Further study after failure?
July 19, 2011 3:44 PM   Subscribe

I'm in my forties and have a really bad academic record, but I want to do a Masters. What are my options?

My academic record is a mess. I studied at various institutions for undergrad, failed a lot of units (due to severe depression resulting in hospitalisation) and never told the university my reasons. My parents offered to sort it out with the university at the time but I didn't care. I then got into another university and dropped out one unit short of getting my degree. That was nearly 20 years ago so those units can no longer be counted towards a degree.

I did some undergrad units at the Open University for fun a few years back and got really great results, but again, didn't go anywhere with it. I have no doubt that I am over and done with undergrad but I pretty much have nothing to show for it. I then enrolled in a postgrad unit but didn't do anything so have a 'Did not complete' on my record there.

I am also incredibly ashamed of and embarrassed about the whole thing. My academic record is a mess of incompletes and fails interspersed with high distinctions. Plus I've studied for years and don't even have an undergraduate degree to show for it!

For various reasons which I won't bother to detail here, I am now confident that I won't have this problem again. I also have good reasons for wanting to continue with study, and money/time commitment is not an issue. However, I don't know where to start. Should I just begin again at first-year undergrad level and suck it up? Or are there other ways I could demonstrate my ability and commitment?

Although rationally I know it's nothing to be ashamed of, I am terribly ashamed of how my mental health problems have affected my life. I can't bring myself to discuss this with anyone, and no longer have contact with anyone in academia who could write a reference for me. I just wish there was a way to wipe my record and start afresh.

Please don't be too harsh, my ego is fragile enough already where this is concerned.

TL;DR: Bad academic record, completed undergrad requirements but have no degree, want to do a Masters or in any case study further. What to do?
posted by anonymous to Education (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of Master's degree are you looking to do? If it's an exec MBA, you should have very few issue getting into school. Something more academic might be a problem, depending on the institution.

I know many universities make exceptions for mature students. Here in Toronto, I have heard of schools letting in older folks if they do a year or two as a non-degree student and show exceptional results.

You have to go to the respective registrars or counsellors at each institution and find out. Don't be shy, and be polite but persistent. It may take some pushing to get the information you're looking for.
posted by sid at 3:53 PM on July 19, 2011

Finish an undergrad degree first. Look for a program like Empire State College, that might award credit based on experience.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 3:56 PM on July 19, 2011

I think more than reference letters and applying through the usual process, it's probably a good idea to connect with the department where you want to study first, and see what their needs are. The teaching staff may be able to help you get in.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:59 PM on July 19, 2011

(Assuming you're in the US)...The best thing to do is to go to the admissions office of your local public university and present all of this to an admissions counselor and ask for their advice. You will likely have to take some undergraduate courses no matter what.

Depending on what kind of master's you're interested in, admissions can be very competitive and you may be competing against people with bachelor's from good schools with a good GPA. Also, consider the possibility that, even if you could start a master's in the fall, your credits from 20 years ago may mean you're not quite prepared yet for actually completing graduate level coursework.

On preview, StrikeTheViol's advice is also good. A quality, non-profit distance program aimed at non-traditional students like Empire State or University of Maryland University College could also be a good place to start asking questions. (But stay away from the for-profits like University of Phoenix, especially while you're trying to figure things out.)
posted by hydropsyche at 4:03 PM on July 19, 2011

It really depends on what you personally want to do (whether you do Master's, undergrad, etc). There are really so many options available to you, particularly if you have work experience in the field in which you want to study. Don't think of undergrad as being somehow less than a Master's - it isn't if you're interested and passionate enough about whatever it is that you're studying. OTOH, your experience might get you into a Master's. Look at all your options.

I think you're never too old to do what you want with your life - the only thing you have to do is to make it happen.

The way to start afresh is to just jump in there and do it. Your life can really be whatever you want it to be - it really doesn't have to be (and shouldn't be) tied to something that happened 20 years ago.

