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.