Am I too old (51) to go to grad school?
November 11, 2013 8:18 AM   Subscribe

I have been thinking about getting my pHD—for a couple of reasons. Though I am a very well-established and published non-fiction author, I have been up for a few teaching positions lately and have been told that my lack of an advanced degree (I have a BA) is holding me back. In addition, I simply am interested in going deeper with my work; the degree I am considering is in geography, though history of science also intrigues me. The question: am I crazy to be thinking of this at my age? I don't want to get a degree strictly as a "broadening my knowledge" proposition—I want to be able to use it and to teach. But we're seriously talking being the oldest guy in the class, most likely. So, my questions: is it worthwhile? will it help me find employment teaching? does my existing experience count for anything? and where do I start? Thoughts, answers, advice...all appreciated. Thanks.
posted by soulbarn to Education (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
So, I'm assuming this is for jobs teaching non-fiction writing? The relevant terminal degree would be an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction. And you can do a low residency M.F.A.
posted by munyeca at 8:29 AM on November 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

The people hiring for the teaching positions: did they specifically say they wished you had a PhD, or just any advanced degree? You should think of a PhD as a professional degree for academia, so unless you're intending to become an academic (not just a teacher, but a tenure-track academic, and think thrice about that, since the job market is horrible), or truly need specifically a PhD for the positions you're being passed over for, I'd not go down that road. It's a long, very poorly rewarded slog.

Instead, if some sort of Master's degree will get you there, or most of the way there, that would probably be a better proposition. Journalism, maybe creative nonfiction?

On preview: yes, what munyeca said.
posted by The Michael The at 8:30 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

So here's the thing about doctoral programs in the U.S.: they are basically designed to turn you into a professor, and the process by they do this is by completely immersing you in the subject. As in, you will be expected to do nothing else but the doctorate while you're a Ph.D. student, and you will probably need to live off of a rather small amount of money (and, since we're talking the social sciences, take on rather a lot of debt) in the process. Also, a Ph.D. in the social sciences can take anywhere from 7-10 years; you would be nearly 60 (if not over 60) by the time you earned the degree, which does not give you a lot of time between then and retirement to pay off the debt you'll be incurring.

What kind of teaching positions are you looking at? High school, two-year college, four-year college/university? Adjunct or permanent? If it's anything other than a permanent position at a four-year college, a master's degree can be sufficient, and only takes two or three years if you're a full time student. You might consider looking at adjunct-type positions and getting a master's degree. Who knows — the experience you gain might even make you sufficiently attractive to cause permanent and/or four-year positions to give you a second look.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:35 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

My question is the same as The Michael The's: what kind of teaching is involved? Are these full-time positions or part-time (adjunct) positions?

The market for full-time academic jobs in the humanities is largely national, though community colleges are still partial exceptions to that. Are you willing to relocate? During my job search, I applied for about 40 jobs and postdocs (in fall 1996-spring 1997), from Alaska to Alabama and Maine to California. I had two on-campus interviews, one in California and one in Massachusetts, and one job offer (Massachusetts).

If that's your goal, I'd think at least twice about a Ph.D. It would take 2-4 years of coursework and qualifying exams, followed by researching and writing a dissertation. As a skilled professional writer, you could probably do that a lot faster than the typical Ph.D. student, who is figuring out how to write a book as she or he goes along. But it would still be 4-5 years at a minimum.

If you have potential teaching gigs available, and it's the lack of a Ph.D. that's holding you back, then it's worth considering. There are programs (such as my program at UMass Amherst) that have older students. I've had one Ph.D. student who was 10 years older than me. One of our current students is a Latin teacher who I'd guess is in his 50s. At the top 20 programs, most students are recent college grads (with some exceptions), but the next tier down tends to have a wider range, including students who have decided to change careers.

If you'd like more specific advice, feel free to MeMail me--especially advice about history of science, which is my field.

