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Are you older than your professors? There’s hope

I immediately recognized Marlene’s voice on the phone. She was one of the brightest and most conscientious doctoral students I have ever served in my academic coaching and editing practice. An older student, “nontraditional,” Marlene had returned for her doctorate after three of her four kids were grown and on their own. She held down a full-time job in medical billing, and her youngest was now in high school, so Marlene embarked on a lifelong dream—she enrolled in a doctoral program. We were working together on the first of her course papers.

But now, instead of greeting me, Marlene fumed for ten minutes. Her professor had track-changed almost every page of her essay and added a four-paragraph single-spaced memo stuffed with questions. Marlene shouted over the phone, “I’m calling the doctoral police!”

I understood why Marlene was so upset. At fifty-two, she had (bravely) just entered graduate school. The professor was younger by at least fifteen years. He challenged Marlene at every turn, and at just about every sentence.

Older Students Are Increasing

Marlene’s situation is not unusual. Like many other older students, she chose an online program to accommodate her full-time job and family responsibilities. And like many other adult students, she already knew her dissertation topic. With a passionate interest in helping elementary school reluctant readers (as two of her own kids were), she had neglected graduate study for decades because of her job and family.

Most doctoral candidates I help to complete their degrees are in their forties and fifties, with a surprising number in their early to mid-sixties. They often blurt out their ages apologetically, and I ignore the self-deprecation and immediately congratulate them for their guts, spirit, and drive.

But they find working with younger professors—who could be their children or even grandchildren—difficult (kind of like greeting a new doctor, who looks like he just started shaving). The students may resent and resist the professors’ critiques and advice, and the issues that arise threaten to sabotage the degree programs and dissertations.

As an Older Student, You Have Advantages

If you’re an older student, take heart. You have some things on your side. Research confirms you’re more persistent than younger students in reaching academic goals, more self-reliant, and more purposeful in mastering the required skills (Bertone & Green, 2018; Deshpande, 2016; Dunn et al., 2014; Offerman, 2011; Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012).
Here’s reassurance by Offerman (2011):

The contemporary doctoral student is older, more mature, and brings into the learning situation a wealth of real-world, career experience. The effective faculty member understands this and expects to learn as well as to teach, to act more as a colleague at times than a supervisor. (p. 27)

Whether your professor, chair, and committee members embrace such an ideal perspective, you can navigate successfully through your doctoral experience by keeping several things in mind.

What You Can Do

  1. Forget age and age comparisons (“He’s half my age, already tenured, published in five top journals, with twenty-three grants!”). Remember why you’re a graduate student and what your degree will do for you.
  2. Age is a mindset. Look at all the vibrant, productive, creative role models in academia, the arts, business, entertainment, sports . . . (make your own list). See also Hothi (2020).
  3. If you’re an online student, your status can be a blessing—you don’t have to stare into that impossibly fresh face two or three times a week (unless the professors insist on Skype conferences and the class meets by Zoom)..
  4. With your extensive experience in your field, swallow your pride and put aside your knowledge. You may know a lot more about aspects of your topic than your professors and seethe at some of the critiques. But your professors likely know what’s more acceptable for your dissertation.
  5. If, though, especially if yours is an applied dissertation, some of the professors’ critiques are based on inexperience with procedures at your research site, verbalize your corrections shored up by your experience. And do so diplomatically. “Professor ____, I realize you may not be familiar with ——, but . . . ” (They have egos too!)
  6. After you get back that blood-red track-changed paper, arrange a meeting.
  7. Admit your doctoral frailties, be open to the critiques, and ask for clarification. As Offerman (2011) and Cassuto (2013) said, good advisors and chairs collaborate with their students. If you don’t understand, persist.
  8. Don’t whine. Your professors have their own problems.
  9. In person, in the phone, or in email or text, act professional, as you do on your day job. You will gain the professors’ respect.
  10. Remember your own real-world experiences in other situations, and how you
    solved or responded reasonably and creatively to issues with family and colleagues. Transferring and applying your abilities can help you weather the tempests of an advanced degree program, and especially the dissertation.
  11. Seek outside help if you feel you could really benefit from it for both content and tech tricks (a peer, a recently-graduated colleague, a coach, an editor).
  12. See an especially heartening and informative roundup, “Getting a PhD in Your 50s and 60s” (2021), and a very encouraging personal testimony at getting a doctorate at age 58 (Racine, 2019).
  13. Make friends with your cohort members, whatever their ages. They can be fun, simpatico, supportive and helpful. (Recently, a doctoral candidate called me to inquire for another cohort member because he knew she needed a great deal of the kind of help I offer.)
  14. Treat yourself with self-respect. You have a right to your professors’
    guidance and explanations (after all, you’re paying for it).
  15. Do the work diligently and do it well.

As an older graduate student, you’ve plunged into a highly challenging educational path that others half your age often avoid. (If they’ve started, they frequently quit, especially before completing the dissertation.) Granted there are many obstacles, and you may find job and career opportunities limited.

Nevertheless, wear your age proudly, be grateful for your life experiences, and, when you’re older than your professors, use your previous experiences, interpersonal skills, and infinite patience to complete your long-awaited degree.


Bertone, S., & Green, P. (2018). Knowing your research students: Devising models of doctoral education for success. In F. F. Padró, R. Erwee, Me. Harmes, Ma. Harmes, & P. A. Danaher (Eds.). Postgraduate education in higher education (pp. 471-498). Springer.

Cassuto, L. (2013, April 22). Remember, professor, not too close. Chronicle of Higher Education.

Deshpande, A. (2016). A qualitative examination of challenges influencing doctoral students in an online doctoral program. International Education Studies, 9(6), 139-149. http://doi:10.5539/ies.v9n6p139

Dunn, K. E., Rakes, G. C., & Rakes, T. A. (2014). Influence of academic self-regulation, critical thinking, and age on online graduate students’ academic help-seeking. Distance Education, 35(1), 75-89.

Getting a PhD in your 50s and 60s: The ultimate guide (2021, October 17). Aging Greatly.

Hothi, H. (2020). What is the age limit for a PhD? Community Blog

Offerman, M. (2011). Profile of the nontraditional doctoral degree student. New Directions for Adult Continuing Education, 129, 21-30.

Racine, C. (2019, October 2). Starting a PhD . . . at 58 years old? Thesis Whisperer.

Spaulding, L. S., & Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. J. (2012). Hearing their voices: Factors doctoral candidates attribute to their persistence. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 7, 199-219.

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

© 2021 Noelle Sterne

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Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at