In your mid/late career and want to do a PhD? Here’s some good news.

August 2, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

One of the most popular posts on FP2P has been ‘How to get a PhD in a year (without giving up the day job)’. It discussed my ‘PhD by published work’, completed in 2011 at Oxford Brookes University, and what a great fit it was for someone well on in their career, or who has grown-up bills to pay.

Fast forward 12 years and I must talk to one or two people every month who want to know how to do the same thing, but it remains a relatively unknown option. Why is that?

A quick recap of my version, from that original post:

‘If you have amassed a ‘significant body of work’ in the shape of books, chapters, papers etc (sorry emails and tweets don’t count), you submit these as the body of your PhD and then (the interesting bit) write a supervised 15,000 word ‘critical review’ of your own work, comparing it to the academic literature on the relevant issues. If your writing wanders all over the place, as mine has, then you identify a theme within it – in my case the interaction between citizens and states.’

Other options include doing the writing and PhDing simultaneously – e.g. get 3 academic papers accepted for publication, and write the accompanying critical review alongside them.

In hindsight, it was an incredibly good thing to do, both in itself – a couple of months reading the ‘canon’ in the British Library really helped me consolidate my thinking around some big issues in development – and in career terms, opening doors to working at the LSE and elsewhere.

I am obviously completely biased, but I also think this kind of PhD often makes more sense in human terms than the conventional kind – you take some time out to reflect after 20 or 30 years accumulating knowledge, experience and publications, rather than starting one before you’ve actually done much in the world outside, spending the first year desperately trying to come up with a research question. I hear a lot of stories about loneliness and anxiety from PhD students (though I’m sure some have a great time), and it feels like a design flaw in the whole enterprise.

A quick websearch shows how much things have moved on since 2011, at least in the UK. Dozens of universities now offer them, they no longer insist on you being an alum or a staff member to be eligible and (unsurprisingly) the fees have gone up a bit – typically around £5,000, compared to the £1,400 I coughed up to Oxford Brookes. Examples include Westminster, Portsmouth and Warwick.

I was surprised and pleased, because there has been so little fanfare about this shift. But some of the more prestigious universities seem reluctant to join in – Cambridge restricts them to its alums, and I couldn’t even work out what Oxford does from its website. LSE doesn’t seem to offer them, although it has lots of good advice on its Impact blog, e.g. here and here.

I discussed the low profile, and elite reluctance, with a friend, John Twigg, who has supervised his fair share of PhDs. He reckons it could stem from it being simply less interesting to academics – instead of shaping young minds, they merely help a more senior person ‘tick the box’. I certainly did not find supervision by people younger and less experienced than me very helpful (and I don’t think my supervisors, both younger than me, enjoyed it too much either). Is this about power, then?

Maybe rather than try to create a slimmed down replica of a traditional PhD and the supervisor-student relationship, these new PhDs should adapt themselves more to the realities of the student. As well as submitting their prior publications and critical reviews, students could be required to give one or more assessed lectures on their topic, lead some seminars or write a policy brief on their findings. After all, one of the likely impacts of AI is that academic assessment is going to have to move to more oral, in-person formats.

Any other suggestions for how such a mid/late career qualification could diverge from the standard version?

More general advice on finding the right PhD here.

August 2, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. Some universities offer professional doctorates e.g. Bath’s Professional Doctorate in Policy Research and Practice (which rolls of the tongue):

    It’s a doctorate rather than a PhD (not sure how much that distinction matters?) and is geared towards people with proper jobs: part-time distance-learning + occasional residentials.

    I opted for the conventional PhD path, but spoke to a few people doing the professional doctorate and they seemed to love it.

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      Thanks Sam, acc to the Univ of Leicester ‘Professional doctorates are equivalent to a PhD but have a focus on a specific professional context. Once you have completed your professional doctorate you will have the title of doctor.’ So I guess I’m talking about doctorates rather than PhDs.

