Going to university at 30, Mark’s mature student story (UK)

Here we are again with another great mature student story! In this post we have the story of Mark, who started university at 30 to advance his career.

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Going to university at 30, Mark’s story

Hi everyone, my name is Mark, I’m 33 and I’m currently in my last year of university doing supply chain management. At the time of writing this I’m just waiting on my dissertation results and then straight into my graduation day in July! As you can tell already, I started university as a mature student.

I didn’t go to university when I was 18, although most of my friends did. At that time I wasn’t really interested in higher education, not at all actually. I soon got a job at a local supermarket and stayed in the industry ever since.

I changed jobs a few times, but for the past 6 years I have been with the same company, a well known giant supermarket chain everybody knows in the UK. My story as a mature student is a bit different, I gave up an assistant manager role to start university at 30. Now I find myself graduating at 33. This decision literally changed my life, you’ll soon find out why!

My life before becoming a mature student

In all honesty my life wasn’t that bad, I was not desperate for sure. Getting into the work life at such young age had its pros too. I was able to move out from my parents’ home and rent I place by myself. It was hard at the beginning, but “I grew up fast”; I had to learn how to cook, do the laundry, clean the house, basically take care of myself like an adult.

Obviously I spent many weekends (Sundays particularly) back at my parents’ to have a meal together; it doesn’t matter how good of a cook you think you are, you’ll never beat your mom’s meals! (at least I never did)

In any case, I was quite happy. I’m not saying I loved the job, cause it was never my life ambition to work in a supermarket, but I got used to it. I have never been a big money spender anyway, so my salary was enough to cover my expenses and put little savings aside.

Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of my job (every job has those no matter what you do); I want to state something first: I liked it. I actually became very good at it and wanted a successful career in the industry.

Becoming more “mature”

Few years later I met my current girlfriend (there is always a girl involved) and we moved in together. My life became a little bit more serious after that point. I started to think about buying a house, getting a nice car, start a family.. you know, maturing. I (we) soon realise how hard it is!

So I started to consider options to earn more money, I wanted a better salary. It was then that I applied for a department supervisor role in the supermarket chain where I am now. Somehow I got the supervisor role (I was surprised to say the least but hey, I had years of work experience!) my salary wasn’t bad but neither good, surely not enough.

A year later I had my annual performance review and I asked for a career progression. They were very happy with my work, so why not? After all, I was excellent in my supervisor role in one of the most crucial and difficult departments, fruit and vegetables.

Career progression

I was basically told to wait for an assistant store/branch manager position to become available and then apply. I didn’t really want to relocate unless there were clear (financial) benefits for doing so. That meant I was limited to my city; even more as my idea was to get that role in that specific branch for commuting reasons.

It took me nearly 3 years to get there, but I was happy. My career was taking off, at least this is what I thought. “Assistant manager” sounded like a good job title, but in reality it wasn’t much different to what I had been doing. I had a salary that was UK average, obviously not minimum wage but not wealthy at the same time.

So, all this summed up in one question: did I solve that “maturing” problem? Not really, still chasing those serious life objectives, they looked as hard as they did before! They were growing at the same pace I did, when was I going to outrun them?

Not saying that I was in a bad situation, that would be disrespectful to those who are really struggling, but still I felt like I had made no progress on my goals!

When did you decide to start university at 30 as a mature student?

Well, theoretically, my next career progression should had been store/branch manager. However, that role was not going to become available anytime soon, and in fact it still isn’t now. Plus it’s a very high skilled role with fierce competition, internal and external. Not sure I could make my way up to be honest.

As I said I didn’t really want to relocate or commute too much as well (I know I’m picky but managing stress is very important for me). So I was thrown back to the starting point, very frustrating.

It all changed when a graduate came to the store as part of his rotation. Basically, he was going to stay with us for few months, then rotate to another branch and so on. He was there doing and learning high level management practices, no involvement whatsoever to the “dirty” job, which in my opinion is key to really understand a business and its operations.

Anyway, he was there spending most of the day in the office with the store manager (my boss) and sometimes with me. As we got to know each other a bit more, we became friends. At the end of the day, although I was older than him, I still felt super young myself!

The graduate scheme

To cut a long story short, I got to know some details about his graduate scheme. Firstly, as a graduate trainee he was already earning more than me. I was already shocked considering he was there mainly to learn and I was actually teaching him stuff!!

But salary wasn’t the only thing, his benefits package was better than mine. He had a better pension, private healthcare, extra holyday package and more. I mean, he was given a company car already! Don’t want to say exactly which one, but a nice German made expensive car..

But the thing that stood out to me the most was what he was going to become after completing the graduate scheme. He was basically guaranteed to become an area store manager! Basically, the boss of my current boss (so technically my boss too). He would have a portfolio of branches to manage and he would constantly visit those and their offices (that’s why the company’s car).

Realising my worth

So I was basically “teaching” my job to a graduate who was going to become my boss’s boss later. I started to think, why can’t I do it too? At the end of the day, I was already kind of doing it! Plus we did the same working hours too, so no massive changes there as well.

Of course the area manager role is challenging, extremely challenging. I could already see it from my boss managing only one store. Imaging managing multiple stores at the same time, chaos! But here is the compromise, you want to earn a better salary? You need to take on more responsibilities, that was clear to me.

You need knowledge (and skills) pretty much in every area of the business, finance, stock management, marketing, legal contracts, human resources and honestly I could continue with a lot more. But you know what? I felt like I was doing a bit of those already with the store manager, so why not upskilling even more?

Taking the decision to start university at 30

So I started to think about returning to education as a mature student. I need to be honest here, the prospect of spending few years studying was very daunting. For me starting university at 30 sounded like something unusual. However, I decided to go for it! Let me summarise the key points that convinced me:

  • Progressing to store manager was going to take me many years most likely; progressing to area manager I couldn’t even estimate in all honesty, not even sure I could have gotten there as I never checked. So I thought, “why don’t I get a degree and try that route?” It would take me less time as a graduate than the “traditional” why of working my way up the career ladder.
  • A better salary; and by better salary I mean an area manager salary, which to my knowledge could reach 6 figures when including bonuses and other benefits. (I kind of wanted that car too actually)
  • A university degree sounded like a nice challenge, a way of testing myself. The way I thought about it was a “fresh re-start”, putting myself out there again.
  • I really wanted to progress in the supermarket/retail industry; but worst case scenario a university degree would give me a lot more options in the job market.
  • Hidden in the deepest part of my brain (heart?), I kind of regretted not going to university at my time.

I obviously had many doubts as well, but I don’t even want to mention them! Thinking about those now makes me laugh now, honestly, I’m glad I did not let them influence my decision!

There was no way back, I was thinking about it every day. So I started to look around and enquired to local/nearest university. After numerous emails, calls, and even few meeting with admission teams, this is what my situation was: either an access course; or potentially being accepted at university directly due to my work experience. Obviously the last one would mean applying for a degree related to my experience.

Choosing the right degree as a mature student

Choosing the right degree was kind of “easy” for me. I knew I wanted to stay in the industry, so that narrowed my research a lot. Plus I wanted to physically attend university, so I was limited to degree courses those close to me were offering.

So I decided to apply for a supply management degree, it made sense! I found the whole UCAS application process as a mature student quite stressful (I suggest you make a list of things to do/find and start looking for those early if you want to return to education; and make sure you are within their deadlines).

I only applied to two universities that offered supply management degree courses. However, I also made other 3 applications for business degrees (in case I didn’t get into supply management).

At the end it didn’t really matter, I was offered a place for supply management after having an interview with the university I wanted to go to. More importantly, I was able to enrol directly without having to attend the access course! It saved me an extra year, which was great although that meant I was going to start university at 30 without a proper academic “refresh”; this was a bit scary in all fairness.

The biggest challenge, giving up the assistant manager role

So I was there, everything was real. My initial idea was to somehow study and work full time; trying to fit everything in the week (and weekend). However, after thinking it thoroughly, and obviously consulting with my partner, I decided to study full time and work part time instead.

I didn’t want one affecting the other too much; a full time study schedule making me too stressed at work (and in life generally); but mostly a full time job impacting too much my academic performances. I knew it was doable, but I genuinely thought the trade off between less income and more time was better.

So I had a chat with my manager first, and after with HR too. I communicated my intentions of starting university and going to part time at work. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible, and trust me I tried. They told me they’d be very, extremely, happy to keep me; but as an assistant manager I’d need to be there full time.

The other option was to go back to my supervisor role and do that part time, they would keep me that way. I had several sleepless nights in that period, it was a tough decision. That trade off between income and time just changed, it was even less income now!

However, that clearly shoed me how little control I had over my life! I was thinking, damn I’m letting others decide what I should do despite me wanting to do the opposite? That gave me the final push! So I accepted the part time supervisor role and gave up the assistant manager one to start university at 30 full time!

Going to university at 30, how was it?

Well that’s a good question, many of my colleagues have actually asked me that as well, what is like to go to university a 30? Firstly let me say something, I was surprised by the number of mature students around! And I’m not only talking about my classes, but around the actual campus.

That made me feel I wasn’t alone, it made me feel like an actual student, normality I’d say. In terms of university workload, it was very manageable with a part time job. I would probably manage to study and work full time too, but I preferred to take it easy.

