Degree In Sight

David Neale-Lorello enrolled in a clinical psychology doctoral program at age 46 to be a better role model for his daughter, Natalie. (credit: Lloyd Wolf)

Through his mid-30s, David Neale-Lorello had a work history that wasn't so much a career as a series of jobs. He'd jumped from field to field before landing in a position as office manager for a consulting firm in New York City. Then, at 37, he became a father. "I had one of those really intense what-am-I-doing-with-my-life kind of moments. I wanted my daughter to pursue something she loved," he says. To set a good example for her, he says, "I decided to do something I was passionate about."

After some soul-searching, he decided to pursue psychology — a field he'd been interested in since high school. First, he had to finish the bachelor's degree he'd abandoned nearly 20 years earlier. It was a long haul, helped greatly by the fact that his wife was an indefatigable support, he says. Three years ago, at age 46, he finally started his doctoral studies in clinical psychology at American University in Washington, D.C.

Though Neale-Lorello's situation isn't unheard of, he's definitely in the minority among his classmates. According to the APA Center for Workforce Studies'  Doctorate Employment Survey, only 10.9 percent of psychology graduates began a doctoral program at age 35 or older in 2009. That figure is down from 20.2 percent in 1995. The reasons for the decline aren't clear, but one thing's for sure: A dwindling population of nontraditional students could spell trouble for a field that's attempting to meet the needs of an aging population, says Simon Rego, PhD, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. As with diversity in other domains, students benefit from hearing the perspectives of their older classmates, he says.

Economic Pressures

In general, doctoral students in the sciences seem to be getting younger. Over the last 10 years, the percentage of doctorate recipients over age 40 has fallen from 26 percent in 1999 to 18.5 percent in 2009, according to the National Science Foundation.

There are many possible reasons for the decline, including a change in the eligibility criteria for the types of doctorates included in the poll, says Mark Fiegener, PhD, who runs the survey. However, the revised criteria couldn't fully account for the decline, he adds.

One explanation is that research careers increasingly require advanced degrees, says Nathan Bell, who directs research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools. To jump right into those careers, students may be entering graduate programs earlier rather than entering the work force after college. He also points to a growing appreciation of the value of higher education; more college students may be starting out with graduate school already a part of their long-term plans.

Percent of psychology students who started doctoral programs at age 35 or older

Source: APA Center for Workforce Studies' Doctorate Employment Survey

The recession could also be also driving more college grads straight to graduate school, Bell suggests. At the same time, older people with jobs might opt to hold on to them — and continue funding their hard-hit retirement accounts — rather than seek advancement through higher education.

Fred Rothbaum, PhD, the director of graduate studies at Tufts University's department of child development, has another theory. Within academe, he's noticed increasing pressure to satisfy grant requirements and churn out papers. "Each faculty member has their own research factory and students that work with them." Older students, who have more preconceived ideas than their younger counterparts, may have more trouble fitting into that model, he says.

Regardless of the cause, the slow decline of older students is unfortunate, because they often have a lot to offer their institutions, Rothbaum adds. "They know who they are and they have their own ideas and theories," he says. "Many of them have already had careers in the field, and they bring knowledge about what it's like in the trenches."

University Support

For older students, there's an upside to the down economy: Traditional brick-and-mortar institutions are offering more evening, weekend and online courses to stay competitive with other universities, including the increasingly popular Web-based degree programs. That flexibility appeals to older students, who often have families and other responsibilities.

"We've definitely seen institutions that are really positioning themselves to support older students and nontraditional students in graduate education," Bell says.

Just make sure those Web-based programs are reputable, says Cynthia Belar, PhD, executive director of the APA's Education Directorate. "If one is seeking a degree in preparation for the practice of psychology, it's always important to find out whether the program is APA accredited, as this accreditation process is the one recognized by the federal government for programs in professional psychology," she says.

To woo older students, some schools are also offering special resources, including day care, dedicated orientation sessions and study groups, says Jennifer Varney, director of graduate advising at Southern New Hampshire University.

Even with such support, many older students have to find creative ways to make time for their studies, Varney says. That's certainly true for Craig Gruber, 43, a PhD candidate in developmental psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. With two young children, "there's a fair amount of time when I get up at 3 or 4 a.m. and write for a few hours while everyone's asleep," Gruber says.

While mature students may have more family responsibilities and can be out of practice when it comes to studying and writing papers, they shouldn't be worried that they aren't as smart as their younger colleagues, says Lisa Baumgartner, EdD, who researches adult learning and development at Northern Illinois University. Fluid intelligence, which includes reaction time, does decline with age, though it's not entirely clear when the decline occurs, she says. Cross-sectional studies show individuals have a decline in fluid intelligence as early as 35 or 40, while longitudinal studies suggest the decline starts in a person's 60s. Either way, she adds, "It really doesn't affect learning in the classroom for middle-aged adults."

Benefits of Age

Despite the economic and personal challenges, some students find that middle age is the perfect time to tackle grad school. That was the case for Jessica Dym Bartlett, 40, who worked as a clinical social worker for more than a decade before enrolling in Tufts University's child development doctoral program. "For me it made sense to go out and do the direct work first," she says. It also made sense to wait for her two young children to start school, she adds.

In some ways, being a student has been easier the second time around, Bartlett says. She better appreciates the luxury of controlling her own schedule and enjoys stopping to take in information. "Had I done this 10 years ago, I'd be in a state of dread and panic" about writing her dissertation, she says. "Now, I love the idea of having a quiet house and sitting and writing."

Being a student and mom takes planning, however. "The most difficult thing is how strategic one has to be about getting the work done," she says. "As much as I'd love to take a whole weekend and work all day and night, I can't just stop parenting for a weekend."

Then again, juggling multiple priorities is nothing new for most people in midlife, says Gruber. "It's a balancing act to make sure I can do everything I need to do for my work, studies and family," he says. "But the nice thing is that when you're in your 40s, you've been doing that kind of balancing for awhile."