Do academics need a ‘split personality’ to teach older PhDs?

Doctoral supervisors are having to adapt to a new power dynamic with their students, conference will hear

June 16, 2016
Split personality man with half beard shaved
Source: Alamy
Two-faced: supervisors are now dealing with both older and younger PhD students

Bookish, bright, unattached, in their mid-twenties and with little “real-world” experience – the image of the doctoral student is well established within the academic psyche.

Ditto the relationship between a PhD student and supervisor, in which the wide-eyed academic apprentice gazes in awe and admiration at the older sage before them, whose role as a mentor and confidant often drifts into that of a surrogate parent.

But what if the PhD student is older than the supervisor? And what if the student – like the academic – has a job, a family and numerous other personal commitments? What if the pupil has a more impressive CV and a far higher salary than the master?

With many more mid-career professionals taking doctorates, many supervisors are having to adapt to these more complex power dynamics in class, explained Julie Davies, subject lead for human resources and professional programmes at the University of Huddersfield’s Business School.

“You may be the academic expert, but your doctoral student might be a minister of finance for a Gulf state whose policies will have a global impact,” said Dr Davies, who will discuss this issue at the annual conference of the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE), which takes place in Liverpool on 4-5 July.

“It’s an interesting position for an academic who might be supervising a CEO, whose course fees alone may be, in some cases, double the salaries paid to staff, but the supervisor is still the one who is guiding that individual’s studies,” she added.

Within the business school world, many of those taking doctoral qualifications – either a PhD or other more workplace-focused DBAs – are in their fifties, said Dr Davies.

“We’re seeing a lot of partners from big accountancy and consultancy firms who have retired at 50, but want to make a sideways move into academia, so they are looking to gain a doctorate,” she said.

“It might also be someone who is having a mid-life crisis and…seeing a doctorate as a way to gain self-actualisation,” she added.

In some cases, those signing up from overseas are doing so because it is difficult to progress in business without obtaining a doctorate, Dr Davies said.

Harnessing the older doctoral student’s immense experience and skills to produce a quality thesis is one of the key challenges of this new dynamic, said Dr Davies, whose paper on the “split personalities” needed to supervise mid-career professionals will be presented with her co-author, the Libyan academic Yusra Mouzughi, a former leader of doctoral programmes at Liverpool John Moores University who is now deputy vice-chancellor of Muscat University, in Oman.

“They may often have access to some amazing data, so it can be a great opportunity for a supervisor to learn from that student,” Dr Davies explained.

“They might be fairly used to hitting deadlines and working quickly, so that is another area where their background can help their studies,” she added.

Teaching older, more experienced students is likely to become far more common in coming years, Dr Davies said, citing a report by the Career Development Organisation (CRAC), published in January, that said that about two-thirds of institutions are set to expand provision of professional doctorates.

In fact, postgraduates may already be older than many academics imagine, with 45 per cent of first-year postgraduates aged 30 or over – a figure that rises to 67 per cent when part-time students are considered, according to the most recent data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Taking on established professionals does, however, pose difficulties, with the numbers of part-time doctoral students getting through their courses being “quite small” when viewed at a national level, Dr Davies said.

“When you look at the completion rates, it seems lots of people aren’t getting to the end of their studies,” she said.

Younger students doing the more traditional full-time PhD in larger cohorts may have a greater sense of camaraderie that ultimately pulls them through, whereas part-time doctoral students typically have other commitments to juggle alongside their studies, Dr Davies said.

“Younger PhD students generally don’t have to keep a family or a firm going while doing a doctorate,” she said.


Print headline: Is a split personality needed when teaching older PhDs?

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Reader's comments (8)

