Loughborough PhD Social & Support Network

#BLOG – My bucket-list PhD

September 1978: I went up to Brasenose College Oxford to begin a DPhil in Economics with some trepidation and a research council bursary, having survived an interview with Joe Stiglitz, who was later to win a Nobel Prize. I was 23. My Mum had died at the age of 42 not long before. It was she who wanted me to accept the Oxford offer rather than a position as an economist in the Civil Service. “Think of the kudos of going to Oxford” she had urged me, an LSE graduate from a comprehensive school in Norwich.

But it didn’t go well. I felt an intellectual pygmy among the dreaming spires. I was awestruck by the likes of Professors Amartya Sen and James Mirrlees – both of whom subsequently obtained Nobel prizes in Economics. I was too shy to make friends easily and ask questions. I felt awkward and out of place. I couldn’t get excited enough by my topic. I got anxious and depressed and thought I wasn’t clever enough to study for a doctorate, so I DNF’d after two and half terms. I realise now I was probably suffering from “Imposter Syndrome”. But I buried my sense of failure and unfinished business for the next three and a half decades.

Cut to 2013. I was Chief Economist in the Department of Education. Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Education. PhD-less, I had enjoyed a successful career as a university lecturer, researcher, consultant and – eventually – government economist. I had grown-up children of my own. But making the case for evidence-based policy was becoming harder after 2010, and I was losing my love of civil service life, so I decided to take the redundancy package offered by a civil-service-cutting government. But I was still only 58 when I left Whitehall in 2013. I spent the next three years working full-time for consultancy firms and an economics charity, all the while thinking about possible semi-retirement and unfulfilled ambitions. I started to day-dream about getting that PhD. But I was anxious – did I have what it takes to complete a PhD?

It took me more than a year of careful self-examination to convince myself that my confidence and resilience in my sixties was quite different from that of the 24-year-old me. Having met and employed quite a few people with PhDs, I had realised that the attributes required to complete a PhD were not simply cognitive ability, but rather patience, persistence, a problem-solving mind-set, and a passion for one’s topic. Through my professional experience, I had also come to realise that research was not the linear process described in academic articles, but more usually a mess of dead-ends and unreported failed experiments. Moreover, since my first attempt at a doctorate, technological changes had made it possible to do research without tedious processes like transcribing references from file cards into documents, and typing computer code onto punched cards in dark basements.  But importantly, I knew that funding bodies had learned from the high drop-out rates of the past and considerably improved the support and guidance available to research students.

Research in the old days

Research in the old days – computing was done by writing programmes and typing holes into punched cards.

I considered other life-goals I had managed to achieve through sheer determination and patience – running some decent marathons for example.  And I began to believe that if I wanted it enough, I certainly had the ability and resources to complete a PhD. So, I articulated my ambition out loud: “I want to die with ‘Dr’ on my tombstone”, I said to friends and family as a pre-commitment device. Reassuringly, none questioned my ability to achieve it.

Karen at aged 63 doing a 5k race – Strength of character/persistence through endurance running

Since I wanted to undertake a part-time PhD as I had other items on my bucket list, I needed to find a topic that would keep me interested for at least six years. The broad topic came relatively easily: I had been a runner since the age of 11, a running coach for the last 20 years, and an economist all my professional life.  I decided to combine my interests by applying economic theory to the topic of sport, exercise or physical activity, specifically with respect to older people. I was also becoming interested in many aspects of the effects of ageing on the individual and on society and the great individual differences in how people age.  And I knew I wanted to influence public policy in some way.

Now in my third part-time year, I have of course experienced many ups and downs about my research. My resourcefulness and determination not to give up this time have helped me through the difficulties so far. Deciding to move from another university and an unsupportive lead supervisor at the end of my second year to my current supervisors and Loughborough has been a huge leap forward for me.  I have been delighted with my experience as a doctoral student at Loughborough. I am part-time and live in London, so being able to find the information and resources I need is crucial for me. Loughborough’s Doctoral College portal and all the administrative and support staff I have needed to access

have been easy to find, responsive and extremely helpful. But most importantly, my supervisors are extremely knowledgeable and stimulating, and seem to have great confidence in me. I love knowing that everyone at Loughborough is interested in some aspect of sport, exercise or physical activity and understands its benefits for people of all ages. And I feel there is huge kudos from being able to pursue my research on older peoples’ physical activity at this world-famous sports university.  This time, I have little doubt that I will achieve my ambition and tick off getting my PhD from my bucket-list.

Karen Hancock

Part-time PhD student

School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences

March 2019.

Karen Hancock
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