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Graduate Study Later in Life

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Being a student, even at grad school, is often considered to be preserve of the young. But this isn't the whole picture; increasingly, people are returning to study master's and PhD programs later in life, with the average age of prospective students on the rise.

At the age of 100, Bholaram Das hit international headlines when he became the world’s oldest PhD student. His argument for embarking on the highest of all academic qualifications was simple: “If my son can get a PhD at the age of 55, why can’t I do it at 100?” But why do people consider going back to grad school later in life and how easy is it for those students who would like to combine a master's or PhD program with studying abroad?

David McClelland, former senior operations manager for the QS World Grad School Tour, reflects: “There is no doubt that prospective graduate students are getting older. We have seen a drop in the number of candidates coming to our international education fairs that are below the age of 26 and a related increase in those older. In 2009, over a quarter of all students attending the QS events were older than 26.”

Greater focus and experience

Studying later in life certainly has some clear benefits for those graduate students who take the plunge and go back to university. Older candidates tend to be more focused and less likely to succumb to the financial pressures of their younger counterparts. They can also draw on a range of professional and personal experiences often relevant to their graduate field of study.

Dr David Brown, formerly course director of a number of Masters programs at the University of Sheffield and now a leading academic in American Studies at the University of Manchester has seen the age of applicants to a range of arts and humanities graduate programs increase over the last decade.

“Whether students feel they are better equipped to study certain subjects later in life, or because of funding issues, local and international students are getting older in a variety of master's programs,” he says. “As an academic, this has a great advantage, not least because older students tend to be more confident, have a wider range of references and are very motivated.”

Entry standards to graduate programs all over the world are entirely “age blind” and many master's and PhD programs actually welcome older applicants because of the maturity and experience they bring to their particular subject area.

Some degree programs, like MBAs, have always required work experience as part of their admissions requirements. And a review of other types of graduate programs, including the arts, natural sciences and social sciences, indicates that relevant professional or other experience are in general an important part of the admissions decision. Indeed, in some cases, the professional or life experience an applicant has gathered since their undergraduate degree can often compensate for an average or worse academic result earlier in life.

Finding the right balance

Perhaps one of the greatest difficulties related to going back to grad school later in life is balancing work or social life with a new commitment to studying.  Many students struggle to find the right balance and it comes as no surprise that universities all over the world report a higher rate of dropouts amongst older candidates than their younger colleagues.

Ian Mollovic, a full time account manager at an educational service company in London and a part-time master's student at the University of London’s Birkbeck College sees this as one of the biggest challenges he has to face. “It’s not easy to go back to school after several years in a corporate environment. You need to give up a few things to focus on studying and research because your priorities have to change. You need to get used to a social rhythm which is a bit different from normal working hours.”

Studying part-time is often the preferred method for many older graduate students, allowing them to try and balance their busy lives with the new challenge of going back to university.

However, while this is often the perfect solution for local students or those from the European Union, it is commonly not an option for international students. With more and more legal restrictions being imposed on students, particularly tied to the immigration process, the ability to study part-time for many candidates is taken out of their hands.

In the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the USA, with very few exceptions, international students are expected to study full-time and demonstrate they are able to financially support themselves for the entire period of their study. While there are always exceptions, part-time study can be legally very difficult.

Finally, a confession: the author of this article has just completed a master's degree at the University of Westminster, 19 years after graduating from a bachelor's program. Why did I go back to university after so long? Like many people, the answer lies somewhere between personal interest and a desire to simply learn something new in an academic area that has been of interest for more than 30 years.

And while I cannot pretend that a two-year commitment wasn't sometimes very difficult, the rewards have been enormous. So, for me, like many others, when it comes to education, particularly at the graduate level, there is always an opportunity to go back.

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