Late 20s to early 30s. Minimal outside commitments. Has the ability to consume unnatural amounts of caffeine. Lives in the lab and doesn’t remember the last time they had a full night of sleep.
That’s the portrait of a typical graduate student—the stereotype.
But if you ask us, there’s no such thing as a typical grad student. Older grad students and non-traditional grad students have as much a place in a grad program as anyone else.
Graduate school is all about pursuing your passions and advancing your field—and you can do that whether you’re a just-out-of-undergrad 22-year-old or a 102-year-old fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Why being an older grad student can be an advantage
Some grad students realize their passions at a young age and know that a graduate degree will help them reach their dream career.
Some older grad students instead take a more winding path to find their passion, accruing more experience, taking time off to care for family, or just never thought it was the right time to pursue a graduate degree.
But those professional and personal experiences are some of your strongest assets. Most often, it means you’re more focused and you better understand how your coursework can be applied to your career because you know what you want to do.
Some master’s programs are actually designed for older grad students who have gained experience working in their fields. That experience can be really valuable, especially in programs related to business, nursing, and education. In fact, some programs won’t accept you for admission unless you have work experience—which, as a non-traditional grad student, you have plenty of.
And if you’re not sure if you want to pursue a doctorate, but you do want to return to grad school, you can pursue your master’s degree and then use that experience to determine if you want to continue on to a doctoral program.
In his blog, University of Chicago public policy professor Chris Blattman also talks about the advantages of being a non-traditional grad student in a PhD program:
“PhD students are not known for being good at managing people, projects, or money. Presumably you learned a few things about being a professional whatever you’ve been doing. This will serve you well, and make up for some of the disadvantages of age. Maybe even more than compensate.”
Dr. Samuel McPeek, an ordained minister who has served as the full-time pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Lafayette since 2000, earned his master’s in communication in 2007 and his doctorate in English in 2017, both from UL Lafayette. He had already attended graduate school earlier in his life when he earned his Master of Divinity from Concordia Seminary, but enrolled in the Graduate School at UL Lafayette in his mid-40s.
Dr. McPeek decided to return to graduate school because he wanted to teach in higher education, but his enrollment was delayed because of his full-time career and his visual impairment, which he says “slowed down my progress significantly.” He does, however, think that having more “real life” experience helped him when he was ready to return to academia.
“The major advantage is that I entered graduate school with a lot of experience under my belt,” he says, “and carry a little more discipline. While I would like to see myself as the wise, older student admired by the younger ‘kids,’ the advantage for me was that I learned so much from my younger colleagues and have established relationships with some of them that will be long lasting!
“My experience in graduate school was very rewarding,” he continues. “I was exposed to so much information that I would not have found otherwise, which gave me a better sense about my career; my experience also honed my critical thinking skills and my ability to better analyze and study; and I'm a better person from it.”
Take a cue from Dr. McPeek. It’s your time!