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Frenchwoman, 91, gets PhD after 30-year thesis, Taking on the PhD later in life

Taking on the PhD later in life

NEW YORK, April 16 ― Robert Hevey was fascinated by gardening as a child, but then he grew up and took a 30-year career detour. Hevey earned a master’s in business and became a certified public accountant, working for accounting firms and businesses ranging from manufacturing to enterprise software and corporate restructuring.

“I went to college and made the mistake of getting an MBA and a CPA,” he recalled with a laugh.

Now 61, Hevey is making up for lost time. He’s a second-year doctoral student in a plant biology and conservation programme offered jointly by Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Hevey, whose work focuses on invasive species, started on his master’s at age 53, and he expects to finish his doctorate around five years from now, when he will be 66.

“When I walk into a classroom of 20-year-olds, I do raise the average age a bit,” he says.

While the overall age of Ph.D candidates has dropped in the last decade, about 14 per cent of all doctoral recipients are over age 40, according to the National Science Foundation. Relatively few students work on doctorates at Hevey’s age, but educators are seeing increasing enrolment in doctoral programmes by students in their 40s and 50s. Many candidates hope doctorates will help them advance careers in business, government and non-profit organisations; some, like Hevey, are headed for academic research or teaching positions.

At Cornell University, the trend is driven by women. The number of new female doctoral students age 36 or older was 44 per cent higher last year than in 2009, according to Barbara Knuth, senior vice provost and dean of the graduate school.

“One of the shifts nationally is more emphasis on career paths that call for a Ph.D,” Knuth said. “Part of it is that we have much more fluidity in career paths. It’s unusual for people to hold the same job for many years.”

“The people we see coming back have a variety of reasons,” she added. “It could be a personal interest or for career advancement. But they are very pragmatic and resilient: Strong thinkers, willing to ask questions and take a risk in their lives.”

Many older doctoral candidates are motivated by a search for meaning, said Katrina Rogers, president of Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, which offers programmes exclusively for adult learners in psychology, human and organisational development and education.


Rob Hevey, a Ph.D student in a plant biology and conservation programme who expects to finish his doctorate around five years from now, when he will be 66, in Glencoe, Illinois, April 15, 2016. Many older candidates hope doctorates will help them advance careers in business, government and non-profit organisations; some, like Hevey, are headed for academic research or teaching positions. ―Picture by Whitten Sabbatini/The New York Times

“Students are asking what they can do with the rest of their lives, and how they can have an impact,” she said. “They are approaching graduate school as a learning process for challenging themselves intellectually, but also along cognitive and emotional lines.”

Making a home for older students also makes business sense for universities and colleges, said Barbara Vacarr, director of the higher education initiative, a non-profit organisation focused on midlife career change.

“The convergence of an aging population and an undersupply of qualified traditional college students are both a call to action and an opportunity for higher education,” she said.

Some schools are serving older students in midcareer with pragmatic doctoral programmes that can be completed more quickly than the seven or eight years traditionally required to earn a Ph.D. Moreover, many of those do not require candidates to spend much time on campus or even leave their full-time jobs.

That flexibility can help with the cost of obtaining a doctorate. In traditional programmes, costs can range from US$20,000 (RM78,000) a year to US$50,000 or more — although for some, tuition expenses are offset by fellowships. The shorter programmes are less costly. The total cost at Fielding, for example, is US$60,000.

Susan Noyes, an occupational therapist in Portland, Maine, with 20 years’ experience under her belt, returned to school at age 40 for a master’s degree in adult education at the University of Southern Maine, then pursued her doctorate at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During that time, she continued to work full time and raise three children. She finished the master’s at 44 — a confidence-builder that persuaded her to work toward a Ph.D in adult learning, which she earned at age 49.

Noyes, 53, made two visits annually to Lesley’s campus during her doctoral studies, usually for a week to 10 days. She now works as an assistant professor of occupational therapy at the University of Southern Maine.

At the outset of her graduate education, Noyes wasn’t looking for a career change. Instead, she wanted to update her skills and knowledge in the occupational therapy field. But she soon found herself excited by the chance to broaden her intellectual horizons.

“I’ve often said I accidentally got my Ph.D,” she said.

Lisa Goff took the traditional Ph.D path, spending eight years getting her doctorate in history. An accomplished business journalist, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in history at the University of Virginia in 2001 while working on a book project. Later, she decided to keep going for her doctorate, which she earned in 2010, the year she turned 50. Her research is focused on cultural history, with a special interest in landscapes.

Goff had planned to use the degree to land a job in a museum, but at the time, museum budgets were being cut in the struggling economy. Instead, a university mentor persuaded her to give teaching a try. She started as an adjunct professor in the American studies department at the University of Virginia, which quickly led to a full-time nontenure-track position. This year, her fourth full year teaching, her position was converted to a tenure-track job.

“I thought an academic job would be gruelling — not what I wanted at all,” she recalls. “But I love being in the classroom, finding ways to get students to contribute and build rapport with them.”

As a graduate student, she never found the age gap to be a challenge.

“Professors never treated me as anything but another student, and the other students were great to me,” Goff said.

The toughest part of the transition, she says, was the intellectual shock of returning to a rigorous academic environment.

“I was surprised to see just how creaky my classroom muscles were,” she recalled. “I really struggled in that first class just to keep up.”

Hevey agrees, saying he has experienced more stress in his academic life than in the business world.

“I’m using my brain in such a different way now,” he said. “I’m learning something new every day.”

His advice to anyone considering a similar move?

“Really ask yourself if this is something you want to do. If you think it would just be nice to be a student again, that’s wrong,” he said. “It’s not a life of ease: You’ll be working all the time, perhaps for seven or eight years.”

Hevey does not expect to teach, but he does hope to work in a laboratory or do research.

“I’m certainly not going to start a new career at 66 or 67,” he said. “But I’m not going to go home and sit on the couch, either.” ― The New York Times


Frenchwoman, 91, gets PhD after 30-year thesis

BESANÇON, France: A woman aged 91 has become one of the oldest women in France to gain a PhD after she completed a thesis that she had begun three decades earlier.

Colette Bourlier, aged 91 has become one of the oldest women in France to gain a PhD after she completed a thesis that she had begun three decades earlier.
Colette Bourlier was awarded the mark of “high distinction” for her work, which she successfully defended on Tuesday before a jury of the University of Franche-Comte in Besancon, eastern France. “It took a bit of time to write because I took breaks,” Bourlier said, explaining the exceptional time for her opus. The thesis was entitled “Immigrant workers in Besancon in the second half of the 20th century.” It drew on her own experience as a teacher in literacy programmes for immigrants in the eastern French city. She became interested in a PhD after she retired in 1983. Normally, a PhD in France is written in three years, but Bourlier was “an extremely atypical” student, said her professor, Serge Ormaux. “She is probably the only person who knew all the aspects in such detail and who was able to weave everything together. She backed it up with statistical analyses.” --AFP
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