A younger version of you pursued your undergraduate studies and was happy with the accomplishment. However, you decided to leave academia and seek other life interests. Maybe you travelled the world, climbed the corporate ladder, or started a family.
For me, it was a combination of things, but I always felt that I still wasn’t where I wanted to be. I always wanted to complete a PhD, but I thought a PhD was no longer a realistic dream when my life plans changed unexpectedly. Even though I could rationally accept this, my desire to reach this goal still burned deep inside me. As time went on, the biggest excuse became I am too “old” to start a PhD. However, life changed again, and suddenly, it was possible. It was like a dream coming true.
The excitement of starting a graduate degree was motivating and exhilarating. However, at some point, usually, when comparing yourself to a traditional student, you might have begun to doubt your decision to return to school.
Here in this post, I want to share my advice for those starting a PhD as a mature student.
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Your struggle will be different
As a mature student, you are going to face different challenges than a traditional student. Often, the first challenge is accepting that you are right where you need to be, regardless of age. Sure, when you look around and see a classroom of students who are years younger than you, it can feel intimidating. However, age is not a determining factor in success. On the contrary, it can actually be your friend, because with age often comes maturity and direction.
You’ll be less engaged
Another challenge is, “how am I going to have the energy of my fellow younger students”? The fact is you probably won’t – not only because of biology but because you are probably balancing more than just graduate studies. You have additional responsibilities, requiring extra time and energy. Often, we don’t have the luxury of lazy weekends for rest and relaxation. However, you consciously decided to embark on this road, and the internal motivation you harbour will drive you to success.
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Work-life balance will be a challenge
Another challenge is, “how are we going to conquer late-night studying or working in the lab, like our younger colleagues when we have to be home by 6:00 PM?” Finding a work-life balance will not always be easy, but remember, we are mature students. We have already been balancing a career and life, and a PhD is no different to any other job, in that there are goals and deadlines that need to be met.
You’ve got this
When you think of the three most common fears of being a mature student, you quickly realize they are manageable. Age, who cares, enjoy getting to hang out with traditional students, both parties have something to teach each other. Energy, well, we have coffee, right? And time is no one’s friend.
In spite of the few setbacks associated with being a mature student, there are many more pros. We come equipped with life experiences and skills to handle challenges. We have had time to find ourselves and to discover our passions. And we know why we want to pursue a graduate degree, which is often not the case for many traditional students.
Knowing what we want will make it easier for us to focus, stay on track, and not chase dead-ends.
We have learned how to prioritise work, allowing us to be more efficient. We have learned about our strengths and weaknesses, and we can compensate accordingly. We have learned how to effectively communicate with people in a higher position, allowing us to say, “ yes, that sounds interesting, but no, thank you.”
We see our professors, not as gods, but as academic resources to help us reach our goals. We often handle stress better, and we don’t sweat the small stuff. We know that setbacks happen, but we have learned to try again without focusing on the negative. We have learned the tools needed to succeed in the work field and can now apply them to the academic arena.
Last words of advice
To my fellow mature graduate students, we might be older, but we are wiser or at least more disciplined. We are equipped with life skills that have been sharpened and honed over the years. We have the tools required to tackle the different challenges that we will face in our graduate program. We have wisdom and experience to guide us through our next chapter. So, the next time you look around your graduate group and see a bunch of 20-year-old faces, just remember: you hold the tools for success.
Jessica Rieder is a PhD candidate at the University Bern, majoring in Ecology and Evolution. Her research focuses on understanding the role of microbial communities within aquaculture and how their structure impacts fish health and developing new tools for detecting and monitoring pathogens, both in aquaculture and nature.
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