Oh dear, my world has just crashed, why not attempt a PhD?

By Peter Burling

A relative latecomer to the world of successful academic pursuits, I began my second assault
on the world of study at the very young age of 50. There were two forces contributing to this
decision. The first was the a dislike of the quality of employment I had secured when returning to the workforce after fifteen years of house-husbanding. The world had advanced a little in those 15 years, I needed new skills.

The second was a hangover from my youth, a desire to once and for all establish the truth or
otherwise of those vocational guidance words, “You can do anything you want”. These words I did feel were a cop-out used on anyone with an IQ above 90, helping the guidance officer avoid having to actually do something for you. But that was my schooling, now I was once again inflicting the books and exam timetables upon myself, as I set out to see how far I could go.

So my journey stepped through the Bachelors, a Graduate Diploma and then into a Masters
as I sought to quench the rekindled desire for knowledge. Yes, across this period usable skills also accrued rapidly, many of which, as a volunteer network administrator for a school, went into immediate use. There were also many real life learning events as I accrued the full deck of results bar one. I fell one mark short of the elusive high distinction.

In 2006, I began a second and concurrent journey when my wife of 29 years (partner for 31)
was handed the diagnoses of breast cancer. So now to my burgeoning academic career and status as a weird hours part-time worker were added the roles of number 1 supporter, cheer quad leader and sometimes carer. For nine months we floundered, struggled but made it through the obstacle course of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It did have some highs, as we were both able to spend the 6 weeks of radiation therapy in Sydney. As the effects of chemo wore off, it allowed us to explore events such as sculpture by the sea.

In 2013 as I finalised my Masters submission, I was thrown the challenge of extending parts
of my Masters research into a PhD. So I organised a supervisor and went into discussions on how to attack the research and even what we would actually cover. This development stage was also able to include my wife as she had by this stage retired. Then in September 2013 someone cut the cable ties that held my life together.

The first notice was the diagnoses of breast cancer secondaries in the bones. No time frame,
just a certainty of the final outcome. Not long after this was the release of restructure plans for my department with staff reductions. This rolled into possible, probable and finally definite loss of my planned supervisor. This news sparked a series of meetings with associated departments in an attempt to continue the idea of chasing one of those floppy hats that prevail around doctoral achievement. This unfortunately ended with a simple statement from my then university, that they simply were not interested, I should try elsewhere.

So in March 2014, in the middle of corresponding with 13 Universities around Australia,
New Zealand and Singapore, I graduated as a Master of Computer Science. Standing by my side
was my very proud wife, currently mid-stream in a chemotherapy set. The correspondence turned into a positive response from USQ which then blossomed into the much needed supervisor, and finally at the end of July enrolment, just after the start of Semester 2. This was initially off campus, but it was enrolment and while my wife did not expect to see me finish, she had seen me start. We also made plans to come up from Tamworth, where I was living at that point, in September to meet the team and to see the Japanese gardens. Those plans shattered on August 20th.

So began the whirlpool of grief, anger, self doubt, pressure of commitment to my late wife
that I would give it a go, and of course the worst of all loneliness. Some forms of cancer tend to
erode things like relationships slowly. So you man up and do what has to be done. But then you
realise that you have lost it all, but over a period of time, rather than instantly. So in the end I pulled out of that first semester, took the next one off and then restarted.

So after 2 years I have sold out in Tamworth, moved to Toowoomba, encompassed the highs and lows of a new developing relationship, and am now studying on campus. Where will it all go? I am not sure, but there is one certainty, no matter what the final result, it will have been a journey of self learning.

2 thoughts on “Oh dear, my world has just crashed, why not attempt a PhD?

  1. Tracey Chamlin

    Thank you for sharing Peter, having lost a husband to oesophageal cancer in 2010 I understand the heartache, and the challenge. Well done on your study & all the best in your PhD journey (mine has just begun this year).
    Kind regards,

  2. Ruth Wagstaff

    Peter, this has touched me and I am not sure how to respond. I am sure that your much loved and cherished wife will be honoured in your journey. And you are right – it is never too late to study.

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