The Challenge of Embarking on a PhD at Fifty

wc5Embarking on a PhD in your 50s is a challenging process, not just because re-entering academia after several decades away from it is scary but also because life is very different in your 50s compared to your 20s. For me, at the beginning, the challenge was mostly about confidence, could I really do this now, at my age? Would I have the staying power, the ability to understand all that theory and the motivation to stick with it over several years? When I set out on this journey back in 2015, I couldn’t have anticipated just how challenging it would be, for such different reasons than I initially thought.

Life, family and health interventions have made mine a longer journey than anticipated as my initial plan was to finish last year. I’ve now had over 12 months of interruption across the last couple of years, with 2 major surgeries and associated illness and recovery times (I’d never even been in hospital before this).

During my fieldwork, which was time limited as I was studying activity during an election period, I was actually quite ill but had to carry on regardless. I tried hard to organise interviews, attend meetings, discussions with individuals and other observations so they were spread out and gave me time to recover, but this was not always possible, I naturally had to fit in with the timetable of others. As we got closer to the election this was particularly the case, as meetings, discussions, hustings, campaign launches, and follow up interviews all had to be attended and arranged. There were days when having done one interview I was also due to attend another meeting but just couldn’t manage it, so had to cancel. I missed out on observing and attending some discussions because it just wasn’t possible. Having said that, I am still more than pleased with the amount of access I did get to individuals, meetings and discussions and the number of interviews I was able to carry out. If I’d been well enough though I would have done more (but maybe every researcher thinks there’s more that could be done).

After the fieldwork and just as I began the analysis and initial writing up stages I underwent major surgery and had a total of 7 months off from my studies because of illness beforehand and recovery afterwards. This was a major interruption at just the wrong time, just as I was closest to all the information and my own research, I had to take a break. In the end it was worth it, as my health was much improved afterwards and I was able to concentrate on my research once more. I got back into the analysis, additional reading, and writing first drafts of the main analysis and discussion sections. I even got to the point of revisions to some of the earlier chapters and had finished writing most of the remaining chapters before I had to take another break for another operation.

I am currently resting up after knee surgery and hoping to get back to full time writing over the next few weeks. Each time I’ve had to take time out I’ve found it really hard to get back into the subject matter and to immerse myself in the detail again. Whilst it does provide an opportunity to step back, I find it difficult to re-establish my engagement with my research, particularly at the stage I am at now, which is the final writing stage. An enforced absence of a couple of months has been both liberating and frustrating. Liberating because it does provide that space you sometimes need when you are too close to what you are writing and need to step back from it all to see a clearer picture. Frustrating because I was so close to finishing when the NHS provided a quicker date for my surgery than originally anticipated (which I am grateful for), so I had to stop before I wanted to, before I’d got to the end.

But now it’s time to get back to it, to get on with the writing. I’m at the stage now where I’m mostly revising chapters rather than writing from scratch, and hopefully I am now only a few months off completion. I’m re-reading what I have written with a fresh look, checking on the latest articles in my field and tightening up some of my arguments. My challenge now is to ensure the ‘golden thread’ goes right through my writing, from beginning to end, so the story is clear and my engagement with both the theory and my original research is inextricably linked throughout.

The art of writing

The blog post that follows is a slight departure from my usual commentary on housing, policy and politics issues. It’s related to my phd work and comes from a blog I first wrote for the Bristol Doctoral College. I hope you enjoy it!

I’ve always enjoyed writing, even if I don’t always do it well. I find it a creative process, that brings to life all those thoughts and ideas, commentary and debate that whirl around in my head, but frequently have no real outlet. Writing has been a part of every job I’ve had, in different ways and for very different audiences. I’ve had to adapt and develop my own style to respond to the demands of others, and to work to other people’s deadlines that often serve to stifle my own creative process. But, nonetheless, I enjoy writing. I write for fun here on this blog and write contributions to local news websites and magazines, such as Bristol 24-7 and The Bristol Cable, and for the professional press like the Planner Magazine. All of these provide an opportunity to write about things of interest to me, sometimes related to my research but often not, where I can freely express my opinion. That’s part of the fun of writing.

