"We have reached an age where we know that a PhD is not the main priority in life"
Health Economics and Health Technology Assessment (HEHTA) researchers Nicola McMeekin and Janet Bouttell - also founder members and co-chairs of the IHW Athena SWAN older workers group - share their experience of changing career paths and studying for a PhD later in life
What is your background?
I trained as an accountant in my twenties and carried on working in various finance roles in different organisations (charity, industry, local government and NHS) as I balanced work with bringing up my two sons. Once my sons were older and after a major health event, I decided to have a career change, chose health economics, and attended university for the first time to take the Health Technology Assessment (HTA) MSc in Glasgow University.
I also trained as an accountant and worked for KPMG for eleven years until my fourth child was born. I then had a little career break before training as a primary teacher. It fitted well with the responsibilities of bringing up the kids and I stayed in this career until a friend persuaded me to set up a café with her. BIG MISTAKE. Less said the better! When we moved to Glasgow in 2014, I returned to my financial roots and took the MSc HTA the year after Nicola.
Why did you choose to do a PhD at 50+?
After completing the HTA MSc I took up a position as a research assistant in HEHTA and was offered the opportunity of undertaking a PhD alongside my job. I took up this opportunity partly for my career and partly for the challenge of doing a PhD, particularly as an older worker.
It was the same for me. I love learning and I have always wanted to be an expert in something (and be called Dr Bouttell!) so doing a PhD ticked several boxes.
What challenges have you faced doing a PhD in later life?
The biggest challenge has been finding the time to work on PhD alongside a full-time job, family commitments and with a chronic health condition. At first, I found the compulsory courses and training a challenge as I was nearly always the eldest by far and some courses were geared towards much younger PhD candidates so not relevant to me, however I met other (very) mature PhD students at these events which was helpful. I also work in the same team as Janet who has been extremely supportive and accompanied me on my PhD journey.
I have been very lucky in that my funding was directly linked to my PhD project so I didn’t have the time challenge that Nicola faced. It is sometimes difficult to continue to believe in the value of your work and to maintain enthusiasm, particularly if you hit a period where life starts to intrude on the PhD journey. Being older means we have both children and parents who periodically need support. Women of our age are also coping with menopause and the dents to confidence that brings. Peer support from Nicola and the other workers (older and otherwise) in the institute has been invaluable in maintaining momentum.
What benefits have you experienced doing a PhD later in life?
I feel that as an older worker I am able to put my PhD in perspective, I also know how I work best which means I can be efficient when working, although procrastination has sometimes held me back!
Perspective was also my first thought. We have reached an age where we know that, although important, a PhD is not the main priority in life. Our health and our friends, families and colleagues are much more important. Having said that, we do still want to be Dr Bouttell and Dr McMeekin!
If you would like to be an "IHW voice" and share your story with colleagues, please get in touch!
First published: 21 September 2020