UW Graduate School

Age and experience

Older students can be more focused and aware of their goals for graduate school than their younger colleagues. Their maturity is an asset because they are usually not intimidated by the prospect of engaging in discussions with you, and they are familiar with complex problems and independent thinking.

Fear of having “rusty” skills

Older students, especially if they have been in the work force for several years, might worry about how they compare to their younger counterparts. Younger students, or those who were recently undergraduates, may be more up-to-date in the discipline or have more experience with technology than those who have been away from the university environment.

Devaluation of life experiences

Many older students pursue graduate school after spending a considerable number of years running a business, leading developments in industry or the public sector or raising a family. One issue they face is learning that their hard-won, “real-life” knowledge is sometimes devalued during the graduate experience. This can be frustrating when older students’ array of experiences contradicts the research or theory they are studying.

Invisibility in the classroom

Older students commonly describe how bad they feel 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 may feel socially isolated. Many older students prefer to socialize in environments different from those of younger students. Although friendships can and do develop with younger colleagues, older students are aware that some of them may be the same age as their children.

Awkwardness with faculty

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

Prior work experience and career aspirations

Regardless of their reasons for pursuing advanced studies, students enter graduate school today with more experience and more diverse career aspirations than ever before. Today, many graduate students often have had one or more careers before beginning advanced study.

Recommendations

  • Talk to your peers and mentors about how your professional and educational experience transfers to graduate study. Link real world examples to theory.
  • Visit one-on-one with faculty members to help them 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 how they correlate to academic work.
  • 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 other graduate students for suggestions on readings or for technological assistance if you need it.
  • Offer technological assistance to your graduate student peers.
  • Initiate social activities on and off campus, such as dinner parties or community events.
  • Start an interest group or a writing group.

Resources