Q&A with Tony Spurgin

We speak to City University London’s oldest graduate, who received his PhD in engineering at the age of 83

February 13, 2014

Two weeks ago, Tony Spurgin received his PhD in engineering from City University London. Despite being a part-time student and resident in the US, he completed his doctorate in three years - the standard duration for full-time study. What’s more, Dr Spurgin is 83, and possibly City’s oldest-ever graduate. The title of his thesis was “Safety and Economics of Nuclear and High Risk Organisations”.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, in June 1930.

How has this shaped you?
Not too much; my father was in the Army and we left for India shortly afterwards.

How did you feel to learn that you may be City’s oldest graduate?
Surprised! I did not feel that old.

Is it strange to be in a graduating cohort in which many people will be a quarter of your age?
It’s their problem. It does not bother me. Of course it would be nice to be young again, but then I would not have experienced many situations and done so much.

Does your achievement prove that age is no barrier to entering academic studies?
It seems so. I believe that as a whole, society sets limits related to age. The assumption is that as you age physically, you also age mentally. Unfortunately, many people buy into this idea and as such do not keep feeding the brain.

What year did you complete your undergraduate degree, and did you consider doing a PhD at the time?
1952. I started a PhD in 1960 at Queen Mary University of London, part time, but ran into problems of money. I got an offer from Westinghouse [an energy company] during a period of uncertainty and joined them and left the country in 1966.

Are you planning to do any academic research now?
Yes, especially if I can get some support to cover costs.

What was the main news story in the world/UK when you finished your undergraduate degree?
The Korean War.

What is different about higher education now from when you took your first degree?
The internet for research and the ability to communicate remotely made my PhD possible with a UK professor and a US resident.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Climb Everest before it is too late!

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
The Wright brothers.

What keeps you awake at night?
The state of the US under the guidance of Barack Obama because of his poor skills and judgement. The public twice picked a president who is defective in experience and has coupled it with the inability to select good advisers. I realise that most people who…run for presidential office are likely to be egotistical; [but]this person is even more of an egotist. This makes it difficult for him to work out compromises to help the US out of its slump.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
When I was 10 I wanted to design and build large aeroplanes. I joined Vickers [the engineering company] after my BSc as a graduate apprentice.

What do you do for fun?
I used to play tennis until I was 80 and now I walk in the hills.

Who from history would you most like to meet?
Leonardo da Vinci. I admire his skills as an artist, but also his exploration of ideas related to engineering and bodily functions.

What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
It depends what it is and what you make of it, just an entry card.

To what, or whom, do you feel most allegiance?
First to my wife and family, second to the US, and I have a great affection for England. I feel gratitude to Dr Stupples [his supervisor, David Stupples, professor of systems and cryptography at City] and City University London for the chance to try to gain a PhD.

When you took up your PhD again were you concerned about having to rediscover what it’s like to be a student?
The issue was not that I would have to re-learn the process of studying. The difficult process is to redefine the way that one works and thinks. It’s like the thought that one cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven except as a little child; a similar process of reorienting your ideas and processes.

What does gaining a PhD offer you professionally and personally?
A PhD for me is about realising a step that I had started some time ago. It was an irritation on my soul not to have completed it in the first place. I do not think that it will affect me professionally, but one never knows.


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