Waiting until 33 to start a PhD: anecdotes, tips, advice, perspective
November 7, 2018 7:22 AM   Subscribe

What was starting a PhD in your 30s like for you? Were there things you considered in preparation that proved to be especially useful for getting through it, especially in the time leading up to starting?

Hi mefites, I've found this forum to be very helpful in getting perspective in the past and so am asking for it again. I had planned to apply for PhD programs in public health this year, which, if admitted, would have led to my starting a PhD at age 32, which felt late enough. Because of reasons, I need to wait another year, so, if admitted during next application cycle, I'd be 32 at time of application and 33 at time of start. Am feeling pretty bummed about this, but I am 95% sure waiting is the right thing to do given the circumstances. I am experiencing a lot of fears surrounding delaying the whole process by a year and could use some perspective from those who've started at similar ages. What did you find to be the advantages? Drawbacks? Any advice on how to psychologically prepare for being an older person in a cohort of students?

Relevant things about me: I work at a prestigious agency in public health; the subfield is not really the exact same subfield I would be going back to school for (from health policy to epidemiology), but I do think topically I am doing relevant enough work that I wouldn't be starting quite at 0 in terms of ability to draw from previous professional experiences in PhD. Another relevant thing is that most PhD programs in public health want their students to get out in 3.5-5 years, and I would be aiming for that 4-5 year mark in the interest of not being a student at 40. Other relevant things are that I've considered doing a PhD part time and have pretty much decided against it, and that
I'm a woman and might want to have children later in the decade, which creates some extra anxiety about timeline. I have discussed with partner, and we're both on board with waiting until late thirties, but fears of being older abound re: biology, career, etc etc. I know timelines are stupid, but there are biological reasons for the fears. Finally, given competitiveness of the application process I'll be applying all over the map, and may have to have a long distance relationship with my partner during the PhD, which brings on additional fears about being older and screwing up my relationship (although my partner is supportive of whatever I need to do and I do have some faith that we'll work through the distance if we need to).

Another important point about all this is that I am very clear on the reasons I want to do a PhD -- they both have to do with career advancement and with intellectual interest. I am positive that if I do not start a PhD I will regret it for the rest of my life. In deciding to apply in the first place, I have asked myself what my 80 year old self would think about all this, and I think she'd be really sorry I did not pursue this professional and intellectual opportunity. Which is to say -- this is not a question about whether I should pursue the PhD. My mind's made up about that.

I know this is all over the place, which reflects my mental state, but I could use some perspective and perhaps some anecdotes to remind me that all of this can be dealt with. And any advice on mentally preparing for any of this would be awesome.
posted by dubhemerak3000 to Education (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I started my PhD (in the humanities) just a couple of months shy of turning 33 and I honestly thank my lucky stars every day that I waited until I was older to do it. I find that every year of that life experience and perspective was incredibly helpful, and I see my younger peers struggling intensely with maintaining that perspective. Plus, doing your PhD is so complicated/stressful that you want as many other things in your life to align as possible.

Now, I don't plan to have kids so I don't have to take my biological clock into consideration, and who knows if I'll face some kind of age discrimination on the job market (though I haven't experienced anything like that yet), but everything else considered, I really think older is better for doing a PhD.
posted by EmilyFlew at 7:31 AM on November 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

I have served as advisor, committee member, etc. for a few people who entered my humanities phd program at your age. They were more focused, had better time management skills, and did very well. The ones that didn't finish had other careers that took off while they were ABD. Totally agree with EmilyFlew that older is better.
posted by Morpeth at 7:48 AM on November 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

I watched several cohort-mates complete their PhDs after beginning in their 30s. I'd agree with Morpeth that they're, on the whole, better organized, better able to cope with graduate school and better able to finish in a timely manner.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 7:57 AM on November 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

You seem focused and know your concrete reasons to do a PhD, so I think that will be in your favor compared to the younger folks.

When you are visiting departments, you should try and suss out (from the current grad students, maybe propspective advisor) about how family friendly they are. I’ve certainly had people in my cohort have babies and raised babies, while working in the program. They all graduated within the average time, but I know it’s because our department was supportive.

Also, I would really think about this long distance bit with your partner. It won’t be just the school, but also the rest of your career—especially if you go the tenure track route. How flexible is their work?

