Over 40 and Considering Graduate School

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Fri, Apr 6 - 2:04 am EDT | 8 years ago by
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Spacetonysml-1For a variety of reasons, it wasn’t until I turned 30 that I started my undergraduate education. Of course, by that time, I was married with two kids.

So, while supporting my family, I worked very hard at getting my B.A. in physics from the University of Colorado. My boys were babies when I started and I missed much of their infancy because I was studying all the time.

I was able to support my family by getting scholarships and student assistant positions. In my junior year, I was hired as an associate scientist at NCAR and things got a little easier financially. Getting that job was no small feat since I hadn’t gotten my degree yet and the job required it (one of the conditions of my employment was that I MUST graduate).

I worked and went to class during the day, tried to spend time helping to raise my young family, AND I was studying my ass off doing problems sets late into the night. It came as no small relief when I finally graduated and was able to concentrate on just my job and family like most people my age.

Needless to say, when it came time to think about graduate school, I paused. I was sick of studying long hours and doing physics problems. I was ready for some real work doing real science at a real job.

I asked myself, did I really want to continue studying? I knew the life of a graduate student, and it was about the least appealing thing I could think of going into at that point.

I talked with many of my mentors to get advice and after some careful consideration, I decided against applying for graduate school. While I have always wanted a PhD in astrophysics, at that point in my life, I simply wasn’t up for it.

That was almost 10 years ago. Now, I’ve been working in the field for a while, I’m making good money (more than many PhD’s I know) and I’m reconsidering that decision.

Furthermore, my boys have grown older and require much less of my time and attention, I’m starting to reach the top of my career path, and I’m in a financial position to think about making a change.

I’ll be turning 45 this June 5th and I’m thinking of applying to graduate school. Well, no one can ever accuse me of following traditional paths I guess.

I’ve given a lot of thought to this over the past decade and in the next two posts, I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned and what I think about getting a PhD. From talking with scientists and mentors who’ve had lots of experience, I’ve come to the opinion that there are lots of reasons for NOT getting an advanced degree, but only one good reason FOR getting one.

I’d also love to hear your thoughts. What do you think of going for an advanced degree later in life? Have any of you done it? If so, please share your experiences in the comments, I’d be extremely interested in hearing from you.

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  • julie

    What?! Hum?!!!! REALLY???!!!

  • julie

    by the way, “REALLY” was said with a certain voice inflection. ;)

    grad school? for realz?

  • Frederica

    Heh… whatever tickles your fancy. Maybe it’s time for a change ? Any gut feeling that tells you “go get ‘em tiger” ? Universe telling you something ? If finances aren’t a worry, I’d say go for it, why not.
    Seeing people always up and willing to learn new stuff and not afraid of change is really good.

  • Carl

    First I have to say congratulations on getting your B.A while working full-time and supporting a new family. That is no small feat in-and-of-it-self(hmm is that how i do that).

    I also earned my B.A later in life and will go back to get another advanced degree. While many people tell you yay or nay ultimately (IMHO) it’s up to you. Getting another degree is going to make me feel good and if that’s what makes you happy then it’s worth the trouble.

    Your podcasts have been quite humbling for me – out time here is not long so it is important “i think ” to do what we want while we are around.

    On a side note; I would like to know your beliefs on religion; not just Christianity but all of them.

  • TomL

    I feel you here. I got a BSc in Cognitive Science after doing computing most of my teenagehood and into my 20s. I couldn’t quite stomach calculus at the time and started to be very interested in some arts (philosophy, linguistics) and found an area of computing that combined all those which was PERFECT for me. (think: AI, or computational linguistics). Since I graduated with As in the computing classes I took (natural for me), and since it was the 90s .com era, I was able to capitalize on web development, database driven and all that big time. I made more money than my dad almost immediately. that is an odd feeling, and i’m not sure I ever really got used to it. I’m looking at 6 figures and yet always sort of regretted i didn’t concentrate more on calculus after finding a nice way to dodge it. In short, I’ve been thinking about going back to school or doing a masters in something for about a decade. I have a creative and technical job now, and it’s hard to leave the money and intensity of the business. Since then I have also fallen in love with astronomy. So in my dream life I am a professional academic astronomer. I think about it a lot. Confession: I even bought Calculus for Dummies to face my demons and teach it to myself at home… if for no other reason than to prove i can do it. But I do love learning period. always. if you can do that throughout your life, whether in school or at work, then you’re doing well. I salute your courage to follow your heart. that is inspiring. Most people don’t have the guts. They leave their dream as is, for fear of failing at it, so they leave the thing that they would probably be best at, undone. Not you. Me? I’m 37 and working on it. I’ll let you know.

  • Willem

    Hey, you’re not alone!

    Granted, I’m a bit younger than you. I started a degree in maths when I was 23, and by that time I was already supporting a family (girlfriend, daughter, and dog!). I worked during the day, studied during the evenings, and tried to combine all that with my family. Then I got a job at Microsoft Research, while still studying for my degree. That was a turning point for me, the scientists there are working on such cool thihngs. Now I knew I definitely want to get a PhD. I’m about one year away from getting my degree (1st class honours, hopefully). I’m 26 now, and will hopefully get a PhD place round the time I turn 29. I’ve been writing computer software throughout my 20s and my 30s will be devoted to science instead. That’s my dream, anyway :)

    Go get that PhD! I know people in their 40s who are doing PhD’s. It’s never too late; if you have the financial means to sustain yourself throughout, then go take that chance. There’s nothing worse than looking back wishing you had taken a big step in your life when it’s too late.

  • Corey

    Just found this post. It was linked from Bad Astronomy. I am going to read the two follow-ups on Graduate school very carefully.

    I went back to college at 31 because I was sick of being passed over in my computer programming career for not having a degree. But I was sick at the thought of going back to school to take computers. So I went back for Math and Physics. Those subjects were my favorites after computers in high-school and I’m burned out on computers lately.

    I was only in school for about a year (I’m 34 now and half-way in terms of semester hours) when I knew deep-down I wanted to go all the way. I’m quite sure at this point I will pursue a PhD in Physics, I just have to pick the research specialty. I have about 30 hours of advanced Physics left to do (I’m done all the math) so I should get some exposure to the whole gamut and see what turns me on the most.

    To anyone considering this, all I can say is… if you are willing to exercise the self-discipline and stay the course, you can do it.

    I work full-time for a major airline and I have a wife and 9-month-old son at home. We’re planning to have another one next year. I took a full semester of math in the spring (12 hours) and just about died, but I did it. If anything, the maturity and experience in a professional setting makes school much easier. I have the 4.0 GPA (crosses fingers) to prove that it can be done.

    Go for it!

  • Pingback: Excellent Advice for Prospective Grad Students

  • Leslie Smith

    I found your post when I googled “graduate school after forty”. I graduated with my BA in four years, back in the eighties. However, I was more focused on my social life than my studies, and did not earn the best grades. Hey, I went to UCSB after nine years of Catholic school…..To make a long, circuitous story short, I returned to school and earned my teaching credential when my kids were babies, and made straight A’s. Because I taught in a Title I school, I qualified for a government program which paid off all my student loans. After seven years, I still love teaching, but I wanted to earn a masters degree. I am now enrolled in the Humanities External program at Cal State Dominguea Hills, earning an MA in Humanities via distance learning. I am earning all A’s, too. I am thinking about possibly pursuing a doctorate. My students love to hear that I have homework! Also, I am setting a good example for my own children, I think, because they are seeing how much I am enjoying my studies, and how important good study habits are I scared the daylights out of my son when I told him that I might go to the same college he chooses, as a doctoral student! Anyway, I have enjoyed everyone’s posts.

