Tag Archives: mature students

Finding new paths with lifelong learning

John Simons, who was recently awarded a PhD in philosophy, acknowledges his debt to Birkbeck’s commitment to the principle of lifelong learning, having been helped by the College to move from a career in campaign management to a successful academic career in sociology, and now to a new career in moral philosophy.  

When I left school, back in the previous century, my only qualification was a satisfactory set of results in the then equivalent of today’s GCSEs. It was enough to get me a job as a research assistant in a physics laboratory and to start studying at Birkbeck, where I planned to obtain the equivalent of A Levels in physics, pure mathematics, and applied mathematics and then to proceed to a BSc course in those subjects.

John Simon

John Simons

In those days, the College was in Fetter Lane and had its own theatre, which was used by an active group of drama enthusiasts, The Birkbeck Players. I joined them to play the part of Hodge, the gullible servant of an elderly countrywoman, in a production of the 16th Century rustic comedy Gammer Gurton’s Needle. I believe the happy experience of being in that play with students from across the College departments helped me finally reach a decision that I had been considering for some time: that I was on a career path for which I was not well suited. After obtaining the three A-level equivalents, I abandoned my studies and my job, determined to find a new path. But first I had to get through two years of then obligatory National Service.

After leaving the army (with Second Lieutenant, infantry, added to my very short CV), I worked in marketing for several years, and then obtained a role that would have a radical effect on my subsequent career. It was as Director of a national campaign, sponsored by the Family Planning Association, to arouse awareness of the scale of world population growth and the need for better access to birth control services in many countries. From my work in that post I acquired a strong interest in the dynamics of reproductive behaviour – so strong that I decided to change direction again and become qualified to study it. So, in my mid-thirties – married and with three small children and a mortgage – I went to the London School of Economics (initially part-time) to acquire a bachelor’s degree in sociology and demography. My A-Level equivalents gained at Birkbeck made me eligible for the course. Two other advantages made it possible for me to attend part of the course full-time: a grant that was available from the Local Authority in those days, and, even more important, a wife, herself an LSE graduate, who fully supported my career change.

The degree from the LSE enabled me to obtain a post at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which is just across the road from Birkbeck. There I helped the late William Brass, an internationally renowned expert in the analysis of population data, to create the School’s Centre for Population Studies, and make it one of the largest of its kind in Europe. I contributed a course on the Sociology of Fertility to its MSc programme, supervised research students interested in social research on reproductive behavior, conducted my own research in this field, and undertook consultancy assignments for the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, and other agencies. I attended to some of my own educational needs by taking specialist courses relevant to my work provided by Birkbeck and the Open University, eventually obtaining a BA from the latter. I retired from the Centre (as its Head) after 25 years, but continued to work in the field as chief editor of one of its main journals, Population Studies, a post I held for 20 years.

I also continued with a long-term quest into the explanation of differences in fertility by religion. That quest would eventually take me back to Birkbeck, because it led to an interest in the evolution of religious belief, and from that to an interest in moral philosophy and eventually a decision to study philosophy at the College. I first obtained an MA in philosophy there and then a PhD. The latter was for a thesis on the determinants of morally significant conduct in social roles. It offered a revisionary account of the moral philosophy developed by John Dewey, one of the founders of the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism.

My CV did not have the advantage of beginning with an extended school and university education. But my early experience of Birkbeck enabled me to compensate for much of what I had missed, and later made me eligible for a degree course at the LSE that would make possible my career in population studies. More recently, the College’s outstanding Philosophy department allowed me the freedom to pursue an interest that many other institutions would have regarded as outside their compass, and that enabled me to start a new career in moral philosophy. Now actively engaged in contributing to the literature of that field, it is a pleasure to acknowledge my debt to Birkbeck’s commitment to the principle of lifelong learning.

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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!

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