Anecdotes: my friend had a baby and defended her dissertation the next day, she was 33 at that time and already had 2 kids; my advisor did a job talk while 8 months pregnant—she didn’t get that one, but got an offer from one she did after having the baby; the most successful person from my cohort was 35 when he started, he knew the topic already and just started getting huge fellowships.
posted by inevitability at 8:13 AM on November 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Additional point: I don't plan to be an academic, but rather an applied researcher, post PhD. Luckily, this is a common thing in my field, and schools expect that their students might go either route. And luckily for me, my "home town" I'd be going back to if I had to move away for PhD is Atlanta, which is a great place to be if you're in public health given location of Prestigious Agency, other relevant health agencies having a presence there, and many public health organizations like ACS, CARE, etc etc.
posted by dubhemerak3000 at 8:19 AM on November 7, 2018

I started a PhD program at 30. There were mostly younger people, but also older people, in my cohort. There were also older people who had been there a while who socialized with us. While there was a noticeable difference in life experience and maturity between people age 23 and 33, there wasn't such a huge difference between, say, 27 and 33, and that was a pretty common split. You don't really need to psychologically prepare to be around younger people; you'll have the program in common, and there will be people you click with. At 33, with your career accomplishments behind you, you'll approach this program as a job. That will be hugely to your advantage.
I am now a professor and we like admitting older PhD students. They tend to be more stable and focused.
As for the baby question: There are times within the PhD program where having a baby isn't too bad an idea. For example, you could take a leave of absence in candidacy, get pregnant, and then, when the baby is ready for daycare partime, write your dissertation for four hours a day. You can do that from your partner's city if he can't move. I've seen this done and in a lot of ways it's easier than when you have a regular job because you can write from any city.
Good luck!
posted by nantucket at 8:39 AM on November 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

1) Are you absolutely sure that you need a PhD for your desired career path? How thoroughly have you researched what the most interesting job ads are asking for? In my experience as a biomedical PhD graduate looking for jobs in public health-associated fields, most of the jobs in public health/epidemiology are asking for Masters or MDs, not usually PhD.

2) This is a very important time in your life to save for retirement due to compound interest. After getting my PhD just before 30, I needed to save heavily to make up for what I should have saved in my 20s. If you haven't been saving much yet (and even if you have), I would definitely focus on making up for your lost savings during your PhD by saving as much of your current salary as possible first.

3) If you want biological kids, especially plural, it really is a problem. If you start your PhD at age 33 and finish in lets say 5 years (NOT a guarantee, many take longer, what the program wants does not always reflect actual graduation times - talk to students in your specific program for more realistic estimates)...assuming the best case scenario of getting pregnant immediately (ignores biological reality even if you have no infertility issues and potential delay finding a job with insurance)... in that absolute best case scenario where you get pregnant immediately at 38, you'll give birth at ~39, making you unlikely to get pregnant again before 40, making multiple children less likely and riskier. Yeah yeah, some people do still have healthy children after 40, but your chances drop more and the risk of miscarriage and birth defects goes way, way up. Re: getting pregnant during your PhD, maybe some people can pull it off but it was very rough for the people I've known who did that. Maybe depends on your workload/program flexibility.

In summary: Even as someone who doesn't particularly regret her PhD, I would really, strongly suggest considering a Masters instead, if you don't already have one. Also look into doing part-time grad school while working, if you can get a job that will accommodate or sometimes even fund that.
posted by randomnity at 9:13 AM on November 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

And I left it out because it may be obvious, but just to make sure, absolutely do not do a PhD that doesn't fund you enough to live on (at a grad student lifestyle) after paying tuition. Not worth it, no way.
posted by randomnity at 9:16 AM on November 7, 2018

I started a PhD program in English when I was 30. I just want to echo everything randomnity is saying. If you have a partner who is making good money it can mitigate these issues. I had/have a partner who is not working, which is one reason why I left my program with my MA after 6 years.

Would it be possible with your program to have a baby while you are working on your PhD? I had my first baby when I was done with coursework, which is fairly common in English. I never made it to the qualifying exam phase because I lost all motivation and realized I didn't want to be a professor, though I stayed in another year after making that decision because I got pregnant again (not intentionally) and needed the health insurance! I had my babies at 34 and 36.

