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Old School: some thoughts on pursuing a PhD post-30

Frank the Tank sometimes felt...old

I've seen some threads on Twitter and I've met a handful of non-traditional graduate students, so I know it happens: people do start a PhD after 30. But I still sometimes feel like the odd duck out. "After 30" might be arbitrary- what I mean really is "starting a PhD after you've already started a career", and in my case also after getting married and buying a house. You know, settling down, something not conducive to an academic career trajectory. I’ve reflected on why this is an important part of my identity as a burgeoning academic and here’s what I’ve come up with. (Disclaimer: I’m 37, and I know that’s not old but it’s old enough in an environment consisting largely of 20-somethings!)

It’s easier to know what you want, and appreciate the opportunity, when you’ve done other stuff first.

I was a late bloomer in terms of maturity. I went to grad school right after undergrad and earned a master’s in teaching because I planned to teach high school and my home state (Connecticut) required a master’s degree. It was hard work- especially the first year where I had a full-time internship, took evening classes and ran solo workouts after dark as a scholarship athlete on the cross-country team. But I wasn’t fully invested, and truthfully, I didn’t become a good teacher until 6 years into my career. By that time I had moved to Massachusetts and had developed a short unit on human evolution for my high school biology classes. In this process I came across Dennis Bramble and Dan Lieberman’s hit Nature paper “Endurance running and the evolution of Homo”, and I was hooked. Within 6 months I had cold-called a UMass Anthropology professor and applied for the biological anthropology MA and PhD program. Seven years later, Dr. Lieberman-my scientist hero- is on my committee and provided the theoretical background for my dissertation research.

This is not to say that younger grad students don’t know what they want or don’t appreciate the tremendous privilege of essentially getting paid to pursue a passion. The lab I work in is full of driven and exceptional students whom I call friends. But outside those walls, I hear complaints that don’t ring true for me. Tuition waivers, a modest stipend for the teaching we do and great health insurance (all of which graduate students have lobbied for- thank you!) make for a fair financial deal. I’m sure it’s hard to live on this stipend alone, and I’m sure it’s a barrier to entry for many people. But we chose this situation voluntarily. Well actually I’ve chosen to keep teaching, because I love it and because my own financial situation (having a mortgage) requires it. Honestly this makes me value this opportunity more, MUCH more, than I would have at 22. But again, I was immature, and your mileage may vary.

Academic success is harder to be happy about when your non-academic peers have kids and real jobs.

(To be fair, some of my close friends are also pursuing nontraditional paths or are changing careers, and don’t have kids. But many of my friends and peers do have careers and kids.) I’m excited to talk about successful grant applications and published papers, but shouldn’t these successes be expected of me? After all, I’m older. In truth I don’t think that my experience as a teacher has helped me be a better scientist, but I still can’t shake the feeling that my expectations for myself should be higher than if I’d done this right out of undergrad. Maybe it’s because there’s more at stake: pursuing a PhD in your 30’s in some ways puts your life on pause, at least in terms of accruing wealth and advancing in your career.

Imposter syndrome.

My personal journey through the well-known Imposter Syndrome, including revelations about how science really works and how people become recognized as experts, has fascinated me and is a topic for a different post. I’m not quite sure how age affects this, but part of me thinks I’d have less imposter feelings had I come straight from undergrad if only because it would feel like a continuation of one long process (college). I got into this program on different merits: not grades or other undergrad qualifications, but other nebulous qualities presumably developed in my 6 years of real-world living. I’m not sure what those are! (Actually….reading this back, it feels disingenuous. My confidence is higher now than at 24 and for good reason. Probably just ignore most of this paragraph.)

How will my age and experience impact my employability?

I’ll be 38 or 39 when I enter the academic and science job markets. Will my years of teaching be valued? Or if I apply to research universities, will they dismiss these professional years as a false-start, and instead view me as a flounderer who took too long to get on track?

Stability makes getting a PhD easier.

The adult responsibilities that I mentioned earlier- maintaining another job, having a spouse and a house- has an obvious and enormous benefit: stability. My wife earns more than me and is good at her job, and she fully supports my career-change pursuit. In fact, when we first discussed me moving down to part-time teaching to pursue graduate work, one or both of us said something like “Why not? This will be a grand adventure!” This unequivocal support has seen me through moments of doubt and despair. Similarly, the house grounds me in a physical place and attenuates the uncertainty of PhD life. Maintaining my first career gives me a fallback in case it takes some years to gain a foothold in the super competitive academic job market. Finally, I chose to live where I do independent of graduate work. I moved to this area, this town, and this house because I chose them on their own merits and their fit for me, not because it’s school-adjacent (and I do mean adjacent, as I share a fence with the university’s property). This means I’m working and living in a place that is home in every way- my friends and my life are here- rather than keeping one foot out the door in anticipation of the next move.

This has been the grandest adventure of my life, one I always suspected I’d take. Had I started this in my 20’s I probably wouldn’t have pulled it off. And that’s the point to end on: maybe life presents us only with the challenges for which we’re ready, whether you’re 24 or 37.

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