It might be time to channel your inner Rita.
Going back to study at university in midlife has been the best thing I have ever done. A challenge, sure, but eight years studying a BSc in Psychology and an MSc in Sociology has bolstered my confidence, my intellect and my expertise. I’ve become more political: studying inequalities at a time like this will do that – and it’s rebooted parts of my career whilst opening up new avenues. Basically, it’s never too late to embark on higher education, and doing it in mid-life can be particularly fruitful.
I guess I’d always thought ‘Never say never’ when it came to higher education, but with a successful media career since leaving school at 18, it hadn’t really got a look-in. Then, following a tortuously protracted and time-consuming divorce, I found myself age 44, newly happily married and seeking a less stressful intellectual challenge to replace combing through family court documents and screaming into legal emails.
I’d had a near-miss with higher education in my youth, having turned down a place to study European studies and French. But at 18, I was already working in local radio and then got the chance be a TV music researcher in London. I embarked on a radio and TV career interviewing pop stars and movie legends and generally having the Time. Of. My. Life. No contest frankly.
Though my Dad was still banging on about my lack of university credentials when I was presenting national drive-time radio in my 20s. Dads, eh? Nowadays you’re more likely to hear me incognito, doing voiceovers for all manner of TV and radio. I was the voice of the BBC’s Great British Menu for 9 years – and I’m also a film critic: more of that later.
But maybe Dad was right (do NOT tell him!) because the finally-settled-and-loved Wendy suddenly felt an educational urge. Like Educating Rita, but different. I wasn’t exactly escaping the working-class drudgery of Julie Walter’s iconic character, but I felt ready for a distinctly intellectual shake-up.
Perhaps I’d always wanted to return to education in midlife
Perhaps I’d been building towards this all my adult life. After all, I’d studied stand-up comedy and done the London open-mic circuit and even performed my own music (after teaching myself guitar aged 30) because, they felt like good scary challenges (and I hoped they might alleviate my performance anxiety). And so, I signed up to a BSc in Psychology with the Open University in my mid-forties.
I loved the distant learning supplemented with a handful of tutorials each year. There was online support, fabulous materials, and my fellow students were of a similar age but from very diverse backgrounds. And having been freelance almost my entire adult life I’m practiced at self-motivation.
On telling others I was doing a degree, I’d continually get the question: What do you intend to ‘do with it’. My answer was always the same: I don’t know: I haven’t done it yet! Which reinforced my understanding of this as very much a journey. Sure, I had a vague interest in pursuing psychology in a therapeutic capacity, but more I wanted to understand life and humanity, and psychology was a great way into that.
Discovering a purpose through my education
My higher education journey fully fell into place however when, ahead of my final year undergrad project, #MeToo and Times Up happened. Suddenly my film criticism took a different direction. I embarked on an analysis of onscreen sexual violence in film reviews and realised that 5,000 words wouldn’t do it justice so I applied to the London School of Economics for a Masters in sociology. It’s enabled me to focus on cultural inequalities, really dig into social issues and further clarify my passion. Basically, by approaching university as a journey and going with the flow, I’ve come full circle back to my career as a film critic.
This Masters has developed my voice on big topical issues, and now I feel I can speak with authority. My 25+ year as a film critic has been rejuvenated, and I’m now contemplating a PhD – frankly, if you’d even suggested this to me 6 months ago I would have laughed you out the room…
Yes, it’s been hard work, but it’s also felt like a supreme act of self-care: the only person I’ve been doing this for is me, and it’s been a bootcamp for my intellect, self-esteem and soul that I don’t believe I was ready for at 18.
So you see, this midlife education business can really shake things up a bit, and I’m proud to have at least two friends who’ve said I inspired them to embark on something similar. Perhaps I can seduce you too…..?
My top tips for returning to midlife education
- Follow your passion. There are some really interesting courses now on subjects they didn’t teach 30 years ago. Knowledge has moved on, and I’ve been so energised being immersed in current research on inequalities, sexism, media, culture, postcolonial thought and anti-colonial archives right now.
- Returning to academia stops you getting stuck in your ways and your thoughts. Frankly, it’s why life-long learning should be more easily available for everyone, because if we were all prompted to keep refreshing our knowledge the world arguably wouldn’t still be dragging its feet on sexism, racism and all the other isms…
- And talking of availability, the cost of higher education can be prohibitive. Understandably this expense might be off-putting to women in midlife, especially if you’ve already taken time out to have children and are therefore already suffering the financial (and career) costs of that….
- …but if you can do it, do it part time. I’ve been at this for 8 years, and frankly at our age – what’s the hurry? 8 years now is not like 8 years for a 21 year-old who needs to get productive NOW. And if you have an undergrad in the bag – you can hop straight to a Masters anyway. Even without kids I was grateful for the time to study part-time, a pace that was pleasurable. You want to enjoy the reading and go down the odd worm-hole of research with your invaluable access to academic databases rather than cramming and stressing as you bounce between assignment deadlines.
- Make any study part of who you already are. You probably don’t need a total rethink of your life and a new course doesn’t need to define you like it might have 25 years ago. Use it instead to consolidate things you’re already interested in. Hell – by mid-life we’re fully formed! We can play with how new knowledge might complement who we are, and it doesn’t need to have a big strategic goal. Just doing the study, and racking up those ongoing achievements with every assignment and every exam will change you and empower you in ways that you absolutely cannot know in advance. And yes: exams! It’s a bit scary – but also quite funny; finding yourself sitting at little desks in rows in rooms that look bizarrely just like your old school hall!
- You’re really not too old for this. Sure, ‘mature student’ means anyone over the age of 21, and at LSE there’s been no-one older than 30 on my courses. I was also a good chunk older than most of my lecturers. But this was actually a massive positive, because I could talk first-hand about social events that happened – shock horror – in the 90s! I quickly got beyond feeling like your Nana being asked about the war. Instead I had my 20-something fellow students telling the professors that there should always be a ‘Wendy’, i.e. someone twice their age, on the course, because I had so many interesting things to say. Bless. And there I was honestly fearing that they’d all be wondering what the old lady was doing in the corner.
Studying in midlife can be for you
So, channel your inner Rita – the part that knows there’s more for you to know and do and be and contribute. After all, women fought hard for the right to have an education. We owe it to ourselves and our ‘an-sisters’ to take up this opportunity if we can. And the more we study – especially stuff that matters for women and marginalised groups – that’s powerful! It feeds into social discourse and becomes part of official knowledge. It’ll also give you a new boost of confidence and intellectual resilience that might just lead you… who knows where….?
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