Starting a PhD … at 58 years old?


I completed a Ph.D. at 63, two weeks before falling in love for the first time in a decade and frittering away two post-doc years swanning around Europe, circling the globe from Canada to Europe and returning at last to my tiny pied-a-terre in downtown Vancouver. At the tender age of 65 I am, this week, beginning my new career as an independent scholar and you better believe I’m scared, but also excited. I forfeited a decent pension as a government employed psychotherapist to fulfill this dream and must now support myself because my little pension won’t cut it.

Like many women who dread becoming bag ladies, I agonized over the financial pros and cons of my Ph.D. dream and not a few friends echoed my fear. “Will you ever work again? Can you afford this? What about your pension?” But pitting my yearning of many years to undertake this work against the terror of financial insecurity finally seemed a desecration and the yearning won.

I may regret the decision to have escaped the intellectual wasteland and micromanagement of my workplace for another eight years but I doubt it.  I could have stayed and still be listening to the suffering of those who come to community mental health centres for help. I could still be witnessing and contributing to their dehumanization, and enduring the appalling limits of “care” that can be offered in my role. Instead, I travelled to Durham, in North East England, to examine the ethics of wonder in community mental health care. I now find I’ve rather a lot to say on the matter and the responsibility and authority to say it.

Was I crazy? Was it worth starting this project at 58 – self-funded – when the colleagues I left behind were putting in their last years of work and socking away their pensions and RRSP contributions? Hell yes. I fulfilled a major life’s dream of doing this Ph.D. and even managed a perfect pass. I reoriented my life, my perspective and claimed a clearer, stronger unapologetic voice for the work that lies ahead. How could I regret that or the Herculean effort it took that showed me who I am?

I have a big year planned of writing and publishing, public speaking and starting an online counselling business, but who knows what lies ahead. Have I ever earned a living doing any of those things? No, but this Ph.D. guarantees that if I can’t walk on water I can dive confidently into any deep end trusting I won’t drown. That’s money in the bank. That’s also why I’m writing to extend a wholehearted plea to any woman over the age of 50 who has ever nursed the dream of doing a Ph.D. sometime in her life to get cracking! Getting a Ph.D. is not a waste of time, effort or resources just because a woman is half-way or more through her life. It is not a “vanity degree” although I have heard more than one academic asshole suggest as much. This lengthy and expensive undertaking has been the most galvanizing, transformative and confirming of my entire life.

The bloody-mindedness and stamina it demands and the suffering it pretty much guarantees makes a Ph.D. as far from a thrill-seeking venture as one can get. There is nothing quick, dirty or particularly “fun” about it as the literature on Ph.D. related depression will tell you, but it gives. Completing a Ph.D. grows you up, develops your grit, gives you a thicker skin, hones your discipline, engages with your deepest passion and vastly expands your limited self-perception and understanding of the many confinements imposed by the world around you. It is a serious, mysterious undertaking and its process and gravitas are priceless at any age.

Learning to see how power works, how it is used and abused within the university system and even by academics engaged in work attempting to subvert the “dominant discourse,” was the most surprising gift. This was the game changer that enabled me to more than “glimpse” the underpinnings of all those limitations I had thought were self-imposed, justified or impossible to overcome but never were. The process of the PhD can give the older woman the keys to the engine room of her culture, gender, race and class, and the blueprint of the precision machinery that propagates her ongoing suppression. This means she can never again seriously doubt the gravity of her situation, her capacity to respond or her ability to see beyond towhat is yet to be imagined. That’s quite a payoff.

There are many reasons why pursuing the dream of a Ph.D. at 50 or 60 or even 70 or 80—why not?—could be the greatest move a woman will ever make. Even, that is, if her chances of working in the Academy are already diminished by her age and sex, which they surely are. But, then again maybe they don’t need to be if greater numbers of older women came forward to assert their place at this high table. I am preaching to the choir, but the interests of the “mature” female student cannot be overstated given what they have to offer, and their impressive under-representation in the post-graduate student body. The university is no more immune to the scourges of ageism and sexism than the rest of our culture, regardless of how inclusive it may claim to be. University is a young person’s game and this poses a significant barrier to women like me, and possibly you, and is all the more reason to confront it and break it down.

Had I known what this adventure would cost —in every way—I would never have had the courage to jump. But having become a scholar and seen all that was needed to complete this beast, having travelled, made many new friends and colleagues and joined communities within and beyond the Academy, my heart fails me to think of all I would have lost had I just stayed home.

Author Bio: Dr Catherine Racine is an independent Canadian scholar who graduated from Durham University in 2017 after living in the UK for seven years.