    2. Thanks, Duncan and Sam. More than seventy intrepid people are doing the DPRP at Bath, including many experienced development specialists. You can read about them on the website. As a professional doctorate the DPRP is equivalent to a traditional PhD in status and ambition, but definitely encourages ‘getting out more’. But the minimum registration period is four years, and I suggest that any part-time programme offering a doctorate in less than that is taking short cuts, unless you have have a sequence of good quality publications to draw upon already.

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  2. I totally agree, Duncan. Coming back to work on a PhD mid or later career is really useful as a way to collect your thoughts, and having a bit of an intellectual refresh. I found it useful also for improving my writing skills. Admittedly mine was the more standard PhD path – writing articles as I went along, and then the synthesis. I started mine at 48 and finished in at 58, working very full-time at my day job. But it was based on my work (people working in development cooperation), so there were a lot of cross-overs. Highly recommended.

  3. Hi Duncan,

    I wrapped up a late-career PhD a year ago with Wageningen’s interdisciplinary knowledge, technology and innovation group. They generously did not require a fee to enroll, and made it possible to take a theory course for free. The middle of the dis. is a batch of journal papers from my last big qual study, GENNOVATE. The bookend chapters are the new stuff. I had the resources to (mostly) drop my day job, and it was a great privilege to have the freedom to read and learn in ways that are not possible when consulting. I wove together some challenging relational theory about gender, norms, and multi-level system transformation. But I’m really writing to add that the process may be pressure-packed, even if that is mostly of your own doing and you have the most encouraging and supportive supervisors one can image. I’m not sure I would do this to myself again looking back.

    But it’s sure fun when my kids and grandkids call me Dr. Yiayia. And rather than lecturing gigs, I’m bringing this learning into testing some new qual field methods on social equity and climate resilience with the CGIAR and Nordic Africa Institute. Hope you’ll stay tuned.

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  4. This is a great post and a topic that has come up on Aidnography several times throughout the years. My “classic” post from 2011 (Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies? is still valid in many aspects for young/er/ish readers who are interested in a PhD. 10 years later I wrote “The difficult path to meaningful & decolonized PhDs in Development Studies” ( as a sort-of update and earlier this year I was hesitant to recommend a PhD as “just another degree” and wrote “Don’t pursue a PhD as skills training for “the industry”!” (
    Happy to connect with readers to discuss PhD proposals and ideas further!

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    2. Dear Tobias,

      A PhD as skills training for “the industry”? This comes up in my just published book “Development Delusions and Contradictions: An Anatomy of the Foreign Aid Industry” (Palgrave Macmillan)

      A PDF of which I sent to you on 17/06/2023 at your email Did you receive it? Can you review it? If you haven’t, let me know how to get it to you.

      Many thanks

  5. Thanks for the discussion which seems pertinent to many countries and universities. I did my PhD at University of Life Sciences and Natural Resources in Vienna (Austria) focusing on mountain development challenges between age 51 and 59, ( Although it analyses the European situation, issues are similar/relevant for other mountain ranges of the world as well.
    So, lots of issues have been accumulated over previous decades, with shifts in focus and hence it is ambitious and the desire to do a significant step at this age prevents a “quick” process and finishing the PhD within short time.

  6. Speaking from my standpoint, a late career professional from Latin America, the Professional Doctorate sounds like a dream. I don’t think they exist in Brazil through. And moving again to live in another country for years for graduate studies is beyond “quitting the day job”.

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      Thanks Athayde, do you think universities in US or Europe might let you do it from Brazil? (chip in please readers, if you know the answer)

  7. Duncan I am on the Bath Prof Doctorate programme. Certainly not a short cut – I am five years in and will submit next year. Fitting it in around a busy full time job is tough but the first two years is a “taught stage” which I found helpful having been out of education for so long. Phd by pub is a tall order for most dev professionals who are very unlikely to have published peer reviewed papers. I had written a lot at IDS but all grey lit. Interestingly doing the doctorate has given me the confidence and skills to publish in journals and special issues – the journey itself is probably more valuable than the end result. Saying that I’ll be relieved when it’s finished as will my family!

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