Degree In Sight

When Valerie Stephens Leake became a counseling psychology doctoral student at the University of Kentucky, she hadn't been in a college classroom since 1979-the year that some of her fellow classmates were born. But besides the age difference, Leake, now 48 and in her fifth year of the program, says college hasn't changed much since she left. The biggest transformation, she says, has been in herself.

The former secondary school English teacher says this time around she's in college because she wants to be there. Once her three young children headed to school, she decided to go back, too.

Leake is among a steady number of "older students" filing into psychology programs across the country. About 22 percent of psychology doctorate recipients in 2003 were between age 35 and 44, and nearly 12 percent were age 45 to 59, according to APA's Research Office. Doctorate recipients under age 35 make up the largest percentage of recent doctorates-about 63 percent. The number of people nationwide returning to graduate school later in life is on a slight rise. In 2002, about 36 percent of graduate students were age 35 and up, compared with 24 percent in 1982, according to U.S. Census data.

Many of these students have returned seeking a career change or to fulfill a lifelong desire to earn their doctorate. Before they re-entered college, they weighed how the decision would affect their family, relationships and finances-and whether the time investment would benefit them in the long run.

Many psychology programs welcome students who are training for second or even third careers. The clinical psychology doctoral program at Long Island University in Brookville, N.Y., for example, offers a $500 scholarship each year to students seeking a career change or wanting to move from raising children to becoming a psychologist. At Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., the counseling and clinical psychology program's Web site encourages older students to not shy away from applying, saying age and experience can be an advantage. Some counseling and clinical psychology programs even prefer older students, believing they are more mature and responsible than their younger peers, experts say.


For 42-year-old Erik Moore, going back to school meant leaving a successful career as a commodity trader at the New York Mercantile Exchange. He returned to school fulltime in 2005 to pursue his doctorate in clinical psychology at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

"I was on the trading floor for 13 years, and it was extremely difficult," Moore says. "The goal is to make money, and after awhile it becomes one-dimensional and unsatisfying. What I'm doing now, and what I hope to be doing later, I'm not going to get rich from, but I find it very rewarding." Moore is pursuing a career in health, neuropsychology and rehabilitation psychology, and also works parttime at a rehabilitation clinic providing behavioral therapy and counseling to brain-injury clients.

The work may be more fulfilling, but making the change comes with new challenges for older students. For one, many find themselves in the minority among students of a different generation.

Naomi Hall, 34, a fourth-year doctoral student at Claremont University in Claremont, Calif., was the oldest in her social psychology cohort and the only one not coming from a psychology background.

"They were at the age and in the position I was five years ago-the ability to go to school during the day and stay up at night," she says. Also, she notes, the work was challenging for her since she was coming from a health sciences background. She had to learn how to write a research paper because she was used to writing for the community, not scholarly journals. And, she says the "boot-camp mentality" of the first year required some readjustment to college life. Nonetheless, Hall put in the extra work to catch up to her classmates and found mentors to support her along the way.

She also received a fellowship to support her doctoral training in HIV/AIDS research from APA's Minority Fellowship Program.

Forty-six-year-old Leslie Bautista, PsyD, who left a 20-year career in insurance to study psychology, considers age to be an advantage as a returning student.

"Some younger students have been through some stuff, but some haven't," she says. "You geta sense it better helps you to understand other people when you've been through some things in your life."

For example, Bautista says that by working for 20 years before returning to school, she's learned how to juggle competing priorities at work and in her personal life. She adds that adults seeking psychology as a second career are more likely to have experienced life difficulties-such as the death of a loved one-that may help them in, for example, developing empathy with a client.

Nevertheless, Maryann Latus, a one-time school counselor who is earning a counseling psychology doctoral degree at Indiana State University, says that being older often comes with more outside-the-classroom responsibilities, often leaving her little time to socialize with classmates.

"I'm devoted to this program, but family will always come first," says Latus, who is married with two children.

She also found it hard to identify with students in their mid-20s. "It's a different frame of mind," she explains. "They go out on Saturday nights, when I'm doing papers because that's the only time when I can do it."

She's found it tough to juggle what she wanted to do with how it will affect those important to her.

"To do it responsibly, you always have to consider who are the most important to you-whether your spouse, partner or children or whoever will be impacted by what you do with your life," she says. "Otherwise, the reward of the experience is taken out of it for you and them both."

That's why Leake sought out a family-friendly program-one that offered classes at many different times and sponsored events welcoming family and children. She even looked at whether professors hung their children's artwork in their offices.

Hall says she underestimated the effect her decision to return to school would have on her relationships, such as with friends and family.

"It's very hard to maintain relationships and then you feel guilty because you can't maintain the relationship the way you used to," Hall says. "Some of them fell by the wayside because I totally underestimated the time commitment."


The financial strain of going back to school can also burden returning students. After all, Hall was accustomed to regular paychecks to pay her car loan and mortgage. By returning to school, she has more money going out to pay for tuition and books than what comes in.

To compensate, Hall found jobs that helped build her research interests in psychology and pay her bills. For example, she conducts HIV/AIDS research on the sexual risk of African Americans as a senior research associate at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science and teaches a class at California State University, Fullerton.

As for Leake, she and her children began scrimping and saving for a "take-mom-to-school" fund two years before she started her program, helping her avoid taking out student loans the first two years. And Latus had the advantage that Indiana State University awards doctoral students-who meet certain admission grade and test score requirements-scholarships and assistantships to cover tuition costs.

But figuring out the finances may be only half the battle. Those returning to school may find critics bombarding them with such questions as, "Why do you need another degree?" or "Aren't you too old to be starting another career?"

Moore says there comes a time when you have to just trust your decision and take the leap. "Don't be afraid. Just go for it," he says. "Everybody can contribute to this field, there's no doubt about that."

Latus says before she was ready to re-enter college, she evaluated whether she would receive the maximum investment back considering the number of years it will take to complete the degree and the number of years she will have to use it.

"In this day and age, people work until they are 65, so you might as well be doing what you want to be doing," she says. "If I have to work another 20 years, I want to be doing something where I feel fulfilled and energized."

Melissa Dittmann Tracey is a writer in Chicago.

"In this day and age, people work until they are 65, so you might as well be doing what you want to be doing. If I have to work another 20 years, I want to be doing something where I feel fulfilled and energized."

Maryann Latus
Indiana State University