And by the way, my wife and I listened to To See Every Bird on Earth as a recorded book during one of our trips back to the Midwest, and we loved it. Thanks for writing it!
posted by brianogilvie at 8:42 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have also thought I could benefit from the PhD and I have been offered entrance into two programs. But as Johnny Assay said "you will be expected to do nothing else but the doctorate while you're a Ph.D. student." I have a fairly established career and that would be difficult for me, both from a psychological and a monetary perspective. I had one potential advisor assure me I would be able to continue some of my current work, so you may be able to find a similar situation, but even if she let me do that, I suspected I would not have integrated into the grad school culture as well and I don't know how that kind of situation would look to other I'd work with in academia. So I told myself I'd either give up everything and do the PhD or not do the PhD. And I chose the latter. But depending on the departments and advisors you explore, you might be able to make different choices. My suggestion would be to find potential advisors either though current connections you have or through writing to people you admire in the field.
posted by melissam at 8:44 AM on November 11, 2013

Though I don't know whether you're too old to start the PhD program -- obviously, if you are thinking of starting a tenure track job afterwards in a region where you actually want to live, it's a gamble -- I don't think you have to limit yourself to that route.

Maybe you should think about applying for university teaching jobs in a different way. If you apply for regular tenure-track jobs without a PhD in sight, you're not going to be hired no matter how accomplished you are -- a PhD's just the basic requirement. BUT it sounds as if you're an accomplished and well-read author, and you could potentially have more luck fashioning a proposal to become a special non-tenure track professor of your own field. This kind of professor make as much or more than junior faculty and have much more freedom (less committee work, -- also no dissertations to advise, which is good or bad depending on how you look at it -- and just less pressure in general to get promoted.) As this kind of professor, you're basically offering your life of work, not your PhD, as a resource to the university, and you are valued for what you've already done in your life. This is, for example, how politicians, directors, and popular writers often become part of a university teaching team.

If I were you, I'd look at a large university where you live, or where you want to live, and write a letter expressing your interest in teaching -- making clear that you are not looking for the tenure track job -- to the department chair and relevant Dean.
posted by third rail at 8:52 AM on November 11, 2013

I've known several people who'd gone back to do doctoral work in their 40s and 50s, and who've seemed quite happy doing that, but I think it really needs to be in something you love. I.e., something you plan to probably be doing until you are not mentally competent enough to continue, and that you never care about making real money with. There are almost certainly better ways to find employment, if employment is what you care about, that don't require nearly as many years of commitment.
posted by Sequence at 8:54 AM on November 11, 2013

This will be overkill in trying to answer some of your questions and do include things that I wish I knew before plunging into a PhD program.

Caveat: I am mainly familiar with the PhD track (and search for and landing faculty positions) in the sciences, but I think that some of these same things should apply to your possible degree.

I really would not worry about your age; I interviewed at one department where every single person was 55 or older (and 2 had been hired in the previous 2 yrs).

As for being oldest in a class, some departments (ie psychology, public health) often have older students. But they usually brought really interesting perspectives/prior experience/insights that you could not get from the literature - in other words, often an asset. So dont let age stop you from being in a classroom pursuing a graduate degree.

However, these are things that you may want to think about:

Do you need income and/or time to work during this time period? Will the prospective departments that you are looking for fully fund you?

A PhD program usually takes up all of your time. In the sciences, they fund your tuition plus some money for a low/okay standard of living. However, other programs (i.e. English) may only offer partial tuition in exchange for teaching. So I would look into fellowships, what proportion of people in the desired program are on them, etc. (I only considered places that offered all students in a department full fellowships- you may or may not need the money, but it is something to think about).

Do you want to live in a particular area? Are there areas that you do not want to live and would you be okay with teaching in Kansas or Ohio or a small, small town in Idaho.

As an anecdotal data point, several years ago, I was able to get job offers (some tenure track/some not) for positions in my area of expertise. BUT they were only in small towns- I had a choice between tiny town A, tiny town B, and tiny town C. I did do it for a few years, but after a while, I decided to leave vs live somewhere else. I know someone a yr ago in a very competitive area and he was only offered job. The tl;dr thing that I wish I knew was that in academia, you are likely not to be able to pick where you live.

