I decided to resurrect a draft post which explores my experiences as a mature student, and enhance it to bring it up to date.
This week taught me three things. First, a crisis of confidence is not permanent. Second, it’s okay to question your path and third, never allow yourself to fall out of love with the things that inspire you.
The third point is one I’ll be returning to in later posts. The remainder was a stream of consciousness that involved a bus journey, spotting a lawyer out in the wild, a red pen and a research session that left me feeling particularly inspired. Reading the post now, almost a year later, I can see that part of its jouissance was born out of the need to convince myself, as much as anyone else, that I was on the right track and the time for self-doubt was over. A moment of heady aspiration indeed, because for those of us who experience it, I’m not convinced that imposter syndrome ever goes away.
My draft post was full of nostalgic whimsy, an introspective look at how my former career was an intrinsic part of my identity, the absence of it leaving me untethered as I attempted to draw a bright line between ‘then’ and ‘now.’ It’s hardly surprising that I would experience these moments of flux, because hitting the reset button after advancing through the ranks of one career to effectively start from scratch in another, is bound to lead to moments of panic. On reflection I think part of that panic has been driven by my desire to work out, quickly, who I might become outside of my former profession, a disconnect between past and present. That enhanced sense of urgency to develop a clear route forward ultimately neglected to take into account the way my past and present might intersect, and was not helpful. I failed to appreciate the transferable nature of skills learned in the workplace, or account for how they applied to my current research.
Rusty study techniques are often cited as a hurdle unique to mature students, but for me this hasn’t been the biggest challenge. That’s not to say I have sailed through academic output, or that I haven’t had to work at adapting to study, it’s more that as a post-graduate student much of my daily work, namely research, has been familiar territory. As a lawyer I frequently undertook academic research. Preparing notes of advice required fastidious attention to source citation, a certain level of critical reading skills and the ability to digest large volumes of information, identifying the pertinent extracts and the most persuasive resources. I understood how to construct an argument in writing, even though developing my own style of academic writing required significant work. Of course, I have had to learn new research methods, and continue to develop a comprehensive knowledge base in a new field, but the act of undertaking research is not unfamiliar.
When it comes to being a mature student I have related most to the various accounts that identify the financial and emotional wrench experienced by those who leave the workplace to go back to study. It can be harder for mature students to fully integrate with a university—both on account of age and/or other commitments which make campus living untenable—and this can compound a sense of isolation, particularly for those mature students used to the daily interactions of a workplace. Even when the university offers support for mature students, which many do, grappling with these issues can often be a matter specific to each individual that training doesn’t necessarily overcome. Those who go back to university—or experience tertiary education for the first time—as mature students each bring individual challenges that differ depending on a variety of factors, such as previous academic credentials, economic constraints, family circumstances, wider support network, motivations to undertake further study, subject area and so on.
A recurring issue among mature students seems to be the need to justify the choice made, something I feel keenly. When work is no longer financially compensated—taking the case of an unfunded PhD student like myself—there can be an innate need to adjust the perception of work being connected to remuneration, and to demonstrate to those not familiar with academic research the value of that work. Although these are feelings many students, not just mature students, will experience, age plays a big role in feeding the gremlins of self-doubt in this regard. A decision has been taken, in many cases, to leave something quantifiable in general terms to pursue something more abstract. There’s a need to prove to the people potentially supporting you through the revised route—or to yourself—that there’s a clear light at the end of the tunnel, and as all researchers will know, mature student or not, that’s simply not the way things work in the highly competitive world of post-PhD possibilities that can present an often confusing and overwhelming array of seemingly unattainable possibilities in an enormously competitive space.
I mentioned imposter syndrome at the outset, and although that isn’t something that is exclusive to mature students, they can still experience imposter syndrome acutely. This can come from a place of being less immersed in the education system, from the time away pursuing other things, or a change in discipline. There is the way university experience can be intimately connected with youth and exploration, as if life experience simply stops at a certain age, as if establishing identity and discovery of new passions is the purview of the young. Imposter syndrome is always lurking in the shadows, but for me personally knowing other people experience it too and discussing how to counteract it can help.
That’s not to say being a mature student is without its rewards. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be able to return to university and even though undertaking a PhD can be challenging, the challenges are outweighed by my passion for the project. I enjoy my work and I have a lot of support both within the university and outside of it. The university where I am currently based offers an incredible number of events and opportunities which consistently inspire and invigorate my research. I am enormously privileged to have the opportunity to spend time with my books and research, pursuing something I have wanted to do for a number of years. Mature students often approach study with a drive that underscores the fact they are likely to have taken big life decisions to reach that point of sitting in lecture theatres in the first place, and I simply want to share my own experiences of the fact those decisions don’t come without emotional and mental baggage as people undertake their studies. I am writing this primarily because I hope that in exploring my own struggles with adjusting from the ‘9 to 5’ and returning to university, there might be others who find comfort in shared experience, or who wish to expand on their own. I don’t feel I’m in a position to offer advice per se, but I would say that attending conferences, joining social media groups relevant to my research and developing online networks has enriched my experiences enormously, and has counteracted those moments of isolation.