1. Ganesh Natrajan said:

    Congratulations on your decision, but as a person who started his PhD while in his mid 20s, and finished it a decade ago, I would like to say a few things.

    First, you are right that the stability in your routine and family will definitely help with being able to work on an advanced degree like a PhD. However, it is increasingly becoming evident, at least to experienced scientific PhDs like myself, that a PhD is more of a disqualification. It is quite pointless to have a PhD nowadays, unless you are aiming to be a PA or a Group Leader in an academic research laboratory.

    Assuming that this is where you want to go, you need to remember that the main criterion for selection to such posts (which are becoming fewer in number and more competitive, thanks to all the fund cuts happening) is the number of high impact publications you have. It is often difficult to get enough of these in a relatively short PhD program, meaning which you will need at least a few years of post doctoral work to be able to build up your research portfolio. Given that you have started your PhD in your thirties, you may be in your forties by the time you are ready to be a PA or a group leader.

    I don’t know how things are set up in academics where you live, but if it is anything like what it is in Continental European countries, you will find it extremely difficult to land yourself a permanent academic position once you cross 35 years of age. When most of your competitors are as experienced as you, in addition to being least ten years younger, your age may work against you.

    I wonder if you have thought about what you really want to do in your career, and whether a PhD will really help you get to where you want to go.

    None of this is meant to discourage you, and neither am I trying to be judgemental. But as an experienced PhD who has and is still having it pretty rough, I am just giving you my 2 cents worth.

    Good luck to you, and I hope all your dreams come true. It is a commendably brave decision you have taken and I hope it works in your favour.

    1. Cathy Winterton said:

      Hi Ganesh,
      Thanks very much for taking the time and trouble to comment so thoroughly.
      Unfortunately, I’m most certainly doomed! I’ll be 44 next week and as I’m doing my PhD part time (to work with family life) over five years the prospects could seem stacked even higher against me.
      But the thing is this: in Britain we’re likely to have to work until our late 60s – especially as I have started a family late – which means that by the time I finish my PhD I could have another 20 years of working life. One of my main aims, and always has been I think, is to spend my working time doing something stimulating, fulfilling, enriching and hopefully to the benefit of the greater good in some shape or form, no matter how humble.
      Nonetheless, I am not oblivious to the realities you have pointed out and I do largely agree with you. My PhD supervisor (Professor Bill Austin, St Andrews) has recommended that particularly in view of doing this over 5 years that I/we publish as much as I can as I go along, which will help me develop the research portfolio that you noted is necessary.
      It is probably true to say too, that most of us will experience rough times professionally (and otherwise) at various times along life’s journey, no matter what job we do. Life in general is not easy, but if it were, perhaps the simple joy of being alive would vaporise. If you’re not getting out of it what you need to make you a better contributor and enricher of life, maybe it’s worth trying something different.
      The late director of SAMS, Professor Laurence Mee, taught me this fantastically simple but liberating approach: Trust Life!
      All good wishes,

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  2. Susan Cory said:

    I agree with Ganesh Natrajan. I did my PhD in my 20s, now I’m close to 40 and no hope to find a stable position or anything that could be called a Career. I did not make a family due to my need to move every 1-2-3 years (see for example the crazy European mobility rules! who came up with such unrealistic mobility rules? Don’t we, the scientists or educated individuals, have the right to have a family life, too?)
    I have a good CV, I always worked hard, I had smart ideas, all you can think of. And still, nothing, I even was many months unemployed… And the fact that you are a woman in sciences for example is a very bad thing, only the owners of a male-organ have the chance for good positions in most countries.
    So why all governments still make publicity like: “Chose to become a scientist!” You offer us nothing! So stop with your lies and attempts to manipulate us to think it’s a great life. It is not!
    My advice to everyone: better chose another life path.

