Older students can be more focused and aware of their goals for graduate school than their younger colleagues. Their maturity is an especially strong asset for graduate study because their life experiences make them familiar with complex problems and independent thinking. Even with this important advantage, older students sometimes face challenges that are less common among younger students.

Fear of having "rusty" skills

Older students, especially if they have been in the workforce for several years, might worry about how they compare academically to their younger counterparts, who might be more up-to-date in the discipline or possess more experience with recent educational computing technologies.

Devaluation of life experiences

Many older students pursue graduate school after spending a number of years running a business, leading developments in industry or the public sector, or raising a family. A difficult issue they sometimes face is learning that their hard-won, "real life" knowledge is devalued during the graduate experience. This is particularly frustrating when older students' experiences contradict the research or theory they are studying.

Invisibility in the classroom

Older students commonly describe feeling excluded when a professor refers to an event or popular film from many years ago and then says to the entire class, "And, of course, none of you would remember that." Although not intended to be harmful, this kind of remark makes older students feel overlooked.

Isolation from fellow students

Because of the age differences between them and their peers, older graduate students can sometimes feel socially isolated. Many prefer to socialize in environments different from those of younger students. Also, although they do develop friendships with younger colleagues, older students are aware that some of them may be the same age as their own children.

Awkwardness with faculty

Some students are close in age or even older than their professors, and may worry that their professors are more accustomed to interacting with younger students.

Suggestions for Students

  • Talk to your peers and mentors about how your prior professional and educational experiences are transferable to graduate study. Whenever possible, link real world examples to theory.
  • Visit faculty members regularly during office hours or set up appointments with them. Few ways are better to help professors and potential mentors understand who you are and what you are about.
  • If you have been in the workforce for several years, jot down your five most polished skills and identify their correlates in academic work. Advertise these skills in your interactions with faculty and peers.
  • Take the initiative to lead discussion groups or projects that mix people of different ages and experiences. Avoid always joining or forming study teams that consist only of same-age students.
  • Ask younger graduate students for suggestions on readings or for technological assistance (if you need it).
  • Offer technological assistance to your graduate student peers if your prior experience exposed you to useful computer applications and tools. Students and faculty alike will be drawn to your special skills.
  • Initiate social activities on and off campus, such as dinner parties or community events.
  • Start an interest group or a writing group.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Value older students' knowledge by asking how their life experiences inform their graduate scholarship.
  • Link theory and practice so that all graduate students can understand how information learned in their program transfers to the world outside.
  • Explore the disconnects between theory and practice that arise for your students. Older students welcome opportunities to use their experience as a resource and to test their assumptions as they grow as scholars.
  • Welcome the contributions older students make by occasionally asking them to lead discussion groups.
  • Develop ways to ensure that older students are integrated into work groups or teams so that they do not end up always working with other older students.
  • Include older students in out-of-class study and writing groups.