Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Age doesn’t matter: embracing ‘early-career research’ mid-life

  • 1 August 2022
  • By Kerith Esterhuizen

Kerith Esterhuizen is a mature PhD student at the University of Winchester. Kerith’s doctoral thesis explores transformative employability pedagogy in a higher education institution.

At 49 years old, ‘early-career researcher’ is not a label I immediately connected to and possibly still don’t fully identify with. It did, however, succeed in getting me to reflect on my journey to the point where I am about to complete the first year of a full-time PhD. I have never been known for planning, and plans usually send me in the opposite direction. Perhaps that’s why Happenstance Learning Theory – and its acknowledgement that where we found ourselves is often an amalgam of aspects we have little or no control over, and those brought about by ourselves – holds some appeal. 

However, upon deeper reflection, I realise that where I find myself now is not as 

haphazard and directionless as I initially thought. Instead, it is the start of the fulfilment of the dream of a 16-year-old schoolgirl in late 1980s South Africa – a dream that consisted of a PhD and an office lined with bookshelves, filled with books reflecting my first love, Psychology, followed closely by Astronomy and Ancient History. Books that speak to my continued delight in learning and my immense curiosity about the world.

My journey to a PhD has been messy, very messy. The messiness has delivered bravery and fearlessness too. Both are necessary to counterbalance the vulnerability of willingly re-entering a world I inhabited decades ago and in another country. They are also powerful allies to override the voice in my head that says, ‘my goodness a student at this age, shouldn’t you have a proper job, doing middle-aged things’. Being a full-time student again means sacrifice. It means making peace with the short-term trade-off of going backwards financially in exchange for moving closer to connecting with a career identity. I know what it feels like to lead a life a million miles away from the vision we had for ourselves, to cling to the hope that ‘your time will come’, when everything around us screams, ‘impossible’. 

Career, career progression and how we view our success will have different meanings for each of us. I never identified with a career ladder; there was no burning ambition to climb one. What I had instead was a series of interruptions and disparate pieces that vaguely resembled a career. I can vividly remember reading anthropologist Mary Bateson’s book, Composing a Life, in my early 30s and instantly identifying with her use of a patchwork quilt as a metaphor for the construction of a layered and improvised life, filled with ambition and energy and void of traditional cohesion. It has stayed with me. It was with me when, trapped in an abusive home, I sent my first tentative e-mail to my now supervisor asking her if she may be interested in working with me. It enveloped me during my selection interview and quietened my need to apologise for my CV. It continues to inspire and soothe when I feel ‘less than’ in an academic setting. 

For me, the decision to do a PhD did not hinge on the promise of a better education giving me a better job or a better life. I did not need this to entice me. If anything, my career identity, battered but intact, pulled and counselled. I was drawn to pursuing knowledge and being able to immerse myself in my research area. I enjoy debating ideological issues with my supervisory team, being challenged and forced to crystallise my approach. I do not want an easy ride. Every time I’d choose sleepless nights to finish a deliverable, I’d forget about reading for pleasure to complete my literature review and I’d get comfortable with feeling overwhelmed and unsure daily, for the privilege to grow in my discipline and learn the rigour of scholarship from people who have survived the path before me. I use the word ‘privilege’ deliberately. I am grateful for the opportunity to do this full time, unencumbered. I do not want to squander the privilege.

The renewed focus on lifelong learning, echoed in Michelle Donelan’s speech at the HEPI Annual Conference, is a perfect opportunity to reflect on the 104,965 doctoral research students (four per cent of the overall student population) enrolled in the United Kingdom for 2020/2021. We embody the notion of pursuing learning throughout a lifetime. A day spent with fellow students in our doctoral school gives insight into the rich diversity of the cohort, in terms of age, areas of study, life and work experience. Personal stories often reflecting motivation, commitment and struggle. It is these stories that breathe life into the exploration of this heterogenous group of people who willingly choose to devote three to six years of their lives (sometimes longer) to a research project. Undertaking a PhD demands redirecting one’s life, dealing with conflict and multiple demands, feeling broken down and reconstituted, being overwhelmed and uncertain, and simultaneously energised and engaged.

Unsurprisingly, I do not have a well-developed postdoc plan. I do not have a particular job in mind. But it is not a source of stress. Life has shown me the importance of being receptive to opportunities, even when they don’t look perfect. At the HEPI Conference, I was struck by Michael Crick’s call for academics to return to politics and play a role in crafting policy. A reminder that there is potential meaning in our work beyond the scholastic, and that there is a place for our extensive knowledge about a slither of the world, despite derision of the concept of an expert. I am happy with and proud of my patchwork quilt. It represents the power of a career identity able to give hope and guide in the inky blackness of despair. I have this quote from Max Ehrmann’s 1927 Desiderata up in my office: ‘Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time’.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    I was delighted to read this blog as it is so rare to read something “in praise of learning for its own sake”

    Learning does not have to be about careers, jobs and qualifications. Learning can be about self improvement, pleasure and fun, in the same way many of us read books, magazines and newspapers or take part in sports and recreational activities.

    When I am with my grand children, aged 1 to 6, they learn so much, so quickly by just living. They don’t plan their learning, they just learn from what they are doing and who they are with.

    In my experience, people who love what they do best and are allowed to do this as their paid work, are the luckiest people of all.

    We are all different and if each of us could focus on what we like and what we do well, I think we would have a better and happier world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *