Written by Joanna Hughes

'Lifelong learning' is one of the biggest buzzwords in education right now. Recent news from both Canada and the US indicates that people of all ages are eager to get in on the educational action, including more older students in pursuit of PhDs -- many of them without plans to work in their fields. Here’s a closer look at the trend, according to reports from CBC and The New York Times.

From Detour to Doctorate

From time off for family responsibilities to unfulfilling first careers, there are many reasons older adults find themselves returning to the classroom. Many of these people, however, are looking beyond bachelor’s and master’s degrees to PhDs.

According to National Science Foundation data, while the overall age of doctoral candidates in the US dropped over the past decade, approximately 14 percent of PhD students are older than 40. Meanwhile, data from Statistics Canada reveals that the number of full-time PhD students rose from 471 in 1992 to 2,430 in 2015.

The Job Market and Beyond

Many later-in-life students view PhD studies as a way to advance their career prospects or in the hopes of getting into academic research or teaching.

One university senior vice president and graduate school dean said, "One of the shifts nationally is more emphasis on career paths that call for a PhD. 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."

However, not all older PhD students are driven by career goals. Many, in fact, are there for personal reasons, including 72-year-old Brian Pollick, who is working on his PhD in 14th century Italian art history after retiring from a job in law.

"[People my age] are doing it out of love of learning. [...] There was never any question for me that I was somehow embarking on a new career," Pollock told CBC.

Pollick also pointed to the benefits of approaching PhD studies from a more mature perspective. He added, "What's not there [for me] is the sense that I've got to do this because the rest of my life depends on it. And that's a huge difference, in that it takes away so much of the pressure."

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.
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