Why I did a PhD in my 70s

The rewards of taking on a major research project are enormous at any age. Dr Mairi McDonald discusses completing her PhD in Iberian and Latin American Studies at 72, which she is now turning into a book.

2018 was the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo which seems to me to be the appropriate year to finish a PhD relating the artist’s paintings and their relationship with discourses on poverty in seventeenth-century Seville.

What use is a PhD to a seventy-two-year-old? Not much, you might think. However, the rewards are great: meeting the challenge of adding something new to a particular subject, the satisfaction of joining an academic community dedicated to the subject you are studying and also a huge amount of fun.

I started taking a variety of Open University courses in the history of art while I worked part-time at Channel 4 after leaving my full-time post there, then progressed to an MA Renaissance Studies at Birkbeck. A friend had strongly recommended this course and I was attracted by the range of subjects on offer, including the chance to pursue a module on Power and Control in Spanish Golden Age Art. My dissertation for the MA made me want to continue investigating the topic of seventeenth-century Spanish painting further and keep my brain functioning in old age. Since I had retired by then, and with the support of Dr Carmen Fracchia who had supervised my MA dissertation, I enrolled as a part-time PhD at Birkbeck in what was then the Department of Iberian and Latin American Studies. As a student of Early Modern Spanish art, I was the exception in a department where most PhD students were studying contemporary topics, but I found their enthusiasm and dedication stimulating. I also loved Birkbeck for the impressively wide range of students studying there and the fact that there were even a handful of people around my age. There were workshops to assist me at every phase of the PhD, from the initial stages of how to plan your work through to coping with the Viva. Above all, I received invaluable help and encouragement from my supervisor throughout.

The most difficult aspect of this work was not the research, or the writing up of my findings but learning Spanish from scratch. Learning a new language in my sixties was a tough proposition. Without Spanish, I could not read the seventeenth-century documents relevant to the PhD, such as sermons of the period, discourses on poverty, seventeenth-century chronicles on Seville as well as the writings of current Spanish scholars, none of which were available in English. Through courses at the Instituto Cervantes in London and some perseverance, I eventually attained a workable reading knowledge of Spanish.

Since surviving the viva and graduating at Birkbeck, I was invited to present a paper on Murillo and poverty at a prestigious symposium Murillo in Perspective which was held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London earlier this year and am working on converting my PhD into a book, amazing opportunities for a seventy-two-year-old!


8 thoughts on “Why I did a PhD in my 70s

  1. Oh, well done you!! And exceptionally well done is your pursuit of a non-contemporary topic. I am also studying early modern Australian poetry (of 100 – 120 years ago) and take delight in confounding those who would call it (and me) ‘old fashioned’. Your pursuit of what you love is inspirational.

  2. Congrats…it was one of my ideals to study for a PhD but the older I became the less I considered it as a realistic option as I would have wanted to work as a Lecturer and thought my chances of gaining employment in my 60s would have been a tall order.
    I think it’s great that you’ve achieved such a challenging PhD having to learn Spanish and all. You’re proof that it’s never too late. Would you recommend Birkbeck then?
    All the best with the book!

  3. Chancing upon this post seems very timely. Only last week I had told myself that, at 66, it was too late to consider major academic work. Maybe I should mull it over more seriously, if I can find a topic that unites my social work first degree, M.A in a completely different field, and my current enjoyment of a Birkbeck certificate course in yet another academic discipline! Dr Mairi McDonald’s determined achievement is certainly an inspiration. Especially taking beginner’s Spanish into a PhD: wow!

  4. When I was over 60 I did a foundation course in creative writing (whilst still working full time) with the remarkable Nina Rapi at Birkbeck. Following this I got a place at Royal Holloway (which didn’t work for me becaue of the location) and at City University where I did an MA before retiring.at 65. I would like now to do a Phd but have no idea in what. Huge congratulations to DOCTOR Mairi McDonald. (I want to be a Dr before I die!) Ros Bentley Age 73

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