The Ageing Student


I’m back in.  They call us “mature”, those people whose heads stack up in front of me in an overheated Waterloo auditorium, and to tell the truth, that’s one word for us.  Mature studentship officially starts at 26, but there are a few smatterings of white hairs and bald heads today.  Starting a PhD is something that doesn’t necessarily happen to the mature student of course.  Yesterday there were people so wet behind the University ears as to find themselves in London for the first time, unsure, like, whether I should move up?  From Woking?  Because, like, if I do? It might save me some money, yuh?  and I might, you know, like, have a life?  This upward, Antipodean inflection is oddly accompanied by a growling tone to the voice.  Has anyone else noticed this?  The young ‘uns, I mean.  The voice sits – no, squats – oddly on the voice box and they speak in this type of half Buckinghamshire grand / half ET drawl that implies that speaking is so much effort that they let their voice bubble and flicker in an irritating purr.  Then again, I’m probably just getting old, aren’t I?  I’m just another mature student.

A PhD doesn’t start by being a doctoral student.  It actually starts by you being a Masters student all over again, and those of you with long memories may remember it wasn’t so long ago I was documenting my Diary of a Dissertation on these pages when I was a Masters Student.  You start off as an M Phil (Masters of Philosophy) and only once you’ve got through the upgrade process at the end of your first year (or 18 months if you’re part time) and pass the accompanying oral examination are you allowed to move onto D Phil status.  At that stage, you can call yourself a doctoral student.  Also, at that stage, you can start grabbing whatever teaching options the college opens up to you and face your first peachy-skinned, fresh as a daisy Undergrads.  By that stage, I might have course have given the whole thing up and taken up something more calming and gentle, like brain surgery or international diplomatic relations.  Yet, repeatedly throughout the afternoon yesterday, as I sat there as a brand new student at my brand new (very highly ranked) University of London College where only 1 in 7 of us ever had a chance of being accepted at all, I kept thinking “Yes…..but I’m not 27.  Am I too old?”

Am I too old for what?  Am I too old for Junior School?  Certainly?  Am I too old to procreate?  Not quite yet.  Am I too old to use the word “Bro” or “blood”?  (Answer : was I ever young enough?)  but really when mature students doubt whether they are too old for all this studenty commitment and enthusiasm, what they are really asking is : “Am I too old to organise my fat sorry arse and actually switch off Strictly and spent 6 weeks reading obscure Victorian literature found only half way up a ladder in Senate House?”  Obviously, the answer to that is a big, resounding NO.  It’s only when you embark on a latent career as a full time, ageing, elderly student do you realise that the art of completing study is nothing more complicated than the art of getting yourself organised.  It’s not about being the brightest button in the box.  You have to sort yourself the fuck out.  In fact, academic achievement is about finding the right way to critically view research, no prizes are awarded for being actually intelligent.   If you fail to interrogate research in the prescribed manner you aint worth sheeyit in their eyes.

BUT the good news is (if you’re lucky) you might have won funding.  And if you’ve won funding it means you have reached the dizzy heights of having the British state pay you to read books.  This is the ultimate ambition.  Alas, if you have a part time everything (part time job, part time study, part repayment part interest only mortgage, partly mad) and are not a full time student you are unlikely to get anything.  You will not know whether or not you haven’t won funding until August, which is rather late to start budgeting, so you must prepare early.  The guide for funding applications to the AHRC (Arts & Humanities Resource Council) was 64 pages long.  The verbal guide for applying to the PhD with a proposal lasted for 15 minutes. I will leave it to you to work out which process drove me round the University bend and led to my spitting swearwords at the screen.  The awfully young have an awfully good chance of winning funding because they are full time students.  They cannot afford to be full time students, because no one can in post-Blair Britain, and they will leave with massive debt under their belts, debt which has been barely dented by spending three years part time teaching undergrads Shakespeare at £12 per hour.  But of course, being young, they don’t understand that there is no rush.

