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Going back to school at 36 but worried I'm getting too old

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So I've decided to go back to school and finish my bachelors in geology. I started this journey 15 years ago (I'm 36 now) but due to medical and family issues, I had to leave school. Since then, it's been a roller coaster ride trying to get things back in order but I'm finally ready.

So, what's the problem?

Well, like I said, I'm 36. I know this sounds silly but I'm worried I'm too old. You see, for years I've dreamed of pursuing a PhD in geology and working in academia. Before you ask, yes, I'm well aware that the job market is supersaturated with PhDs and getting a tenured position will be very difficult. Despite this, I just can't pull myself away from this goal. I want this so bad yet I have this nagging feeling that I'm too old and that it's just too late for me. :(

I know that pursuing this will take several years and on one hand I'm not put off by the time commitment but on the other hand, it does worry me. I'm afraid no one will be willing to give me a chance because of my age.

So, what are your thoughts?

Am I being silly thinking it's too late?


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Hi Steven, 

I will share with you my own personal experience. I apologize in advance if it seems like a long-winded post. I started my Phd last year when I was 35  ( I am 36 now, as well)  in a Humanities/Social Science program at an Ivy League College . I always dreamed of an academic career but due to family issues, I  had to work right after college. I had a great job, but I also felt completely apathetic, and I thought I needed to do something that makes me feel alive again. I decided to try out my luck and pursue this old dream. Of course, I had several worries not just because of age, and the dismal job prospects (I had for many years followed blogs about the misery of grad life and the uselessness of a Phd in Humanities) but I put all this aside and decided to focus my effort on pursuing this thing. Aside from the application process, here are a couple of challenges that I have faced:

1. Whether programs will consider you or not: I am in the Humanities, I am afraid I do not have an answer for this specific concern in the sciences. It may be a challenge, because many people have to join specific labs/research groups and most people in sciences Phd's are fresh-grads, as far as I know. I did have this concern as well when I was applying. I tried to emphasize in my personal statement that the skills I acquired during my professional career (the responsibilities, managing teams and projects, budgets..etc) will basically help me get through the many years of the Phd. My program had many people in the 30's, this actually encouraged me to apply. You can check the grad student profiles on the department websites of the programs you are interested in, to get a sense of their backgrounds.

2. The job market sucks: that means you really need to a get in a very good program if you want to have any chances of getting a job. By a good program, I mean the very best. Pedigree matters a LOT. One professor actually told me you did 50% of your job search by virtue of by being in this particular college. This was the top priority for me, I would not have left my very good job and salary if I did not know that I will end up in the best place.

3. Financial: Never do this unless you have full financial support from your program! And even if you do, this will definitely be a HUGE compromise. If you are professional, then you will have a very different standard of living and lifestyle. You will live on an allowance, the stereotype of a poor grad student running between events for free lunches and scrapping to make ends meet at the end of the month, is a painful reality! and unless you put your heart and soul in pursuing this then this will hit you the hardest! By all means try to make it break-even, do NOT dip into your savings (if you have any). I am single and I do not have any dependents, if you have a family or any dependents, you need to think thoroughly of how the financial aspects play out. 

4. Don't expect to be able to pick where you left off at the tender age of 23. Going back to study at the age of 35 is one of the hardest things I ever did in my life, and I am struggling with it. I was at the top of my class all my life and now I am finding it hard to keep up with everything and everyone. It's not that learning slows down as you grow older (although some studies actually prove this) but the set of skills you have acquired over your professional career is very different than that required for Academia. To acquire a new set of skills at this age is harder. It will take longer to finish things, to comprehend things and a lot of self-confidence and motivation not to feel like an imposter, but you can make up for that by working harder than everyone. Again, you have to be willing to put 100% of your heart and soul in this experience to make it work. And at times it will be frustrating but other times totally exhilarating. 

5. Everyone is younger. I never realized that I am "old" until I actually started this program last year. This is frustrating, I am single and I did not realize before coming in Academia that almost EVERYONE is younger than I. In the Humanities, my sense is that people usually start their PhD's around the age of 25-28 and in Sciences I guess around 23-26. And while it could be great to hang around younger folks who have different set of challenges, I simply feel I am past many of theirs. I do have a tonne of friends though, and I have an active social life, I try not to make this matter, but it's always at the back of mind (maybe that's just me!)

But on the other hand this could be something good, for example, I have travelled a lot and I have worked for 12 years,  so now I don't feel this huge pressure to finish ASAP  to go out to the "real world". This actually makes me focus more on my studies and on producing better quality research. I also cope well with the cynicism and the petty drama of Academia. By the age of 36, you have experienced enough in life to know how to handle such situations and not let them get to you.

