Doing a PhD in your early 20s



It is always a bit difficult to tell others what it is like to be yourself, but I can tell you this: I began my PhD in Australian history during 2010 and last week I gave a fairly successful pre-submission seminar.

The next goal: to have completed a PhD while I’m still 25.

I suppose now is as good a time as any to reflect on what has been in some ways, apparently, an unconventional PhD experience in Australia. I moved from primary school to secondary school to undergraduate to honours to doctorate without a break. That is to say, I have not had an extended rest from study for twenty years. Twenty. Years. (!). I was a 22-year-old when I began my research degree in 2010; the average age at commencement in 2011 was 33. About two-thirds of PhD graduates in Australia are between the ages of 30 and 49. So, I was relatively young when I started and I’ll still be relatively young when I graduate.

My suspicion is that there are quite a few of us (‘youngens’) out there that started honours or postgraduate degrees as a way of avoiding the job market during and immediately after the Global Financial Crisis. I could’ve found work somewhere, no doubt. But I dared to dream – I wanted to be a historian when I grew up!

Regardless of my direct transition to postgraduate study, in many disciplines in Australia it is now very unusual for students to move directly from an undergraduate course to working on a doctoral degree full-time – only about a quarter of us take this path, and the majority of those beginning PhDs were working in full-time jobs before commencement.My experience is far from normal in Australia, but there are still many research students out there like me. So what’s it like to do a PhD in your early 20s?

There are advantages and disadvantages, spread across the various research and teaching activities most postgraduates are involved in. I can only share my own experiences – perhaps yours was different. Being a young doctoral candidate did not, in any obvious way, have a negative impact on my ability to research. I do think, however, that being younger might have had its practical advantages. As a full-time candidate with a scholarship (and that’s a major factor), no children to take care of, and no career that I had to reluctantly leave behind or cling on to in my spare time, I had all the time and energy in the world to do my research.

I understand that being free to work on your research at any time of day, on any day of the week is probably beyond the realm of imagination for many candidates, but that’s how it has been over the past three years for me. The ability to fit my research into a 9-5 block, five days a week, has also enabled me to lead a mostly normal social life; my research and ‘other’ life never clashed. I went out to pubs on weekends with friends and had the time to play in a band during my time as a candidate. I was even in a long-term relationship, and that worked out just fine (our wedding was in April).

I think the time to commit to the research and the ability to have an active/actual life outside of my studies has been the key to what I would describe as a relatively successful and stress-free candidature. I don’t think this would have been nearly as easy if I had a family, a career, or a home loan to pay off, for example. I also think the addition of a scholarship has been integral. I’m lucky like that, but it’s not completely rosy.

A common complaint among research students is their sense of isolation – not feeling as though they belong to their departments, or not having anyone to speak with, apart from their supervisors, about the ups and downs of a research degree. Younger candidates are not immune, but it is arguable that there is an additional degree of ‘social distance’ between those in their early 20s and the majority of candidates and university academics.I certainly often found myself in the awkward situation of trying to appear interesting to people with whom I have nothing in common outside of academia. “Holidays? Jobs? Houses? Children? Renovations? Grandchildren? Nope, but I did recently get my full driver’s license! Oh, and have you seen this funny picture of a cat on the internet?!”

Appearing to be about the age of most undergraduates, and having about as much life experience, early on I found it uncomfortable attempting to casually mingle during conference lunch-breaks (“Attention: could the parents of one Ben Wilkie please collect him at the main reception desk – he is lost, hungry, and distressed.”). While eating lunch in the department staff room, I could not help but think others suspected I had no business there, and was merely a poverty-stricken undergraduate out to steal cans of International Roast and trays of assorted Arnott’s biscuits.

I don’t think this is about immaturity: the transition from pupil to colleague is very abrupt for those who began their research degree, and their casual teaching career, straight after their undergraduate studies. It takes time to get used to this new environment. Younger research students experience, like everyone else, the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’, and it is really not nice to feel like an outsider who is not only anomalous (due to age) but also fraudulent.

This was thrown into sharp focus when I began teaching during my second year of candidature. I was still 22 and most of my students were aged between 18 and 21. On one hand, it was easy to relate to most undergraduates, and classes were relaxed, fun, but always constructive. The feedback was good. On the other hand, there is an instinct to retain a semblance of expertise and authority in front of the class. This is made tricky when you know very well the difference between yourself and many other students is probably about one to three years of education, tops. The small age gap also does absolutely nothing to subdue the inner fears we all have that we are imposters and somebody will eventually find us out.

As a younger candidate and a young teacher, I have often felt the need to ‘normalise’ myself in relation to other teachers and seem older than I really am. It’s a silly thing to think, of course, but it is what it is. The impulse to set yourself apart from your students somehow by being ‘serious’, dressing ‘older’, or growing a ‘beard’ does nothing to help you feeling as though you are attempting a master deception. (I write ‘beard’ because I soon discovered that it was not within my repertoire of convincing disguises – but a decent crop of stubble does help along the cynical, tired, and overworked academic-look.)

When I go to submit my thesis in a month or so, I will have achieved something special. Not many people my age are completing or have PhDs, and for all my fears of being an imposter and the occasional sense of isolation I should always remember that I am here because I am qualified, capable, and deserving – just like everyone else doing a research degree. Sometimes it is difficult to be a younger teacher, and I’m sure this occurs in many other workplaces, but at the end of the day I think it is probably important to keep on reminding ourselves that we are not so much abnormal as we are remarkable, and we should be proud of being a little bit unique.

But that’s just me. Any other younger people out there doing a PhD? What has your experience been?

Author Bio:Ben Wilkie is a (nearly finished!) PhD candidate at Monash University in Melbourne. His research has been focused on Scottish migrants in Australia during the 19th and 20th centuries. He also lectures in Australian Studies at Deakin University in Warrnambool.