Over the last couple of years I have had to get used to a different kind of writing, one that is more controlled and evidenced, that fits with particular conventions. Last year, when doing an MSc, back in the academic world for the first time in over 20 years, I had to complete formal assignments and a dissertation. This involved a form of writing that was entirely different to anything I have done in a long time. Then this year, embarking on my PhD, I have once more had to develop my style further into academia, a style change I find both challenging and rewarding. Challenging because my inclination is to keep things simple, use simple language and keep away from jargon. Rewarding because when it works and I can combine simplicity with complexity there is a real feeling of achievement.

My approach to writing is to see it as a creative output, something that occurs naturally for me in response to learning. After all, what’s the point of all that learning if you can’t share it with other people? A blank page, for me, is an opportunity to articulate and share, rather than something to be scared of. Writing is like creating a painting, there are different layers that are needed to build the picture, which on their own make little sense, but together they can evolve into something worthwhile, a masterpiece that others will enjoy. I view writing my PhD in a similar way. There are layers that I will write at different times, continuously throughout the process, that need to come together into a coherent story at the end. There’s a complexity to this writing process, in terms of debate and argument, analysis and detail. But there’s also a simplicity about it, where carefully crafted pure and simple arguments can be brought together into quite a simple story. A story that will grab the readers attention, and will slowly but surely take them through the complexity in a way that makes sense. In a way that brings them to your conclusions with a sense of understanding and agreement.

There’s lots of advice to students about how to write, much of which suggests you set yourself a daily writing target, which you then stick to no matter what. I can see why the discipline of this is important and why it must work for many people, but I’ve tried this approach and for me the writing that comes from it is stifled, boring and constrained. If I’m not in the mood to write, then forcing myself to write just doesn’t work. I’ve written assignments like that and when I go back to read them I can tell that it was forced rather than creative thoughts that made up the report or essay. The work is dull and it’s lacking in energy, even if the points made are the right ones, the style is very different. I prefer an approach that feels more creative, one that has routine, but is based on my preferences, rather than someone else’s (there’s a good discussion here on creating routine when writing, drawing on the work of Ronald Kellog).

When I first begin the process of writing something new I try to avoid the clutter and distraction of notes generated from my reading. I start with a blank page. I then try to form my thoughts on what I have read into a short discussion of key arguments, issues and themes. I do this without the clutter of referencing and acknowledging who said what and how. I do it from memory, from thoughts that occur to me from reading my notes and I do it when I am feeling creative and able to write fluidly. For me this works, most of the time! Of course, sometimes the creativity is just not there, it’s beyond my grasp, I can’t think where to start or how to structure my thoughts. I’ve come to recognise those times and instead I do something else with my time, like more reading, organising files, and literature searching. All the time continually mulling over the story I want to tell and trying to work out how I can construct it. I may also use this thinking and reflecting time to write something else, something less constrained, where I can write freely without the confines of academic convention – something like a blog maybe! Eventually, often after much reflection, I am ready to write and can go back to the writing that needs to be done.

The challenge of writing is an integral part of any PhD. The only advice I have on writing is to do what works for you, try different approaches and look back on what’s worked when you’ve written things before. But above all, enjoy it, it’s a precious opportunity to express yourself, articulate your thoughts and tell the story of your PhD for others to enjoy.

The grand finale to an amazing year – my MSc graduation!

IMG_1123I never quite believed I would make it and get to this point, but last week I attended my graduation ceremony. A fantastic finale to an amazing year. Doing an MSc in Public Policy at Bristol University after so long away from anything to do with the academic world was a real challenge but one I thoroughly enjoyed. The ceremony itself was spectacular, a lot of pomp and ceremony, but enthralling in its own way. A lovely day made even more special by the friendly service provided by all those that helped to make the event go so smoothly, and for whom nothing was too much trouble. I was initially in two minds about whether or not to even attend, but I am very glad I did.

IMG_1115After a year of hard slog and a pretty intensive work programme it was nice to receive some recognition and to celebrate the achievement with family and friends. My father and his wife enjoyed themselves, as did my partner. It was also great to catch up with class mates and lecturers who made the year so special. Without the help and support of so many of the staff, both academic and administrative, I would probably not have made it through and certainly would not have enjoyed my time so much. The discussion, debate, and challenge generated during lectures and seminars were something I had been missing for many years. The chats and discussions with fellow students, about life in Bristol, essays and assignments, and life back in their home countries, were endlessly fascinating and I learnt a huge amount from them. I have made some new friends, and despite the geographical distances, with many coming from China, Thailand, Canada, Azerbaijan, Denmark and Palestine, to name but a few. I hope we’ll keep in touch for years to come.

