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 workforce 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

Because of their maturity, 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, it is common for many graduate students to have had one or more career-track jobs before beginning advanced study.


  • Understand that graduate students’ career aspirations vary and their interests may not be the same as those that motivated you to want to become a professor.
  • Ask students about their aspirations and how graduate education will help them achieve their goals.
  • Ask students how their work experiences relate to, or have influenced them to pursue, graduate study. Have students write about these understandings, and invite them to make observations about how they are developing professionally.
  • Ask students how their current scholarship informs their perspective on work experiences.
  • Provide opportunities for students to link theory and practice.
  • Remind students of the “wisdom of practice” and its importance in scholarly and professional development.
  • Realize that career aspirations may shift several times over the course of students’ degree programs, so be prepared to help your mentees seek out a variety of job opportunities.
  • Tune in to new economic opportunities for “knowledge workers” by periodically checking on the condition of both the academic and nonacademic labor markets in your discipline. Consult your disciplinary association or the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook for current market data and trends.
  • Help students pursue a healthy balance of professional development opportunities such as research assistantships, teaching assistantships and special leadership opportunities, such as university or student committees.
  • Value older students’ knowledge by asking how their life experiences inform their graduate scholarship.
  • Welcome the contributions older students make by 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.