AGE – NOT JUST SOMETHING TO REPORT ON IN RESEARCH ARTICLES

AGE – The number of years that a person has lived, or a thing has existed, growing old.

If you’ve ever read a research article, you’ve probably noticed that age is a prevalent thread throughout many scientific papers. Across disciplines, researchers compare their findings with the length of time that their participants or objects have existed.  It’s important to know this information, as it provides the reader with an understanding of the research participants, and whether the findings could be representative of a larger population. 

But even though research articles frequently describe age-related features, other age-related aspects are also important, such as the age of the research paper or the academic journal. Those can be found in the journal bibliometrics, and are often reflected on in review papers. Interestingly, the age of the researcher is never mentioned. Perhaps it’s because it’s simply not relevant to the study.

Or is it?

Recently, I have been thinking about the link between age, postgraduate studies and published research articles. Age is certainly not just something we report on in research articles, but an important variable in an academic career. The number of years that a person has lived has an influence on when you start your academic career, when your first article is published, your research productivity, your international mobility and your network for international research collaboration. In my journey, I was fortunate to continue with my Masters degree immediately after graduating with my four-year undergraduate degree (acknowledging the fact that some challenges had to be overcome in terms of subject-related criteria). However, I took a 2–3-year break between completing my Masters and commencing with my PhD.

Nowadays, there is a bizarre competitiveness where students aspire to graduate ‘youngest’ in their fields. Social media would commonly include posts about students aspiring for, and sometimes inaccurately claiming, this title. As a self-professed nerd, I am in awe when I hear about extremely young students earning their doctorate degrees and I wonder if I could have managed all the responsibilities so early in my career. And without a doubt, when I consider where I am in my research career, I sometimes long for the vigour of those in their early 20s. On the other hand, when I consider those who started this journey later in life, their wisdom seems to offer so much insight that I at times question if it would have been wiser to have waited.

The optimum age for postgraduate study is probably very unique to each student. Since science evolves so quickly, no graduate could possibly claim to be the “youngest” or the “oldest” for very long. When I think back on my decision to pursue my Masters right away but wait to pursue my PhD, I took several factors into account at different ages:

Factors to considerWhat it meantHow it applied to meWhat I decided
Suitability of studying mode
 


Some programs are offered full-time, part-time, online, as a short program, after hours, course work, and researchI had to consider the availability of study modes within my field of interest, which was also suitable to my lifestyle.Masters – Full time research (no course work).
 
PhD – Full time
Financial circumstancesThe majority of higher education institutions, as well as the NRF, offer scholarships, financing, and bursaries, but many of these have age limits.Obtaining a postgraduate degree has financial implications. During my undergrad, I was fortunate to receive financial assistance from my parents and from undergraduate bursaries. However, when applying for my Masters Degree, financial aspects became a bigger concern. I’d imagine that older students may have had more time to become financially independent as they’ve been employed, enjoyed family support, or had personal savings to finance their post-graduate studies.Masters – Bursary from institution (and family support).
 
PhD – Bursary from institution and personal savings.
Personal and family responsibilities.Achieving a healthy work/life balance while pursuing postgraduate studies requires considerable skill.Simply put, due to the fact that I was younger and had fewer family and personal responsibilities during my Masters’, I found it to be easier to balance my available time against my other commitments. The PhD was somewhat more taxing to balance.Putting more effort into creating balance during my PhD.
Theoretical knowledge vs experienceThere is a great deal of debate regarding the importance of theory vs practice.Call me a hypocrite, yet I contend with both sides. After completing my undergraduate degree, I argued that because I was already “in the study mindset” and had a desire for learning, it was the ideal moment to continue my education. I still feel the same way. However, I need to add that my professional experience helped me understand the content and utilize my PhD to its fullest. I suppose both sides have valid points.Masters’ – theoretical knowledge with ongoing practice experience.
 
PhD – break from academia, more practical experience.

My academic journey has taught me that the relative appeal of scientific careers shifts over time, attracting individuals of all ages, abilities, talents, and motives to academia. Yes, there are numerous occasions when I wish I had begun sooner and had more energy for the fundamentals. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been wiser to wait a little longer and gain more experience that could result in richer publications. I’ve come to realise that age perspectives may vary, but my journey belongs to me. Age is more than simply a research topic; it’s a part of our academic experience, and we cherish every part of it.

The Life of a Scientist

Vlog 2 is out!

Covering the last few months of 2022 from the end of winter, it has been filled with many events and functions that I was happy to vlog, both to keep a record for myself, and to share with you, my audience. If you watched my first vlog, you’ll notice that there has been a big difference in my energy and confidence levels in my academic life. I have become more comfortable in my new lab setting and in my research. As the year went on, I felt both privileged and grateful to have taken this opportunity to switch my scientific fields.

An important part of the year was “unmasking”, which is when South Africa was given thumbs up for masks to be worn optionally rather than as a legal requirement. Thanks to this, many events have thus taken place such as conferences, celebrations, team workshops, and undergrad labs since the occupancy levels in SA were raised. At first, it was scary to leave the mask in the car, but as time went on, I remember how liberating it felt to put on some lipstick and not have it smeared all over your face when the mask comes off! So, it was really great to experience the pre-COVID atmosphere at WITS, especially during the 100-year celebratory events which included a march, shows, markets and concerts (the last time WITS was so busy was when I was in my first year). I also volunteered at a science event which was both rewarding and fun, and it’s always great to contribute to your department through extra-curricular activities. Additionally, I am still participating in science communication, serving as a Judge at the Fame Lab, and taking part in many radio interviews. 

Apart from social activities, my academic work has progressed from the last vlog (thankfully). As expected, I have had a few bumps in the road, but after a couple of weeks of continuous work (and praying), most of the challenges have been solved. A really exciting part of my journey is the beginning, which is pre-clinical trials. These involve mice studies and the use of drugs to treat tumours. I am fortunate enough to be included in a colleague’s project and the training and experience I gain from this will be invaluable, especially considering my interest in the clinical industry. I look forward to being in my final year of PhD next year, not with the intention of having a smooth-sailing year, but with the intention of overcoming challenges and growing into an advanced researcher.

At first, it was a slow start to 2022, but the last couple of months have been filled with academic work, personal development and achievements and wonderful memories. I believe if you’re going to be doing research that may save the world, you should thoroughly enjoy the experience.

Please watch, like and share the vlog with family and friends.