Is she really the only middle-aged PhD student out there?

middle-aged phd students
image description: the author in line with three cartoon headshots

I happen to live close to a really wonderful R-1 university. When I was 45 years old, frustrated with the current situation of some things in the world, particularly where I was working as a corporate chaplain in senior living communites, I got the bright idea to apply for a spot as a student (?!) in a competitive, fully-funded PhD program at that university. I was offered a spot, which I accepted and I’m presently in the middle of my second year as a Sociology PhD student. Being a student again at this point in my life brings challenges, and the myriad ways that universities aim to support their students are not geared towards supporting someone with 20+ years of professional experience behind them, and with middle-age life-problems co-occurring while they are studenting.

photo: Dramatic selfie of the author in her office during her first semester as a TA

I started my PhD program with eagerness, going right out and buying a backpack and some re-homed polo shirts (I don’t know – in my mind this was what students wear). I quickly realized that I was approximately the age of the parents of my cohort-mates, all of whom are little geniuses by the way, and I had guessed wrong about the backpack and the polo shirt.

photo: “first day of school” pic of the author outside the Social Sciences building, August 2019, sporting new backback and polo shirt

I absolutely love being a student again though! The reality is that, after functioning in the world as an adult for decades up to this point, going back to being a student is a shift to something much less complicated, and more fun. Despite my background in higher education, I admittedly did not realize how much fun research could be, and how much data there is out there that I can access, according to my interests. It’s mezmerizing. I consider myself very fortunate to have this opportunity, I really do. Being a TA was an interesting gig, I must say. I have had the chance to TA for people who are good educators and for one person who was the worst at it that I’ve ever known. In all cases, though, sure. I can make the photocopies, lead the discussion sections, and grade the papers. After being an educator for 20+ years, this part of the PhD student life has been simple, if not a bit illuminating.

I do find it very lonely being a middle-aged PhD student in my program, however. No other student is even of my generation. The junior faculty are younger than I am. And some of the faculty that are my generation have this unfortunate habit of trying to relate to students by making frequent use of self-deprecating jokes about their age. No matter how many times I point this out, it just keeps happening. Middle-aged faculty try to relate to young students by insulting their relatively old age, but when I am in the classroom as a student, this is hurtful. For example, a faculty person who is about my age recently said, “I’ve invited a recent grad to come talk about topic X, because nobody wants to listen to some old, boring 50 year old talk.” My immediate question, then, was: “So… am I still doing my presentation next week, or…?” It won’t stop, but it sure is tiresome. Younger, junior faculty also frequently joke about age, but differently. They more often say things like, “When I was young like you all,” even though I’m older than they are. I know that’s developmentally reasonable, as they are trying to grow into their new roles but, again, it’s hard to feel so invisible all the time. You were never my age in the past, dear one. I was there for the $200 Atari 2600 when it came out. Ask your parents about it. It was awesome.

Then, I saw this post on the The Professor Is In. facebook page (a page which I recommend to anyone in higher ed btw):

photo: screenshot from The Professor Is In. facebook post: “Question from a reader…” posted October 28, 2020, which is how our founding group met.

And even though this is not exactly my situation, I made a comment on this post, about my situation, and I invited people to message me if they were interested in forming a community for middle-aged PhD students. It took a few days, but I heard from over 30 people who said enthusiastically, “Yes! Please make this group!” Some shared stories like mine, of feeling isolated in their programs. A few asked if I would consider expanding to include middle-aged new PhDs (those who were middle-aged PhD students a year or two ago, and now they’re baby scientists, baby researchers, baby professors, but ~ 50 years old.) Others described frustrations different from mine but that I could relate to, because I know what it’s like to get this bright idea of getting a PhD at this point in my life.

I will absolutely never forget when I formatted my CV last year, converting my traditional resume into the academic CV format, and realizing that pretty much everything I had done with my life to that point had no place on the CV. Suddenly, I was almost 50 years old and, despite all that I have accomplished, according to this measuring stick of academia that is the CV, I had done almost nothing with my life.

