New tricks

May 19, 2016

Most of the comments in the feature “Are older academics past their productive peak?” (12 May) relate to those who have followed a “conventional” route into academia – what about those who have come to research later on?

As a fiftysomething PhD student, I have all the enthusiasm and buzz and loads of ideas of any PhD student, even if my hair is greyer and my pace is slower… There is also the fact that older academics tend to be given administrative duties as well as a teaching load. Now I have a full-time job as well as my research – fortunately in the same area – and sometimes find that time I want to use for research is taken over by other things that need doing.


This is all rather depressing for a fiftysomething like me. On the one hand, we are all told that everyone will have to work until 70+ in the future; but on the other, we could be written off when seen as “past it”.

I had a commercial job for a while before entering academic life and have also held substantial administrative roles. Since departments have to be run and students also figure somewhere in the equation, a mix of skills is bound to develop unless one is permanently bought out of teaching.


“When age has an effect, it is the middle-aged, rather than the young, who are most creative.” That may be so. It may also be that people are most productive after a certain number of years of experience. If that’s true, then the most productive years of an academic may occur at a different point for someone who began work in academia at 25 and someone who began work in academia at 40.

A possible analogy might be to the writer of prose fiction. At the beginning of their career they might have lots of ideas but under-developed technique. Towards the end, it might be a case of fully developed technique but fewer ideas. Somewhere in the middle might come a stage at which both technique and ideas are at an ideal level. Similar for academics?


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