‘Are You One of the Parents?’: Reflections on being a Mature Student

In this post, Kim Burton discusses life as a mature PhD student, considering the benefits of having a wealth of life experience to draw on and, at the same time, the challenges faced in transitioning back to academia. In a previous life, Kim has been a member of two cult bands, one of which she was fired from for working with the other, a contributing editor to the Rough Guide to World Music, and a translator at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal. She is currently working on a PhD about Bosnian music at Royal Holloway, University of London.


Why give up your job and go back to school? At your time of life? It’s a good question, and everyone will have a different answer, but in my case I have to admit that after a largely improvised career as a gigging musician, a kind of journalist, and latterly a translator for the UN, I couldn’t think of anything better to do. The job I was doing was increasingly frustrating, I wanted to come back to the UK, I had no family ties or responsibilities, had saved some money, and I could still carrying on working as a freelance. It seemed worth a shot, so I signed up to study for a Masters degree in ethnomusicology. I know all about World Music anyway, I thought – after all I did write the book on it. Or some of the book, at least.

It was not at all what I expected. I’d done an undergraduate degree in music in the 1970s before getting sidetracked by jazz and then salsa, and to prove it, I had a manuscript book full of four-part chorale settings with all the consecutive fifths marked in red, a copy of Grout’s History of Western music (or so I thought. It turned out I’d lost it), a memory of once having had to discuss whether Beethoven was Classical or a Romantic, and not much else. Now there were no exams, and in their place the terrifying prospect of assessed essays. The books on the reading list said things like ‘as early as 2003’, which as far as I was concerned was still next century, and it seemed that Schenkerian analysis, which back then had been a suspect fringe method embraced by the only student among us with a beard, had become an orthodoxy, slipped out of fashion, and seemed set to slip back in again. I’d spent so much time around non-Western musics as a performer and a journalist that it was even a shock to find that so many people were still absorbed in the study of musics that, well, weren’t non-Western. That like the coelacanth, these studies had been going on all the time, moving quietly and unobtrusively far from view. Yet unlike the coelacanth, instead of remaining unchanged in the depths of the ocean it had been rapidly evolving and was now almost unrecognisable to me. There was also the unsettling experience of getting a slew of emails that on the one hand reminded me that it’s important to do the washing-up and keep the noise down at night, and on the other invite you to seminars on preparing for retirement. In short I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and what I did know was largely the wrong thing.

It’s fortunate, then, that the diverse backgrounds of my classmates meant that the teaching was designed to bring us all up to date at high speed. And the advantage of a lifetime spent getting things wrong meant I was more likely to break the awkward silences and risk looking like an idiot, which is where the ‘wealth of experience’ people kept alluding to actually came in useful. And ultimately I was able to bring some of the things that I had done to bear. I have spent a lot of time around the music of South-Eastern Europe, as a player and a traveller, I’ve listened to a lot of music for a long time, and I’d developed a number of skills that I could eventually slot into place and, more importantly, pass on. Taking over the direction of the RHUL Balkan Ensemble from its founder, Tom Wagner, was daunting to start with. Playing is one thing, teaching another.

Slightly more unsettling was the discovery that not only one of my classmates, but several of my teachers had themselves been taught by someone whom I had known well at school, and who had become a distinguished figure in the meantime. After recovering I was faintly amused, slightly jealous, and quite curious, but it taught me something about the nature of scholarship and the scholarly community. The tradition that I was beginning to hope to become a part of was immensely flexible and accommodating, if I could be flexible and accommodating too. If ethnomusicology itself was still a relative newcomer (whether we are in fact all ethnomusicologists now or not), there’s still a fragile wisp of a link to the goliards and the schoolmen, and if the transmission of learning has doubled back on itself in a strange kind refraction, it won’t be the first time.

I may have had a good time, but despite the delight that can be found in learning, higher education in this country is facing massive problems, not least the relentless push for not just results but the right kind of demonstrable, quantifiable, and saleable results. It’s shocking that new graduates, the vast majority of whom are enthusiastic, committed, and far better informed about more or less everything than I was at their age, are being sent out into the world saddled with massive debts, and without the sort of financial support from the state that my cohort enjoyed. I may jokingly refer to social security benefits and top-ups that I received in the years after I left university for the first time as being an ‘Arts Support Grant’, but in truth it allowed me the time to practice my skills and go through my apprenticeship as a performer. And I know that there are people all over the world who have heard and been moved by my playing, which I doubt would have happened without that support. New graduates are facing a far harsher world than I did at their age. It’s a good thing that they’re generally smarter and more realistic than I was; they will have to be.

A story that I rather like tells of a philosopher who was once asked whether he had any advice for young people. What would he tell them? His answer was: ‘No, I have nothing to tell them. But if I did, then this is what it would be’. So although I have no advice for anyone planning to be a mature student, if I did, it would be this: Academe is not what is laughably called the ‘real world’; if you’ve been in that world you will notice the differences. Work is harder to evade, and people do things without being paid to do them – fairly willingly. The deadlines are real. Really real. Plausible will only get you so far. The people set in judgement above you know more about the subject than you do. On the bright side, they probably won’t mind if you disagree with them, and may even welcome it. And they want you to succeed. Imagine that! It’s also very important to remember that while you may have to explain that no, you are not one of the parents, or a member of staff, the fresh-faced young figure who shows such enthusiasm is very likely not a first-year, but the Director of Postgraduate Studies. Be cautious. ‘But you look so young!’ may work once, but I wouldn’t count on it.

So, having completed that Masters, why have I signed up for four more years of hard labour doing a PhD? I’ve been challenged and stretched in ways that I could never have imagined, been inspired by my fellow students and my teachers, and my life has changed and looks set to go on changing. I am also more convinced than ever that thinking about music and writing about it, although exceptionally difficult, is important and worth doing. We should be doing it. And I hope one day to hand on some of what I have learned myself over the past few years. In short, I can’t think of anything better to do.

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