I am what is called a “nontraditional” graduate student. Oh, I wasn’t the first time around. I have a masters’ degree in a box around here somewhere, awarded a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away when I was 25. But that was 20 years ago, before I decided to go back to school.
In the lexicon of Academese, at least as filtered through the National Center for Education Statistics, a “nontraditional” student means a student who meets one or more of seven characteristics that include “delayed entry into post-secondary education,” being “financially independent for financial aid purposes,” or working full time. More often than not, in practical terms, “nontraditional” also simply means “older, with non-academic life experience.”
As I write this, I’ve been back in academia three semesters after two decades of non-academic life experience, and I’ve been “financially independent for financial aid purposes” for longer than some of the undergrads I taught last semester have been alive. I am 45 years old, I’m getting a Ph.D., and the experience is fascinating.
When you become a grad student in your 40s, you are instantly surrounded by an ocean of people younger than you. This is an announcement from the Department of Duh, I realize, but the experience of suddenly stepping bodily into another demographic is intense.
It’s especially so when you realize that this ocean of younger people includes at least some of your professors, university staff, administrators, and the mansplaining guy from Parking Services who will spend 20 minutes telling you why your parking pass absolutely cannot for any reason be used at the parking lot that is actually convenient for you. (It angers the elder gods? Something. I stopped listening.)
The only people I can presume are my age or older tend to be full professors, professors emeritus, and the various deans, and there are one or two among the deanery that I’m not so sure about.
This has its ups and downs. On the one hand, the early adult panic years improve vastly with the knowledge that you will never ever have to go through them again. It’s extremely helpful to have had experience of juggling a full-time job and a household and family obligations so you aren’t figuring it out on the fly for the first time.
Knowing that it’s not worth getting so wound up by the eternal academic Chicken Little-ing about job markets and funding that has hardly changed since I was the young child of a junior professor in the 1970s is worth its weight in sleep, and sleep is better than gold when you’re a grad student. These things take some perspective, the kind you only really develop with age.
But the 45-year-old perspective on grad studentdom brings its rocky moments, too. It can be devastatingly isolating to realize that you and the professor are the only two people in the classroom who remember a time when AIDS was a terrifying plague that killed people in a hurry, the Soviet Union was still a global superpower, and you could actually take a full-size tube of toothpaste aboard an airplane in your carry-on bag.
Chatting with other students about dating can swiftly become awkward when you are several years divorced following a 15-year relationship while others in the conversation are still groping their way toward a first serious commitment. There’s nothing wrong with either stage of life, just a vast difference.
As a femme d’une certain âge with a slightly more than average-size range of experience behind her, it is difficult to know sometimes how to respond to my fellow grad students’ issues, or even what conversations are appropriate to have if I don’t want to be a den mother or Auntie Mame.
Dealing with the professoriate is, thankfully, simpler. There are rules for that. Academia is an hierarchy and graduate students are, if not quite at the bottom, certainly not anywhere near the top. Many of the faculty with whom I work are more or less my age. Hell, several of my good friends and age peers are faculty at other institutions.
At 45, I have the experience and perspective to know academia for the nerd gangland it is. A doctoral degree is only partly about learning in your subject. It is also, largely, about what is politely called “hoop jumping”: professionalization, reading the political tea leaves, qualifying exams, coping with committees, and so on.
Much of this, ultimately, boils down to learning how to work with other academics. You’re not in grad school to learn how to read books or write papers. If they let you in, they presume you can do that fine. You’re there to make your bones.
I know this. I am blisteringly aware that this system to which I have chosen to submit myself has nothing, and I do mean precisely bubkes, to do with me as a person. It is a gang — or a guild, if you prefer — with its own entirely internal and self-referential credentialing system. One’s accomplishments outside of or prior to grad school count only as anecdotal evidence. This is a lot more humbling at 45, when you have some, than it is when you are 23, and you mostly don't yet.
I’m aware now, in a way I wasn’t in my 20s, that academics don’t come from some special planet where they keep all the superbrains. We’re smart, yeah. But mostly, we’re very specifically and meticulously trained to do a very particular array of tricks. A Ph.D. is a just a certificate that says you know how.
At its best, a Ph.D. is a sort of dog whistle that says a very particular sort of person figured out that what the Best Job in the World for them was, and they ran away and joined the exact sort of arcane circus where they could do it.
There are mediocre minds teaching at the best universities just as there are genius musicians happily working as hospital administrators and playing Schubert with their friends on the weekends. There are plenty of brilliant people doing brilliant intellectual work on a daily basis in places that aren’t academia. (Underestimate them at your peril.)
But this is the big secret of academia: It’s actually really fun if you do it right. Sure, the process of earning a Ph.D. is a giant pain in the ass. It’s that way on purpose. But getting to do the Best Job in the World for you — which for me is to get to combine research and writing and teaching about history — is fan-damn-tastic. In my 40s, I appreciate that more than I can say.
Maybe academia isn’t for you. That’s fine. For a long time there it wasn’t even for me. Just know that if you ever change your mind, you can always come back for a Ph.D. in your 40s.