Older doctoral candidates seek to advance careers or take up teaching
Robert Hevey was fascinated by gardening as a child, but then he grew up and took a 30-year career detour. Hevey earned a master’s in business and became a certified public accountant, working for accounting firms and businesses ranging from manufacturing to enterprise software and corporate restructuring.
“I went to college and made the mistake of getting an MBA and a CPA,” he recalls with a laugh.
Now 61, Hevey is making up for lost time. He’s a second-year doctoral student in a plant biology and conservation program offered jointly by Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Hevey, whose work focuses on invasive species, started on his master’s at age 53, and he expects to finish his doctorate around five years from now, when he will be 66.
“When I walk into a classroom of 20-year-olds, I do raise the average age a bit,” he says.
Career, personal motivations
While the overall age of Ph.D. candidates has dropped in the last decade, about 14 percent of all doctoral recipients are over age 40, according to the National Science Foundation. Relatively few students work on doctorates at Hevey’s age, but educators are seeing increasing enrollment in doctoral programs by students in their 40s and 50s. Many candidates hope doctorates will help them advance careers in business, government and nonprofit organizations; some, like Hevey, are headed for academic research or teaching positions.
At Cornell University, the trend is driven by women. The number of new female doctoral students age 36 or older was 44 percent higher last year than in 2009, according to Barbara Knuth, senior vice provost and dean of the graduate school.
“One of the shifts nationally is more emphasis on career paths that call for a Ph.D.,” Knuth says. “Part of it is that we have much more fluidity in career paths. It’s unusual for people to hold the same job for many years.
“The people we see coming back have a variety of reasons,” she adds. “It could be a personal interest or for career advancement. But they are very pragmatic and resilient: strong thinkers, willing to ask questions and take a risk in their lives.”
Many older doctoral candidates are motivated by a search for meaning, says Katrina Rogers, president of Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif., which offers programs exclusively for adult learners in psychology, human and organizational development and education.
“Students are asking what they can do with the rest of their lives, and how they can have an impact,” she says. “They are approaching graduate school as a learning process for challenging themselves intellectually, but also along cognitive and emotional lines.”
Making a home for older students also makes business sense for universities and colleges, says Barbara Vacarr, director of the higher education initiative at Encore, a nonprofit organization focused on midlife career change.
“The convergence of an aging population and an undersupply of qualified traditional college students are both a call to action and an opportunity for higher education,” she says.
Some schools are serving older students in midcareer with pragmatic doctoral programs that can be completed more quickly than the seven or eight years traditionally required to earn a Ph.D. Moreover, many of those do not require candidates to spend much time on campus or even leave their full-time jobs.
That flexibility can help with the cost of obtaining a doctorate. In traditional programs, costs can range from $20,000 a year to $50,000 or more — although for some, tuition expenses are offset by fellowships. The shorter programs are less costly. The total cost at Fielding, for example, is $60,000.
Susan Noyes, an occupational therapist in Portland, Maine, with 20 years’ experience under her belt, returned to school at age 40 for a master’s degree in adult education at the University of Southern Maine, then pursued her doctorate at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. During that time, she continued to work full time and raise three children. She finished the master’s at 44 — a confidence-builder that persuaded her to work toward a Ph.D. in adult learning, which she earned at age 49.
Noyes, 53, made two visits annually to Lesley’s campus during her doctoral studies, usually for a week to 10 days. She now works as an assistant professor of occupational therapy at the University of Southern Maine.
At the outset of her graduate education, Noyes wasn’t looking for a career change. Instead, she wanted to update her skills and knowledge in the occupational therapy field. But she soon found herself excited by the chance to broaden her intellectual horizons.
“I’ve often said I accidentally got my Ph.D.,” she says.
Lisa Goff took the traditional Ph.D. path, spending eight years getting her doctorate in history. An accomplished business journalist, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in history at the University of Virginia in 2001 while working on a book project. Later, she decided to keep going for her doctorate, which she earned in 2010, the year she turned 50. Her research is focused on cultural history, with a special interest in landscapes.
Goff had planned to use the degree to land a job in a museum, but at the time, museum budgets were being cut in the struggling economy. Instead, a university mentor persuaded her to give teaching a try. She started as an adjunct professor in the American studies department at the University of Virginia, which quickly led to a full-time nontenure-track position. This year, her fourth full year teaching, her position was converted to a tenure-track job.
“I thought an academic job would be grueling — not what I wanted at all,” she recalls. “But I love being in the classroom, finding ways to get students to contribute and build rapport with them.”
As a graduate student, she never found the age gap to be a challenge.
“Professors never treated me as anything but another student, and the other students were great to me,” Goff says.
The toughest part of the transition, she says, was the intellectual shock of returning to a rigorous academic environment.
“I was surprised to see just how creaky my classroom muscles were,” she recalls. “I really struggled in that first class just to keep up.”
Hevey agrees, saying he has experienced more stress in his academic life than in the business world.
“I’m using my brain in such a different way now,” he says. “I’m learning something new every day.”
His advice to anyone considering a similar move?
“Really ask yourself if this is something you want to do. If you think it would just be nice to be a student again, that’s wrong,” he says. “It’s not a life of ease: You’ll be working all the time, perhaps for seven or eight years.”
Hevey does not expect to teach, but he does hope to work in a laboratory or do research.
“I’m certainly not going to start a new career at 66 or 67,” he says. “But I’m not going to go home and sit on the couch, either.”