Not too old to learn: 5 octogenarians who earned a PhD


People with a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree are said to have attained of the highest pedestal in their academic careers. But what if one does not achieve that as an octogenarian? Would you say it is too late to achieve it at an old age?

For clarity sake, an octogenarian is a person who is between 80 and 89 years old. “What does an octogenarian want to do with a PhD?” some would ask.

Among certain cultures, people of such age group are kept in some old people’s home. In our clime, a PhD holder is almost entirely expected to lecture in a tertiary institution. An octogenarian is supposed to be in retirement, isn’t it?

In this list, presents you five people who didn’t feel too old to learn and earned a PhD even when some would say it is of no use.

Olusegun Obasanjo

Former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo in December, 2017 defended his PhD dissertation at the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN). That was around age 81. He is the oldest Nigerian known to have achieved such a feat.

His passion for education has been shown at various phases of his life. Unlike contemporaries with almost equal political and economic clout, Obasanjo has never stopped learning. Perhaps, that accounts for his continuous relevance even as he ages.

Born on 5th May, 1937, Dr Obasanjo attended Saint David Ebenezer School at Ibogun for his primary school education, and Baptist Boys High School (BBHS), Abeokuta, for his secondary school education.

He joined the Nigerian army in 1958 and would later be a two-time head of state of his nation. He was a military ruler from 13 February 1976 to 1 October 1979, and a democratically elected president from 29 May 1999 to 29 May 2007. Between July 2004 and January 2006, he also served as Chairperson of the African Union (AU).

While in the military, Mr. Obasanjo studied and trained in several institutions. Among these are Mons Cadet School, Aldershot, England; Royal College of Military Engineers, Chatham, England; School of Survey, Newbury, England; Indian Army School of Engineering, Poona; Royal College of Defence Studies, London.

Olusegun Obasanjo

He is popularly known as a farmer. But by profession, he is an engineer. Little wonder he is today a fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Engineering (NAE). He rose in military ranks to become the head of the Engineering Unit in the Nigerian Army in 1963.

Obasanjo who goes by several nicknames served as Federal commissioner for works and housing under General Yakubu Gowon from January to July 1975. He was appointed as the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters under General Murtala Muhammed in July same year. He was instrumental to several military operations within and outside Nigeria at his prime.

As military head of state, the Obasanjo government introduced a programme that made education compulsory nationwide in 1976. Called Universal Primary Education (UPE), the programme made six year primary education compulsory and free for all Nigerian citizens. When he returned as civilian leader in 1999, he reintroduced a modified version of the programme called the Universal Basic Education (UBE), which makes for a 9-year free and compulsory education.

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His successor after his first outing in government, Shehu Shagari established NOUN in 1982. But the school could not continue after military coup overthrew Shagari. It was Obasanjo who would later return to power years later to resuscitate the school and ensure it was running academic programmes again in 2003.

Shortly after leaving power in 2007, Obasanjo enrolled as a student at the institution becoming its oldest undergraduate student at age 69. Insider information even had it that he had enrolled as a student while still serving as president but simply deferred his admission till after his presidential tenure. It was there he also did his Postgraduate Diploma, Masters and PhD programmes.

Dr Obasanjo’s PhD Thesis is titled: “Resolving the Unfinished Agenda in Liberation Theology: Leadership, Poverty and Underdevelopment in North Eastern Nigeria.” He is not yet done learning.

Postgraduate School Dean at NOUN, Dr Samaila Mande told back then that Mr. Obasanjo’s educational accomplishment would encourage people of all ages to enrol for courses at the school.

In his words, “This is indeed commendable as it is very rare. That an individual who has spent over eighty years embarked on this academic exercise is definitely exemplary for our elders today. It is a feat worthy of emulation.”

Ashok Rathore

For Ashok Rathore, earning a PhD was not sufficient. He enrolled for another one in Theology and completed his programme in April, 2017.

The 82-year-old author had spent over 50 years in the sciences, where he attained professorship in Animal Welfare and Veterinary Science.

Professor Rathore describes himself as “the oldest mature age person in India to receive his second doctorate [in theology]”.

Ashok Rathore

He ascribed the motivation to keep learning to the influence of his father.

“My late father Mr. Champa Lal taught me to never stop learning and do not be afraid to ask questions,” he told Australian newspaper, the Gazette.

His most recent book entitled Impact of Christianity on Indian and Australian Societies, compares the influence of Christianity on Australian Dreamtime belief and on Indian Hinduism from an analytical and scientific perspective.

He and his late wife, Margaret were known driving forces in the Arts Community in the Mountains. Margaret served as president of the Blackheath Arts Society and Ashok on the board of the local branch of Rotary.

Since Margaret’s death, Ashok has shuttled between Australia and India pursuing doctorates and lecturing in Indian universities.

Joyce Barry

Joyce Barry was 86 years old when she completed her PhD programme at the University of Newcastle in October, 2012.

