Mature students blocked from PhD study by ageist admissions practices

Universities need to review the unhelpful websites and unwittingly ageist admissions procedures that prevent older people becoming doctoral students, says Alison Etches

February 24, 2021
Source: istock

Two years ago, the prospect of studying for a PhD seemed remote. I had just turned 50 and had been away from higher education for more than a decade. The introduction of student finance for doctoral loans in England, however, unlocked the possibility of a part-time doctorate and I was keen to find out more.

In the East Midlands, where I live, there were a number of local potential study destinations to investigate – including the universities of Sheffield, Birmingham, Lincoln and Keele – so finding potential supervisors seemed achievable as long as I could identify a unique research topic.

Thankfully, I am now thoroughly enjoying my doctorate at the University of Wolverhampton. My search led me to reflect, however, on how other mature PhD applicants may have been deterred from pursuing a PhD by encountering some unnecessary impediments – from unhelpful websites, a lack of library access and, more concerningly, attitudes to older doctoral applicants that were not inclusive.

Take university websites, the best of which should be highly engaging, with clear information and links that are simple to navigate. The best had downloadable guidance booklets about constructing a good research proposal and showcased what academic support and facilities were available to research students. Others even indicated an awareness that many mature students have alternative qualifications and professional experience; neither did they suggest that this was any kind of barrier to entry compared with an entry pathway that was more “traditional”.

Unfortunately, other websites were the opposite. They were difficult to navigate with blinkered entry requirements and no clear links to information about staff members or their research interests. Crucially, many staff profiles did not indicate if they were open to approaches by potential PhD students.

Those outside the academic system – as many mature applicants for postgraduate research study are – would also benefit hugely from wider library access, particularly to online library resources. How do you ascertain if a topic hasn’t already been covered in detail and make a pitch to a would-be supervisor unless you can access the latest literature? If you could register with a local university as an “aspiring Level 8 applicant” and receive some kind of library ticket for 12 months enabling subject access to the library’s electronic articles online from home, it would help enfranchise those presently outside academia to research and plan a doctoral application. I was fortunate that the lending services at Nottingham Trent University made borrowing books available to me as one of their alumni, however I could not access their electronic resources, putting a large amount of material beyond my reach.

The information sessions and open evenings that I attended at various campuses, prior to the pandemic, could also have been more imaginative.  Many events reminded me of careers fairs for school leavers; with staff members sat at tables awaiting students. It would have been so much more appealing to meet postgraduate research students who could recount personal insights into the benefits of studying at a certain university. Having some taster events and workshops during the open evenings, explaining how to select and approach potential supervisors, apply for student finance for doctoral loans or write a research application, would also have been engaging and beneficial.

When it came to applications, the best universities were transparent about how long the application process would take. When mature students are juggling careers and study, it is also useful to help applicants establish a clear time frame for study as they will generally need to consult with employers (or clients, if self-employed) in order to fit study days around work commitments.

Insisting that academic referees email from a “live” university email address is also profoundly unhelpful, if not ageist. For those of us who are older, our academic referees are often retired with no access to their previous professional email addresses. The disdainful way that one admissions office reacted to a reference from a retired academic was one of the reasons I didn’t pursue my doctorate there. I have since heard several other people mention that they have encountered similar issues; such a culture can lead older students to feel that barriers are being placed in their way, rather than being accepted as academic equals to their younger peers.

Mature PhD applicants would also benefit from increased flexibility around start dates. Many universities only operate two intakes per year, although some run them once per quarter. The institution that I finally chose had monthly enrolments and wanted to work around my needs. That flexible and welcoming outlook towards mature PhD students – allied to finding supervisors whose interests aligned with my own – made them an obvious choice.

During my search for a PhD I learned a lot about universities and what was going to be important to me in my research. I was doggedly determined to pursue my goal, but I fear that many more mature students, at times confronted by unwelcoming and unhelpful institutions, could miss out on the rewarding experience that I am now enjoying. It would be highly encouraging if universities could review their engagement with aspiring mature doctoral students and, where necessary, take steps to become more inclusive.

Alison Etches is a PhD student in the Faculty of Education, Health and Wellbeing at the University of Wolverhampton.

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Reader's comments (2)

Just wanted to say that most libraries would love to be able to provide electronic resources to aspiring students and alumni but sadly publisher restrictions don't allow us to without enormous cost.
Hi Laura - thanks for your feedback. I am aware that there will, as with most things, be restrictions which make things tricky. I am always optimistic, however, that if publishers could work together with libraries more, then better or more creative solutions could be achieved :-) My experiences with university libraries have been good, however, it is lovely to try and imagine ways that things could be even better for future applicants.