International Women's Day 2024: How Women Post 40s Are Pursuing Higher Education For Professional Growth

International Women's Day 2024: How Women Post 40s Are Pursuing Higher Education For Professional Growth

Women from diverse career backgrounds are riding high on their age and professional experience to pursue academic goals with aplomb

Shillpi A SinghUpdated: Saturday, March 02, 2024, 09:11 PM IST
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Pic: Freepik

In her ‘50th year’ on Earth, actor-turned-author and columnist Twinkle Khanna was back to the university as a student when she enrolled for a Master’s degree in fiction writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, and completed the course with flying colours last year.

Then there’s 79-year-old Dr Saroj Chooramani Gopal, a Padma Shri awardee and a renowned paediatric surgeon, who enrolled for a PhD at IIT Kanpur in January. Dr Gopal’s research will focus on how stem cells from a person’s bone marrow or abdominal lining can help regenerate damaged spinal nerves, helping patients with spinal injuries or vertebral damage get back on their feet.

Khanna and Dr Gopal reflect a growing trend among Indian women pursuing higher education in India and abroad, with many choosing destinations like the US, UK, Europe, Australia, and other countries. The trend is driven by increased awareness of academic opportunities, a desire for better learning exposure, the availability of more scholarships aimed at female applicants, and a solid motivation to use academic achievements for professional advancement. In the days leading up to International Women’s Day, we are celebrating women from diverse career backgrounds who are riding high on their age and professional experience to pursue academic goals with aplomb.

Designs on Career

Like Khanna, Bhavna R Chaudhary took the academic plunge at 50 because of a fully funded scholarship to pursue a full-time Master’s in Arts & Project Management from the prestigious School of Art, Design & Media, Birmingham City University. Chaudhary had completed her graduation more than three decades ago but constantly desired to study further. She was saddled with domestic responsibilities and a flourishing career in media and “never had the time, money, or bandwidth for a formal higher education.” An exciting opportunity changed it all and for good. “I filled out a scholarship application form from the British Council for a postgraduate course in the UK and was selected as one of the eight scholars from the 2.5 lakh applicants from India. I was the proud recipient of the Creative Economy Scholarship by the British Council for a fully-funded Master’s Course in Arts & Project Management at Birmingham City University,” says Bhavna, beaming with joy, adding, “Last year, I completed my post-graduation with merit. My 29-year-old son was in the audience gallery and cheering for me the loudest!” The fully funded scholarship by the British Council came as a Godsend opportunity to help Chaudhary reboot her sagging career, confidence, and self-esteem.

However, being a mature student in a class of youngsters was not easy. “It was a challenge trying to balance the responsibilities. I did have additional commitments, like my work, family, and personal obligations in India. Juggling these responsibilities alongside rigorous academic demands led to increased stress levels. Striking a balance between study, work, and personal life was a complex and demanding task,” she says, adding, “The most important challenge was about integration and age dynamics in a classroom with predominantly younger peers.” She brought a bagful of real-life experiences to the academic setting, and these were invaluable and lacking in others. “My diverse professional background, work histories, and personal stories would enrich classroom discussions and provide a real-world context to theoretical concepts. This unique perspective enhanced the learning environment for both me and my younger peers and helped bridge our gap to quite an extent!”

The mainstay was motivation as she tried to overcome these challenges with a desire for fulfilment and personal growth. “While the decision to return to education later in life initially seemed daunting, I knew the rewards and personal growth that followed would be transformative. I did have a strong desire to expand my knowledge and skills, driven by a genuine love for learning. My academic pursuits were not only aimed at achieving a degree but also at enriching my life and broadening my horizons,” says Chaudhary.

The hard-earned degree helped her manoeuvre a career change, enhance professional qualifications, and seize new opportunities in the job market. The acquired knowledge and credentials have helped open doors to higher-level positions in a completely different career path for her, and she is now working as senior management with a charitable organization in the UK and also supporting a local art organization and some independent artists in pursuit of their professional growth. “This education was not solely a means to an end for me but also a passionate pursuit of subjects that I have long been interested in. I intend to make good use of my intellectual passion and want to create a global community of expressionists and artists in these war-torn times,” she adds.

