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Benefits and Disadvantages of an Older PhD Student

written by: Dr. Ranee Kaur Banerjee•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 7/31/2010

Are you thinking of going back to grad school as an older student to get a PhD degree? This article will help you consider the pros and cons of such a move.

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    I was 23 when I enrolled into a PhD program and it took me four and a half years to complete it. Over the years, I have often found myself wishing I had waited until my 30s or even until now that I'm in my 40s before getting into a PhD program. Why? I think I'd have gotten more out of the program and I also think that the program would've gotten more out of me!

    I feel that I could have appreciated the course material more, been better at the learning, been more confident with both the teaching and the research with a couple of decades worth of life's lessons learned and a degree of self-actualization having been achieved.

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    Here are the definite "pros" of being an older student getting your PhD:

    • You will feel more confident, more self-assured and more able to handle the stress and work pressure. You've done it for a few years in the "real" world. You've been through relationships, perhaps started and taken care of a family and naturally, your problem-solving skills are better now than they were when you were in your early 20s.
    • You are more independent now, you have experience of workplaces and have a degree of authority that will help you as you learn, conduct your research, teach and write your PhD.
    • You are emotionally more stable and less distractible. You now have the skills and wherewithal to take on major projects and see them through to completion.
    • You are more assertive and less easily intimidated by the age, the degrees and the expertise of your teachers. You are thus more likely to share your thoughts and ideas and can articulate your point better in class.
    • You know exactly why you're in grad school. This wasn't just a default move. You know what you're doing and are more focused, more determined, more driven.
    • Social life and networking are probably not as important to you as they were when you were 20-something. You are more likely to study harder, do better in your term papers and tests and generally handle the work better than your young colleagues.
    • In any case, you'll probably find theoretical concepts easier to understand and apply. That's one of the natural gifts of experience and maturity.
    • You'll also find your teachers easier to understand because you're closer in age to them and probably have more in common with them in terms of personality and interests than your younger peers.

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    While there are pros to getting your PhD later, there are also cons to being an older student when getting your PhD:

    • You'll find it much tougher to get accepted into a PhD program as an older student. Universities and colleges may be more wary of investing in you because you'll have lesser years to give back to the profession.
    • On a practical note, it may be difficult for you to get your credits transferred and to get the required references, transcripts and so on.
    • After a few years in the work world, we get used to a certain degree of comfort and a lifestyle. You'll have to give it all up to go back to school as a poorly paid TA or RA. Will you be able to afford all your financial responsibilities on a hand-to-mouth income?
    • Along with the financial rigor will also come a loss of status that may be hard to deal with. The tight supervision, the experience of being judged at every step, the humiliation of your ideas being found wanting will be upsetting and will take a lot of getting used to.
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    In the end, it largely depends on you and how hungry you are to get that degree. Are you sure you want to pay the price of the PhD at this stage of your life?

    The good news is that many more older students are going back to grad school and as that happens, more universities and colleges are opening up to the idea of accepting more mature students.