There is never any rush to do anything because the academic job you want may not be around when you want it.  You will rush to the end of your 3 years PhD and submit your 100,000 word thesis and emerge for the very first time into the adult world.  Lights.  Camera. Action.  Exorbitant rents.  Sainsburys.  Annual Leave.  Car purchasing.  And then, then you might find that everyone else around you is also 26 and negotiating adult flatshares for the first time and no one can find a job.  You find there is a dearth of available academic jobs, each with tough competitive applications, each paying senior secretary salaries.  This is the problem with the young.  They are too active.  They are too much in a rush.  They have experienced so little of the world beyond the refectory window, the world outside of corduroy jackets and college-y tomfoolery.  A PhD is a process, true – one with training and professional sights in view around the 3 / 6 year corner – but a process nevertheless.  And young students often miss the scenery, in my view.  And the subtler elements of the doctoral journey that involves a terribly large amount of sitting.  And being.  And thinking.  And plotting. And tea drinking.  And ruminating.  And more reading.  And reading.  And reading.

Why does this excite me so much?  The idea of committing for 6 years of supervisory meetings, of doctoral seminars with people in bad suits, to biting the side of the on-site Costa Coffee paper cup in stress and distress, of paying £2,200 a year as a part time student to subject myself to what is 6 years of isolation?  Well, it’s a plot to unpick, a crossword puzzle to deduce, a knot to untie and the itchiest of Victorian itches to scratch.  I have this project , you see – I have my own, individual proposal and what I do with it will be unique.  I can do anything I like with it, within reason, although the freedom is in equal parts terrifying as it is liberating.   I am free.  Which is strange in education, as you don’t get taught anything by anyone.  I’ll teach myself.

Oh, and at the end of it I have to come up with something original in my field.  By this point I shall be 45.  No biggie.

I’m too old to say “no biggie”.

Yesterday the induction verged on the grotesque.  It was nothing to do with academic fervour and everything to do with bureaucratic torpor.  It was a hand-holding through the student services, the Graduate School (What? Who?  When?) and then – bizarrely – the Church of England, who conducted one of the most brazen and extraordinary recruiting drives in its 2000 year old career – the joking Dean.  Oh God preserve us from comedy Anglicans.  As if we aren’t in enough trouble.  Then there was the ignoble horror of the login system which dominates the outer crust of your consciousness and threatens to destroy you.  The library log in is not the same as your email login, which is different from the student records login (OH KILL ME NOW) and the website login for journals is open 24/7!  eh?  What website isn’t open 24/7?  If Tesco can manage it (and they can’t count to £250million) I fail to see why “one of the most prestigious” colleges in the University of London can’t manage it.  A website isn’t a shop.  They’re all open!  Hey the library is open ALL NIGHT.  You can sit in it all night.  And slowly revise your list of things under “What do I have to live for?” at 4 in the morning, surrounded by post-structural critics tomes and the college rowing society’s newsletter.

Universities are peculiar places.  They have a particular smell, and a particular abhorrent dress code.  But they are also savvy, technically-adept, ruthlessly ambitious machines for learning. There is a sense that whilst I am there I should not be anywhere else, that I might just be in the best place to fully utilise what I have.  Somewhere amongst the lecture halls and the drip-drip of the broken water cooler, is the humbling sense of intellectual rigour.  You can sit down and talk about books all day with people who are paid to sit down and talk about books all day, and that is in itself a thing of beauty.  People who undertake PhDs have to be slightly strange, but there is comfort to be sought in locating your fellow strange doctoral students. Part time higher education is still, if you are in work, affordable – certainly more affordable than it is in some other countries, and, despite the introduction of university fees an the endless lack of money of the eternal full time student, the numbers of people undertaking Doctorates in the UK have climbed by 17,000 a year in the last 15 years.  It’s remarkably within my grasp.  I just have to have a high degree of personal application and couple it with fastidious intellectual activity.  The fear is I might actually achieve it all.  I can hear all those brains whirring away from the basement graduate break out space.  Who knows, maybe one of those brains in the next 5 years might be mine.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday 9th October.  Thank you.  It’s all right, I am still going to be here.  I am not going to bury my head into a dusty pile of Wilkie Collins novels and not emerge for 5 years.


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