Returning to Grad School Later In Life

I returned to grad school after working in industry after working in industry a few years, and I ended up defending my dissertation when I was 32 – much older than most of my fellow graduates.

If you’re thinking about returning to grad school later in life, you’re probably thinking through many of the same questions I considered myself.  Mainly: is it really worth it to return to grad school? 

First things first: is it clear in your mind why you are considering returning for your degree? Is it to take your career in a new direction? Is there a research field that you want to be a leader in, which will effectively require a PhD? Do you just want to have the (often) automatic increased responsibility and autonomy a PhD often provides? Or is it simply an important life goal for you, regardless of the potential return-on-investment (or lack thereof). 

If your motivation for pursuing a PhD is unclear in your mind, I’d advise thinking much more carefully before returning to school – a PhD program is (usually) not a trivial undertaking (as I’m sure you know). But more than that – understanding why you’re returning for your PhD will likely greatly impact your trajectory through grad school, as you aim for the particular kinds of research that you want to pursue long term. 

Assuming you’ve made up your mind that you definitely want to return to school, I believe there are three main challenges and three main advantages to returning to grad school later in life. The three main challenges: 

  1. Lower income – can you afford the pay cut? If you have a family, mortgage, etc., then it can prove difficult to pay the bills on a grad student’s salary. Though you are also more likely to have some savings you can use, vs the average grad student. 
  2. Family complications – if your partner is not on board with your return to grad school (especially a grad school salary) or you’re raising children (especially young children), you may find returning to school extra challenging.
  3. Knowledge rust – if your career hasn’t forced you to stay familiar with all the fundamentals of your degree field, you may find graduate courses, research, and especially any qualifying exams pretty tough. 

The three main benefits all stem from your likely greater experience level:

  1. If you’ve been working in the research area / field that you want to get your PhD in, you likely have many possible research ideas that you know will have immediate impact and are highly publication worthy. These ideas will put you head and shoulders above other graduate students, especially important when going after fellowships. 
  2. The network of contacts you’ve established throughout your career can be very helpful. Some examples include writing letters of recommendation for grad school admission and fellowship applications, providing you the most relevant and impactful research ideas, serving on your dissertation committee, and finally providing employment opportunities after finishing up.
  3. The discipline, organization, and time management you’ve been forced to develop as part of working full time for an extended period of time means that you will likely work much smarter and harder than most other graduate students.

Overall I think that if you’re OK with tackling the above challenges, your additional experience actually gives you a significant leg-up in grad school.

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