When You’re the Only Mature (40 - 50-year-old) Student in a Doctoral Class

Although researchers like William Brazziel and Robert Templeton have noted that mature-age students are more likely to be in doctoral programs, it’s still nerve-racking to be the only mature student in your doctoral class.

This is Nora’s story of discovering she was the only mature student in her Ph.D. cohort.

It is 2016. Nora is a 48-year-old single mother. She has three children between the ages of 8 and 12. After several months of deliberation, Nora pursues a traditional Ph.D. and simultaneously keeps her job as an application developer on a gig level.

Nora didn’t tell anyone in the Ph.D. program that she was still working. She had to work. How else would she make ends meet? The Ph.D. stipend was only $25,000 a year. She’s incredibly grateful that she’ll receive the stipend and tuition expenses. But her household expenses – mortgage, car payment, groceries, etc. are far beyond that. So, she had to work to make ends meet. She had two gig profiles on Fiverr and Upwork, where she developed mobile and web applications.

Starting a Ph.D. while working on gigs should be easier than working full-time. She thought it allowed her the flexibility to choose her availability and the work she did.

Nora’s First Day of Doctoral Class in a Ph.D. Program

Stepping into the doctoral class that first day in August 2016, Nora felt both confidence and trepidation. The confidence came from her qualifications and experiences in life; the trepidation sprang from being unconvinced she was doing the right thing by her family. The fear remained with her even when still applying for the program. Until she clicked the apply button on her Ph.D. applications, Nora questioned whether it was the right time, whether she could defer another year.

Nora first surveyed the classroom and then found a seat in the front row of the doctoral class. “If I’m doing this, I might as well make the most of it”. She thought to herself.

There were about 22 other students in the classroom. It was a huge classroom that looked like it could seat 100 or more students. This meant that other students were sparsely seated. Nora sat down and placed her laptop bag on the desk. She turned around, caught a few eyes, and smiled at her classmates.

It was a research method doctoral class; her first professor was a young man who looked at least ten years younger than Nora.

The professor introduced himself as Dr. Les Hewell. He then welcomed the class and invited everyone to introduce themselves. He asked the doctoral class to introduce themselves by telling them their names, when they completed their master’s degrees, their Ph.D. concentrations, any work experience, and any other information they felt comfortable sharing. Dr. Hewell gestured to Nora to start. So, Nora stood up, turned slightly to face the back of the class, and proceeded with her introduction. She told the doctoral class about when she completed her master’s (20 years prior), her work experiences, and that she has three wonderful kids. She sat down feeling immensely proud of herself.

Then the rest of the doctoral class started their introductions. Thirty minutes later, and after the other students had completed theirs, Nora sat quietly, realizing she was the only one with kids. Also, the rest of the students had completed their bachelor’s and master’s degrees within the previous six years.

The realization was both surprising and humbling and would have induced some shame had she not reminded herself of the key reason she was doing the Ph.D. in the first place.

Throughout her life, Nora had been told she’d amount to nothing. Her mother, a single mom, told her she would amount to nothing in no uncertain terms. Her ex-husband, whom she’d confided in, also used the same language while they were married, often in front of the kids.

Nora had since vowed to show her kids and herself that she could and would amount to something. The Ph.D. was for her kids.

What’s your story?


  1. Brazziel, W. F. (1992). Older students and doctorate production. The Review of Higher Education15(4), 449-462.
  2. Templeton, R. (2021). Factors likely to sustain a mature-age student to completion of their doctorate. Australian Journal of Adult Learning61(1), 45-62.
When You’re the Only Mature (40 – 50-year-old) Student in a Doctoral Class

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