And so? I have now made available an online group with discussion forum here at Professor City. The rest of the website needs finishing touches, so don’t bother looking around the website. I’m letting you all inside the mall before it opens, because you are special. I am launching today, November 7, 2020, solely for this middle-aged PhD student forum, because I felt some kind of way in reading all of these heartfelt messages of solidarity. I felt, well, that these are my people. I am so excited to get to know everyone, to share more of our stories with one another and, at minimum, to discover that none of us is alone in this!

What to do if you are a middle-aged PhD student (or new PhD) and want to join us:

  1. Register on the site. If curious in my rationale, I built this because the bigger community of scholars that I’m hoping to invite into the various forums, including this first one is, increasingly, not comfortable with the big social media platforms in which our privacy is the product being sold.
  2. Fill out and edit your profile after registering – make sure you include the “middle-aged” tag, so I know to approve you for this group when you request to add in. Admission to the group is moderated. This is to prevent spam and bots. I want this to be as safe a space as can exist online, so thanks for understanding the necessity of this profile.
  3. Go to the group, and “request to join” so I can add you. This is also a manual process, to minimize spam. You need to ask to join, then I will view your profile to see if you’ve indicated “middle-aged” in your profile, and then I will “approve request to join.”
  4. Once you are in the group, find the forum. You’ll see an Introductions thread started! We’re building it from there. Posts are not moderated – you post and others see. That’s why there’s filters on the start-up end, so the forum will work better once we’re in there.
  5. I will be looking for moderators soon, so let me know if you’re interested (and know what this means).
  6. If you do happen to know other middle-aged PhD students or those who recently completed PhDs in middle-age, send them a link to this post. I think we’re gonna enjoy this. <3

P.S. Folks, I had every intention of making this post be a video of me talking to you, but… it has been a bit of a week, hasn’t it? My lighting is still in the basement from last weekend’s (unrelated) projects. It’s 1:45AM. Video did not happen. Hopefully, I wrote with enough of a personal touch that you can sense the welcome even through type. If you want to “meet” me, I can share a recent video of me and my cartoon TAs (because it has been that kind of year!). If interested, this is me.


P.P.S. All middle-aged PhD students (and those new PhDs who were recently among us) are welcome.

men too! Welcome!
photo: middle-aged man (who otherwise looks somewhat like the author) giving a thumbs up and holding a laptop with the Professor City website in the browser – I purchased a license to use and edit this photo just for you, men, so you would know we want you here too. 🙂 Middle-aged PhD folks of any gender are welcome.

P.P.P.S. I truly love my PhD program, the faculty and staff and fellow doctoral students. I am having the time of my life in many regards. And I would not change the program in any way related to accommodating middle-aged doctoral students. As a higher ed consultant (another hat I wear, of course) I would not recommend that my department make changes to accommodate an outlier such as myself. I think all departments need to better support Black scholars and other scholars of color, and I don’t think any university is great at supporting disabled students. But for one rogue, White middle-aged student that somehow stumbled into this program without a lot of planning? No. Don’t change anything. I mean that. If we were to ever see others here earning a PhD at 50 years old, I would revisit this advice, but from what I’ve seen over two years? It’s just me and thus I would not recommend you alter programming. The only thing I’d change is the age jokes. Those do get old. Pun intended.

11/8/20 correction: Since sharing this post, I have learned that of the ~70 current doctoral students in all the cohorts of my Sociology PhD program, there is another student in the 40-60 age group! It still seems I am the oldest PhD student here, but I am one of two middle-aged students. It does seem, from talks with faculty and staff, that I will indeed be the only person to ever complete this Sociology PhD at the University of Minnesota over the age of 50. If anyone knows of someone else who has done so before me, I’d love to learn of their accomplishment – please let me know! Thank you! And I know there are middle-aged PhD students in other programs, but we are not often in the competitive, fully-funded programs like Sociology.

About Erika Sanborne

Erika is an award-winning, long-time educator, who consults with individual faculty and administrators on how to meet their teaching goals. She is now also a population health researcher and sociology PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, which means for now, she is a senior adjunct professor, a consultant, a research assistant, and a PhD Candidate, all at the same time. This has enhanced her understanding of the teaching and learning issues we're facing in academia today on all fronts.

Share on:

1 thought on “Is she really the only middle-aged PhD student out there?”

Leave a Comment