Posted by: Dorianne Cotter-Lockard | 2 November 2007

Funding the PhD at age 50

You know what they say about assumptions….. Tuition at Fielding is approximately $17,000 annually. I didn’t include the cost of books and travel in my calculations. Bad assumption. So far, I’ve spent several hundred dollars on books for three courses. I’m lucky that Santa Barbara is only an hour’s drive away, but some of the seminars are in other states. I have a lot of frequent flyer miles to leverage for those trips.

I also assumed I would be consulting 3 – 4 days a week. I have two consulting contracts for independent consulting services. The one with my previous company (Countrywide) has not yielded any engagements due to their financial difficulties. I feel optimistic about the another one, though I’ve been talking with the principals of the company for several weeks now with no engagement in sight.

I faced a day of panic this week when I realized the four months of cash I had set aside to support me and my family until I got consulting work has run out. We will lay off our babysitter/housekeeper next week. That put me into a funk. I also realized that I am starting to use the cash I had set aside to pay the remainder of tuition for this year.

As a high paid executive, I assumed that I could cover my college costs and continue to support my family at a reduced level while in school. WRONG. I need a student loan……

consolidate-student-loan.jpgApplying for a student loan as an adult is a different story at age 50 than at age 20. I went to the Federal Student Loan site and completed the application. When they ask for assets and want you to include money in 529 accounts, they don’t ask if the money is for you or your children (it’s for my kids’ college costs). They only ask about your income per 2006 tax return (mega-bucks), not your current income ($0). And though they do ask about your number of dependents, they don’t care about credit card or car loan debt. They don’t care about IRA money, but I had to include my non-IRA investments in the assets listing even though those investments are for retirement too. It was an interesting process. I’m not wanting a subsidized loan, mind you, just a regular student loan that I don’t have to start paying back until I finish my degree 🙂

graduation.jpgI’m not asking for any pity. I feel very blessed to have the life I have and be in a position to not work for a few months and still maintain my life-style. A modification of life-style will be OK too. Someone the other day was asking me questions about my PhD goal. He asked “what’s the payback?” and I was kinda startled at that question. For me the payoff is living a life of ideas, teaching, speaking and consulting. It’s not about increasing my finances or having a glorious career – I’ve already had that. The payback is connection with people in a way that helps us all to grow.



  1. I am 43yo medical professional with a Masters-level degree. I have 17+ years of experience in my field and I am bored. Bored to tears. Although I do not wish to leave my profession, I would like to expand my knowledge base to encompass more than pure clinical/scientific knowledge.

    I am seriously considering a PhD in Leadership Studies from a local university. My undergrad GPA is sad, but my graduate GPA is 4.0. I think I have a strong chance at getting accepted into the program, but finances remain a serious obstacle to overcome.

    Honestly, I feel that financially justifying a PhD is like financially justifying children. It cannot be done with any degree of logic or reasoning. You either want them despite the costs or you don’t.

    Do any of you have any insight to funding a PhD education? Have any of come up with creative means to finance doctorate-level education that is not necessarily going to push you up the corporate ladder? Truth be told, there is only one rung on our corporate ladder…OJT, Bachelor’s, Master’s or PhD, we’re all making the same. Ethically, I disagree with this. But the fact remains, my current employer does not compensate employees for education and training…only years of employment.

    I am open to any and all suggestions. Thank you all in advance.


  2. Greetings fellow traveler. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. As a 54 year old second-year doctoral student at a public university, I too have been asked what I expect to gain from my effort. I always marvel at the assumptions that must underlie that question. When I applied, I was lucky enough to get accepted in the first-round with stipend, tuition remission, and insurance, but the financial sacrifice required was still quite large for someone coming from a relatively high-income job, as opposed to a more traditional path. However, as you so aptly noted, the locust of benefit is different for older students. In exchange for the financial package, I TA. However, one of the benefits of being an older student with considerable experience is that I am allowed to teach 300/400 level classes to the undergrads.

    When my application was considered, a concern raised by one selection committee member was whether the department would be able to successfully place me on graduation because of my age. The committee views the relationship between a student and the department as a marriage of sorts. Their hope is that they will be able to place students in high-profile positions after graduation so that they might enhance the reputation of the department, funnel students back to the program, and demonstrate by example the employment prospects of graduates to future applicants. They invest heavily in terms of the professors’ time and department resources to prepare students as researchers and teachers. They are reasonably concerned about the placement potential of applicants. I felt quite fortunate to impress the committee sufficiently to make it over the hump.

    For those of similar age who are considering dedicating 4-6 years of their lives to the somewhat selfish goal of intellectual development, my only advice would be to consider carefully your motivation, and be prepared to discuss that motivation with those whose ambitions are grounded differently.

  3. Thsnks for sharing your journey. Student loans are hard to get, especially when one looks to enter a PHD degree program. They should implement PHD loans..

    Good luck on your future goals.

