How to Do a PhD Later in Life: A Primer on What to Expect

Feb 21, 2019

By Sara K. McBride

For many people, completing a PhD is a lifelong goal. However, not everyone can do one in their 20’s. Many of us have to wait until later in life to make the leap into this major commitment. It is critical to know what to expect when going in and some of the challenges and benefits of being a mid- or late-career student, which aren’t often talked about. I’d like to share my observations from both my personal experience as a late-30’s PhD student and those of my fellow PhD students in my program who ranged in age from early 20’s to age 70.

First, I need to say that, no matter what, you should avoid paying for your PhD on your own. There is a large number of fellowships and scholarships that will offer annual stipends and full tuition to incoming students. Self funding for 4-7 years is a huge responsibility. You don’t have to bear this cost alone if you seek fully funded PhD programs that support students financially.

Also, remember, take the bits of wisdom that are useful to you and leave the rest behind.

The Benefits

You’ve got different types of work experience. If you have had a lot of life experience, you can apply numerous skills from whatever field you worked in before coming back to academia. Knowledge of project management, accounting, communication, writing, public speaking, software programming, publishing, writing grant proposals, networking, team management…the list goes on and on of skills you might have learned in the workplace that applies to your PhD. Remember: a PhD is not a marathon, it’s a triathlon, that involves different skills at different times. So your skills in the workplace really help!

Resilience in the face of failure. You are going to fail…a lot. And, if you have worked in a variety of different environments, you’ve probably built up different ways of coping with failure. And you will also be familiar with rejection, which is also a critical part of academia. Peer review is a tough process at all stages of learning, and, if you’ve had a few years of working in harsh environments, this will help you pick yourself up again and keep going forward.

You know yourself. You have a separate identity outside the confines of academia. For me, I knew I had been successful in other spheres and so I did not feel as much of a let down when I submitted my dissertation. I knew a life outside the PhD endeavour and so, I didn’t have any missing identity problems of submission that I have seen other people who have never been outside of academia struggle with. Having a separate life and identity can be a real benefit.

There’s no FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). I had spent 15 years working and travelling around the world, doing various things. I never envied anyone else’s experiences while I was writing my dissertation, because I had similar experiences already. There was no “what might have been” longing within me to distract myself.

You know what you want. I’ve found that most “later in life” PhDs are really clear as to their intentions and motivations. This makes it easier to focus your time and attention to complete your dissertation.

The Challenges

You need to park your ego. Now that you are a PhD student, you are no different in the eyes of the academy to your 23 year old peer. Your experiences and previous job titles no longer matter. You’ll have to leave your ego at the door and really humble yourself to learn from your supervisors, as well as the potentially younger and less experienced students around you. Learning can be a painful process, especially when you feel you have achieved so much in another field. This was a real struggle for me but honestly, it was also very liberating to leave my past behind and just embrace being a student again. Listen to your supervisors and your fellow students; you don’t know it all in academia (no one does).

Some doors are now closed to you. It is true, once you get that PhD, you can be perceived as being “over qualified” and there for, unhirable for many jobs out there. Be prepared for these doors to close and not re-open. There are really exciting new doors that are now available to you but these might be different than you were expecting. But before you start, make sure you are quite happy for those doors to be closed permanently.

Sacrificing your high earning years is tough. If you are doing a PhD later in life, you might be sacrificing earning potential for those years. This can have long ranging impacts on your ability to afford a home or your retirement plans. So be aware of the financial hit that you are about to take.

You may be older than your advisors/supervisors. It is true; you might have more experience and maturity than the supervisors on your committee. But here is the thing: they have more experience than you in academia. No matter where you are at in your PhD process, respect the pathway of those ahead of you, even if they are younger in age. Even if you disagree with your supervisors or advisors, do your best to always remain respectful in those disagreements. Remember: 90 percent of your happiness during a PhD will be based on your relationships with your committee, so do your best to be a great student.    

You will feel really uncomfortable. I felt (and still feel) pretty stupid most of the time in research; it makes me feel deeply uncomfortable at times. If you were a highly competent professional in your last career, you might not remember when the last time it was that you felt utterly out of your depth…and stupid. So be prepared to feel stupid, it will happen. The best thing you can do is admit to this feeling and pushing forward until you no longer feel uncomfortable.

You’ll be a bit rusty. If you’ve been out of school for more than four years or so, your research brain may be a bit rusty. The advantages of doing a PhD right away is that your brain has been primed to work in the research environment and you’ve developed habits based on this. Academia changes rapidly; methods, informed by technology, can force you to learn new things. It may take time to come back up to speed and you may feel behind before you even begin. This is okay, keep going!

For me, doing a dissertation was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It challenged me and I certainly struggled. But I do not regret the decision I made to pursue a PhD. Hopefully the above will give you an understanding of what you are in for if you decide to do one later in life. It can be a rewarding pathway, especially if you know what to expect before going in. Accept the journey you’ve put yourself on and bow your head to the experience. If done properly, the PhD can be a transformative time in your life.

Good luck!

Dr. Sara K. McBride is a Mendenhall Fellow at the U.S.G.S in Menlo Park. Sara has 20 years of experience as a professional communicator and disaster responder, having recently shifted careers into social science research.  She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts in Law and Justice from Central Washington University, a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and her Ph.D. from Massey University in English and Media Studies. Sara McBride is an employee of the U.S. Geological Survey but the above views do not represent the USGS’s position and is not an official statement from the organization. This post was not sponsored.