Could you take a degree later in life?

4 min | 02 April 2024

Janice Warman
Janice Warman

Your children have left home. Or you’ve retired. Or you simply have a little more time than you once did. Why not take a degree or head down a career path you've always longed to follow?

I, for one, can recommend it. I completed my first degree in journalism, and then while working as a local journalist, I studied English Honours in my spare time. A decade or so later, I completed a part-time Creative Writing MA, again while working full time.

A further 15 years on, with three books published, I was an empty-nester and had traded a demanding job for the freelance life. It was time for a PhD in Creative Writing. I didn’t need one for career advancement, as I hadn’t needed the earlier degrees. But I wanted it.

I’ve often been one of the older students in my year, and the mix of ages often adds a richness to the group. For example, when I was working towards my MA, one of my fellow students was a woman in her 80s who cheerfully described herself as ‘the oldest student in Sussex’. For one of her creative projects, she made a friendship quilt, embroidering all our handwritten names on fabric squares.

I couldn’t have planned for family losses or for COVID-19 – nobody could – and in the following few years, I ended up isolating, studying largely online and taking a lot of time out. But I’m not far from completing it now, and I’ve loved every minute.

Famous students

Many actors and singers have made time mid-career to study. Singer Adele has announced plans to study English literature. Film director Steven Spielberg and actor and comedian Lenny Henry have both studied later in life, while actor Emma Watson completed a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2014.

Actor Mayim Bialik took a 12-year career break after being a child TV star to pursue a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in neuroscience, which gave her unusual credibility when she took up the role of a neurobiologist in a long-running sitcom.

The costs

The good thing about studying is that it doesn't have to be expensive. There are many ways to mitigate the cost. If this is your first degree and you live in Scotland, you may be able to study for free for up to five years. You should apply to the Students Award Agency Scotland. In the rest of the UK, you may be able to get a loan from the Student Loans Company (Opens in new window) You may also be able to get help with living costs with a government-funded maintenance loan (Opens in new window) and apply for government funds and bursaries.

If you live in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales, you may be able to claim an Education Maintenance Allowance (Opens in new window) although the scheme is now closed in England.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has useful information for mature students (Opens in new window) including how to write your personal statement and obtain the necessary references. When applying for university or college your employment history can work in your favour, and any qualifications you’ve already taken will be considered. There are also Access to Higher Education (HE) courses available to prepare you for your return to study. UCAS advise the following:

It's never too late

The world’s oldest student is Shigemi Hirata from Japan, who received a BA degree in 2016 at the age of 96 years and 200 days. The UK’s oldest graduate is believed to be Archie White, a former Hastings solicitor, who retired at 92, then received a BA in fine art at the age of 96 years and 56 days, just 145 days short of the world record.

But there’s no need to wait that long. If your circumstances have changed, such as more time or a spare room that would make a comfortable study, now could be the perfect time.

As for me, I am not sure what I’ll be doing after completing my PhD (apart from becoming the kind of doctor that is no help in a medical crisis). But I’m quite attracted by the idea of studying philosophy…

This article is for information only and does not constitute financial advice.

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