  4. Well it is hard to say whether age is a negative factor for the PhD admission.

  5. I think you are lucky enought to get into the PhD program at the age of 50. Most prestige universities/colleges won’t accept any applicant who is 50 years old. I know, I know… it is one of those “under the table” rules. I tell you my story. I have tried to get into the PhD program at my former graduate school, a very prestige university in the US. I have three Master’s Degrees, and my GPAs at graduate are 3.81, 3.9, and 4.0 respectively. I obtained my Bachelor Degree with a first class honors. My term papers are stored at the library for the new Master’s Degree students as “samples”. The President and the Dean of Academic Affairs of the college where I am working wrote me recommendation letters. BUT, I got a reject letter just two days after the application deadline. The reject letter explains to me that the selection is based on grades at graduate school, recommention letter and working experience. Well I have 15 professinal working experience in my field. Why? The only thing I can imagine is my age prevent me from being accepted. I am 49 years old. By the time I graduate, I will be mid-50s. I am too old to be a PhD student. – I am hoping that anyone who has served on the PhD application committee will read this message and give me a honesty answer. Thank kyou.

    • My perspective on the question of pursuing a PhD after a certain age is that while some universities may prefer to focus on younger students more willing and ready to take long-term faculty positions, many universities welcome older students who have extensive work and life experience. My recommendation to you is to do some searches on the set of universities that offer PhD’s in your topic area. Then find out more about the diversity of their student body as well as average age. Social diversity is a great focus of my university and the average age of the students is 45. The program is geared toward adult learners. There are many universities now that have a similar focus. So try widening your search for the right university for you.

      Another thought to consider is that being a successful Master’s Degree student is very different than being a successful PhD student. The competencies of a scholar are quite different. You might want to spend some time thinking through what competencies helped you be successful as a master’s student and explore whether these are the same as those required to become a scholar.

    • That would be the big difference between a “professional” program like Fielding or Walden and a “traditional” PhD program in the scholastic apprenticeship model.

      In a scholastic apprenticeship model: First, applications are screened for those minimum requirements, like you mentioned – GPA, work experience, etc. Then those that pass are reviewed by the tenure-track professors who have room to accpet a graduate student that year, and they choose the students that fit best. A good graduate program with funding and assistantships will pay for you to travel and visit the program ($200-500) for a few days and see if you want to attend. Students typically work for the university as TAs, isntructors, research staff while they take courses and working their professors’ lab 6-12 hours per day and draw a salary of $8-20k yearly.

      In a professional online model: Admission requirements are assessed by sales staff. Students come to Fielding & etc with a clear picture of what they know and what they want to learn and create with their graduate education, so fit with a specific faculty member isn’t vital. Often the educators at these universities are tenured or adjunct faculty elsewhere, and there are hundreds to work with; switching major professors is easy. Students rarely receive funding beyond student loans or dissertation awards ($100-1000) and are typically employed elsewhere during their schooling.

      So, chances are slim that a 28-38 year old assistant or associate professor (the majority of professors who take graduate students do so as part of their tenure package) would choose a 50 yo graduate student when they could have a 20 yo. They don’t have to earn the fresh-out-of-undergrad’s respect and it is simply easier to underpay and overwork kids in their 20s – – which is mostly what graduate school is at large research institutions.

      Try an applied program (PsyD, EdD, PharmD, etc. instead of PhD) or a professional program (online or offered by an institution that doesn’t accept undergraduates, like Fielding) for a better chance at acceptance.

    • I’m 32 with terrible undergraduate grades and no graduate experience, and I got accepted to a top-notch PhD program in electrical engineering at a large research university. (I’m having the best time of my life, by the way.) Try applying to several different programs from different schools.

  6. since i’m 50ish and considering going back to school for a phd, too, i’m wondering how things have been and are going for you now. how did the finances work out and are you still studying? in short, would you do it again (or recommend it to someone else)?

    • I am still in school and I was able to obtain student loans. I’m half-way through the program and very happy that I’ve stuck with it. If you have a passion about learning and either research or teaching (or both), I say “Go for it!!”

  7. In the U.S. so many people are stuck on the “payback” part and mean that in a monetarily. How long does it take people to understand the money is not the end all? Some people never get it and they are never satisfied with their life.

    “There are two ways of meeting difficulties: you alter the difficulties or you alter yourself meeting them”.– Phyllis Bottoms

  8. Since you inserted a box with my email address, from “Your Mother” I guess you might not be averse to my response as well. It’s so enlightening to me to learn of your schedule, efforts, etc. It gives me a little more insight as to what you are doing. I can’t help remembering your “fish changing colors” experiment at age 12, and how it won you the Science Fair prize. I’m not surprised you are continuing in this vein (research, not fish). I look forward to your final achievement in reaching your goals, as I know you will. Love, mom

  9. As a new Fielding student myself, I really appreciated your story! It’s a bit odd to go through the formal parts of the “becoming a student” process at mid-life. I feel like I’ve been a student all along, just without the federal forms.

    Here’s to all of us figuring out how to make it work as we move into the next phase. Hope to meet you at winter session SB.

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