5. This is a horribly narcissistic and lonely enterprise, it is very personal. It will test your very essence, your mettle and intelligence and sometimes you may realize you have reached your limits (and for me this was the scariest thing!) you will have to prove yourself all over again and again because everyone around you will be younger they may not be able to grasp what you are going through. The cliched adage of  "fake till you make it" never felt more true! But again because it is a personal enterprise, every little success feels like a huge triumph and at the age of 36 it is incredible and fascinating to feel again to be able to learn new things and create new things

Now, I have painted a very bleak image. But let me tell you this: So far, I think this was the best decision I ever took and I feel alive more than ever. I have concerns of course about my job prospects, but I am in a better position than my colleagues because well if worst comes to worst, I will just go back to my old career. Also, because it feels harder for me now at this age to go through those challenges, I feel even more persistent to make it succeed more than others around me. Every little win feels like a huge accomplishment. 

Best of luck! 



Edited by imd
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I'm not in a similar situation, but one of my friends went back to school at age 45 with 2 kids and having done service jobs up until that point. She got her second BA (she got one decades ago in music) in Geology and now is in a PhD program and rocking it. I don't think she has plans to go into academia after her program, but she seems happy and focused and fulfilled. Just my two cents - best of luck!

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Hi Steven,

Plain and simple, just do it. You'll only regret not doing it and the longer you wait the harder it will get. I am 35 and I'll be starting a masters in geology this fall. Many schools appreciate older students because we are viewed as being reliable, consistent, experienced, and hard working. I was offered a TA position and was told that my years of work experience played a role in them offering me the position.

Hope everything works out for you.

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  • 2 months later...

I'm pretty late to the party here, but I encourage you to game this out. Others have pointed out that your age is not an obstacle for getting into a graduate program, but that isn't quite what you asked. You want a career in academia, which means looking further ahead.

Say you are blindingly fast at every stage: it takes you 2 years to finish your bachelors, 5 to do the PhD (no intermediate MS), and 1.5 more years of postdoc. You are now nearly 45. You are also very productive writing lots of papers in high impact journals. Lucky you, you are offered a tenure track position right away, so start the tenure track of 5 years. You are now 50, and finally tenured and for the first time have some job security, and are maybe making $70k-90k a year. Maybe more if you are at the top of your field.

Here are questions for you to consider, given that everything went perfectly in the above scenario: Will you get enough work output in your remaining 10-20 year career to feel fulfilled? Can you save enough to ever retire? What could you have done in the intervening time, and would that have made you any more or less happy? If things don't go perfectly (chances are they won't) and you never have job security or don't approach a permanent position until you are nearly 60 (more likely), does that change any of the above?

I can't make those decisions for you, but I  think you will face a much harder time getting  early-career faculty positions at that age than you will getting a PhD. Compared to even 10 years ago, departments have less funding, and are less likely to retain the positions they do have when someone retires. That means hiring an older person for an early career position is inherently riskier from an institutional perspective--you have a shorter shelf life, and they may lose the position forever when you leave. I'm not saying this alone will prevent you from being hired (age discrimination is against the law), but when comparing otherwise qualified applicants this will be a concern and factor--and at the level where you stand a chance for such jobs, everyone is essentially equally, highly qualified, so this could well torpedo many opportunities.

My goal is not to discourage you, but I do want you to steel yourself against the likelihood that this career path will likely turn out to be a dud, as it is for plenty of PhDs who start at any age. So thinking about a backup, and gaining skills valuable to industry and consulting groups while in school (do some data science and machine learning techniques in your research...) could help you prepare for more likely outcomes than a professorship.

Edited by Usmivka
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11 hours ago, Usmivka said:

You are now 50, and finally tenured and for the first time have some job security, and are maybe making $70k-90k a year. 

I think that your scenario asks some good questions but I suggest that some of the financial assumptions/projections are off.

An assistant professor, at least in the CSU and UC systems will be in the six figure range if one includes benefits. If a person secures promotions at a decent rate, that professor could see compensation increase significantly.




Then there are the perks that reduce expenses. The access to libraries, gymnasiums, and subsidized reserved parking are worth hundreds, if not thousands a year. A professor may also have opportunities to get tuition/fees waived for offspring not just at one's parent institution but partnered schools. One should not overlook opportunities for generating additional revenue during semester/quarter breaks. If one really wants to crunch numbers, if a professor does most of his/her work on campus, there will be savings for reduced electricity and internet costs. And, as is being discussed in another forum, unpaid internships can work to the benefit of the professor willing to exploit shamelessly collegians and graduate students.

If a professor makes use of a Roth 401k, the "triple reward" of an insurance policy with a HSA option, and shares resources and divides expenses with a partner or spouse, a newly minted 50-year professor with at least 20 to 25 years of working years would, IMO, have a reasonable chance of making a comfortable life while building up an okay retirement fund. (All the more if the person participates in "wellness" programs and takes advantage of all of the benefits of a health insurance policy.

The cost of living in the future could go up, especially with an aging population and rising healthcare costs, but they could also go down with deep-learning ASIs making life easier, more efficient, and less costly for those who haven't been replaced by drones.

