Three Reasons Why It`s Never Too Late to Get a PhD
French woman Colette Bourlier made the news last month when she earned high distinction for her doctoral thesis on immigration workers. While that in itself is a notable accomplishment, what makes Bourlier’s feat truly remarkable was her age at the time: Bourlier was 91, although she had started her thesis more than three decades earlier. The takeaway for older people considering pursuing advanced degrees as well as for postgraduate students who may have stalled or detoured along the way? It’s never too late! Let’s take a closer look at three reasons why PhD’s make sense at any age.
1. PhD-Friendly Skills Age Well
Older students may not have the energy of younger students, but they more than make up for it in enthusiasm. Going back to school at an older age involves defying conventional expectations, meaning students who do so are often more focused and dedicated than their 20-something counterparts. As Bourlier’s professor Serge Ormaux told The Guardian of his nonagenarian student, “She is probably the only person who knew all the aspects in such detail and who was able to weave everything together. She backed it up with statistical analyses.”
Furthermore, while younger students may not be prepared for the new demands of graduate school, older students are more sure of their path, have better study skills, and make better choices. These qualities may actually make them perfect candidates for the classroom -- particularly for the rigors of doctoral work.
This may be part of the reason why going back to school at an advanced age may not be as uncommon as you may think: According to an article in The Independent, postgraduate enrollees are on the rise, with students over the age of 65 growing at the fastest rate.
2. Work Experience Matters
How you fare in graduate school is not a matter of how you compare to your cohorts, but rather a matter of your own potential. Older candidates bring something completely different to the table due to their unique backgrounds. At the top of that list? Work experience. From project management to dealing with people, the skills learned on the job are ultimately assets which will serve you well doing your PhD studies.
When it comes to the pursuit of new knowledge and understanding, meanwhile, experience in the field presents opportunities for unique insights which can be applied toward research innovation.
And then there’s the professionalism factor. While younger students may not be the most professional bunch, older students are well-suited to conducting themselves professionally having previously navigated workplace challenges. The benefit? Even in an academic setting, the more professionally you behave, the more professionally you can expect to be treated in return.
And while midlife-and-later graduate students may have more to juggle in the form of personal and professional responsibilities, they also have more experience with balancing these multiple commitments. For those who are concered about finding the time to do get a PhD, doing an online PhD program offers a flexible solution.
3. It’s About More Than a Title
Any student who has ever undertaken doctoral studies knows that success depends on far more than the zeal for a few lofty-sounding letters after your name. Most experts also agree that pursuing a PhD in the hopes of significantly enhancing your job prospects (unless your goal is an academic position) or boosting your salary is a misguided end goal. Why? Because doctoral studies are an intensive process with a very different goal: the expansion not just of personal knowledge, but also of knowledge at large. (That’s not to say that a PhD isn’t a stepping stone to career advancement; in today’s fluid job market, advanced studies can be a differentiating factor.)
So while younger students who see acquiring a PhD as part of their naturally trajectories may not have given much thought to the real-world impact and outcomes of undertaking doctoral studies, older postgraduate students who have wrestled with whether to go down the Ph.D. path are far more likely to have realistic perspectives.
While the concept of “lifelong learning” can be applied and outside of academic, more and more older people are choosing the formal path. Luckily, doing so is easier than ever thanks to an abundance of options beyond the traditional “bricks and mortar” campus. From flexible evening and weekend course offerings to part-time to distance to online programs, getting a PhD is more within reach than ever -- regardless of your age. So what are you waiting for? If Colette Bourlier -- and countless others -- can do it, so can you.
Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.