Applying for PhD after almost 10 years


I felt encouraged by reading a couple of threads on this forum regarding going back to finish PhD after a long break, so I am posting my first thread here. I have a Master's in Communication and now I want to pursue a PhD in Anthropology as it is more in line with my research topic. I did ethnography on 12 step program for my Master's thesis, and I would like to further explore the topic in PhD. However, I am a bit stuck as to where to start from,,,As I studied qualitative research method (ethnography) during my Master's, and two fields are relatively similar, I am hoping I could apply directly to PhD (I am asking the program coordinator about this), I have a topic/RQ in my mind, but I feel a bit hesitant to contact supervisor directly.,I am not sure what I can do to feel better qualified for the position at the moment (I work full time in a completely unrelated field), and I feel I'm getting behind,,,Has anyone been in a similar situation, if so, how did you go about getting back on track? any suggestion would be greatly appreciated! thanks


Imagine you are a supervisor who is willing to take on a new student in the field of Obscure Thing. Imagine you are trying to choose between three candidates. One is fresh out of University and did their undergraduate dissertation in Vaguely Related Thing. The second is a mature student with a lifelong interest in Obscure Thing but little, if any, direct experience in the field. The third is a mature student with a lifelong interest in Obscure Thing, who was also the founder and co-chair of the local Obscure Thing Society, has ten years' experience running a popular blog about All The Obscure Things, and tutored a small group of enthusiastic A Level students who all went on to study Obscure Things at Oxbridge. Who would you pick?

Pretty much every supervisor will choose the third student. This is not meant to discourage you; there are tons of ways of proving your interest in something. These range from time and money intensive (e.g., studying an OU module or two), to less intense (such as volunteering at a relevant organisation that demonstrates your interest).


None of those things are strictly necessary, they just make it easier for supervisors to gauge your commitment. If you have some demonstrable interest, use and develop it. If you don't but can do something easily, do it. If you don't and can't, don't stress about it. Most supervisors have to choose between five near-identical students with undergraduate degrees in near-identical subjects, and one mature student with a lifelong interest, if the latter exists at all. This means you already have a chance to stand out, if you can explain "why this subject?" and "why now?".

If you have a strong research question, can talk clearly and sensibly about the subject, don't misunderstand common terms, have a clear set of questions and interests, and are willing to listen to the supervisor and trust their expertise and guidance, you will be 10x further ahead than the majority of the other applicants. That alone will prove your interest and allow the supervisor to gauge your commitment even if you have no other experience developing Obscure Widgets or delivering Obscure Public Talks. What really matters is that you care about the subject, have the kind of demonstrable personal qualities that will get you through a PhD, and are going to be an asset to the department. Anything you can do to prove it is going to help you.

Avatar for rewt

Hi Noz,

Mature PhD students are fairly common and there isn't that much stigma attached with going into industry and coming back. There will be skills that you acquired in industry that will cross applicable, so use them to compensate for the fact you don't have as up-to-date knowledge. Showing genuine enthusiasm for the project/field can compensate for most CV shortcomings.

If you are stuck with what to do; decide if you want to choose your own research project or apply to a self funded PhD. You can find self funded PhDs at place like and have a simpler application process. Even if you don't think you are a perfect fit, apply anyway just for the experience. Some funded PhDs are surprisingly noncompetitive. You can also email the PhD supervisor to ask questions and see if you are suitable. Most academics are fairly nice and will be honest with you. If you want to do your own project, you need to start working on your proposal and read as much literature as you can. It can be more competitive but it is your own project.

If you have any more questions, just ask on this forum
Good luck

Avatar for springtime

Hi there,

I am not sure if I can be much help to be honest because I am nowhere near finishing my Ph.D., and who knows if I will ever! ha!!!
But just to let you know my undergrad was in Horticultural Science and my PhD is in Geography, I have no background in Geography.
I also took a few years away from studying and worked in retail which also has no relevance to Geography.
In my opinion, I think if you are passionate about the subject area and you let it shine through then you will be ok!
And listening to the great advice given above of course would be no harm ether :)

Avatar for rshari_88n

I removed a couple of years from considering and worked in retail which additionally has no significance to Geography.
As I would see it, I think on the off chance that you are enthusiastic about the branch of knowledge and you let it radiate through then you will be alright!
Also, tuning in to the incredible guidance given above obviously would be no mischief ether :)


There are two extremes in the system as-is, and a really tough middle ground.

Extreme a) is you've just graduated from a Masters, and want a funded PhD. This is highly competitive, but you don't necessarily need much experience beyond high grades, persistence, and an ability to interview convincingly and complete in 3 years.

Extreme b) is you're about to retire, and want to do a PhD as a final note to your working life. You're able/willing to self-fund, and as a result can basically shop around Unis, who will generally find a way to take your money for part time study whilst setting you up with a supervisor with sufficient knowledge/interest for a monthly coffee & chat over the 5-10 years you'll do it without pressure.

There is some vague justice in the system, in that a funded PhD is, by and large, taxpayer funded, and the taxpayer probably wants to benefit from your life of research as the return on investment, rather than just the thesis.

The tough, unfair, middle ground is attempting to get a funded PhD if you're mid-career, can't necessarily afford to self-fund, and are hoping for work experience to help address a change in topic (or weak grades on graduation way back when). If you can self-fund, getting a PhD position is not hard (though, actually getting the PhD, is obviously challenging). If you need funding, you'd likely need, as an earlier posted suggested, to be able to demonstrate you've been engaged with the topic either professionally or personally throughout your career; or persuade your employer to provide the funding.