Overall my university experience was ruined by the pandemic unfortunately, and I spent a lot of my degree studying from home for obvious reasons. I also didn’t make friends at university, but in all fairness I don’t care. I wasn’t there to make friends, ok if I made some, ok if I didn’t, that was my mindset.

My university life was very simple: go to lectures, tutorials, group projects meetings and then go straight back home (or to work); although at times I liked spending few hours at the library. Obviously during the pandemic I had none of that, which made it quite “boring” at times. Controversially, my job saved me from that, I was actually busier at work during those crazy times!

Academic life as a mature student, how was it?

There has been a mix of enjoyment (I loved my subject), hard work, self motivation and why not, also some exam anxiety. It’s all part of the game and I don’t think university at 30 is much different in that regards.

The best thing was when I could actually use my work experience and knowledge for my studies. I remember that some of the concepts I was studying theoretically, I actually used them practically as an assistant manager!

As I said earlier, the university workload was very manageable. Honestly I thought it’d be more challenging. I obviously put a lot of effort in it, I took university very professionally. I’m pretty much sure to get a First Class degree!

Any tips to study as a mature student?

Quite a few tips actually. Firstly, your degree and subjects choice. You got to make sure you study something you are passionate about, that’s what kept me going during stressful times lacking motivation. For example, for my dissertation I’ve been investigating the issues of the UK retail supply chain during the pandemic; so interesting for me also considering I was directly involved in it at work!

Also, if you are not going to start university through an access course, you might want to refresh your academic skills. Maybe have a read through some academic papers that relate to your interests; try to understand the structure (abstract, introduction, methodology, conclusion etc.) and familiarise with the language used.

Another very important thing you might want to do ahead is to start getting your head around referencing! I still find it confusing, you cannot imagine how stressful that was when writing essays and reports. For the rest, just don’t stress to much, you will learn “how to study” by doing.

Starting university at 30, was it worth it?

Ultimately, yes! I kept this for the end, the grand finale. Around January I started to apply for graduate schemes. Yes, you can actually apply before you graduate and I would highly recommend doing it! The only downside is that each application is a pain really.. hated it!

I tried to do as many as I could during the Christmas break, and trust me that took a lot of hours. I mainly applied within the supermarket/retail industry, but not only. Interestingly, by doing applications I discovered big companies involved in the supply chain that I never heard of!

Obviously, I also applied for a graduate scheme with the company I have been working at for the past six years.. It wasn’t possible to do an internal application, so I had to go through all the steps as everyone else; although at some point the system asked me if I was (or had ever been) an employee. I obviously ticked yes, provided my employee number and my manager’s name.

I got through all stages (they were DIFFICULT) and reached the final one, the assessment centre. It was really weird for me, I had to take few days off work to attend a two-day assessment centre within the same company!

Getting the graduate scheme

I am not supposed to say this, but I had a positive “feeling”. Why? Because my manager told me the graduate hiring manager had contacted him. He wouldn’t tell me what they talked about, but he told me they had a good chat. He just told me, “don’t worry, be yourself, you know what to say”.

The assessment centre was hard too, a mix of individual and group activities. A lot of smart and talented graduates! A good number of them were actually postgraduates, that made me feel at disadvantage. However, I think I shined during my individual assessment and interview.

I was presented with a stock management problem that I solved fast; after all, I had seen that many times at work for real! My interview was quite informal, we spoke about my story, my work experience in the company and my ambitions, as simple as that.

Going to university at 30 was a success!

Two weeks later I got a phone call, I got a place in the graduate scheme! I will start in September, and I cannot wait. It’s a two-year graduate scheme, and no, I won’t have to relocate! However, once I do complete the scheme I will potentially have to.. but I don’t care! The graduate scheme is worth it for sure.

I will be finally able to get the job I always wanted! The only downside is that I will have to do an extra year shadowing an area manager before getting that actual role. So basically it’s going to take me 3 years rather than two.

I could potentially complete the 2-year graduate scheme and apply for other high level jobs within the company; however, I’m pretty sure I’ll do an extra year and become an area manager! (documents are in place to get me a company car for September by the way, hoping for that German made!).

Returning to education changed my life

Going to university at 30 literally changed my life. I must say, graduating at 33 has a different feeling. I felt like I was able to re-route my life towards a better direction. It’s not easy to do that, and I can see why people get “stuck” in their life. Sometimes being unhappy becomes normality, you don’t even realise it!

I hope my very long story can help you understand that it’s really never too late, it’s not just a made up sentence.

Thank you Mark!

Thank you Mark for sharing your mature student story! Congratulations for graduating at 33, but also for getting into a graduate scheme as a mature student! I’m sure you will get the job you want and deserve. The supermarket industry needs talented people, and surely needs you!

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