In addition to that there are people who never get full time positions (check out chronicle for higher education forums). Some people seem very bitter. There is no reason to suggest that this will happen to you, but I think that anyone considering academia should be aware that there are pple who get a PhD and never land a full time position.

Does it have to be university level? Can it be community college level?

Although you would need a PhD for most university positions, CCs typically only require a masters. This may be the most bang for your buck in terms of time and money; one to 2 yrs and you are done.

Does your existing experience count?

I would make an appointment with someone on the admissions committee/or a person that you foresee doing research with at a university that you are considering and ask to meet briefly. I don't know your publications, nor your field- but you can find out if your publications would count towards tenure, etc. Of course, you would still have to do with the PhD, but you could be a competitive candidate several yrs from now. Or maybe it could count towards research for your dissertation, but have someone who would be in your prospective field evaluate this.
posted by Wolfster at 8:59 AM on November 11, 2013

You have to really think about what your end-goal is and whether a PhD fits that. Your age is not really the "oh noes" factor. It's the length of time you may need to complete + whether the program will be funded or unfunded + whether you actually need that level of higher education to teach + you will lack for experience.

I am also not clear on why you want to get a PhD in those particular fields. For many programs, a statement of intent will be required as part of the application process, and your current reasoning may not be convincing to an admissions committee.
posted by sm1tten at 9:07 AM on November 11, 2013

On the question of being too old, the answer is an emphatic no, you are not. I manage a graduate student society and our age range foes from 23 to 74. The average age is 31, and there are many in the 40s and a few in the 50s.

On the question of whether it is a good idea for work prospects, I would speak to someone in your field, and perhaps a follow up information interview with the place that you wanted to work and didn't hire you. PhD is a full time job, and if you are looking at Geography, I would be cautious if the school is not offering to pay your way. I agree with Wolfster that if your goal is teaching, an MA and working in a college may be the best route.

You might call the graduate student society of the university you are considering, and ask to be put in touch with a grad student in your field. My society has a rep from every department, and the rep tends to know the main goo and bad things in their department. They will probably be able to give you the bitter truth -- how many recent grads have work in the field? How does the department treat you? etc. They may also know which supervisor is awesome, etc.
posted by chapps at 9:23 AM on November 11, 2013

I agree that an M.A. or an M.F.A. would probably be a better way to go. But in the spirit of answering your direct question (about the PhD) I have a few follow-up questions for you.

1.) How much academic writing have you read?

Apologies for starting with the basics if you're way past this point, but before you do anything else, get yourself temporary access to an academic library and read 1.) the most recent issue flagship journal in your proposed field and 2.) a handful of dissertations in that field. Forget popular nonfiction: this is your genre now. How do you feel about that? If you feel good and invigorated, proceed to step two. If you broke out in hives, re-evaluate. Honestly, this is the advice I wish someone had given me before I started my PhD program. This is six years of your life (at least). Will it culminate in a work you are proud of? Or will it be an exercise in frustration, as you struggle to accommodate yourself to a set of conventions that in almost every other arena would make your writing worse? I'm not saying that there isn't good academic writing in the world; I'm only saying that getting a PhD involves a.) patiently slogging through a lot of very, very bad writing and b.) producing a hell of a lot of bad writing yourself on the way to mastering its conventions. And it's not - as I think I sort of imagined back in the day - that academics simply don't know how to write and you're going to show up and teach them the value of literary clarity. For better or worse, the process of getting a PhD is the process of learning to write like an academic. Are you 100% sure you're okay with that?

2.) How much pride do you have?

I don't think you are too old to get a PhD, not even close. But by enrolling in a PhD program, you are basically signing up to start from scratch, and to be the bottom of the totem pole for the next six years of your life. People will probably think the fact that you've published books is super cool. They are still going to make you sit down and take exams and take great joy in demonstrating all the myriad facets of your ignorance; they're going to expect you to do their scut copying and grading work; they'll still treat replying to your emails as optional, and they're still going to treat you as a student and not as an intellectual equal, because that's what you'll be. Your age won't change that, and neither will your accomplishments. I don't mean to sound bitter but I don't know anyone who finished a PhD who didn't find it, at least partially, an exercise in getting one's ego crushed into the ground. Eventually, they sort of build you back up (maybe? I guess?) but still...if you're applying to teaching jobs now, you're basically at the point where you consider other professors your equals. If you want to become a PhD candidate, you will need to be able to let that go.

3.) How much money do you have?

If, if, if you have enough money in the bank that you could combine your current savings with the stipend in a good program (~$18,000/year) then maybe, maybe, maybe I would say you could enroll in the full knowledge that you are doing this only to get the credential, and nothing else, and do your damnedest to blow through the program in four years. You could take classes that are interesting to you and not worry too much about grades, fulfill the bare minimum of the teaching requirements you need to graduate, find sympathetic professors and turn in a workmanlike dissertation that is just good enough to pass. Because if there are people on the other end who already want to hire you, but there are administrative rules that prevent them from doing so if you don't have the PhD, then maybe you don't have to worry as much about all the gatekeeping and weird power dynamics and the cycle of poverty that makes being a Real Grad Student such a mess. The people who are mentally healthiest in these programs have a way out, and they know that being the Number One Star on the academic tenure track isn't the only thing that matters in life. So in that sense, your age and accomplishments could actually be the best advantages you have, because they might keep you from becoming academia's bitch.

If I were you, I'd take every professor you know socially out for coffee and ask them what they think. I honestly think it's a pretty batshit insane idea, but I also think that academia is in terrible crisis and the only solution is to start thinking outside the box in terms of what we expect from both grad students and future professors. You would probably learn a lot from a PhD, and I imagine students would benefit from having you as a professor, so I sort of want to believe you could make this work. If you could find a mentor who cares a lot about making that happen, maybe you would have a chance...but you'd need to go into it with your eyes wide open, and 100% committed to making it through to the other side.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 9:33 AM on November 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

the degree I am considering is in geography, though history of science also intrigues me.

With regard to a Ph.D. in Geography, graduates from competitive programs are in demand at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (formerly known as the Defense Mapping Agency and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency) according to Trevor Paglen in his book Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World.

I know you are looking for teaching positions, so I mention this just to give you an idea of other career paths for people pursuing that degree.
posted by mlis at 9:45 AM on November 11, 2013

My mother is back in school for a Master's at age 56. She'd like to teach English at a high school or community college level. Regardless of whether the degree ends up helping her career aspirations, she absolutely loves being back in an academic environment. Pursuing a degree makes her happy, and for that alone, it's worthwhile. She actually enjoys being the oldest student in the class -- she feels more confident discussing topics and holding her own with professors than she did when she was in her 20s.

Based on my secondhand knowledge of her experience, I'd say this:
-- The advanced degree might help you find a job, but it's no guarantee.
-- Your experience will help you make the most of your classes.
-- The best place to start is by requesting information from schools in your area.
-- It's worthwhile if you like it, and it isn't a financial strain.
posted by Sullenbode at 9:46 AM on November 11, 2013

I'd seriously assess the academic job market. Are these solid teaching positions or adjunct?

I'd also look up faculty at nearby institutions, pick a few who do work that interests you and contact them. Or work your connections--you know enough people in geography-adjacent fields who probably went to school nearby.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:00 AM on November 11, 2013

Hey cool, I was just talking about your banana book last Friday at a friend's party!

You have a lot of visibility, which counts big time in the game of Who Gets Funding, where the Funded get Funder. I'm not sure what this phenomena is called, maybe Preferential Attachment?

I think you should reach out directly to geography professors and tell them who you are, and what you want to study. If they think you can get full funding, and will help you with your proposals and applications, then I think you should go for this. Be very clear about your goals when reaching out.

