Thursday, 8 March 2012

Mid-life crisis or late-developer?

Posted by Lynne Forrest

So why would anyone decide to go back to university to do a PhD nearly 20 years after their first degree? I was going to put it down to a mid life crisis but maybe I’m just a late developer, career-wise.

Although I’d managed to sort out most of the things you’re supposed to do on the conventional route to mature adulthood (degree, marriage, kids, mortgage) somewhere along the way I’d forgotten to get myself a ‘proper’ career.

My pre-PhD CV could be described as eclectic (if you were being kind). Although I’d done loads of different things that were pretty interesting in themselves (lab-based researcher, computer programmer, Brain Bank Manager*, amongst others) they didn’t really join together to make a coherent career path. Taking a few years off when I had kids and then working part-time did nothing to help.

Fozen brain slice
So as I approached 40 (I told you it was a mid-life crisis), with children now in school, I decided it was time to sort out my career. As we’re all probably going to be working until we’re at least 70, I didn’t think it was too late, although my chances of ever making it to professor are probably slim.

Having systematically thought about what parts of my previous jobs I’d enjoyed - the health related aspects, data analysis (I know, I’m a sad geek, but I love that sort of stuff), constant variety (I think it’s fairly obvious I get bored easily) - a health-based research career began to make lots of sense.  Just so long as I never had to work in a lab again.

To pick up the necessary statistics and epidemiology skills I needed, I funded myself through an MSc in Public Health and Health Services Research. Which I hope makes me look serious about all this. I had planned to get a research job after my MSc but began to realise that, really, you need a PhD if you want an academic career. It’s very difficult to get your foot in the door without one and so a further 3 years as a ‘mature’ student were required.

I do have occasional qualms about doing the PhD. Will I ever earn a decent salary again? Will my age be a problem when I’m looking for a research job? I’m hoping that my previous work experience as well as my research training is a plus for future employment. But generally I’m really grateful to my supervisors for taking a chance on me. There’s quite a few of us ‘old’ PhDs in IHS so I presume they know how grateful, and therefore motivated, we are. In fact, I think we’re becoming a bit of a demographic trend. It might have taken us a bit longer to get here career-wise, but better late than never.

*Yep, that’s exactly what it sounds like. I looked after a bank which stores slices of frozen human brain used in dementia research


  1. Great piece Lynn and very relevant to many of us in the IHS. Thank you for posting it. As for me, I was hoping to finish the PhD before reaching the fourth decade of age but that proved to be wishful thinking. I just had too many life events to make this possible. I hope to see soon the light at the end of what has been a very long dark tunnel. I am writing up now but feel like writing a historical piece, a life journey and not only an academic thesis!

    1. It's obvious that quite a few of us have had to make career compromises along the way, once we had children (see also Bronia's previous post about working part-time). I think the fact that you have worked and done a PhD whilst having kids is really admirable and maybe we should recognise this rather than all giving ourselves a hard time for not being 'successful' enough. It might be possible to have it all, just not all at the same time!