Pep me up please!
February 28, 2012 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Looking for success stories of older PhD students (mid to late 40s) who succeeded. Particularly interested in personal experience of was the pain worth it. Similar to this, but I already decided to jump in with both feet. More details inside.

47 yo wife, mother, part-time job in first year of CS PhD. Reached the first bump in the road and second-guessing myself. Would love a hoard of pep talks to read and save for future down days. Any help with balancing home life, kids, work, and school would be much appreciated.
posted by bmorrison to Education (11 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The topologist Joan Birman, professor emerita at Columbia, got her Ph.D. at 41. Interview with Birman from the Notices of the American Mathematical Society.
posted by escabeche at 7:12 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you have not already done so, you should join systers. There have been several threads on women getting CS degrees later in life - you will find your "hoard of pep talks" especially aimed at women in CS. You can also ask for encouragement and advice for your own particular situation.
posted by needled at 7:40 AM on February 28, 2012

Any help with balancing home life, kids, work, and school would be much appreciated.

I am in a science PhD, different field, one year father along than you, 20 years younger, funded with TA/RA position. I can not imagine doing this while holding down 20 hrs a week at a outside job and taking care of kids. Outsource or have your partner take care of whatever is possible, because you won't make it to quals/proposing your diss with 30 hours of your week going toward other stuff. Any serious, research-based science PhD is at minimum a 50 hour a week job, in my observation. I hope your husband is really on board with picking up the slack in a serious way without resentment for the next three to four years, and if he's not, that conversation needs to happen ASAP.

You've investigated all parenting resources available to you through your university, right? Like childcare if your kids still need it?

For a while you buy (healthy) prepared meals if no one can cook, get a maid even if it sounds expensive because your time is too important, and if your kids are old enough, they should be chipping in on housework, too. Have a place away from family interruptions to work and keep it sacred. Apply for whatever funding is available to you via fellowships because ideally you should scale back your working hours as much as possible if it works financially, unless your company made some deal where they are paying for your PhD while you work a certain schedule.
posted by slow graffiti at 7:59 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

During my REU at Arecibo Observatory, one of the staff scientists, Dr. Jo Ann Eder, had gotten her PhD in astrophysics late in life. The bio I just linked to says she entered grad school after her kids graduated high school.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 8:27 AM on February 28, 2012

In her early 40's, my MIL earned a Ph.D. in bio-statistics, and then went onto to land a tenured professorship at a teaching and research institution. While married and raising my wife and my sister in law. It took her a while, but she was (and is) a very dedicated student. So it can be done, even in a difficult field, but it isn't easy, and according to her you have to really, really love your field of study.
posted by mosk at 9:10 AM on February 28, 2012

I'm just hitting forty and finishing my dissertation. I have a full time job, a part time elected position in the community and three small children. My husband is too ill to work or help. I feel your pain.

I am determined to finish because for me there is no choice, the degree means financial security as I have no one else to rely on. I also have a deep passion for my field, and I am will contribute and change it for the good. What is your goal? Focus on that. The pain has definitely been worth it but I do regret how much of my life and my children's lives I have missed over the past few years. My health has suffered considerably - I loved going to the gym and yoga but I had to give that up in order to save money/caregiving. For a while I was having a couple of panic attacks a day but the drugs to treat it made me too sleepy to work on my dissertation at night after work. I have given up almost all hobbies and stress relievers (except AskMe, heh). This is a bad thing, and I regret I had no choice but to do so; I recommend you carve time away from your responsibilities to focus on recharging your batteries.

I have been pretty brutal in prioritising my life. For me, my children are my priority, this means that my schoolwork has not been at the quality I am capable of producing if I had no other responsibilities and I have reached my peace with that. Like all things in life you get three choices: cheap, fast, good; but can only chose two. Which are your two choices? There is nothing wrong with taking a longer time to finish or spending a lot of money outsourcing your current responsibilities in order to make room for an added responsibility. If your goal is to finish it is more important to cross the finish line then to have taken the societies "approved" path.

My friendships are now either distant acquaintances or extremely close friends (so close they make zero demands on me and accept me flitting in and out of their lives). I have no tolerance for people that believe a give and take relationship means they take and I give. This has destroyed a few relationships, but I actually believe that in the long run it is better for me. As women, we have been socialised to believe being selfish is a bad thing. To hell with that, I am putting myself and my children first and not wasting time on energy vampires. I am very, very lucky to have an amazingly close relationship with my parents and sister. They have been my lifeline. If you have people willing to give you unconditional support then take them up on their offer. As mentioned upthread, your husband is a key part of this, if he hasn't bought into the theory and the reality that you now have the equivalent of a full time job that has built in overtime every single week then you need to decide what is your priority, the degree or him.