2015-02-12 13.49.47I owe a very special thanks to some amazing academic staff in the School for Policy Studies: Noemi Lendvai, David Sweeting, Alex Marsh, Sarah Ayres & Ailsa Cameron for their support and help throughout the year and to Emma Western and Andrea Osborn for getting me through the systems and processes and being so friendly and always willing to help.

I have written previously about what it was like being a mature student – My year as a mature student and One year ago today – so won’t repeat what I said then, but suffice to say the experience has been both enlightening and at times quite scary. It’s a year I’ll never forget and the graduation ceremony was a great way to bring it to a close.

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And now onto the next challenge – I am currently 5 months into a PhD programme, at the School for Policy Studies at Bristol University, and am just beginning to realise the very real difference between doing a Masters degree and embarking on a  PhD!

A Mayor for Greater Bristol?

DSCN0141So, the Bristol Post have launched their Make Bristol Greater campaign, aimed at raising the debate about what the Bristol city region should be called and what its governance should look like. Their comment piece picks out the geographical and political constraints holding Bristol back, and for once I find myself agreeing with much of what is said in the article. Bristol is so tightly constrained by its administrative boundaries that don’t even cover the whole urban area, that decision making about strategic issues across council boundaries is like a game of ‘chance’ or ‘bluff’, based on little more than the small minded politics of jealousy and competition.

We constantly compromise and reduce decisions to the lowest common denominator because we are afraid to upset anyone. Bristol and the city region loses out as a result, because very few are brave enough to talk about Greater Bristol. Instead we mutter about the West of England, which to others from outside the area means absolutely nothing – it’s not a place many can relate to or can even locate because it doesn’t really exist, it’s purely a term we have ended up with because we couldn’t call it Greater Bristol! If the ten councils that make up the Greater Manchester Authority can live with it being called Greater Manchester, why can’t we call our area Greater Bristol, wouldn’t that make more sense?

But the problem is of course much deeper than what we call the place – that is just indicative of the problems we face in terms of lack of collaboration, partnership working and joined up thinking. The physical and boundary constraints placed on Bristol exacerbate the problem. You only have to look at the lack of development to the South and West of Bristol  to see how skewed decision making is, when the only option for growth around Bristol is to extend further to the North, into South Gloucestershire, an already ‘overheated’ and ‘overdeveloped’ area. But Bristol, the council, the mayor, have no control over how the city can grow because those areas are outside the council’s administrative boundaries and squarely in the hands of other politicians and officers. To me this has never made sense, ever since the abolition of Avon County Council, the idea of  real strategic planning for transport, housing, jobs and growth has eluded us. But what is the answer? It’s probably not about reinventing Avon, but it might just be about a combined authority – this seems to work elsewhere and is surely an option worth pursuing, but sadly our local councils don’t seem able to come to agreement on that idea.

Whatever you think about the current elected mayor for Bristol, the role has certainly changed the way politics in the city works and has changed people’s perceptions of the city to some extent – with greater visibility both within the city and externally – something Bristol has undoubtedly lacked in the past. Some interesting work by Bristol University, with UWE, makes this point and has highlighted just how perceptions have changed as a result of having a directly elected mayor, see Bristol Civic Leadership Project Briefing. So when I read an article in the Birmingham Post about ‘regional mayors in a more federal UK‘ the idea sounded interesting. It’s part of Labour’s proposal to devolve power to metro mayors with control over combined authorities, which already exist in other core cities (Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool) and could be a key part of the answer in Bristol. Imagine a powerful mayor, with control over the Greater Bristol area, able to make strategic decisions about housing, transport, infrastructure and skills, with devolved power and resources? Wouldn’t that overcome some of the current problems facing Bristol?