What are you telling me that education for the sake of education isn't also on the agenda. Speak for yourself when you narrow your ideas about why people of older age groups seek more information about everything around them. And if the academic supervising isn't up to the job sod off, and employ someone who is. Welcome to the world of education, as opposed to suck it up and take whatever is served.
I am a 50-something PhD student and older than both my supervisors... there's no problem at all! They have things to teach me, perhaps somewhat different things than a 20-something research student needs to learn, but it is still all about being stretched and challenged in new ways, unimagined ways - even if I have already been stretched and challened in different ways before! I'm learning a lot, and loving every minute of it - hopefully they are enjoying the experience too. The single issue encountered so far is that when I ask for a supervision, it takes a bit more negotiation as all three of us have busy schedules... most students don't have as many other concerns and can come when summoned!
As an academic supervisor I sometimes feel I have a split personality and can identify with the diverse and changing profile of the Doctoral / Supervisor relationship. My aspiration is to become, and enable those I supervise to become, bi-lingual - able to communicate across communities. However, I recognise the tensions discussed above and wonder if the notion of 'mutual mentoring' has some utility?
What a stimulating and important piece! Dr Davies speaks to everyone in academia, and particularly to PhD supervisors and students, about workable ways to vigorously tap one enormous resource, namely, building and sustaining a high-quality relationship - this kind of thriving partnership is the “fuel” that makes the whole PhD process run. The small gestures of sensitivity to people such as mutual positive regard, active engagement on both sides, trust and openness that Dr Davies points up seem to be in fact big differences in confidence and enthusiasm, and consequently in performance far above the norm and tremendous achievement. Perhaps this new (energizing as well as challenging) dynamic will enable relational scholarship of integration and doing research that is “pracademic”, that is useful for theory and practice. Today, brilliant leaders and educators like Dr Davies who evangelizes engaged scholarship and how to help successful people get even better are needed more than gold!
What an interesting article. I think this a much needed discussion across the university world in general as our landscape changes and continues to change. Ass someone who took their PhD in their early 30s while working as a full-time lecturer, I know the importance of an empathetic supervisor to help make it to the finish line. At the heart of Dr Davies comments on older more experienced students is the importance of humility in power dynamic as the traditional relationship is being turned on its head. How we rise to the challenge and learn from our students as well as guide them in the process required, will colour the way we are seen by industry and other professions. This is an energising and interesting newer aspect emerging in academia - a great opportunity for knowledge share. It's about building community, not building just empires/egos and Dr. Davies knows this - we need more of this whole person awareness. Isn't the first step in any learning or knowledge building to be able to say, I don't know, can you show me? Congrats to Jack Grove on this excellent piece.
Factor in the gap between non practitioners (Supervisors) and older, practising and specialised students and you get the strange situation of Design Education.
What an insightful and honest piece Dr. Davies, student engagement at whatever level is always worthy of discussion, certainly giving us food for thought. Having recently completed a doctorate myself and being a professional I can thoroughly empathize with the comments made above. I do feel that I could not have got through it without the support and understanding of these issues from my supervisor.
Many older PhD students are happy and keen to learn from younger and older academics whatever their employment and professional status; it is the supervisor attitude that is so important. Let me tell you my story: I left school at 15 with no qualifications; a working-class girl who was married by 20 and expected to stay home with a family and work in factories in the evenings to help family budgeting. It was widening participation policies that opened my life by studying A-levels in FE college and being encouraged to move into a university degree, 5 year, part time programme, when I was 46-51 years of age. I felt lecturers and the younger students could be cynical about older mature students but coped with the attitudes, worked hard and gained my degree. To feel more comfortable I decided to take a Masters with the Open University, working alone at home in the evenings and weekends as I worked full time as an office administrator. At 51 years I tried to get into teaching but no training colleges would take me on, saying I was 'too old' and no school would offer a placement due to prejudice on age. After gaining my Masters I took another postgraduate course with the OU in research methods. When my job disappeared in a university restructure I wrote a proposal for PhD and this was praised and accepted by two top universities. I chose the one nearest to my home, a Russell Group Univ, but after 7 weeks I left due to the ageism I experienced. Over and over I was asked by academics my age and younger, do you realise what is involved with a PhD; you will get tired; we do not think you should be doing this, you are not passionate - yet I had worked as an admin person in a research centre with PhD students for several years. I knew what I was taking on and what I was passionate about. Fortunately the second university who had made me an offer contacted me again and asked if I would like to go for a chat. I went to see two potential supervisors, one was my age (at the time 61 years) and the other over 20 years younger. They were fantastic so I transferred to Reading University. Three and a half years later I had my PhD (2014) graduated 2015 and I am now (at nearly 67 yrs) writing an academic book under contract with Routledge. The point I am making is that an older person should ignore what others say and press on; press on until you find genuine, unbiased supervisors who enjoy the fact you have discipline, hard work ethics, great IT and organisational skills, good English, life experience, etc. My PhD was a fantastic experience and I loved meeting the many other international students. Sadly I noticed when I began my PhD that only 2 UK people were studying a doctorate (1 in the other university I attended); I felt an oddity and constantly friends would ask me why are you doing this? You should be retired, you should relax! The stereotypical 'retiree' image pervades our society. What I wanted, having had no chances or opportunities in earlier life, was to see what I could do, to learn, to grow, to develop and achieve. PhDs are expensive but I took a pay as you go attitude; working when I could to pay the fees and it was the best decision I have made in my life. Now I am writing my book and working on a small research contract as a post-doctoral researcher and loving every minute.