  • Carol

    I’m 44 and entered a graduate program in human factors this fall 2007. I wholeheartedly recommend returning to school to further one’s career, and to get exposed to new ideas and generally dust the cobwebs. However, there are certain challenges to an older student that I’m finding considerable. First, I am very familiar with my course of study and have several years of experience in the field, so some coursework is going to be non-engaging. I am getting the MS to either enter research, or teach, both of which require at the very least an MS if not a PhD. Consider that your fellow class mates will have significantly less work and life experience and that at least the intro classes will be something to just get through to get to the more engaging classes. You might consider finding out if you can get course credit for things you’re very familiar with, however, this means you may miss the bonding that occurs with an incoming class. I am thinking that to work at my “growing edge” I will need to design some special projects. The other challenges have been in learning to read and “cram” again, however this is happening over time. I have to really sit down and read and study the material to learn it. Which is, I suppose the point, but gone are the days when I could cram the 2 days before an exam and do passably well. The life balance is challenging too in that you already have a life and are laying this on top of it. It has taken a while to calibrate how study and classes fit together with PT work and spouse and home and friends. This is not to be discouraging, but to put a realistic face on the challenges. On the positive side, being inside academia and having the knowledge resources, meeting bright new people and exploring ideas is breathtaking. Please let me know how you’re doing. I would enjoy a support group of MS students over 40!

  • Julie Carroll

    I came across this just today. It’s close but not exactly on point with my dilemma. I earned a BA in lingistics in the 70s, a law degree in the 90s but now, at 54, feel drawn to the PhD program in linguistics. I ask myeself “what will you ever DO with this?” A college teaching career starting at age 60 seems unlikely! Still, I’m pulled in that direction.

    I enjoyed ungrad immensely. During my law school years, I was a single parent of twins plus a part-time paralegal. So those four years seem like one giant juggling act. My 12 years of law prqactice and related positions seem purposeful, modeartely rewarding but not essentially “me”. So I debate whether to change directions now or wait until I have leisure years (hopefully) to spend on my own interests?

  • Matt

    I’m 39 and earned my BS in mechanical engineering nine tears ago. Since graduating I have pursued a master’s twice and spent the rest of the time either contemplating its worth or trying to figure out which degree is best. I think the answer would be obvious, and I would be finished by now, if I had one subject I was passionately interested in enough to research and teach. I haven’t been able to find that though. And as I’ve gotten older and more experienced, the idea of a specialized, formal education has become less appealing. Maybe it’s because the problems I solve are more complicated and multidisciplinary than they used to be. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen little-to-no correlation between degrees and success. Now I also worry I might lose some creativity, which is highly valued in today’s marketplace, by specializing. Life was certainly simpler when I believed finding the right advanced degree and getting it was The Answer. Ultimately, however, if you have a passion for a specific, formalized subject, you should find a way to pursue it for that reason alone. If not, and you’re like me, doing well and love your job, focus on becoming the best at that; or seek alternative types of education to fill that brain need. I’m also working on trying to be the best husband and father I can be, but that’s another subject altogether.

  • Barbara

    I am also considering going to graduate school. I’ll be 44 in September. I got two undergrad degrees, one in Psych and finished a degree in Communication that I started in the 80s, with the idea of going on to get a degree in counseling. Some family health problems and $ problems have kept me from even considering it until now. At this point I’m not sure how to proceed – I mean, I know I need the GRE and all that, but what about reference letters? It’s been awhile since I was in school. Has anybody got tips on how/where to get good ones?

  • Carol

    Did you go for it? I decided to pursue an doctoral degree in education and I’m over fifty…do you know of any studies done on over forty graduate students? Might be interesting ….

  • Neil

    Wow, this has been an interesting read. I’ve only just started to consider graduate work in Mathematics, and did a search to see what was out there.

    Is anyone aware of any grad schools that target us cronies over 40? If I was to make the sacrifice, I’d want it to be high-caliber, but an international mix of students would be good too….
    Thanks.