Mrs Barry had her early school education interrupted when World War II broke out and spent two years as an evacuee before later returning to London. She married her husband five years later before moving to Sydney, Australia where she had her six sons. “Their education became my priority,” she revealed to the Central Coast Express Advocate.

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Joyce Barry

She completed an enabling course in English and Philosophy through the University of Newcastle in 1984. At the time, her late husband had retired and the couple moved to the Central Coast.

Dr Barry was almost 60, when she began studying part-time a Bachelor of Arts through the University. It took her nine years to complete the degree because she had to take care of her ill mother since her only brother had died earlier. She later completed her Honours and Masters, focusing on Shakespearean comedy and drama. Her PhD thesis examined the 17th Century English literary identity, Samuel Pepys.

Qazi Hafizullah

Afghan national, Qazi Hafizullah bagged his PhD in Islamic Studies at the University of Peshawar (UoP), Pakistan on July 28th, 2011 at age 82.

The father of four had authored at least 173 books on different Islamic topics. Many of these books serve as course text in Afghanistan, having been approved by the Ministry of Education. At least 53 of his books have been published, while some others are under the publication process by the Pashto Academy of the UoP.

Qazi Hafizullah

The long white bearded man obtained his earlier education in religious seminaries and after obtaining his Bachelors in Shariah from Kabul University, he joined the office of judge in Kabul, Afghanistan.

His PhD dissertation of about 1,000 pages focused on niceties of Tafsir, differences and other aspects of Mullah Ali Qari Al Harvi Tafseer on Anwarul Quran and Israrul Furqan..

Following his resignation from the judge’s office, Qazi started teaching Tafsir and Hadith (Interpretation of Quran and Traditions of Prophets) at religious seminaries and served as a mentor at one of them.

He later relocated to Pakistan and enrolled in a Masters degree in Arabic. However, he was not able to pursue it due to some personal reasons. The Mphil and PhD took him six years to complete.

“It was a difficult thing to do at my age,” he said with a chuckle when The Express Tribune interviewed him.

In the cause of all these he had some health challenge coupled with having to pass GRE before starting the PhD. He said that suffering from arthritis was his biggest challenge.

“I was unable to move due to the excruciating pain in my legs, but one of my teachers at the department [helped me by giving me lifts] in his car,” he revealed.

He had the condition of passing GRE waived by the department considering that he does not speak English.

“I had always wanted to hold a PhD degree. It was the dream of my life and it was impossible for me to follow my dream without the support of the university,” he said.

Qazi noted that God’s reward was his motivation towards obtaining a PhD. To him, learning is a continuum. “I shall continue my quest for knowledge even after getting PhD degree,” he promised.

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Doris Cannataci

At 82, you would have expected a (great) grand-mother to have no business in the school. But for Dr Doris Cannataci, her dream of earning a PhD had to be fulfilled. Like most of the aforementioned, her degree was in Theology.

She had a BA in Religious Studies, an MA in Theology and an MPhil in Theology from the University of Malta. A plus to all that is the PhD conferment from the Greenwich School of Theology and North-West University of South Africa late 2014.

Doris Cannataci

Cannataci’s PhD thesis is entitled ‘The St Paul cult in Malta – an evaluation of the contributions of Mgr Giuseppe De Piro and St George Preca’.

According to the Times of Malta, the study aimed at examining the background to the cult of St Paul in Malta and to investigate the efforts of Mgr De Piro and St George Preca in safeguarding the Roman Catholic faith and the cult, specifically when Malta became a British colony under a Protestant administration, a period which also saw the infiltration of freemasonry.

One of the examiners, Rev. Prof D. Ben Rees, described Cannataci’s research work as “an immensely valuable contribution to the narration or the history of the Christian Church”.

The Sliema-born octogenarian is also an author. When she published her book about what happened during the World War II, she said thus: “I wish that whoever picks up this book in 50 years’ time understands that, if a woman born before the war was still living her dreams in her 80s, then they too can make it.”

Her father’s death in August, 1939 a few moments to the beginning of the war gravely affected her family. The family still managed to survive the “long, terrible and harrowing” experience of the war. She recalled that despite the war, schooling still continued among refugees.

Her book, I remember, I remember… got published in August 2016 when she was already 84. She uses the first person pronoun to tell the story of a woman who did not always conform to the 1950s’ expectations of women how they survived between the war and after.

It gives an interesting account of courting over 60 years ago and of her marriage in 1957, which she calls “D Day”. It includes several memories of the late Mr Cannataci, who passed away after battling three illnesses over 14 years.

She actually got qualified for admission into a university in 1949 but did not earn a degree until 49 years later due to a series of events. Interestingly, Cannataci won a bursary to study at the Université De Grenoble with three teenagers when she was aged 41 – two decades after she had to give up a scholarship at the same city in France.


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