Interestingly the comments from Chuka Umunna are not about devolving to LEPs (unelected, undemocratic bodies) but about the creation of combined authorities and directly elected metro mayors – a much better solution than some of the original suggestions to give power and resource to the LEPs. I think his only mistake is to keep talking about ‘regions’ rather than city regions, but otherwise the proposals seem to provide a potential opportunity for an area like Bristol and one worth further debate.

Postscript – I feel compelled to add something to this post as a result of the announcement about a metro mayor for Greater Manchester (3-11-14) based around the Combined Authority area of 10 local councils. This is an interesting move forward in the debate about devolving power and responsibility to city regions, if based on the right kind of formal structures. It’s also a recognition that elected city mayors need to cover a wider area than the tightly bound city authorities they currently have responsibility for. Once more the Manchester area has stolen a march on everyone else, organised itself and bid for the opportunity, leaving other cities scrabbling around in its wake. It’ll be interesting to see how the Bristol city region responds to this, if at all?

My Year as a Mature Student!

Well, what an amazing year this has been, from losing my job to rediscovering my interest in academic life as a student. Who would have thought over a year ago that this is what I would be doing now – certainly not me. I have had just the most fascinating, positive, interesting and challenging time over the last year, returning to study as a (very) mature student and I’ve loved every bit of it. Choosing to do the MSc in Public Policy at Bristol University this last year has to be one of the best decisions I have ever taken!

Last month I wrote a blog about ‘one year ago today‘ covering some of my experience since I lost my job. I talked about rediscovering my love for the academic world, my love of writing, reading and learning, as well as an interest in debate, discussion and intellectual challenge. All the things that were sadly lacking in my work life for so long suddenly became the centre of my life as a full-time student for the year. And now that year has come to an end – the final piece of work submitted and the course complete – a time to celebrate but also to reflect. I have met some truly amazing people this year and I will miss meeting up and chatting with such a diverse and interesting group of fellow students.

Me with class mates Mark, Vincent, Tale, Karim & Louann

I have also learnt some things about myself this year, which took me slightly by surprise! Perhaps the most difficult thing for me was getting to grips with how uncomfortable I felt about the situation I chose to put myself in, and I have only just worked out why I felt like that. Here’s the thing, for over 15 years I had been in a position where at work I was either the CEO of my own organisation or a senior manager at the top of the hierarchy. I was the one that other people came to for advice and guidance, I was the one taking decisions and steering the direction. I was the expert, with knowledge and experience, and people wanted to know my views on things and came to me as an expert who could help.

Then, everything changed, I became a student again. Suddenly I was the novice and the one that needed help, support and guidance. I put myself in a position where I would be judged by people far more expert than me, subject to academic scrutiny for the first time in over 25 years, and where I knew so little compared to those around me. That was tough, difficult to adjust to and a truly humbling experience. I can’t count the number of times I came away from lectures, discussions and meetings with supervisors/tutors, feeling like I knew nothing and that I had so much more to learn. I spent hours trying to work out how come I hadn’t thought of that, why I hadn’t asked that question, why I’d missed that critical bit of reading – and to be honest it left me feeling entirely stupid on on more than one occasion.

But, the important thing is that whilst this was undoubtedly difficult, and I now recognise why I found certain things so challenging and ‘strange’, it was also a fantastic experience that I would not have missed for anything. If you can just get over that shift in position and accept it as a new experience where yes, you do have a lot to learn and you are reliant on others to help, then the rewards are certainly there and definitely outweigh the slightly uncomfortable feeling you might get from being a novice again at this stage in your life.

One year ago today!

One year ago today I was told I no longer had a job. To say this came as a bit of a surprise would be an understatement, I’d been promoted regularly, always received excellent reviews and felt like I had contributed a lot to the organisation as a senior manager. But then things changed, and it was my time to lose out, discarded overnight from an organisation I had been part of for 8 1/2 years, just like that, without a second thought. My world felt like it had come to an abrupt end, life was so unfair, why me, what had I done to deserve this? Those initial feelings soon gave way to ones of hope and opportunity – ok so what next, where’s the next challenge, what do I do now? I wrote about my journey from redundancy onwards in another blog, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of that, as it is a very personal journey.

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A personal Journey – from redundancy onwards?

