Is my PhD my midlife crisis?

Fiona Dobbie is loving life as a PhD student, and hopes any midlife crisis it represents will end on graduation day

March 12, 2017
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I turned 40 this year, and rather than indulge in the clichéd symptoms of a mid-life crisis (getting a tattoo, having an affair, Botox) I am in my second year of a part-time PhD.

It’s not that my life isn’t fulfilling or challenging enough. I am typical of my age: happily married with an energetic six-year-old, fortunate to have friends and family and a full-time job as a university research fellow. So why am I doing a part-time PhD? I think about this a lot (especially when I am working at 6am or late into the evening to chip away at my never-ending literature review or grappling with my epistemological and ontological position) and often find myself wondering: “Is this my midlife crisis?”

Perhaps, but I like to think that there are other reasons.

The first, and ultimately the main reason, dawned on me during a conference dinner when a colleague and I were discussing our pathways in academia and she described me as a “wonky academic”. Hearing this was like an epiphany; you see, I am in the strange position of coming back into academia in my late thirties, having come full circle. I started my career on a university research contract after my postgraduate degree, but lost heart after three short-term contracts over 15 months, one of which included a reluctant move 300 miles across the country.

I then spent the next decade in applied social research working for the public, the private and the voluntary sectors, but opportunity to progress stalled when the recession hit. This made a three-year fixed-term university research post more appealing than my shaky permanent post working for a large social research organisation. I decided to apply, feeling pragmatic about the outcome.

To my surprise, I was offered the post and took the plunge into a world I knew little about. For the first year or so, I was immersed in a challenging project, protected from the academic wheel with little concept of the research excellence framework and the pressure that colleagues faced to publish and bring in funding. I guess I approached it as a stopgap, something that would get me out of a rut, and I had three years to see what else came up and move on. I did not see myself as an academic.

But slowly I discovered that I liked the autonomy and the colleagues I was working with; I enjoyed the conferences, the buzz I felt from conference abstracts being accepted, securing funding and publishing my research. I regained self-confidence and slowly realised that this was where I wanted to be.

But there was a problem. To establish a career in academia I lacked one essential element: a PhD. I needed it to join “the club” (as a senior colleague once told me). So reason one is necessity. Put simply, without a PhD, progression in academia is limited. Fact.

Second was opportunity – giving up my job and devoting myself to a full-time PhD was not an option. So when funding was secured for my second project with scope to bolt on a part-time PhD project, I grabbed it with complete optimism and naivety (which, for anyone contemplating a similar path, I regard as essential ingredients, just like having a supportive line manager and mentor).

Last is curiosity – this is a huge risk and I might not finish it. The demands of family and working life may put my PhD on the shelf. This fear of failure and ultimately wasting not just my own time, but that of my patient and encouraging supervisors, drives me to work after I put my son to bed and to make numerous sacrifices.

So is my PhD my midlife crisis? Perhaps, but there is one final reason. I enjoy it. It offers both challenges and rewards in equal measure. So if it is my midlife crisis, it will last until graduation day. Let’s hope my long-suffering family will too!

Fiona Dobbie is a research fellow and part-time PhD student in the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport at the University of Stirling.

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Reader's comments (2)

Heh, I'm doing the same thing... only I'm 57! Perhaps this is me growing old disgracefully! Like the author, I've slithered back into academia after a career in the outside world and I'm loving it! Dream job, looking after Degree Apprentices, and now they are encouraging me to do a PhD as well :)
I am 53 and in my third year of a literature thesis. I guess this article rang true with me too. But despite the feeling that I might never finish, I also love the fact that I am learning so much, and am improving my writing skills and critical thinking. It is hard to combine work and family as well, but I think there are so many advantages that age brings to the process, I am glad I took the decision to do it,even though I curse it all the time! It's never too late.

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