Posted by: unlikelygrad | November 23, 2009

the difference between an “old” grad student and a young one

Why I’m different, case study 1:

Young-ish grad students (no more than 27yo): “Gee, the lab prof just sent out an email saying we have to turn in our students’ final grades on the same day that final reports are due! We’ll have to grade fast! How sucky!”

UnlikelyGrad (at least 10 years older): reads email, immediately dashes off a reply: “Dear Dr. M, I really don’t think having grades due the same day as final reports is considerate to your graders. Can you please consider giving us at least one extra day?”

Dr. M. replies: “Whoops! Sorry everyone! I meant that grades were due the following week.”

Young grads say: “Thanks, UnlikelyGrad! You really saved our bacon!”

Why I’m different, case study 2:

The young: “Wow. That experiment we TA-ed really sucks, doesn’t it? Too bad we’re not in charge of the experiments.”

I think: Not only does that experiment really suck, the students find it frustrating and it’s all but impossible for my students with disabilities. (I gave a couple of them an “boost” to help them through–considering it an accommodation. One’s learning disability hasn’t been diagnosed, but is similar to one I’ve seen in a couple of prior tutor clients.)

I consider how the experiment might be altered, even marginally, to make it less frustrating and easier for LD students to complete successfully. I come up with four potential procedural changes, which I type up and present to the professor-in-charge. He tells me that some definitely won’t work, but a couple probably will–would I be willing to do a controlled experiment to test them? Of course, I agree.


As you can see, one of the substantial differences between me and my fellow grad students is my complete and utter lack of fear of professors. Don’t get me wrong; I respect them all. (Though, I confess, I respect some more than others.)

To me, professors are my peers. Yes, they’re higher up the hierarchical food chain than I am. Yes, they have more years of experience in chemistry than I do. But still, many of them are approximately my age–and during the last 10 years, I’ve made good friends with people who are considerably older than I am. (I think my oldest friend is 66.)

They may know more chemistry than I do, but I think I’ve had a broader exposure to educational tricks and techniques, and to dealing with learning disabilities, than they have. And my experience in teaching community classes with a group of like-minded individuals has taught me that when several people collaborate on a project (educational or otherwise), each gives according to his/her personal strengths and learns from others’ strengths.

I view my career as a TA accordingly: Yes, the professors have been teaching these classes for years. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to bring to the table.



  1. This makes me feel so much better, being a mature candidate myself

  2. Hi
    I just found your blog and it is perfect timing as I am 35 and currently applying to PhD programs (and questioning my sanity). I also live in the Bay Area but am applying to a program in Colorado (in psychology).
    I do not have kids but your experience gives me hope as I thought by choosing this path, I was basically ruling out having a family. It nice to know it still may be a choice.
    To prepare myself for grad school,
    I have been taking classes at a local jr. college and boy am I different this time around. I never used to ask questions, now I am sure the young’uns think of me as the annoying oldster that won’t shut up, however I have also caught mistakes the instructor made (and once in the textbook) and was the one to speak up if I feel test questions were unfair or ambiguous. I am shocked how so many of them never question anything the professor does or says.

  3. This is exactly my own experience as well, when I was a 30-something grad student. I not only thought of the profs as my peers (and indeed, some were *younger* than me..grr) – but I also considered them each to be my own personal resource – I was paying good money (well, ok, I was on full scholarship, but still) to *learn* from them, and dammit I was going to learn! I was that person that everyone else hated, sitting in the front row, asking tons of questions (and also being the class clown) – developing a *personal relationship* with each and every prof. They were *my* profs.

    Now that I *am* a prof, I have to tell you – I love my students of all ages, but the older returning students tend to be the ones who really want to learn – who are really into it. And it’s because they Really Want To Be There.

    I also found that going to grad school as a parent really helps to keep you grounded as to what is *really* important, which also makes the whole grad school process less scary, and less daunting, and more just “something that I have to do to get where I want to go.”

    And, finally, being older just generally gives you a different perspective on everything that you do – experience has taught you that nothing is a matter of life and death except, well, life and death. πŸ™‚

  4. I know this is an old post, but it’s something I’ve been discussing with a friend of mine for a while now. I and a really close friend just graduated from an MA program and have applications in for PhD programs. We’re both a bit nervous as most of the applicants are in their early 20s while our ages average out to around 40.

    I truly think that older students have more to offer PhD programs. We know exactly what we want and have more of the ‘soft skills’ necessary to succeed than many of the younger students.

    At least, that’s what we’ve been trying to convince ourselves of. πŸ™‚ Thank you for sharing your perspective!

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