How Late is Too Late to Return to Academia?

Career change questions.

December 11, 2013

Once upon a time, switching careers, or even taking a break for a couple of months, or even years, was rather an unusual professional story. The typical professional over-achieving journey started with high-school, continued with acceptance to a brilliant university, graduation, followed by undergraduate studies and eventually the highest qualification: the PhD. After that, and many academic articles later, the doors of the academia were largely open and the academic career developed from one semester to another with teaching, books, conferences and articles

However, the situation has changed significantly in the last decade, largely due to the facilities offered by the technology and the social networks. Compared to the previous post-industrial revolution times, we work less, and if we are wise enough, we can better balance our time among family, hobbies, work and other passions such as writing, or even perhaps pursuing a (new) academic degree?

Career change is the option for more and more professionals nowadays, even if they are not necessarily unhappy with their current professional journey, but looking to achieve more spiritual and intellectual stability at the same time as enjoying a relatively stable financial situation. This compromise has continued to produce discomfort for many academics who chose to dedicate their entire life to the world of letters. I remember how in my university years, my boldness to do both paid work and academic studies was disregarded and criticized several times as detrimental to my potential academic achievements. However, I continued to do so until I got my PhD. Even now, as a freelance researcher and editor, I prefer to combine the practical side of life with regular academic contributions and conferences. I feel sometimes that I would love to be either on only one side or the other, but in the majority of cases, I am more than happy with my choices.

Returning to academia after years and maybe decades of disconnection with the world of study is not easy. You don’t only need to adjust your work style, maybe to learn one or two more languages necessary for your study, but also make more time for work in the library and learn new ways to effectively do new research. If you expect your new institution to help you, you might not be completely right, as very often you are welcomed with a lot of expectations and you will rarely be considered as a different case compared to the younger and more experienced colleagues. An academic career requires sacrifices, and the sooner you decide the switch the better. The best case scenario would be to have enough resources to survive one year of intensive immersion into the academia. As I often do career consulting and advise people that relatively late in their lives who decided to follow their academic dreams, I must warn the over enthusiastic that the first six months at least will not be easy, especially if the change in career comes in addition to family obligations, such as a growing family with small children.

The work will take longer and life will be harder in the academia at are thirty than at eighteen. Time management and daily habits are slow to change, and learning may not always go as smoothly as expected, because one is not yet used to the terminology and the basics of a new campus culture. But if you are healthy and determined, you can achieve it. The best solution will be to quickly find a mentor who  will guide your steps and offer the proper professional support.

Regardless of your age, academia is an enriching experience. If you work hard to find your academic voice and reach your learning objectives, you will end up richer and with a new feeling of self-esteem.


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