DSCN0159I’ve decided to write a different type of blogpost, a bit of a departure from most of the blogs on here. This is more personal, about my journey after redundancy and the beauty of it is, I don’t know how it ends, I have no idea what I will be doing in a few months time, let alone this time next year. This is a blog that many will no doubt relate to, as many have faced redundancy or career changing decisions, many others will have struggled through exactly the same thought processes and anxiety that I have, and come up with very different conclusions no doubt? Whether anyone will find it interesting is another matter entirely, and maybe, just maybe, the process is more about reflection and therapy for me than it is about anything else! It’s also strange writing about myself, as my other blogs tend to be about issues and interests.

The story starts at the end of August 2013 when I lost my job. I’d been there for just over 8 years in quite a senior position, but for various reasons my time there came to an end rather abruptly. So after a pretty tough final few years in that job, working ridiculous hours, rarely taking all my holiday, constant stress and being far too focused on work, I suddenly found I had to think about what I was going to do next. The thought of updating my CV and searching out job opportunities, filling in application forms and going for interviews just did not appeal. I had no idea if I could just go and work for someone else again and who or what that would involve or if setting myself up as a self employed consultant would work. The biggest challenge I found myself thinking about was what I had to offer – I’m a bit of a generalist rather than a specialist, I don’t consider what I do as a specific skill or something that is marketable, I just do some stuff, mostly whatever is asked of me. In all my jobs I have adapted to what is needed, to what anyone has thrown at me and just got on with it – that has ranged from staff and budget management, charity management, marketing and PR, research and policy, writing, company strategy, business planning, membership and representation, community engagement, development control and planning advice, academic research and lecturing, partnership working and community regeneration. So what jobs could I aim for at what level and what would I sell if I went self employed? I have no idea!

So what to do next? After several weeks of blaming everyone but myself for the position I found myself in and being quite emotional about the whole thing, I got to the point where the logical side of my brain took over, it normally does. No one else was going to sort things out for me, it was entirely up to me what I did next and that was the start of looking forwards rather than backwards. My first decision was that I was going to take a year off, to give myself thinking time, to work out what I wanted to do next and what I valued about each of the jobs I have done in the past and what I was less keen on – an interesting process that I am still going through – in the hope of beginning to define what I enjoy about work and what I’m good at!

I also decided I would need to do something during that year and my first thought was to take a look at a course I had always been interested in doing but never quite had the time to consider properly – the MSc in Public Policy, in the School for Policy Studies at Bristol University. It covers so many of the issues I am interested in and want to know more about that it was an obvious starting point. I was keen to get back into academic reading and writing, something I had moved away from 20 or so years ago and to a point missed the challenge it provides and the reward you get from tackling complex issues and problems. So I investigated and found I’d missed all the usual deadlines (this was about mid/late Sept) and the course had actually started, but I got in touch anyway and found out there was still time if I managed to complete everything required in just a few days. Thankfully it all worked out, thanks to some very helpful people in the School office, and I started the course a week or so late at the beginning of October 2013 – I went back to University 25 years after I had first graduated and I’m loving it! I would recommend to anyone the idea of embarking on a university course as a (very) mature student, I am getting so much more out of this than I did as a youngster straight from school and my motivations for doing it are so different compared to when I was an undergraduate. I’ll write more about the course itself, the highs and the lows, the challenges and the fun, once I have completed it later this year (mid Sept). Right now  I am in the final stages of the course with just a dissertation to complete in 4 months!

In terms of thinking about what to do post-September, well I still don’t know really and have no set plans. I am still reassessing what is important and what I enjoy doing. One thing I do know is that for me, being made redundant, from a job I had grown to dislike (I was going to write ‘hate’ there, but that’s too strong a word), was quite possibly the best thing that has happened to me for a long time. Not having a job has forced me to consider what is important and what I want to do next, rather than just plodding along in a job that had moved so far away from what I enjoyed that going to work everyday was a chore, but I kept going with it because change is scary, it’s difficult and it’s challenging, and we often avoid it even when it should be the most obvious thing to do.

Forced change is certainly unpleasant at the time, but I have been fortunate to be able to use this as a positive opportunity to think about what next and to revisit the academic world for a while, something I used to be familiar with and I am enjoying my return. What the future holds I don’t know but it will be very different to what I did in my last job.