UCLA's Geography department has some good tips (this is where Jared Diamond works.
posted by oceanjesse at 10:36 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

The PhD market for high- and medium-prestige teaching jobs is national, and I'm sorry to say you are (realistically) probably too old to be a serious candidate for a tenure-track position unless you are very well-known nationally. Even if they're legally barred from discriminating against you on the basis of age, they'd do it anyway, and there'd be no way for you to prove anything. A PhD is also a very time-consuming process: 7.7 years is the national average in the humanities.

The teaching market for lower-prestige jobs for PhDs, MFAs, and MAs is regional and local, however, and would potentially be doable for you as these jobs have high turnover and are "intended" to be non-permanent. (Though competition even for these jobs is increasingly fierce.) An MA can be done in one year; an MFA can be done in 2 or 3. Still, you'd want to think this through carefully: Do you live in a place that has many universities? Would you be willing to work for the sorts of low wages adjuncts and NTT faculty tend to receive? Would you be able to live with the impermanence of having year-long or even semester-long contracts? Do you have a base of savings that would make this kind of downshift in earning potential palatable?

If you were my friend, honestly, I'd tell you not to do it, unless money was really no object.
posted by gerryblog at 10:54 AM on November 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I know that you're interested in a graduate degree in geography or the history of science, but here's another possibility--the master's degree in literary journalism offered by UC Irvine. That degree might help you to get jobs teaching writing, which, given the information that you've provided about your background/life stage, might be a more likely prospect than jobs teaching either of the other subjects. I'd probably ask the faculty there about exactly what their graduates have done with the degree.

The MFA in creative writing at Antioch Los Angeles could also be a possibility. Most people who teach creative writing, at least, tend to have an MFA. And as long as we're discussing low-residency MFA programs, I'm a big fan of the one at Warren Wilson (from which I graduated), though I don't think it has a non-fiction concentration.

Hope this information is at least somewhat useful!
posted by chicainthecity at 11:57 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

In order to teach tertiary academia, you typically* need the terminal degree in that field. The terminal degree varies depending on field.

FYI even after getting the terminal degree and depending in what field, the academic market is really, really tough. In the humanities, the Chronicle approximates that only 6% find any type of full-time work in academia (including non-tenure-track work). It's better in the sciences, but still not great. Often new hires are based on either track record or "potential," and you likely don't have the former in your Ph.D. field unless your publications include a lot of academic texts and conference papers while the latter would, fairly or not, probably not be considered a given due to your age.

*If all you want to do is adjunct, you should be able to pick up a course or two at small regional universities without having your terminal degree. Though you'll still likely need an MA and relevant professional experience.
posted by vegartanipla at 12:57 PM on November 11, 2013

What will you learn in 6 years that you can't learn otherwise? What will you be able to DO in 7 years that you can't do otherwise? Is there a more efficient route to getting to that 'do' objective.

Will you gain in content or process? If content only, I suspect it's available outside a PhD program. I can see process limitations that aren't easy to get outside, like someone passing judgment on your thesis, having to endlessly research, write and then defend it, exploring what will make a worthy subject, and leaving something original behind.

I DO think age is a barrier. To the degree you displace younger aspirants, take up resources they would use (including any financial aid and professor time), and to the degree you rely on them for peer services, you may not have ACTUAL problems, but you may have ethical problems. We don't think 'old' applies to us, especially with our eyes shut, but from out there looking in, we have some PR problems. I besieged UNC once and beat the hell out of them in a PR battle that involved a retirement department (my description:"... a rec room for wealthy white seniors". Ouch.) I was young. My barbs resonated, though. (War is hell, no? I won.)

