Starting a scientific career later in life can benefit from the added stability in people’s lives.
Contributor Cathy Winterton
The build up to career change is possibly the hardest bit. Like the build up to any big decision. The self-questioning, the self-doubt, the wondering how and if you can pull it off, can fill the wakeful hours of the night for some time.
My most recent change (from Communications officer to PhD student) is not my first. In fact it’s not even my second, yet in spite of plenty of practice, I have repeatedly made the same mistake: I don’t talk to folk; I don’t ask people what they know or what they think and I get too rooted in trying to work things out on my own, fearful perhaps that another person might rubbish my ideas or hopes, or try to dissuade me.
There is a lot of information, help and even funding/financial support available if you look hard enough, or find the right person to show you. I do now have a couple of professional mentors, people I trust to talk things over with, but I still find myself worrying about bothering them.
This is my third week as a PhD student, so everything is still very rosy. For me personally, starting it later in life is probably better. I don’t think I had the maturity to study so independently when I was in my 20s.
There are other positives that aren’t so much about age as about circumstances. Not that long ago (2008-09), I did a MSc. Educationally, that was a massive jump. I reached it via a back door, through horticulture, and with little science education there were parts of the taught course that nearly killed me.
Financially, although I had a NERC studentship that paid my fees and stipend, and I didn’t pay council tax as a student in Scotland, life was very tight: I was in my late 30s and decided to rent a flat on my own – I’d shared enough accommodation in my life and needed to focus on the job in hand.
On a personal level, there were some quite lonely times. I’d moved to a new city and a relationship crashed in the first three months. But by month eight, the taught part of the course was over and the last 4-5 months was pure research, an experience I totally loved.
As for starting a PhD now: professionally, since I finished the MSc in 2009, I’ve worked entirely in research institutions, have had some funding to do a little research and published my first paper. So, there hasn’t been a shock of returning to study and my PhD is based at the same place I’ve worked for the past three years.
More importantly perhaps, in that same period I’ve got married, we’ve bought a house and had a little girl. This means I have now a secure, happy home. I’m never, ever lonely and although Patrick works away from home, there’s more stability and routine in my life than I’ve ever had before. And that to me looks like a very lucky place from which to start a PhD.
After 20 years of working as a professional, Cathy recently started a PhD at SAMS, the Scottish Association for Marine Science, near Oban on the west coast of Scotland. Her work, funded by MASTS, the Marine Alliance for Science &Technology for Scotland, will be on “A 100-year record of changing toxic algae in Scottish coastal waters related to change in land use and temperature.” The hardest part about starting the PhD was convincing her husband that it will all be worth it in the end.