French Student Who 'Took Some Breaks' Earns Doctorate at 90

April 22, 2016
LONDON — Doctoral students the world over have long despaired about the grueling hours required to obtain a Ph.D. Just ask Colette Bourlier, age 90.

This week, Ms. Bourlier became one of the oldest people in France to be awarded a doctorate, 30 years after she first began researching immigrant workers in Besançon, in eastern France.

She wrote all 400 pages of her thesis by hand, according to her thesis adviser, Serge Ormaux, vice president of the Université de Franche-Comtéin Besançon, where she received the degree.

On Tuesday, she was awarded a doctorate in geography after being questioned for more than two hours by an academic jury.

She received a “high distinction” for her thesis, titled “Immigrant Workers in Besançon in the Second Half of the 20th Century.”

Born on April 3, 1925, in Lyon, Ms. Bourlier, a former geography and history teacher, began to study for her doctorate after she retired in 1983. Asked why it had taken her so long to complete her thesis, Ms. Bourlier was philosophical.

“It took me a while because I took some breaks,” she said in a phone interview. “I did the best that I could. I received much encouragement from my advisers, and I think the jury was satisfied. I am very moved.”

Ms. Bourlier said she was going deaf, and Professor Ormaux said she had sat close to the jury during her oral examination so she could hear her questioners.

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Professor Ormaux said that when Ms. Bourlier was awarded her doctorate under a portrait of Louis XIV in a grand 18th-century hall at the university, the entire room, including Ms. Bourlier, was overcome with emotion.

“This Ph.D. was not some kind of gift. It was a very rigorous, analytical and relevant work, and I am very proud of her,” he said. “It was a magical moment.”

He said that Ms. Bourlier’s examination of the integration of migrants, in particular women who came to France from Algeria, Italy, Portugal and elsewhere in the 1970s, resonated today as Europe grappled with a migration crisis.

Ms. Bourlier met regularly over coffee and cakes with the migrant women she studied to check on their progress, he said.

She is not, however, the oldest student in the world to have been awarded a doctorate.

In June, Ingeborg Rapoport, a 102-year-old German woman, received her doctorate nearly 80 years after Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws prevented her from completing her final oral exam. She had been raised Protestant, but her mother, a pianist, was Jewish.

To prepare to defend her thesis on diphtheria, a bacterial infection that was a global threat at the time, Ms. Rapoport, whose sight was failing, had to brush up on advances in treating the disease over the previous 80 years.

Also among the ranks of nonagenarian Ph.D. graduates is Lis Kirkby, who in 2014 earned her doctorate from the University of Sydney at age 93.

Her thesis examined the impact of economic orthodoxy on unemployment during the Great Depression in Australia. Before receiving her doctorate, Dr. Kirkby was active in state politics in Australia, acted in a soap opera and worked as a journalist and sheep farmer, according to the newspaper The Australian.

As for Ms. Bourlier’s plans, she said she needed a rest.

“I am old,” she said. “Now, I just want to relax.”