Also, there's nothing stopping an academic from changing careers from the Ivory Tower to the private sector towards the end of one's career. (I've overheard a very senior vp at my firm talking about academics joining consulting because they go from wanting to save the world to making some money.)

So while I think an aspiring middle aged person contemplating a career in the Ivory Tower should take your recommendation under advisement, I also think that "gaming it out" should be based upon broader considerations than just the base salary of a professor.

Edited by Sigaba
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12 hours ago, Sigaba said:

So while I think an aspiring middle aged person contemplating a career in the Ivory Tower should take your recommendation under advisement, I also think that "gaming it out" should be based upon broader considerations than just the base salary of a professor.

While I agree somewhat, selecting the CSU and UC schools as what is typical of faculty salaries is not a good representative case given that California tends to have a higher cost of living in most places than the rest of the US.  I suggest for the OP to look at faculty salaries at public universities in several different states to get a better sense of what the range will be for ass't professors.

On 8/22/2018 at 3:59 PM, Usmivka said:

Say you are blindingly fast at every stage: it takes you 2 years to finish your bachelors, 5 to do the PhD (no intermediate MS), and 1.5 more years of postdoc. You are now nearly 45. You are also very productive writing lots of papers in high impact journals. Lucky you, you are offered a tenure track position right away, so start the tenure track of 5 years. You are now 50, and finally tenured and for the first time have some job security, and are maybe making $70k-90k a year. Maybe more if you are at the top of your field.

Usmivka has nailed it with the timeline issues which I think is the real problem.  And is it only reasonable to do one postdoc in geology?  Most of the science postdocs that I know are on their second or third postdoc before they even consider going on the academic job market.  I would also look into what the industry options are for master's degree recipients in geology - that might be a better compromise. 

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  • 4 weeks later...

I am chiming in to share my experience and offer an element of the financial aspect I considered (and still consider). I just turned 45, am in a PhD program and will be ABD after quals this spring. I finished my BA after 1 1/2 years of coursework finishing in Dec '14. Got in to a MS program (was willing to relocate) and after a semester picked up some funding that covered my tuition, most of my health insurance, and paid me. 2 years on the MS, grad Aug '17. Continuing to the PhD, I spent last year doing coursework and research. Coursework is done, will defend my proposal this fall and am lucky enough to get to travel for some fieldwork. So I am about 5 years in and have 2-3 to go counting the whole trip--which sounds similar to what you are about to tackle. It has been instrumental that I am on a fellowship that covers my tuition and pays me a reasonable salary. I have a wife (who contributes financially) and a two year old daughter. We take family trips, and have bought a couple of houses in the past two years (just pointing out we aren't starving).

For me, the PhD was always a life goal as well. While working in academia is a possibility, I am doing this because I believe it helps make me the best possible person I can be. I am looking at the journey as door opening and as I go I try not to pigeon hole the future. I don't see myself necessarily being willing to make the sacrifices that go along with the responsibilities at an R1. Part of the financial calculation should probably include what you are giving up. So, if tuition is covered and I make 24k/year, I need to consider what I would have made working. If I would have made 100k then the cost of the education has to include the difference between my compensation and the "would have made" number on an annual basis. In this case it is 76k a year, but you could back out tuition and benes for consideration as well. In addition how much of that would you have saved and been making 7% on? Just pointing out the opportunity cost while you are in school is probably substantial.

In short--at least to this point--people have never considered my age in terms of providing me opportunity, though if this will continue, I cant say. Also, given the opportunity cost I mentioned combined with working years ahead of me it might not payoff financially, but there is more to this equation. What makes you happy? How many 'things' do you need? If the PhD is the credential you need to put yourself in a position to be qualified to contribute to society in the way you want then go for it. I have no regrets about the experience so far and would make the same choices I did in '13 if I had it to do over again.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Go back for the BS, maybe consider if there are accelerated classes on 8 week sessions or something to get that BS knocked out and apply to some programs and see what happens. If you work hard, are nice, play well with others, have a good work ethic and are reasonably bright there is no reason why you can't do what you are discussing... I did.

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As Usmivka mentioned - the question is not about whether the person can get the PhD.  I definitely think they can and there are always posters each year who talk about going back at older ages than the typical PhD student. 

This question is what does the academic job market look like when the person is in their mid 40's to early 50's as either a recently minted PhD or postdoc.  This seems even more tricky in science fields where the norm is to go straight through from undergrad to PhD and then do multiple postdocs.  There doesn't seem to be as much anecdotal evidence that these candidates are successful or at least those same posters don't come back to talk about how it was on the academic job market.  I don't know if they decided not to go the academic route sometime during the PhD, don't finish, or just are not interested in participating in the Grad Cafe.

I would definitely recommend for the OP to have some financial plan Bs and to explore jobs that can get with a master's in geology.

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