    1. Cathy Winterton said:

      Dear Susan,
      I’m sorry you’re so angy. I don’t and can’t disagree with you or Ganesh, because my experience in science is limited.
      But it’s not just scientists who live and work like this.
      For example, my dad was in the Navy. Between 1971 and 1989, my “family home” was in 9 different houses, and we had lived in 3 different countries.
      Then, as an independent adult from 1990 to 2008, I lived at 27 different addresses in four seperate countries. Each of those addresses were (mainly shared) flats or houses where I paid rent and bills and received my mail. It doesn’t include friends who helped me for a few days or weeks in between moves. That I know how many places I lived shows, I think, that it wasn’t easy or fun.
      Yet this was all before I started my life in science. I can not “blame” any government, or research council, or anyone else. It was all my doing.
      I am also living proof that it’s definitely possible to meet someone and start a family when you’ve reached 40, and funnily enough there are lots of other people who have managed this too. So, please take hope!
      If you live and work in Europe, you’re pretty much free to make your own decisions and choices. If you don’t like what you’re doing, do something else. There are many people across the world who really don’t have that luxury; and who have not had the chance of any education, let alone a great one like yours.
      In 1998 I went to Mogadishu, Somalia where I met a boy who for the previous seven years of his 10-year life had lived in a hut made of sticks and litter. His stick-hut was with lots of other stick-huts in the “play ground” of a shelled/destroyed school. His family, like all the others, had fled the countryside when the civil war destroyed their villlages.
      Every day those children walked 2-3 times to fetch water, for basic living needs. There were no schools, no lessons. No hospitals. No services, no amenities. No government. During a short conversation, the boy asked me what we —a small group of journalists working for AlJazeera— wanted. After I answered I asked him, what did he want. “Books to learn,” he said, “we want to learn.”


  3. James Kauffman said:

    Congratulations on your decision! I just completed my Ph.D. at 58 years of age, my MS was completed in 2001. I feel I still have much to offer my community; the Ph.D. is the basis for my third career: teaching!


    1. Cathy Winterton said:

      Fantastic! Congratulations on your achievement. Oldies and career changers unite!

  4. Swapnil Kadam said:

    Cathy, I am happy to read your opinion about Ph.D in late life! Actually I am agree to the points you mentioned this may be because I am in the same boat and hoping to reach the bank!!. I have completed master’s in 2007 and after 6 yr’s professional experience, I am searching for an opportunity. Sometime I feel time has passed and I must bury my wish. but again I feel I should not give up. Sometime professors are ready but funding I could not get, sometime I my interest does not match with position available. These all things happens like repeated telecast of same movie! But it seems trying at this time will also not be in vein. There are few more like me in this world. I shall continue to dream for a nice Ph.D. Thanks.

    1. Cathy Winterton said:

      Yes, keep dreaming!
      I applied for several PhDs spread over 6 years before finally securing this one and I believe this was because of 3 things:
      1) a chance question and follow-up remark from a colleague made me reevaluate my application strategy. Previously I looked through topics available until I found one I thought I could do (ie with a strong interest plus relevant background), and then applied if I thought the location suited me/my constraints.
      My colleague’s comment made me change that approach: I made a list of my interests/skills and my needs (eg funding and location) and only looked at projects that matched. I think that exercise made me much more focussed, discerning and changed the tone of my application: it became more about me wanting it, rather than me hoping to get chose.
      (Having found the PhD project that I’m now doing, I checked before I applied with the supervisors and funders that they would consider a part-time candidate.)
      2) I changed one of my two referees, because I felt that one of them (a professional woman, with a doctorate and a young children) had reservations about me doing a PhD with a pre-school child to care for. While that is an understandable reservation, it is absolutely necessary your referees support you and your application totally and whole-heartedly. The competition is just too fierce for any hint of doubt to seep through the words or tone of a reference.
      3) Somehow, most things in life happen at the most appropriate time for the individual. In the words of Rudyard Kipling: “If you can wait and not be tired by waiting…”
      All good wishes.

  5. B. Kamenov said:

    Dear Cathy,

    I admire your attitude to your PhD and to your life! Others can learn a lot from you – including from your responses to the comments on this blog. I wish you a lot of success in your undertaking and I hope you will enjoy it beyond the first weeks. And in case you don’t, the good thing is that you are much better prepared than most for the next change.

    Of course those who point out here that a PhD in itself is not a guarantee of future success are right, although I suppose that this is clear to you. So it is certainly a good idea to keep an eye open for what your prospects are and what else you can do after your thesis, besides staying in academia. In fact, just today I read here one of the best contributions on that topic that I have ever seen (/naturejobs/2015/02/17/the-elephant-in-the-lab).

    Good luck!

  6. Megan Sheremata said:

    Two years since posting this, I am curious about your thoughts now. I am a fourth year mid-career PhD student and parent in the environmental social sciences. Things going great so far for me. How about you? Any regrets? Would love an update now that you have gotten your feet wet.