Now I'm 39 and have had a retirement plan for two years. This is not ideal and I really wish I had considered that before going to grad school.

Public Health is very different from English, I am sure, but I think the practical concerns are probably the same. It sounds like you have very good reasons for doing the PhD, but there are things to think about and plan for.
posted by apricot at 9:37 AM on November 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Average age can vary a great deal within cohorts and disciplines. Early 30s wouldn't really even register as particularly notable in most places I've known outside of STEM. Plenty of people that age, some married, some with children. It's my understanding (though not based on direct experience within a department) that disciplines like public health often attract students just like you, pursuing advanced degrees for reasons related to their already-established careers. I suspect a lot of your cohort will be in a position similar to you.

This may depend upon your partner and where you end up, but having a child or children while in graduate school is also reasonably common. It might not seem like a good idea on first blush, but a friend of mine who did it says it worked well for her, because she had good health insurance through the graduate student union and was able to take advantage of on-campus childcare while in class and while working/researching on campus. If those resources are available to you and the timing works out, it's worth considering.

One caveat: most people I know who have started PhDs have found that it's not particularly fulfilling intellectually. That's often not enough of a motivating force to help people finish. Actually finishing is a massive slog and the process can be quite dispiriting for a whole host of reasons and it all often feels like the exact opposite of "intellectually fulfilling." 80-year-old you, or even 40-year-old you, could just as easily wind up resenting you for pursuing the PhD. I would counsel trying to ignore any ideas you may have of proving yourself intellectually or satisfying your intellectual desires. Choose to do it for your career, or choose not to do it for the sake of your career, but leave personal fulfillment out of your calculations, in so far as you are able.
posted by halation at 9:47 AM on November 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

PPS: Yes, I am very familiar with what jobs a PhD does and does not get you, and very familiar with my field. Going into it with open eyes with respect to this. Yes, already have a MPH (in public health one is expected to have an MPH or a MS before starting a PhD, and it is very difficult to get admitted anywhere without this).
posted by dubhemerak3000 at 9:50 AM on November 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

I started a PhD (biology) at 31. I actually went in for an MS, and was convinced to stick around when other folks on my fellowship dropped out and there was funding. A Master's is a very different experience from a PhD - my Master's was pretty fun, my PhD was pretty awful and a big slog (and I finished in 4.5 years entry-to-PhD, which is fast for my field/program considering I didn't come in with an MS or even a BS). The PhD slogginess vs. a Master's being work-but-fun is consistent with my friends' experience.

Probably 10% of the students in my department were older than me, age wasn't really a big deal. (My mom got her PhD at 60, FWIW.) Some had kids already or had kids during the program. That said, the being-remote from partner + desire biological kid(s) is going to be tricky - is it possible to find a program that allows low/no residency for part of the time? Can your partner find a job local to your school? Pay attention to whether there are moms in the program when you interview. If folks take a semester off for health reasons, are they supported to continue or are they shunned?

I'm not sure whether I regret my PhD or not - I defended less than two years ago and I'm still settling into having a really different career path than I did before. It did take nearly this long to start feeling like myself again. I basically lost the ability to be silly, even after my depression lifted. My outlook is way more pragmatic, and I have a hard time shutting that off. There was an ask a while ago about "how long does it take to feel normal again after a PhD" that's worth searching for. I had pretty good retirement savings and general savings before and good funding in school, but I'm still playing financial catch up now.
posted by momus_window at 10:02 AM on November 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hi! I did my PhD in my early/mid 20s - I basically blasted straight through undergrad/masters/PhD without taking a break. Doing a PhD in my 20s was... a bad idea. I had no idea what I was doing or why and profoundly do not work in the same field now. My peers who were in their 30s or older did significantly better. You know what you're doing and why, you have experience, discipline and focus on your side. It sounds like you're exactly the right person to be doing a PhD, and I wish you the best of luck in finding the best programme for you.

