The ‘later on’ PhD


It not unusual to think about the PhD as a seamless pathway from undergraduate to Grad School with maybe a Masters in between. But not all PhDers do go straight through. Many work, often for quite a long time, before they begin a doctorate. Some of these ’later-on’ doctorates are also undertaken part-time.

People who do doctorates after a significant period in work may well have come from a profession – think for instance of education, nursing, law, architecture, business, theology, engineering, journalism, art, music, medicine, social work. But there are also  ‘mature age’ (as they are called in some places)  PhDers rubbing shoulders with ‘straight through’ PhDers in other disciplines. And actually in some professional areas, such as my own, Education, it is pretty rare to see ‘straight through’ PhDers at all, even among full-timers. The vast majority of Education PhDers have had experience in the field.

These ‘later-on’ PhDers have, for whatever reason, decided that more study is for them. We don’t seem to have asked the later ons very often why they took on the PhD. But my guess is that a lot of people are strongly motivated to doctoral study for intrinsic reasons – it is something that they have always wanted to do, they haven’t had the time to pursue an idea, a puzzle, a possibility before now. Some later ons may also be interested in a career change if the opportunity arises. Others may want to stay in their profession but work differently post PhD. A few may need a doctorate in order to get promoted. But what the professional usually wants from their PhD are systematic ways into core scholarly practices in research, and academic writing, rhetoric and argumentation, as well as immersion in the scholarship in their field.

Individual faculties/schools catering for lots of later-ons may recognise the value of their later ons’ work experiences, significant prior, applied knowledges and networks. Such faculties may even have particular ways of acknowledging and building on the later ons’ experiences, particularly in the design of the PhD research projects.

Let’s just pause for a minute to list a few of the things the professional brings. The professional arrives at their PhD with detailed in-depth current experience of practice, and a good idea about the kind of research that will make a difference in their field. They may well have sophisticated skills in argument – a lot of professional work involves making a case for something, gathering evidence, synthesising information, anticipating objections and difficulties. They are likely to be able to talk to a wide range of people, make connections, organise events and work in various teams and collaborations.  Depending on their work, they may have detailed knowledge of policy-making, have a long history of working in partnership with academics, know how to work with media and/or already be deep into some of the scholarly literatures in the field. They may also be risk takers, be independent, well-organised, self-motivated and resilient.

I’d put all of these things in my own audit of pre-PhD professional work knowledges and skills. Before staring a PhD I’d worked for twenty seven years in education as a headteacher and then as a senior civil servant, been involved in policymaking at state and national level, been spokesperson for headteachers as president of a professional association ( talking regularly on radio and tele) and written a lot of professional articles. I knew first hand about the realpolitik of schools and I certainly understood organisations and public policymaking. So I arrived at the PhD with a lot of ‘stuff’ relevant to partnership working, public engagement and impact. And I see similar knowledges, attributes and resources in the PhDers I work with, all but one of them with substantive work experience behind them, and some like me with a whole career’s worth.

The funds of knowledges that the ‘later-on’ PhDer brings are often unrecognised at institutional and policy level, where the model of the ‘straight through’ persists. Take the current ESRC review of the social science PhD as an important and current example. The ESRC wants to find out if the skills taught in the PhD prepare graduates for careers within and beyond academia and they want to know the best ways to teach those skills. The ESRC intends to talk with PhDers about their experiences of training and employers about what they want from graduates.

This sounds reasonable, until I think about myself as a PhDer. As a senior civil servant, and with oversight of research in my job description, I would likely have been one of the people who was consulted about what we be expected from PhDers employed in our department. But what I was expected t know about would have been dependent on timing – if I had already moved into a PhD I would likely be asked about my experiences of training. Not about what I understood of industry/professional work.

It’s important to note that I am not claiming exceptionality here. It’s the reverse. There are loads of later-on PhDs and they are on the increase. UKRI data from 2017 suggested that only 40% of social science PhDs are under 29. And 30% are over 40.  This suggests that at least 30% of social science PhDers are likely to be highly experienced and senior professionals choosing a later-on PhD. These PhDers not only bring a lot of knowledge with them, but by definition already have what employers need, recognise, recruit, promote and pay for.

Later on PhDers are pretty likely to already possess in spades, and do not need training, in what the Rapid Evidence Review undertaken for the ESRC says are needed in the workplace – A number of studies with social science graduates and employers suggest that skills in teamwork, communication, inter-disciplinarity, project management and leadership could be enhanced during doctoral training in order to better equip graduates for a career in the non-academic sector (p. 8).

The Rapid Evidence Review also states that when asked, employers don’t value the PhD as a qualification per se, but rather the skills that PhDers usually have, critical thinking and research skills.  But look at what’s missing here. What do universities value about what work experiences PhDers already have? My hunch is that universities generally don’t even ask about the work experiences of potential PhDers – although this may be the case for some disciplines.

My guess is that graduate schools don’t think a lot about what might be valuable in the professional and industry experiences of later on PhDers. How they might be built on. How they might be shared.  It is as if placements and collaborative schemes are the key to employability and careers. I suspect grad schools worry more about ‘later stage’ PhDers, as they are also called, looking for a career shift into academia. They worry about there being more supply than demand. That is a worry, but it’s not all that there is to be concerned about with the later on PhDer, and their experiences.

I speak to a lot of PhDers who feel as if their previous work history is actually seen as problem, that they are seen as deficient and ‘behind’ compared to ‘straight through’ peers. They fear they may be disadvantaged post PhD because of their age. (See here for one version of this sentiment.)

I am not the only one to see the lack of recognition of the later on PhD as a problem – see  herehere and here)

Failing to differentiate the different backgrounds of the PhD cohort really misses a trick. PhDers of any age are important and all have strengths and specific needs and goals. While they are not perhaps the majority of the overall PhD population, later on PhDers have important life and work experiences and funds of knowledge that they might share. They are a ready-made and on-hand resource. Training programmes might fall on them. Graduate schools might pay their later on PhDers (who usually have mortgages and families to support) to co-design resources and programmes that ‘teach about’  beyond-academia work.

And yes, I know I can tell the ESRC all this. And I will. Maybe I’ll just cheekily send them this blog post. And hope they take note of the key point. The later on PhDer exists and in considerable numbers. They don’t have the same training needs as the straight through PhDer. They also may have different aspirations. What’s more, they should be considered assets, rather than aberrant. Later on PhDers are actually a potential resource for each other and their straight through peers.