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If you’re wondering whether it’s unduly challenging to return to school later in life, this isn’t necessarily the case. In the US, the average age of students studying for a graduate degree is 33 years old, with 22% of graduates being over 40 years old, and 8% being over 50. But what’s the “optimal” age to pursue a graduate degree? Let’s take a look at some factors.
Whilst many students come straight out of an undergraduate degree and decide to continue to graduate level immediately, there are many benefits of waiting a little before embarking on further study. The first is getting a foothold in the workplace. Indeed, some employers will pay for their employees to go back to university on a part-time basis in order to enhance their skillsets and then bring their newly found expertise back to the workplace.
Emotionally, students who have spent time in the workplace often find they appreciate their graduate education at a deeper level and can apply it more practically. And financially, the rising cost of education and graduate programs means that mature students are sometimes better able to afford graduate studies and avoid debt than students attending straight out of an undergraduate program.
Being a mature student can be advantageous to your own learning journey, as you already have life experience and have matured as a human being, with greater awareness of the best conditions which enable you to study effectively. It is likely that that you will have developed stronger communication skills, which will help with interacting with your peers and the teaching staff. You will also likely be more sure that the course of study you have chosen is right for you, spending your time dedicated to maximizing your experience and grades!
I embarked on my Masters program at the age of 30, although the majority of my peers were straight out of undergraduate programs, it did not deter me from making friends with them and admiring their enthusiasm and energy to learn new concepts. There were 4 of us in a cohort of 44 students who were classified as “mature students,” and we all graduated with the highest grades in the course. I believe this was because of the investment we had made at a much later stage in our lives. Some of us had completely changed career paths: one peer even had a PhD in an unrelated subject and had decided to retrain in our current field.
Balancing the intensity of a graduate degree with other commitments is more challenging as a mature student. You may already have a family or work part-time. On the flip side, you may be retired and choose to embark upon further study purely for interest and enjoyment: what a luxury!
I now teach colleagues in a Masters program who are also working full-time. Their dedication to learning in the program is apparent, and their level of engagement and interaction with their peers and the teaching team is markedly higher than with undergraduates due to the conscious investment they have made to integrate graduate study with their already busy work lives. They can see how the course benefits them in their work directly, which in turn benefits the institutions they work in, in a positive feedback cycle.
Learner fatigue is not uncommon for younger students who have been studying consistently since childhood: the long-term pressure and occasionally the transition to self-directed, autonomous learning in a graduate program can leave them susceptible to academic burnout. With the pandemic, academic burnout has been exacerbated, and a recent survey has shown that almost three-quarters of students do not feel that their university provides enough mental health support.
Mature learners, on the other hand, often have greater capacity to deal with an intensive, self-driven learning environment, having already learned to manage successful careers. They know how to budget their time, manage their mental space, and work smarter. While the return to higher education can prove a mental challenge after being away and take some time to re-adapt, older students have an emotional maturity that can’t be be developed except with time.
When you apply for a graduate degree as a mature student, your application may also be given special consideration as some institutions have flexible requirements. As the University of Essex points out, you have the advantage of being able to include work experience, training and overall life experience in your application which younger students will not have.
In conclusion, no age is too old to get a graduate degree. There are so many advantages in waiting a while for further study that you may even choose to become a lifelong learner!
Dr. Amrit Dencer-Brown
Lecturer in Academic Practice