You're willing, able, and want it - so give it a go!
posted by mleigh at 4:10 PM on July 19, 2011

Note: I think this person is in the UK due to references to The Open University and language use.
posted by Jehan at 4:19 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

If this is a psychology degree or anything related, being honest is the answer.
posted by Maias at 4:32 PM on July 19, 2011

I had similar fears about applying to graduate school. I decided to submit a statement about my academic record which expressed regret for missed opportunities and discussed skills and experience that I had acquired since last schooling. I made strong points about enhanced maturity and ability to achieve. Not sure if this made any difference but it helped me feel more confident about my application. This was in 2006 and I graduated with my Master's in 2009.
posted by rglass at 6:22 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

You're getting good advise here.

I know the system very well. Assuming you're in the States (I don't know other systems well):

1) Throw away all that regret. Sounds like you're in a completely new place and have got your head on strait. That's what's important--NOT THE DISTANT PAST.

2) Communication is going to be your best friend. You're going to find that everyone around you--admissions couselors included (and I know many)--will LOVE your story. Call up or visit the places you're interested in going and meet with them. Ask their advise. They will LOVE helping you.

3) Brace yourself for doing a bit--maybe even several years--of undergraduate work to earn your undergraduate degree. DON"T WORRY ABOUT THIS. You're old enough to know how quickly the time goes by.

4) Think of the long term. It will be here sooner than you realize. You'll be ansering someone's else's same question.

5) Finally: your life experience is a blessing, not a curse. You might find that you're older than some of your colleagues---all this means is that you can easily go circles around them and snag all the awards, kudos, respect and in time: the career you're working towards.

Go kick some a$$
posted by Murray M at 6:32 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wish I spell checked that, sorry
posted by Murray M at 6:33 PM on July 19, 2011

Depending on the schools and programs you're interested in applying to, it might be possible to find a few good schools that will accept you without the undergrad degree. Rather, I've heard of this happening in the case of someone who dropped out of college in his senior year, then went back for an MFA in creative writing, as well as someone who quit early in her freshman year but worked in an academic research lab for several years afterward and was offered admission into the PhD program that the professor who ran the lab was faculty for. (Ooof, run-on sentences!)
posted by soviet sleepover at 6:46 PM on July 19, 2011

There's no reason to be ashamed, and you have excellent prospects for accomplishing what you want to. People in higher ed have seen it all, and older students coming back to school after a long interval is fairly common. Many schools already have programs in place for students in your situation.

More details would help. If you can email one of the moderators and give them more details, they can post them here. You can also use the contact link at the bottom-right corner of this page to email them.

1. Where are you located, and where would you want to attend school? (Country and state/city/province/region would be useful)

2. Would you want to attend one of the schools you attended previously? Or would you want to avoid that? Or doesn't matter?

3. What subject(s) do you want to pursue a Master's in?

4. What do you foresee doing with the Master's (eg is it a qualification for a specific job, or what)?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:17 PM on July 19, 2011

Well, I'm going to guess that you're in Australia.

My undergrad record was atrocious, and I also left after several years without an undergrad degree and nothing but a handful of passes, a couple of credits, and a string of withdrews / did not finish / fails.

Cut to ten years later, and I suddenly knew what I wanted to do. I couldn't use any of my undergrad credits, so I decided to jump straight to postgrad. I went to the admissions centre, made an appointment with the head of the relevant department, and got approval to enrol in a couple of subjects on a non-award basis. I got two High Distinctions. I went back to the head of school - might I be permitted to enrol in a Grad Cert, and claim credit for the two subjects already completed? No problem, two more subjects, two more High Distinctions. Back again - might I be permitted to enrol in the Masters? No problem, four more subjects, four more HDs, my first Masters. (I now have two!)

So, my advice is to go talk to the uni about it. They won't even bat an eyelid if you tell them you had depression. It will be the hardest thing you've ever done, until about five seconds later when you realise they're just looking at you like you said you'd broken your arm skiing. They will be impressed by your HDs from Open Uni. You should have no problem enrolling on a non-award basis with an agreement that if you pull, say, Credits, you'll be allowed to switch to an award. It's all down hill from there.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:14 PM on July 19, 2011

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