Okay, I am going back to work on the dissertation again. Good luck!
posted by saucysault at 9:21 AM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

So if you are in CS I assume you have heard of Admiral Grace Hopper?

She had a PhD in Mathematics when she joined the Navy in 1944, at the age of 37. I just saw her Letterman interview where she mentions it was hard going through basic with women much younger than herself.

She spent the better part of 40 years in the Navy, moved up from Lieutenant to become a Rear Admiral.

She wasn't a student, but this was a major career change, moving from an Associate Professor at a highly regarded university to bottom of the rung officer in the military. And she had a long, wonderful career after that, which she even turned down a full tenured professorship for.

If you complete this degree, you easily have a 20 year career in front of you, and depending on how much you love it that could be pushed to 30 or 40 years or beyond.


Putting this aside though, life is a journey, not a destination. At this point in your life, you shouldn't be going through this because you are looking for something on the other side. You should be doing this because it's something you want to be doing, a goal you want to achieve. If you don't do it now, when? You won't be younger next year. You didn't think this would be easy; if it was everyone would do it. No, that's not you. You are doing this because it is hard, because it's a challenge, and because you love doing it. You will learn a lot, you will become smarter, you will be stronger, and you will emerge from this test a better person.

You can do this. I know you can. Good luck!
posted by I am the Walrus at 10:42 AM on February 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Echoing other comments above that in order to do this, you're going to need to consider outsourcing as much household stuff as possible and drop the part time job.

I did a PhD with a small child and it was intense.

I wish that I had something more to contribute. Please take care of yourself.
posted by k8t at 12:01 PM on February 28, 2012

First, I second that link to the interview with Prof. Birman. I attended a lecture of hers about a year ago and noticed several things about her which I found inspiring. Most relevant to you, I think, is the following. Some of the work she was discussing had a highly computational flavour. Although (if I recall correctly) it was joint work with some other folks, this fact is evidence that this person, who was born when digital computers were but a blink in a few very insightful eyes, was able to acquire a skill -- programming -- and adopt the accompanying viewpoint, comparatively late in life, after the age when a lot of people, even researchers, have fairly fixed habits of mind. It's always possible to learn new things and acquire new skills, and adopt new viewpoints. You're doing it at a (objectively still quite young) age at which lots of people begin to settle into a boring-ass rut. That's awesome.

People undertake projects of PhD-getting scale all the time, at any age, and the sort of person I want to be later in life undertakes new endeavours from a starting point of relative inexperience on a regular basis.

Also, your (not that unusual) age has advantages that may outweigh the disadvantages. For example, I just finished my PhD at 24, which is more "standard". About half of the work, I'd say, consisted of overcoming psychological hurdles that had little to do with graduate school, but instead were fairly natural features of growing up that happen to everyone, in some way, in their early 20s. You will not have that distraction. At your age, your identity has solidified more than that of a young person. You are more likely to know what actual hard work entails. You've got the basic practicalities of life down to a routine. In that sense, you're in a position to have a relatively bullshit-free time of it.

(Finally, if you're in your first year, you likely have quals soon. Allow yourself to go as crazy as you damn well please while preparing. It gets way more fun when they're done.)
posted by kengraham at 3:00 PM on February 28, 2012

Just had my viva in January and passed with minor corrections (which I am doing now). I turned 45 yesterday. It took me six years, part time, self-funded and I can honestly say it's the best (and hardest) thing that I've ever done. Sometimes I thought it would never actually end, but it has changed so much for me (and changed me so much).

My project was practice based in the arts with a 40,000 word thesis, so a very different beast to yours, but I thinka lot still holds true. As well a broadening and deepening my professional practice it got me started in teaching (which I love). I'm now a faculty member and student advisor for a low-residency MFA course as well teaching in adult education and doing youth outreach work, all things which I never knew I even had in me.

I also ended up a bit obsessed with Wittgenstein, but YMMV.

It's been tough on my family at times - I gained two step children a couple of years ago as result of a new relationship starting and I don't think my writing up period was much fun for anyone. I suspect that the trick there is to structure in quality time with them whenever you can and to be firm but fair about when and how much you need to work.

One of the biggest challenges for me was changing hats all the time (work/study/family) as I found that it quite often took me a while to get back to where I was with the writing after doing something else, so it was good to carve out longer periods of time where I could do that. Of course that's not always possible, so it's good to use the smaller working periods that you have to deal with the more mundane aspects of the project, i.e. updating your bibliography etc.

It's not going to be easy, but you owe it to yourself and them to get through this. And you will. I am the world's greatest procrastinator, and I got there in the end, largely because I didn't want to let either my family or my supervisors down. You will too. And yes, the pain is worth it.
posted by Chairboy at 6:14 PM on March 2, 2012

Sorry for the typos. It's late here.
posted by Chairboy at 6:15 PM on March 2, 2012

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