No Country for Old Grad Students?

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Posted by Lawrence Bowdish, community karma 347

American society is obsessed with youth, I don't think I am making a stretch there. I wonder though, if academia is similar in overvaluing youth compared to "experience." I honestly don't know, but I'll put forward some of my experiences and ask the Scholastica Community.

When I came to OSU's History graduate school straight from undergrad at 22, there were about 10 grad students there (all women and one man, now that I think about it), over the age of 45. They were serving as TAs, holding office hours at their cubicles in our large shared offices, and taking courses. (Note: At that time, OSU Grad History did not allow students to "pay their own way" unless they needed an additional quarter to defend their dissertation--you had to be funded by the department, somewhere else in the university, or an outside fellowship)

While I thought then that they would suffer significant discrimination in the academic job search (would a university want to hire someone who might be tenured for less than a decade before retirement?), I eventually realized that some of them didn't really care about the future of the job, and loved being grad students. I saw it as a very old-school way to approach learning, truly learning for learning's sake, and not as concerned with future ramifications. Unfortunately for them, I think that is not very appreciated in most fields of academia.

They were a welcomed part of our community until the "big crunch" hit in 2007, where dwindling history enrollments and the burgeoning economic crisis forced the department to make some cuts. In Fall 2007, they were all gone. I remember one was able to push through a dissertation over the summer, and I think two more came back to finish in the meantime.

At the other end, in all of the job searches I've been a part of, older candidates straight from grad school or teaching at a community college or branch campus generally did not get the light of day. While I know that there are non-academic jobs available to many graduates, there is clearly age discrimination in many of those fields, so I'll leave that option out.

So, after some rambling, my question is in the current academic model, is there a place (besides a token one) for someone starting the journey after the age of 40? Assuming you started your professional academic life in your 20s, knowing you what you know now -- would you start it in your 40s? Would you only start it if you were financially independent (to say nothing of the "class" ramifications that many academics struggle with professionally and academically)? What advice would you give a 45 year old who wanted to start an academic journey like the one you are on?

over 10 years ago

2 Comments

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Liviu Damsa, community karma 73
In England I met some phd colleagues at different departments in their 50s or early 60s (one was a retired army officer doing a phd in sociology). They were excellent interlocutors, much "better" than any 20 something grad student. And the oldest phd I read about was given to a lady in her 80s (she had the stamina to push through a doctoral dissertation at that age). The idea is that when one is over 40 she knows (in general) what she likes or dislikes, needs less direction than one in her 20s, and often is less inhibited (than the one in her 20s), to apply "critical thinking" in coming with a sophisticated argument. I said "in general" because there are of course, exceptions, persons in their 20s with exceptional critical skills and encyclopedic knowledge, and persons in their 40s who do not possess these skills. But point is that, as you observed, those in the 40s approach the grad school more often like old timers (knowledge for its stake). What academia (and in particular the American one) could do with this lot? I do not know (I believe, thought, that your observations are correct). Does it matter if these factories (the modern universities) do not want to employ this lot? Personally, I do not believe it matters much. Those who cannot afford it won't pursue it, and for those who can afford it, the grad school will be anyway an enjoyable experience.   
over 8 years ago
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Matthew Pemble, community karma 49

I dunno about "American society", having only seen it as a tourist, but Mrs P is a PhD student at what is politely referred to as "you don't look a day over ..." It is actually quite interesting, especially as she was a college (community college in USian?) lecturer for many years. Occassionally the faculty manage to completely forget that she is actually a part-time doctoral student rather than junior faculty. She is asked to co-author papers that have nothing to do with her research focus (but she has business experience in.)

The fact that she is on representative groups for organisations such as the IEEE and the British Computer Society and is a regular journal author and internation conference presenter further confuses the matter.

Advice I would give? If it is what you want to do - crack on. Give it your best shot. Don't expect it to be easy, however, unless you have an established non-academic reputation in the field.

over 10 years ago
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