Mature student says a passion for Sparta spurred her on to academic success

Thursday 1 December 2022

woman in blue academic gown holds up university crest

A mature student who graduated with a PhD in Archaeology this week said the enthusiasm and support of University services and School of Classics staff at the University of St Andrews, and a funded studentship, has allowed her to re-write her future.

Jackie Whalen became a Doctor of Philosophy at a ceremony held in the Younger Hall on Wednesday 30 November. She was one of 26 students still to graduate in person as a result of the Covid pandemic.

Having gained a BA in Publishing from Napier University in 1991, it took Jackie a while to realise that her passion for Ancient Greece and Rome, especially Ancient Sparta, could be furthered by academic studies.

She said: “I wanted to learn more than I could access via popular publications, and a colleague at my then work – who is also attending my graduation! – really pushed me to think about academia. I looked to doing a Masters and, after doing some background studying while working, I visited St Andrews and spoke to Professor Greg Woolf – then Head of Classics – about doing more study on Sparta with Professor Rebecca Sweetman who was one of only two people in Scotland who were experts on Sparta. He encouraged me to apply and said they could be flexible with tutorials around my full-time working.”

Jackie worked full-time using compressed hours to free up a Friday morning to visit St Andrews for tutorials and taught modules.

She explained: “A couple of my tutors (Drs Ralph Anderson and Jon Coulston) encouraged me to apply for a PhD position based on my Masters research modules on Sparta and my Masters Dissertation. After more pushing by my colleague (the same one!) – she essentially knocked down every obstacle I raised – I applied and got a place. I was in Athens when I got the news, which was pretty special.

“I then had to wait to hear about the studentship award as I couldn’t accept my place if I didn’t get funding. I got one of two studentships available that year and started while still working full-time. I changed to part-time the following year with some financial adjustments, working mostly in the Development Department at National Museums Scotland for the duration of my PhD.

“It was an amazing journey doing the PhD, with huge support from St Andrews in terms of flexibility (the Library were brilliant), hardship funding, research funding for a field trip, and staff encouragement in the School of Classics. My supervisor Rebecca Sweetman was exceptional in her support and guidance.”

Jackie went on to say she also expanded her skills to include some undergraduate teaching, including assisting on the Footsteps tour to Greece that Rebecca operated during Easter breaks, and absolutely loved this experience.

Jackie submitted her work on the last day of term in December 2017 and her PhD viva in May the following year. She resubmitted it in May 2019 and all was well. However, her graduation was – like those of so many others – about to be brought to a standstill.

Jackie said: “The first graduation I was eligible for was June 2020. So I had no option but to choose to have an online graduation. I registered to graduate the following year in person, but that was kiboshed as well with Covid. Then, due to personal circumstances, I couldn’t do last winter or this June.”

Once the worst of the pandemic was over, opportunity knocked again for Jackie and she was offered a job in Development at the University of St Andrews. Since August, she has managed the Annual Giving Programme, a large part of which involves fundraising for Wardlaw Scholarships for undergraduates who need financial assistance. The team is also focusing much of its work this year on raising support for students around the cost-of- living crisis.

Jackie added: “Both of these things are very close to my heart, and the focus on scholarships is one of the reasons I wanted the job. I couldn’t have undertaken a PhD without the studentship award and that experience has made such huge positive differences in my life, even as a mature student. I also was awarded hardship funds during a particularly difficult period and that helped me to keep on track, rather than giving up.

“I’ve met wonderful people and some lifelong friends in St Andrews and elsewhere in the UK, Greece and further overseas. I’ve used the skills developed in research, analysis, presenting and writing to great effect in my day job as a fundraiser, and in the management of people and workloads and workflows. A PhD really demands a lot of hard and soft skills that are transferable to all walks of life.

“Once I started working at the University it seemed like the right thing and the right time to graduate in person. And it seems a bit like fate to graduate on the same day and date as I had in 2009. And on St Andrew’s Day too, which was just perfect!”

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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