There are some subjects where mature students (i.e. those in their thirties and over) are the norm rather than the exception. In architecture, management and social work, for example, it is usual for PhD students to have spent a period as professionals in the field before coming back to conduct their research. This means that supervisors may find that they have someone of the same age as themselves as a research student.
However, in subjects such as engineering, nuclear chemistry and biology, for example, mature students are very much in the minority. These mature students have a number of particular problems to contend with. For some, particularly women, there are much more demanding domestic circumstances to cope with. Many have to juggle responsibility in caring for children, elderly relatives, etc. All mature students will probably have to combat ageism and the negative images that go with it.
Legislation against ageist discrimination (Britain).
There is now some relevant legislation in force to combat blatant ageism. It is unlawful to discriminate against a person on the basis of age. These rules apply to all age groups including applicants to, and existing students at, universities. The regulations adopt similar definitions to those applied in most other strands of anti-discrimination law.
There are four types of discrimination:
- Direct discrimination – where on the grounds of a person’s age (or apparent age), they are treated less favourably than others would be treated. So, for example, a refusal to interview anyone over the age of 50 for selection as a doctoral candidate would almost certainly represent direct discrimination. However, a charge such as this may be defended by the argument that it is lawful to treat someone less favourably if the treatment is a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’ – the so-called ‘objective justification test’. For example, it may be argued that the refusal to start the education of a medical student at the age of, say, 60 could be justified given that the length of such training and the age of the student on completion would mean that it would be an uneconomic use of the university’s resources. This ‘objective justification test’ does not appear in sex, race and sexual orientation discrimination where a much narrower ‘genuine occupational requirement’ (GOR) justification operates. But, in line with the other antidiscrimination legislation, the Age Regulations include a GOR exception so that if there is a real need to employ someone of a particular age or age group, for example, as a participant anthropologist working in a geriatric subculture, then discrimination is permissible (but not harassment or victimization).
- Indirect discrimination – this applies where an employer or the university imposes or operates (and cannot ‘objectively justify’) a provision, criterion or practice which puts people of a particular age or age group at a disadvantage. For a person to claim successfully, they must have actually been put to a disadvantage. For example, if a department required of its doctoral applicants that they have a master’s degree plus five years’ professional experience to be considered for a place, then those below the age of around 28 would be at a disadvantage. So, unless that length of experience can be objectively justified, indirect discrimination will have occurred
- .Harassment – this is defined as conduct by one or more persons which, on the grounds of age, has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity and of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Such conduct might be name-calling, unwanted offensive jokes, verbal abuse or ignoring. There can be no ‘objective justification’ of harassment and it is essentially the perception of the individual that counts. The only possible defence is that the ‘victim’ is being oversensitive and the conduct complained of was inadvertent and could not reasonably be taken as offensive. Note that ‘bullying’ is not a category of discrimination, but bullying behaviour, if based on age, could certainly be regarded as harassment.
- Victimization – this is less favourable treatment of someone, not specifically due to their age (which would amount to direct discrimination), but because they have done one or more of four so-called ‘protected acts’ such as making allegations that the Regulations have been contravened and bringing proceedings or giving evidence under the Age Regulations.
You need to become familiar with the general provisions made for your rights and entitlements under the legislation. Also, play safe and find out whether your university has a counsellor for mature students and where to find the office, just in case.
Mature students have to relate to fellow students who are of a younger generation and fit in with them. This fitting in can present particular problems because of the common misperception that mature students are experienced and therefore able to cope.
It is also possible that you will be unfortunate enough to have comments, supposed to be humorous, made about you and your ability to study at a high level. If you have unexpected feelings of resistance and resentment because you are suddenly in a category of one, it is important that you change this. To help you feel less solitary, try to discover others, nearer your age, probably working in other disciplines and, if necessary, form a network of mature students. Within this new group you can talk about any difficulties you may be having and discover whether these are general to the more mature students. As well as comparing experiences you can also begin to brainstorm ideas for presenting your problems to more traditional students and to your own supervisors where necessary.
Once you have managed to establish a colleague relationship with even a few research students in the ‘mature’ category, you will have a support group which understands the situation and together you can work to combat any ageism you may be experiencing. If you are made to feel uncomfortable because of your age, mention this to your group to discover whether the same people or person has bothered anybody else. It is also a good idea to keep a record of any abusive or hurtful comments made against you and, if necessary, let your supervisor or student union representative know about it.
Members of academic staff and students further along in their studies are more likely to behave in protective ways towards younger students than they are towards older ones. Such assumptions of competence may well be true in general but in the rarefied world of the university, where the mature student is new and not fully aware of the rules and how things work, old patterns do not help. New mature students are particularly vulnerable in such situations since their learning must include how to play the role of student again.
For these reasons, relationships with supervisors can present difficulties, with the student often subject to conflicting emotions. There may be resistance to accepting guidance, with students unconsciously feeling that they should know better than their (sometimes) younger supervisors. But this may be coupled with a desperate attempt to obtain knowledge without letting the supervisors know how ignorant they feel. As a mature student, you have to make a particular effort to meet the supervisor in an adult-to-adult relationship.
However, with appropriate determination, these handicaps can be overcome. We know of one recently successful student, Dr Pessy Krausz, a great-grandmother three times over. As we go up the generational scale it is exciting to have such role models even though there are those who consider that someone with so many generations of family below her should be safely at home knitting for the new arrivals.
DSP is particularly proud to have been the supervisor of Dr Edward Brech, who was in the Guinness Book of Records as the then oldest British recipient of a PhD degree at the age of 85. The UK record is now held by a woman who was awarded the PhD degree at the age of 93. Dr Brech himself went on to gain the D.Litt. (a higher doctorate) when he was 97. We expect that breaking age and generational barriers of this kind will become more common in the future.
Action summary for mature students
- Make contact with and, if necessary, form a network of mature students.
- In this network, discuss the relevant issues particular to your situation, for example: share experiences and discuss strategies for combating ageism; identify feelings of resistance and resentment; and share them with the group as an aid to facing and overcoming them.
If your institution does not already have one, lobby for the appointment of a counsellor for mature students.
Phillips, E., & Pugh, D. (2010). How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors (p.141). McGraw-Hill Education (UK).