I'm also 35 and expecting our first baby in March. We had a SHOCKINGLY EASY time conceiving in a way that I was kind of not prepared for, and I'm one of the younger pregnant people in the waiting room when I go to see my midwife. My caregivers have basically told me they don't really worry about age and pregnancy until you hit your early 40s. This is not to say that YOU will have an easy time conceiving... but I do think the drop off in fertility for women is exaggerated to say the least. I also know a few people who had babies while they were doing their PhDs, and weirdly the flexibility of a PhD can make it a great time to have a kid. I wouldn't rule out having a child during your candidacy.
posted by nerdfish at 10:55 AM on November 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Unless your partner is willing and able to relocated to wherever you end up within a year or so, I suggest that you expect that your relationship will be a casualty of the PhD and factor that into your decision.
posted by Candleman at 11:24 AM on November 7, 2018

You have a huge advantage in that you don't want to go into the academic job market. IME, the pressure wasn't to finish it was to produce a work that was good enough to land a top tenure-track job.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:34 AM on November 7, 2018

Hi there. I did my PhD in my late 20s-early 30s and I am now approaching 40 and I'm an associate professor.

There are drawbacks to getting a PhD later in life. You probably already know these, but here's a brief list:
- You're going to be decreasing your income and retirement savings for ~5 years at a time in life when you are possibly less able to take that hit. [Everyone I know that has a PhD is super stressed about their lack of retirement savings.]
- Since you've been working for awhile already, the financial hit may feel more severe in terms of lifestyle changes.
- I've noticed that "older" graduate students sometimes have a harder time with the socialization aspects of graduate school, especially if they had a career in the area already.
- The relationship-related issues with a PhD and post-PhD are severe. Your partner needs to be on board with the fact that you may need to move *anywhere* to do the PhD and for an academic job after. And for better or worse, most academic jobs are not in locations where everyone wants to live.
- The biological clock issue is VERY REAL. In my experience, people that were already partnered as graduate students ended up having children early in their tenure-track careers and it all worked out. However, for people that tried to find a relationship post-PhD, it is really hard to do that and handle the pressure of the early tenure-track years. Lots of those folks did not end up having kids.

- PhD cohorts may not be as young as you think. My cohort was 24-35, with a mean age of probably 28ish. Most of the graduate students in my current program appear to be in their very late 20s and early-mid 30s. And *in general* the younger graduate students are more likely to burn out on the whole graduate school thing, compared to older students. Older students are a bit more focused, generally.
- I had a baby while I was a graduate student and it generally worked for me. I would not do this with a non-co-located partner though.
posted by k8t at 11:55 AM on November 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

I haven't read the above comments, but the kid thing stood out for me. I know a few people who had children during their graduate school days and it actually was great timing for them because even though the work was demanding it was actually flexible. They were able to minimize child-care expenses, etc. Of course this assumes you can afford it (many can't, obviously) but definitely don't rule it out -- you may even some good examples of parents making it work in your program.

I wouldn't necessarily put it off until your late thirties -- it's probably fine according to the stats (not as dire as the press often makes it seems), but you'd have to be at least comfortable with having missed that window for the Ph.D (and maybe you have a more if it doesn't happen, that's OK mindset, and that would serve you well in those circumstances.)
posted by heavenknows at 12:31 PM on November 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

I got my PhD in epidemiology when I was 35. I would absolutely recommend it. I often say my career path is a slow meander, instead of a direct route, because I've taken several years off between each advanced degree to work and figure out if I really wanted to continue with my schooling. It's a great way to go about getting more degrees because I find older students are more practical about their education and better understand what they want from it than younger students who go straight through and are done by their mid 20s. It sounds like you're in the same place, which is great!

I also think the extra work experience made me a better student. I knew what I knew, and I knew what I didn't know and needed to learn. I got more out of my PhD than in my undergrad or masters work.

With my PhD, I'm earning significantly more than I did with my masters. True, I did lose a few years of earning potential, but it wasn't that many years and I'll make up for it. The caveat here is that I got the hell out of academia as soon as I received my degree. Classmates who went on to post docs are still living the student lifestyle. And they're ok with it, for the most part. Figure out where you want this degree to take you. I landed at my current job quite accidentally, and I did not know it was an option because my adviser and all the other faculty were preparing students for academic positions only.

I agree that you absolutely should not spend one dime to get your degree. It would be best if you can get a stipend. I'm pretty sure most public health programs offer stipends, so you should be covered there.

