Going back to the laboratory bench at 64

The oldest postgraduate student on the books at the University of Warwick? After years of experience as a researcher and working in the industry, overcoming adversities, it is still possible to go back to the university and quench a never ending thirst for knowledge. This is Tudor Dawkins’s story of how he found his way back to university and research as a mature postgraduate research student.

My story is a little different from most postgraduate students.

I was a postgraduate, for the first time, at Nottingham University in the late 70s to the early 80s. At that time, I studied for a PhD in agronomy and soil science. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience  and learned a lot about how crops and soils interact when soil conditions are unfavourable and suffering from compaction and drainage problems.

After completing my PhD, I began a long career in the agricultural industry spanning some 40 years.

I began my career at the University of Nottingham as a Lecturer in Agronomy (the science of crop production) and supervised a number of student projects from BSc to PhD during my tenure.

I spent a number of years working in the agricultural chemical industry from research and development for a multinational to technical director for a distributor in the UK.

My retirement came a little earlier than planned after I suffered a stroke. I was extremely lucky not to suffer any lasting damage but was concerned that I might have lost some of my cognitive skills. I wasn’t ready to sever all ties with the industry that I had worked with for so many years so decided to consider doing a master’s degree.

I applied to Warwick University to see if they would take me on to read a taught masters in agronomy. I thought it might re-kindle my interest in the subject and help to bring me up to date with the latest in agricultural technologies.

I was quite surprised by the response. They suggested that, with my background, I might be better suited to a master’s degree by research.

I quickly thought of a topic that I could study and put my plans to a potential sponsor. Syngenta read through my proposals and agreed to support me. In October 2019 I began my studies on a two-year, part-time basis, studying aspects of fungicide use in wheat that are non-disease control related.

So, all was going well until the COVID-19 crisis began in March. The University suspended on site activities and advised us to work from home. Undaunted, I collected up my experiments and shipped them to my glasshouse at home.


Wheat plants growing in the glasshouse at home.

I continued my studies in the glasshouse in my garden and have generated some interesting results.

Wheat in ear in the glasshouse at home.

The University was great with ‘distance support’ and it has been a privilege to work with people in the industry, at Warwick University and amongst the next generation of plant scientists, studying, like me, for a degree.

There is certainly more work to do but if nothing else it shows that, with a bit of thought you can overcome the ‘bumps in the road’, and believe me, these can be numerous when it comes to research. Furthermore, I believe at the age of 64 it’s never too late to become a postgraduate and learn something new through your own endeavour! It’s been a fascinating experience and I’d encourage anyone to try it.

How about you? Are you a mature student? Would you be willing to go back to university as a student later in life to learn more and be updated on your field? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.

By Tudor Dawkins

Tudor is in his second year at Warwick studying for a master’s degree by research (MScR) in the Life Sciences department at Wellesbourne. Following retirement from a long career in the agricultural sector Tudor decided to gain further, first-hand, experience in conducting research into how fungicides work in winter wheat. It helps to keep the brain active and he recommends it to anyone who is interested in following his example as it’s never too late to learn something new. Tudor has also recently taken up Pilates which, he says, helps with keeping in shape. Should anyone wish to contact Tudor about his experiences at Warwick he can be contacted at Tudor.Dawkins@Warwick.ac.uk.

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