Persistence Pays Off

The humble ants have a reputation for being hard workers. They are seemingly always busy, marching here, there and everywhere, and are known for their superior strength, like the bodybuilders of the insect world, capable of lifting about 5,000 times their body weight. That’s how Dr Smita Singh, currently posted as AGM (Industry), Yamuna Expressway Industrial Development Authority, describes herself and her pursuit of a doctorate. Singh was a gold medallist in management from Allahabad University and qualified for UGC NET in 1990 to pursue her PhD. She cleared the competitive exams and was selected for public service the same year. With a demanding full-time job, her doctorate dream took a backseat. However, she never gave up and doggedly pursued it. Her persistent hard work and endeavour made her dream come true after a gap of 31 years in 2021.

While pursuing her PhD, she chose the steel industry as her subject, researched extensively, and wrote a thesis on SAIL and Tata Steel. “I worked like an ant, always focused and determined to realise my dream of becoming a PhD holder after a long and strenuous gap of 31 years. In these three decades, I went over and around the barriers and hindrances, but constantly juggled between office work and my PhD thesis to achieve this goal,” says Singh, delighted and pleased to write Dr before her name and considers it a matter of pride, for herself and others of her ilk.

Master of All Trades

With more than two decades of experience, Jolly Priya, an adjunct faculty member in the IIM circuit, has her hands full with work. Having decided to pursue a career in teaching, Priya found it imperative to complete a doctorate. “A PhD may not have mattered in the corporate set-up, but in the teaching domain, I found that the lack of it was becoming an impediment to my professional growth. The CGPA in my previous master’s in Sales and Marketing was low, so I had to repeat my post-grad, this time in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources, clearing it with first class,” states Priya, who at 40 set an academic goal for professional growth, and is at it since then. But it meant balancing work along with studies and, of course, managing kids and family and other social responsibilities. She had assignments, quizzes, and projects; completing them on time was challenging. More so, the quality of work expected these days is much higher than what she did the first time around, so it meant doing more than before. “There is too much on my plate right now. I prioritise my day and week and work accordingly. I leverage time carefully. Yes, it tires me out sometimes, but no gain without pain,” she says. With a well-settled career behind her, she adds that the gain may not be explicitly visible, but the academic degree will be helpful in career growth in the chosen field. “We don’t know how the job market or education industry will shape up in the next few years. I am just preparing myself to be better equipped, more informed and more flexible for the new world,” she explains while writing her Statement of Purpose for PhD admission.

Chasing Excellence

Armed with a bachelor’s in engineering and a master’s in management, Seema Mohanta had a high-flying corporate job when she switched careers and moved to a training and development role. During her professional stint in the new role, she realised how differently individuals responded to a training intervention. “I started studying human behaviour through short certificate courses, and they left me wanting more. In 2018, after 15 years of a regular job, I took a sabbatical for personal reasons and enrolled in an MA psychology course at IGNOU,” says Mohanta. Her decision to pursue an offbeat academic degree left a few shocked and others in awe. But she was firm in her decision, and her desire to learn more about human behaviour kept me going despite all the odds. “Friends and family ridiculed me for the choice, but I didn’t stop. As I got back to work, this has helped me to become more responsive than reactive and helped build better human relations,” she notes.

These four fabulous women couldn’t agree more with Khanna, who famously wrote about how she looks at old age and prefers counting what she has gained instead of focusing on what she has lost—tight skin, a flat tummy, endless energy—“you can either count the things you have lost or see what you can gain.” Like the author, they, too, know that getting old is a mathematical equation, and they would instead consider it a multiplication sum rather than look at it as a subtraction, and that alone makes it a win-win situation for them.

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