  • Nicole

    I really don’t think it is that unusual to pursue a PhD post-40. I am 41 and am currently waiting for admissions decisions for Fall 2009. Basically, I am at a brick wall in my career as a college English instructor if I don’t get the PhD. All my previous experiences will still count in my favor, so it is not really like I am starting a whole new career. Both of my mentors in my MA program were in their 40s when they got their doctorates, so it doesn’t seem so strange to me. Actually, I am really glad I am going now instead of earlier, because it will allow me to rejuvenate my skills and knowledge midcareer, thus avoiding burnout. Also, I am coming in with real-world experience that younger students lack. If I had gone straight after the masters, I think I would have gotten seriously burnt out on school, and it wouldn’t have had as much meaning to me. I think anyone of any age should follow their heart in this regard.

  • Laurie

    Really enjoyed this email string! I also have had a non-traditional scientific career…from a bench scientist to sr. director in a major drug discovery CRO with a BS in Zoology…supervising 14 folks with advanced degrees. During this adventure of over 30 years I raised 3 sons as a single mom …BUT I completely credit my very good luck career-wise with good timing,not pissing off too many key people, and my fierce need to provide for my kids rather than any innate ability on my part. Without a PhD or MBA and over 50, but paid as well as my advanced degree counterparts, I will always be among the most vulnerable in corporate “restructuring”

    We all face balancing pursuit of our dreams and the practicality of survival.

    I’m 54 and the luxury of being this old is that at my age my true calling trumps status or what’s age-appropriate. I still have the same
    unquenchable curiosity about how things work and the natural world as I did at 10 yrs old and am looking at ” my next best life” in grad school

  • rick

    I am 45 and applying to graduate school in oceanography. I think graduate school is a great idea at any age. All the best!

  • cONNIE

    I will be 41 in August and have recently felt the need to go to grad school for many reasons. I miss learning and growing, I want to take my experience as an executive recruiter and use it in an educational environment, perhaps as a guidance counselor or career counselor at a university. I want to do something more meaningful. I am concerned that I will have a problem getting into grad school. I was an OK student in college. I just got my transcript and ended up with a B- average. I am so embarrassed and disappointed with myself. I did that without even trying and it pains me to think about wasting the opportunity that I had to retain more knowledge and appreciate the experience. Yes, I was young and immature but I think that may hinder me now and I’m mad at myself. I have heard that you can earn life experience credits toward your degree. That would be great. If anyone has information on the admissions process and their experience with that – please share. I do believe that we should all strive to be what we want to be, no matter how old we are. Of that I am certain.

  • Tahica

    It is so refreshing to see that I am not the only one! I’m also considering a PhD in Psychology after MANY years (8 in total) of chasing my BA. I always thought that I missed my turn. I believed was too old and that I had too many responsiblities as a mom of three children and wife to pursue anything that gave me a reason to get up in the morning. I have reached my fill of working without pupose, looking over my shoulder wondering what could have been while life passes me by.

    It’s 8am now on a Saturday morning and I am ready to take that first step all because of all the posts I’ve just read. I want to thank all of you for sharing your experiences and you thoughts. Thank you for reminding me that it is never too late.

    • Jessica

      Hi Tahica,
      I came upon this old post and was intrigued because I am now 45 years old, working full-time and going to grad-school part-time for my Master’s degree. However, I know deep down that I really would like to pursue my Phd. Some things that are holding me back are that I don’t have research experience and I would need to take the GRE’s (which I know will be extremely difficult for me at this stage). I was wondering if since your last post, you began your pursuit of your PhD, and if so, did you have the same obstacles, and how you overcame them. Just curious if you could provide any feedback/perspective around what I could do……thanks!

  • Brandon

    I say go for it! As long as you are alive you can do whatever you want. Don’t listen to detractors. Many of them are just hacks who want to take possession of science, which of course, does not belong to them. The more people we have going after their dreams and education, the better off society will be.

  • Sam

    Good to see this. i’ll be 36 and going to grad school in ’12.