If you’re getting your midlife PhD in your 40s or 50s, it can be challenging for many reasons, such as your career, family obligations, strenuous coursework, the challenge of intense studying, and handling the new academic culture.
I remember two people leaving the midlife PhD program in my cohort: The first one quit a few weeks into the first semester, and the second one quit after two years in the program. Although it was sad to see them leave, they both had strong reasons for their decisions.
If anyone tells you a Ph.D. is simple or easy, that person has either forgotten how it was for them, or they did not do it in their 40s or 50s.
For me, the challenges were juggling family, studying, and trying to make sense of all the new stuff I was learning. Some of the classes were difficult, too. I remember going through hours of YouTube videos, trying to understand what I now deem to be simple statistics concepts. These were extra hours spent outside regular study time just to understand the underlying concepts that supported the more advanced ones from the lectures.
I also remember asking my younger classmates for help—and yes, the experience was quite humbling!
Another experience that could present some consternation is managing relationships while working with faculty. I wish I knew what I know now about working with faculty! I wish someone had told me earlier on what to expect and how to manage those expectations. Working in a corporate environment is so very different from academic life. What I didn’t know is that what got one promoted in the professional world might do the opposite in academia!
There were times when I wanted to quit. Not once or twice, but many times. But I didn’t. I stayed and completed it.
So, here are some things that helped me and things I wished I knew when I first started. I hope they help you on your journey to complete your midlife PhD in a business school.
Complete Your Midlife PhD When Quitting is Justifiable:
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your younger classmates. It might be humbling to let others know you lack certain knowledge; however, the alternative is even more humbling — failure. I remember when the second person to quit in my cohort said that they tried their best but still came up short. I wished I knew they were struggling, and I wished they knew that many other people in the class were struggling, too.
- Find and join a group. Luckily for me, I was introduced to the midlife PhD Project. The PhD Project is an association sponsored by KPMG to support minorities seeking PhDs in business schools. The support I received (and still receive) from this group is immeasurable. If you cannot find a group, then find another person or mentor in whom you can confide. Make sure it’s not a family member, spouse, or significant other. You need someone who is going through (or has already gone through) the same situation. Just be careful not to gossip about others in your class! The academic world is a very small one.
- Take your advisor’s advice. For the most part, you should heed their advice. This is one piece of advice I wish I had known. It seems obvious, but it’s not—especially when you’re a midlife PhD student in your 40s or 50s. After all, you came to the PhD program with a successful career; you had a portfolio of clients and managed many employees, and you may still be doing that while getting your PhD. Hence, you have some solid opinions or ideas about certain subjects. Those experiences are well and good, but they don’t translate easily to academic life. In the academic space, your advisor knows a bit more than you do, and they can either help you succeed or stand back and watch you fail. As a faculty member, I now have the opportunity to watch a midlife Ph.D. student who’s had decades of work experience argue and sometimes reject their advisor’s advice. I recognize that behavior, and it makes me cringe because that was me years ago!
- Finally, stay humble. Always assume there’s something more to learn.
Ph.D. life can be challenging, but it’s attainable. You have a cloud of witnesses and other midlife Ph.D. students who have done it, and so can you! Don’t be afraid to ask for help; find a group; heed your advisor’s advice, and stay humble.
We’re rooting for you!