I have toyed with this myself. My ego is such that I am attracted by the creds awarded, but then, I recall how many PhDs I know who use/used me as their problem solver. My 40 years in the trenches just recently rather handily mentored a Cornell PhD scientist. It's about the 10th time, too. I also raised a few million bux for a pile of them once. There is plenty a PhD doesn't supply, believe me. One of them dumpster-dove for thrown out pizza during his doctoral program while I was deciding how to best apply my retirement plan options, extensive benefits, and company perks. If one is honest, ego fertilizer can be self-generated at a great savings over the professional brand. At this point, I think my major goal would be to compete with my high school friends who did it in their 20's, and that's a clear appreciation of why I would do it, and why I shouldn't. I know myself fairly well, though. Do you?

Not to put water on your fire. You have creds. Do you believe in them? Do you have a clear picture of why you need more? Do the economics make sense? Will it enhance or defer achievement of your real goal(s)? Is there an alternative of better design? Is this the best way...a global optimum?
posted by FauxScot at 1:27 PM on November 11, 2013

Are you familiar with Marshall Ganz? He dropped out of Harvard in the 60s to be a union organizer with Cesar Chavez and spent the next 25 years working in politics and advocacy. He decided to finish his bachelor's in his late 50s - while he was back at Harvard, he realized he wanted to do more research and develop some analytical frameworks for the theory and practice of organizing for social change, so he continued on with a PhD in sociology.

He was able to leverage his existing experience and connections to do some really ground-breaking work (definitely not the kind of work someone who entered a PhD program at 25 would be able to do) and wound up being hired by the Harvard Kennedy School as a professor, where he's continued to do really interesting work, including advising the Obama campaign in 2007 on what wound up becoming their organizing model, which is now copied by everyone.

This is obviously a pretty exceptional example: he took a big risk, and it only worked because he was able to leverage his existing connections and experience, and because he happened to be lucky enough to do this at a time when there was a lot of rising interest both in sociology and in the real world in what he was studying. It also didn't hurt that he got his BA and PhD from Harvard, which is not only a prestigious school, but happened to have a professional school that was really interested in his particular area of expertise. It's also key that he was well-respected in his field before going back to school, and if academia hadn't worked out, it wouldn't have been much of a problem for him to return.

So I guess what I'm saying is that as an older student, you have assets that a younger student won't have, but I think you also have to be fairly savvy about how to leverage those skills and connections.
posted by lunasol at 1:39 PM on November 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Of course, only do a funded program and be realistic about age preferences on the hiring market, but beyond that -- the one advantage you should have over a typical graduate student is that you know yourself really, really well, and you have an edge in determining if you have this unusual constellation of attributes, which you can group into a few core paradoxes / contradictions:

(1) at once fiercely ambitious, competitive, and self-promoting, and yet very patient, tolerant, flexible, generous with praise, and willing to accept criticism (often wrong-headed) with a smile

(2) constitutionally well suited to workloads that require incredible persistence and attention over long amounts of time (sitzfleisch, as they say), and yet prone to great, sharp, accelerating insights (in other words, are you both the tortoise and the hare?)

(3) extremely, passionately interested in your narrow area of study and the work and personalities of your senior colleagues, and yet willing to drop anything and everything and move anywhere to get the right fellowship or job with anyone and to teach and research in potentially any remotely connected area of your field in order to progress your career.

I would also say that you need to put out of your mind entirely the idea that your PhD could take seven or more years. Anyone who will hire you will do so because they believe that your potential productivity in the active years you have outweighs your age. Finishing in five years if possible, and six at most, demonstrate this like nothing else. They will also show a vitality which is critical given they would expect that you would want to be teaching and research for years, if not decades, beyond typical retirement.
posted by MattD at 4:26 PM on November 11, 2013

I don't think 51 is too old to go to grad school. I do, however, think it is too old to get into significant debt to do so.

My advice is to do the degree if you can get it for free or damn close to free but not otherwise.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 9:56 PM on November 11, 2013

I'm 60. I think you are too old. By the time you are finished you'll be getting into the age bracket where employers don't want to hire you to keep health insurance costs down. You'll have a hard time getting that job. Not only would you be new at that position but aged on top of it. Just ask some people about job hunting over 55.
posted by nogero at 1:24 PM on November 12, 2013

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