All of my cohort members were over 30 when they started, and 2 of them had children while they were working on their dissertations. One classmate just had her second and will be defending in a few months. Similarly, two of us got engaged and married during our program. There's no need to delay big life changes. You'll manage. Don't put your life on hold for this.

One tip I have for school work is to do homework immediately after a lecture/lab. I did this for all my grad course work at the insistence of my over achieving study buddy and I will say ot made life so much easier. New topics were fresh, and it freed up the week to go to office hours prepared with questions or to talk about issues with my classmates. I highly recommend itf, even though it was a bit painful at the time.

One other thing. Early on when you're applying and then starting your program, you'll likely be super gung ho about doing awesome ground breaking research that will change the world. Maybe you'll do that! But maybe your work will be a much smaller advancement of the science and you'll need to be ok with that. And you'll need to make practical decisions about doing amazing stuff and staying in the program too long, or doing good stuff and defending on a reasonable schedule.

Please pm me if you want to chat more about epi programs in particular. I have strong opinions! :)
posted by stripesandplaid at 8:33 PM on November 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

Look into whether people in your field have babies while getting their Ph.D. My sense is that it's easier to take a couple months off and then ease back into working part time while you're writing a dissertation than while you're employed full time. In the US, you'd even want to be in the job for a year before having the baby so that job protections would apply. I know someone who wrote a masters thesis during baby naps and at night, though I'm sure it wasn't easy.
posted by salvia at 10:00 PM on November 7, 2018

I suspect advice from people in epi may be more relevant than advice from people in other fields, because so much of the cultural stuff (will people be weird at you for being older, or for having a baby? will you graduate on time?) are likely to be discipline dependent. My WAG is that people in a discipline that attracts students who already have a professional degree and who may have been working for a bit will be less susceptible to some of these cultural pathologies, but someone in that field will know better.

The retirement savings thing is a great point though. Make a plan for how to handle that before you start.
posted by eirias at 4:28 AM on November 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hi! I started my phd in a STEM adjacent social science at 39; if all goes well, I'll finish when I'm 43 (I already had a masters in an adjacent field). I have been very pleased with my decision and I'm glad I did it.

First of all, it sounds like you're thinking about a phd for the right reasons (you're in a field where it's common to get one and then pursue non-academic job options, it's going to kick the can on what you do want to do in your career), and not because you've finished a masters and don't know what else to do with your life. I've had a good career on my masters so far, but then it got to be time to have more options, so here we are.

Financially, I'm in a different position than you; I'm actually still teaching full time and using my tuition waiver to pay for my phd, so I still have the Gold Plated state insurance (vs. the student insurance), I'm not living on a phd stipend, I'm paying into retirement, etc. My wife and I talked about it when I was deciding to do this, and she was supportive either way, but I just did not want to go back to living on a grad school stipend. I'm lucky that I teach one floor up from my program, so I just spend my day running back and forth between work and work; it's been really handy. But there have been several folks who were working full time 8 to 5 jobs off site in my program who have gotten it done / are getting it done. I'm not saying we recommend this route. :) I'm just saying it's easier for me to say "go for it!" because I'm not taking the financial hit you would be.

re: being an older person in a younger cohort, I wouldn't assume that your cohort is going to be younger; the range in our program is 23 to 60, and there are several folks around my age in the program. I've developed some very strong friendships in my program, which I did not expect to do (I thought I was just going to come in, get the work done, and leave; hah!), and some of those folks are traditional phd age and some aren't, but we've bonded over the work, our common values, the phd grind, etc. Most of my classmates have families or other commitments to their communities, so honestly, most of our problem is scheduling time to hang out. :) And this is in a fairly traditional phd program, other than they allow PT students; in a field where the timeline you're on is pretty common, you're probably going to be much the same age as your fellow students.

My biggest concern for you (and one that I don't think anyone has mentioned yet) is that going from an 8 to 5 schedule to one where you're substantially scheduling your own time can be a shock. Time management is one of the hardest things about being a first year doc student, because you're your own project manager.

In sum: DO IT. :)
posted by joycehealy at 5:31 AM on November 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

Thanks for your perspectives, all!
posted by dubhemerak3000 at 1:45 PM on November 9, 2018

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