THE NON-TRADITIONAL GRADUATE STUDENT is defined as an adult who is pursuing a higher degree part-time while working full-time, or one who returns to school full- or part-time after a significant break or interruption (starting a family, starting a career, switching careers, or serving in the military), while maintaining responsibilities such as employment, family, and other obligations of adult life.
As a non-traditional student, you can make significant contributions in the graduate classroom. You have valuable work and life experience and are likely to view education as an investment, giving you strong incentive to complete your graduate program successfully. You may have made the (perhaps difficult) decision to enter graduate school at this stage of your life for any number of reasons:
• Your work responsibilities have changed and you need to keep up with advances in your field.
• You’ve been hit by the recession and find yourself out of work and looking for a new career.
• A recent family or life transition – marriage, death, divorce – has inspired you to continue your education.
• You’ve suddenly been afforded free time you’ve never had before (maybe your children are grown and family demands are less time-consuming).
• You want to complete a degree you may have started but could not finish because of family/work responsibilities, financial concerns, or lack of interest/motivation.
Even so, no matter how strongly motivated you are, having lived for so long outside the "college student" paradigm, you may struggle a bit with self-confidence. If you are older than most of the students in your graduate program(older, even, than some of your professors), you may have an occasional twinge of discomfort – can they really teach this old dog new tricks? How do you balance your obligations outside of school with the demands of your academic program? As a parent (perhaps a grandparent), full-time worker or active community member you may need special help with time management to successfully meet this bevy of obligations in addition to academic demands.
There are only so many hours in a day. You can’t abandon your other obligationsto job or family, so devise a new “life schedule” that
accommodates your academic responsibilities. Schedule on-campus classes for free times in your day, or look into online courses that give you
the flexibility of attending “class” at a time that suits you best. There’s no need to take the maximum credit hours allowed each semester – build
your academic program slowly.
Be careful about the standards you set for yourself. Your ultimate goals might be to make excellent grades, publish in top-of-the-line journals, conduct groundbreaking research and become engaged at the highest levels in professional associations, but you might want to scale back your expectations right out of the gate. If you are balancing a job and parenthood, meeting one out of four of these goals might be reasonable each semester as you ease your way into your graduate program, especially if it helps you maintain your sanity.
Don't worry about being the best at everything; focus on what you are learning instead. Also, because of your hectic schedule, it can be easy to put assignments or studying off – but don't fall into that trap. Keep up with your reading and your project tasks, taking time each day to devote to your graduate program.
And don’t overlook the value of a dedicated mentor or adviser or the services and resources provided by the Office of Graduate Studies. Consider buying a copy of The Portable Dissertation Advisor: Advice for on-traditional Graduate Students by Miles T. Bryant – it’s an excellent resource to help you manage the additional demands you’ll face when it’s time to work on your dissertation.
Association of Non-traditional Students in Higher Education, Roberts, Hannah. Nontraditional Students: Earning a Grad Degree at Any Age.
Benshoff, James M. and Lewis, Henry A. Nontraditional College Students. ERIC Digest.