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When I started by Ph.D. program, I was 31 years old. I was a little bit older than some of the other students in my cohort but planned on finishing in five years and then applying for tenure-track faculty positions. That is not what happened. Instead, I found myself needing a job before I could defend my dissertation, so I started a full-time position in academe ahead of schedule. Then, a combination of job commitments and life events led to me delaying my work on my dissertation so that the five years I planned on devoting to my Ph.D. became 15 years.
While I can happily say that I am defending my dissertation in the next month and graduating shortly afterward, this journey has been nothing like what I had planned. When I am finished in a few months, I will be 46 years old and midcareer in an academic management role yet still feeling as if I’m at the start of something new. Every graduate student who finishes their degree or any postdoc who is finishing their research training probably asks themselves the same question—what am I going to do next? But I cannot help but think my answer would have been different 10 years ago, for good or ill.
Also, when I start talking with people about my career plans, I feel as if some are looking at me like I have five heads. Several have been bold enough to ask me why I have not made up my mind yet at my age. Others ask why I am dissatisfied and not willing to stay in my job until retirement, as if retirement were just around the corner for me. It is not.
And I know that I’m not alone. In my five-plus years working with Ph.D. students and postdocs in the sciences, I have met a handful of them in similar situations: finishing their education or training in their 40s or later. I and others like me are not anomalies, and we have many of the same questions and concerns that other Ph.D. students or postdocs have. It is just that our life circumstances may be different, are families may be different, our needs may be different and so forth. And while we are not all the same, this essay is my attempt at giving advice to others who may be experiencing something similar to what I am now.
Don’t feel like you have to justify your history or timeline. For years, I found myself feeling as if I had to explain why I was in middle age and still a graduate student. Even as recently as two years ago, I found myself making mental arguments about why it was taking so long. It was through talking with key people in my life that I realized that I did not need to justify my timeline to anyone else except my Ph.D. adviser and the administrators of my academic program. It is my story, and while I wonder about what life would have been like if I had finished earlier, I do not regret it.
When I talk with graduate students and postdocs who have been on similar journeys, I try to encourage them to embrace their timeline—why they finished their Ph.D. in their mid-40s or were a postdoc at 50—and never feel as if they must explain it to others. Our experiences and the reasons for why we started our Ph.D. later or took longer in our training are our own. Whether related to spending more time in the workforce, focusing on a growing family or just working through whatever you need to work through—that is part of your story, and it’s up to you to choose to share your reasons with other people. And if you decide to do so, try to share it with pride in who you are, what you have done and the fact that you are as successful as you are.
Figure out what you need, and then pursue it. I still hope to one day take on responsibilities such as teaching and leadership that more closely resemble the faculty role I wanted when I started. That sense of having a goal and pursuing it, regardless of the obstacles we need to overcome during our lives, has also been a common part of my conversations with graduate students and postdocs who are in similar situations. “Isn’t it a little late for you to start a faculty job?” “When will you settle down into a career?” I get these questions, and other people I’ve worked with have shared that they have heard the same.
At the same time, the people I’ve seen succeed when finishing graduate school or postdoc training in midlife are those who still have a goal and go for it. The ultimate test to see if you can do something is if you still have a pulse. If we are still alive, it is not too late to pursue our goals.
Build an intentional support network that works for you. Finally, I encourage anyone who has had a Ph.D. timeline like mine to network, but to do so knowing that your network will probably look very different from that of a peer who finished their education or training earlier in life. I put it this way because many of us have significant work, family or community experiences before we finished our education and training, and they have exposed us to a wide variety of people we may not have met if we finished earlier. I look at my own network and see a web of people who can vouch for different skills of mine and give me different types of advice. My network has been essential to me in navigating my own midlife career transitions, and I encourage you to build an intentional network that can do the same.
Over all, I am proud of what I call my zigzag career. Even though that means I may make a major zig or zag at the same time that some of my contemporaries have tenure or have settled into a career path, it does not invalidate my own path. In fact, this is the same encouragement and advice I give to anyone I counsel: embrace the zigzag, embrace wherever you are and embrace the next steps you are going to take—regardless of what your calendar or other people say.