things did not work out for me after my second post-doc thus I'm out of academia, however, as with anything in life you take a risk.

After Masters, the subject had been broched with me and over the next few years I finally decided I had to do one despite leaving a job to do it (there was a redundancy threat anyway).


Take a look at my blog and if you have any questions, get back to me.



I can answer the first two!

- any advice on balancing study and family commitments (I have two young children)

It really depends on how old they are and what childcare you have available to you. I started my PhD with a four year old and had twins during my first year. It was tough. It probably would have been anyway, but for a long time I kidded myself that I could study while the babies slept. Unsurprisingly, this never worked. You really need to work out exactly how many child-free hours you will have and if this answer is "not enough", work out how you can get more help. And yes, time management is essential. Another thing to bear in mind is where you are going to be studying. I was mainly studying from home which was very stressful (no study + two toddler = chaos). Ironically, I have now moved house and have a study. (I finished a few months back).

- how it feels to return to FT study after a long period working
Really good! I loved being a student again and am missing it already. However, as a parent your university experience is going to be different to your young, free and single colleagues - far less socializing and networking, and possible lonelier too.

As for your last question, I am still working that out. I do currently teach at a university (abroad) but I am not a researcher. I am hoping that might change in the future but for the moment, I cannot realistically move jobs or areas.


I started my PhD at the age of 40! However, I didn't have any children. The term early career researcher is not usually qualified by age but rather by years post-PhD, so there shouldn't be any age discrimination. I haven't been aware of any thus far.

Avatar for TheGoodShip

*how being older is likely to affect my chances of getting an academic position at the end of my PhD*

This is a tricky issue. It is easier in some research fields than others. In Law, for example, there is a still a big demand for law teachers which leads to higher recruitment in the field.

I was mature-ish, and something I found difficult is that a lot of younger people are superior to me. However, I guess that is just the nature of working life.

PhD is a great experience however!


I think there are two things that can be issues for mature students, one of which is easier to fix than the other.

The easier one is understanding that the odds are against any PhD student regardless of age getting a permanent academic job, and that anyone wanting this has to use the time to get their academic cv into the best shape possible. This applies to mature students as well as younger ones. I have seen a number of mature students fall into the trap of believing their greater life / work experience overrides the need for this kind of continual career development, whereas the reality is you need to have the publications (in good outlets), conference presentations, teaching experience, evidence of getting funding available etc regardless of age.

The harder one is that for most fledgling academics, the first few years of an academic career feature financial uncertainty and frequent moves to different cities / countries. Naturally more mature students tend to be more likely to have family responsibilities / mortgages etc that make this more difficult. So I think early on you need to think this one through and accept that if you can only apply for jobs in a small geographical radius that your chances are lower. In that case, a non-academic plan B (which frankly everyone should have anyway) becomes more important to develop.


I started roundabout the same age, and I was also a mature student for the Masters prior to the PhD.
1) Like DocInsanity, I didn't have any children, so I cannot tell. However, some of my fellow students had children, and they managed very well - sometimes better than I! It might just be that they were better at narrowing down their research topic to fit a busy lifestyle. I was both more scattered and too 'thorough' (no regret though, I've done some great work ;)

2) All the mature students that I've met were, like myself, very motivated. With motivation comes hard work and success.

3) I too am trying to figure this out. With an usual academic path, and working in an area of Humanities which currently offers very few career prospects, I'm a difficult case and maybe not the most typical example. I graduated in 2013 and I'm still looking...I have to hold on to a day job in a call centre while also working on a monograph, articles etc at evenings and weekends. Overall, I think the situation is not great for postdocs (at least in the Humanities, I'm not familiar with other areas), but I should also admit that I'm in Ireland. I've only recently started to look for jobs in the UK because there is very little going on for us here. No help. Everyone says that there is no age discrimination, and maybe there isn't, but I still need convincing. I believe there should be more support out there for us. Once you're outside Academia, everything gets more difficult too. I think you'll have better chances in the UK. If I had to give one piece of advice, though, it's to start looking for postdoc positions and filling applications for Fellowships as soon as possible toward the end of your PhD. I hope this helps.