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A tale of two boys

It is always good to reflect on the past, and how we can improve the future.  With this in mind I’d like to tell you the story of two little boys who left school thirty-nine years ago with a few low level CSEs. The two boys lost touch when one went on to college, gained a couple of A-Levels and commenced a career in accountancy. The other went to work in a factory. Some fifteen years later the two boys, now living in London, bumped into each other in a chance encounter while both walking to work but in opposite directions. The first, myself, was by then an accountant/company secretary in a small business whilst the other, Jonathan, had recently qualified and started work as a barrister. Jonathan told me that he had been touring the world, run out of money in Israel and had had to work in a kibbutz to earn enough money for his return flight home. It was during this period that he met many young people taking a year out after having completed their degrees, each with high hopes for their future careers. Upon returning to his old job gluing chair legs in a factory, and being in his mid twenties, Jonathan reflected and decided to return to education in order to better himself. With no clear vision of his future Jonathan undertook a university access course followed by a general studies degree. It was during the first year that Jonathan discovered law and realised that he was good at it so he decided to take more  law modules in the subsequent years and managed to qualify with a law degree. Jonathan then went on to become a barrister. Despite both boys having been let down by the school system in their early years, both had gone on to undertake further study in later life, leading to each qualifying in their respective fields of accountancy and law. This story proves that it is never too late to start studying or deciding to change one’s career.

It was around this time that my company embarked on a long four-year debt collection case with an overseas client. We won in court but received nothing due to the defendant subsequently filing for bankruptcy. A chance encounter with Philip King, then chair of the Institute of Credit Managers led to a life changing experience. I was livid from the outcome of the court case; Philip recommended that instead of remaining angry I should write about my experience so that others could learn from it. I submitted two articles to CICM magazine, both of which were published. It was only by comparing my articles with others that I realised my submissions were nothing more than an outpouring of emotion. I recalled my friend’s story about his move from factory worker to barrister. Inspired, I decided that it was time to undertake further study, especially as everyone I knew and worked with had a degree. My purpose was not to gain a qualification, it was to learn how to write in a professional style as well as to understand more about late payments and how to avoid them in the future. I decided that taking an MBA would achieve this whilst also giving me access to research materials. After successfully completing the MBA, I was approached by Dr Salima Paul and her writing partner Professor Rebecca Boden. They had seen my dissertation and asked if I would be interested in undertaking a PhD. As Professor Boden put it, we need somebody from industry to tell us academics what it’s like in the real world. A little daunted at the prospect, I was assured that nobody fails a PhD – candidates usually give up.

There are no short cuts to completing a PhD. To pass requires consistent application of mind over many years to produce an 80,000-word thesis. I know only too well the difference between a sprint and a marathon having completed 26 of them and thus decided to accept the challenge. I was not however prepared for the overarching commitment, not just for myself but also from my family. To complete a PhD, you must spend 24 hours a day thinking about the subject, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, for a minimum of 3 years (if you are a full-time student) and 6-8 for a part-time student. For those, like me, that struggled with exams there is one bit of good news. As a PhD student you write the course, you choose the books and papers to study and you decide the research. There is no right or wrong answer, the idea is to produce a compelling argument that can stand up to scrutiny and constructive criticism from your peers. Furthermore, the PhD must add to an existing body of knowledge furthering the field under study. In my case I researched the monetary, temporal and emotional effects of late payments on small and medium businesses and how such businesses approached collection. Output is, in my opinion, a vital part of the end journey. The output of my thesis was to advise Lord Mendelsohn during the preparation of a Private Members Bill that he submitted to the House of Lords in 2019 and 2020. The journey has given me the confidence that I had previously lacked and opened the doors to the corridors of power.

My key takeaway as we start the new year is that it is never too late to start or continue your studies, irrespective of your previous educational background or experience. If your reason for educational enhancement transcends the subject matter and forms the basis of something useful that increases knowledge or the improvement of society, even better.

To conclude let us return to the two little boys and what happened to them in their subsequent years. Both boys are now 55 and have reached the pinnacle of their careers, in my case the award of Doctor of Philosophy, and in Jonathan’s case nomination and appointment to Kings Counsel.


Dr Ashley Smith FCCA FCICM


[The picture is a stock picture and does not show people mentioned in the article.]

Tuesday 4th April 2023
Two boys