Bristol University student finally gets his PhD - 50 years after he started it

Dr Nick Axten on the day of his graduation from the University of Bristol Credit: (University of Bristol/PA)

A student who started a PhD in 1970 has finally graduated – more than 50 years later.

Dr Nick Axten, 76, said he needed “a long hard think” over the intervening decades.

In 1970 Dr Axten received a prestigious Fulbright scholarship for a PhD in mathematical sociology at the University of Pittsburgh in the US. But after five years he returned to the UK with the PhD unfinished.

Today the University of Bristol conferred him a Doctor of Philosophy in front of his wife Claire Axten and 11-year-old granddaughter Freya.

Dr Axten said: “What I was trying to do in the early 70s was exceptionally difficult.

“Some problems are so great it takes the best part of a lifetime to get your head around them. They need a long hard think. This one has taken me 50 years.”

Dr Axten’s research, which he hopes to publish, builds on the ideas he was working on in the US five decades ago.

It is a new theory for understanding human behaviour based on the values each person holds, which he believes has the potential to change the view of behavioural psychology.

When he started his undergraduate degree in Leeds in 1967, men wore their hair long and women were wearing miniskirts.

Nick Axten was an undergraduate at the University of Leeds in the late 1960s at a time of great social change Credit: Nick Axten/PA

Smoking inside university buildings was the norm and personal computers were still sci-fi.

“It was still flower power and there was a revolutionary feel. It was the time of the Vietnam War, Paris, Prague and student sit-ins,” he recalled.

“Jack Straw was president of the students’ union in Leeds. Sociology and psychology were suddenly boom subjects. I went to study them because I wanted to understand people.

“I have loved being a student again at Bristol University.

“All of the other philosophy graduate students were around 23 but they accepted me as one of their own.

“They are clever people full of ideas and I loved talking with them – especially at the pub in the afternoon.

“Doing a PhD is a lot of hard work, but it’s been brilliant.”

Dr Nick Axten has finally completed his PhD after starting it more than 50 years ago Credit: University of Bristol/PA

Dr Axten came to the University of Bristol in 2016 to do an MA in Philosophy, aged 69. He then studied for a PhD in Philosophy at the same university, finishing in 2022 aged 75.

His University of Bristol supervisor, Professor Samir Okasha, said: “Nick was an incredibly enthusiastic, energetic and committed student during his time here.

“It’s fantastic to see him graduate half a century after he started his original PhD.”

During a varied career Dr Axten lived all over the UK and was creator and principle author of the school teaching programme Oxford Primary Science.

He lives in Wells, Somerset with his wife, is father to two children and has four grandchildren.