Too old to start a PhD?
January 3, 2008 7:52 AM   Subscribe

I've taken early retirement after teaching 23 years in special education. With a high (3.7) undergrad GPA, a masters in math education, and decent GRE scores, what are my chances of getting into PhD program at the ripe old age of 61? Has anyone heard of some one my age being accepted to a PhD program?
posted by knotknitter to Education (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Here's the story of an 83-year old earning his PhD.

I think the biggest question they might have would be regarding funding. But talk to someone in the program(s) you'd like to apply to, and gauge the situation from there. I think it's a great idea - good luck!
posted by bassjump at 7:56 AM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: When I was in a master's program, I met many PhD students who were 50-60+. Go for it!
posted by HotPatatta at 7:57 AM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: I would think that you are well qualified to get into PhD programs. Like HotPatatta, I say go for it.
posted by malaprohibita at 7:58 AM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: I was in grad school with an over 60 gentleman working on his PhD. If you got the grades, some university will have a spot. Good luck! Hopefully it works out for you, because I have vague hopes of following the same course when I put in my 30 and retire.
posted by absalom at 7:58 AM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: I Nth giving it a shot. People who love learning and teaching should always be welcome in all levels of academia. Aside from any generic age-ism, the only impediment I see for you is if you're looking at an area like mathmatics where the conventional wisdom is that all innovative work is done by the under-30 folk.
posted by phearlez at 8:04 AM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: 1. How recent is your masters and your GRE scores? It might make a difference if you've proven yourself willing and able to succeed in a grad program recently.

2. Why do you want to do it? I know you're asking something else, but here's why I ask. I think the odds you might be accepted somewhere aren't bad at all; whether it will be a place that will make you proud, and really stimulate you, is another matter. Also, I think the better places don't want to spend resources on someone who is just collecting a degree and who has no vocational use for it, for a variety of reasons -- including that placement stats matter to them.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:13 AM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: Universities in Canada (I'm guessing you are in the U.S. so this might not be accurate for you though) often have special access categories for "mature students", as a diversity building measure.

No harm in applying anyway -- good luck!
posted by modernnomad at 8:34 AM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: I second Clyde Mnestra's no.2 point. I applied to science research departments, not math, but when I was interviewing at grad schools one of the most common questions was what I was planning on doing with my PhD 5-10 years down the road (Did I plan to stay in academia? Did I plan on running my own lab some day?). Grad schools have an interest in seeing their investment in their students pay off in prestigious placements, both because it looks good on funding applications, and because it opens doors for collaborations. Admissions committees might also question your commitment, since your career/financial future don't depend on your finishing. They don't want to accept students who are just going to inflate their drop-out rate or time-to-graduate.

Anecdotally, I've never met a grad student in my field (again, not math) older than mid-late thirties. But if you are convinced (and can convince professors) that this is the right move for you and that you have the dedication to follow through, you should definitely apply.
posted by twoporedomain at 8:40 AM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: I do graduate admissions in math. Is that the field you're applying in?

How old are your GRE scores and undergrad grades? If the GRE scores are very old, I strongly recommend taking the test again now.

More importantly, you should try to get a recommendation letter from someone who can attest that you have potential to carry out mathematical research; the recommendation letters, even more than GRE and grades, are going to be selection criteria.

I can tell you that the lack of recent recommendations / grades might be an issue, but your age per se will not; in fact I am pretty sure it would be illegal for a public institution to discriminate against your application based on your age.
posted by escabeche at 9:34 AM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: This is totally normal in Australia, and in the social sciences/education (I have been a postgrad student several times, and sat as a student rep on my uni's postgrad admissions committee for two years). Contrary to twoporedomain's experience, in my own field (disability services) and in the countries in which I've worked a doctorate before age 40 renders you pretty much unemployable, as you are lacking however many years' experience it took to work on your research (there's very little coursework in Aus/British PhDs). Whereas, people with more experience are highly valued in research as credibility in the field is so dependent on hands-on knowledge, and I've known quite a few people whose research has gone on to form the basis of government and NGO policy as they were nominally retired but maintained their networks or were working as consultants. I've taken 800 level classes that were 70% students older than 50 - don't let your age stop you from applying. Good luck!
posted by goo at 9:38 AM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: Not an issue. I know someone in almost precisely your situation, who retired from her public-school position after 30 years and earned an Ed. D in her early 60s. She works part-time now (in her early 70s) as a consultant to the USDOE and her state's education department.
posted by deadmessenger at 10:18 AM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: My mother got her PhD at the age of 60 and enjoyed a number of years of rewarding part time teaching. She also received several research grants as an independent scholar enabling her to make many lengthy trips to Italy. It has been a hugely positive experience in her life.


I myself have supervised a mature student of about 60. His prior degree was about 20 years previously. He came well recommended. However, he was an utter disaster for one reason: he would not take supervision. He was stubborn and thought he knew it all. He didn't. He also refused to use computers (essential in my field, really). My patience with him was quickly strained and at a certain point I asked myself, why am I taking the time with this troubling student for what is basically a vanity degree - he had no prospects of meaningful employment afterwards.

So, while "ageism" is prohibited for admissions, this fellow didn't realize that I was spending my time training him, which represented an opportunity cost for training someone else, perhaps someone who would then pay it forward to the next generation. I'm not sure what the lesson here is, except, perhaps, you may have a lower threshold of supervisorial patience?

On the other, other hand -- I have also been the admissions guy for a campus-wide PHD program with about 60 students (and interdisc program) which, because of its nature, had a disproportionate number of mature students and on the whole I would say they were comparable to the younger students. I made no discrimination, indeed I welcomed their experiences into the program. But I always had my prior student in mind.
posted by Rumple at 10:30 AM on January 3, 2008

Response by poster: You guys are wonderful. Thank you for your time and suggestions. My GRE and masters are very current, and I work currently at an online university mentoring grad math students, so those things are not an issue. Thank you so much.
posted by knotknitter at 10:52 AM on January 3, 2008

Response by poster: On the other hand, my undergrad grades were originally from the late 60s but I have a lot of inservice credit since then that is all 4.0.
posted by knotknitter at 10:54 AM on January 3, 2008

Best answer: Have a good reason for wanting to get the PhD. Is there something you look forward to researching, writing about (i.e. publishing), and becoming an expert on? That's what you need to focus on. As with anyone applying to a program, you need to have clear focus, not just "I want a PhD because it's something I've always wanted to do." Describe very clear intentions and goals for what you will do with your PhD.
posted by HotPatatta at 3:12 PM on January 3, 2008

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