A few days ago #firstsevenjobs was a trending topic on Twitter. It prompted an interesting conversation among some historians about the diverse paths people have pursued before grad school, and the pros and cons of entering a graduate program later in life vs. the “traditional” route of going straight through from college to Ph.D.
This is actually a subject on which I can speak with a certain degree of authority, because I’ve experienced grad school as both a traditional student in my early twenties and as an older student hitting the books again after a hiatus. I was more or less fresh out of college (but for a year’s employment) when I did my M.A., but I worked in public history and picked up adjunct gigs for a while before heading back for my Ph.D. Granted, I’m not that much older than a “traditional” graduate student, but I’m not exactly a spring chicken, either. My baseline movie version of Batman is still Michael Keaton.
So which was harder, being a younger or older grad student in history? Personally, I’ve found the Ph.D. experience to be less stressful, even though I’ve had a higher class load as a doctoral student than I ever did while working on my M.A. And the decisive factor has been the time I had to simmer after finishing my master’s degree. I’ve read more, I’ve thought about my interests more, and I have a much better idea about how to integrate those interests into the historiography and contextualize them than I did in my early twenties. It’s made a world of difference.
I’ve also had more time to develop my skills as a communicator and writer. Practice is everything when it comes to sharpening your prose, and being older means you’ve had more time to practice.
Some people say that you don’t have as much capacity to do coursework and absorb information after you get older, but my experience has been the opposite. A graduate education in history isn’t really about learning new “facts.” What counts is breadth, depth, and maturity of thinking, not how many terms you can memorize in a night of cramming. It’s a form of learning that favors perspective more than plasticity.
Now, all this comes with two important caveats. First, I’m an older student, but I’m also a bachelor. That means I can’t speak to the difficulty of balancing grad school with family responsibilities, which would be an issue a lot of older grad students have to deal with.
Second, the age difference between my younger classmates and I isn’t substantial enough to be generational, so the issue of being so much older than my peers that I have nothing in common with them is not something I’ve had to deal with. But I can say that there are a few students in my department who are old enough to have adult children, and age differences haven’t kept any of us from becoming a very close-knit group. The common experience of going through the program more or less overrides whatever distinctions of age, background, and religion we have.
The upshot is that if you ask me if it’s hard going back for a terminal degree after ten, fifteen, or twenty years out of the classroom, I’d say this: Grad school is tough on anybody, but the nature of the historical discipline is such that being long in the tooth can actually give you a bit of an edge.
All this is assuming, of course, that you’ve put some of those years out of the classroom to good use. Your age in and of itself is less important than your mastery of content, the perceptiveness of your conclusions, and the willingness to work hard. And that’s true whether you’re a retiree or Doogie Howser.