Tuesday June 15, 2004


Dorothea over at Caveat Lector discusses the interaction of age and graduate school admissions:

Nobody in academia blinks when somebody comes back for graduate study after a few years on the outside. I’ve always been in grad school with people older than I am, last time and this time alike. As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, age plays absolutely zero role in admissions decisions.

I'm in a similar position, so I wanted to add two cents about my reentry student experience.

I got my Bachelor's degree in computer science back in the early nineties before working in the computer industry for ten years. I'd always been interested in linguistics, though, and when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to go back. I'm finishing up a Master's degree soon (soon, I swear!) and plan to continue on to a Ph.D.

As an undergrad at a large public university, I was able to sit in the back of the class and be ignored. Even better, nobody seemed to notice if I didn't bother going to class at all, or if I only turned in half of the homework. (I got a lot of sleep as an undergrad.) If I was interested in a class, I had a reasonable shot at getting an A; if I wasn't, I might squeak by with a C (except for the time I got an F—it turns out you have to take both of the midterms—but that's another story). It's not that I wasn't learning—I actually had several interesting software side-projects running much of the time—but I didn't really take advantage of the educational opportunities around me.

After having worked full-time for years, my approach to graduate school is completely different. I'm still at a large public university big enough for me to disappear into anonymity, but instead I take lots of notes, ask questions (but not too many—I don't want to be that guy), talk to professors outside of class, form study groups with other students, and do extra reading that's not required. I still tend to do the required work at the last minute, but it always gets done. The fact is, in my experience, if you're interested in your subject, school just isn't as much work as a job (at least, it doesn't feel that way).

I was worried when I applied to grad school that my, um, checkered academic past would be a liability, so I took a few classes as a nonmatriculated student before applying, both to stick my toe in and test the waters and also to generate a few letters of recommendation, and that did the trick. After being admitted, I was worried that I was going to be that weird older guy, but I was surprised and gratified to find, like Dorothea, that reentry is the rule in my department rather than the exception, and my age (early thirties) falls in the middle of the pack.

I also agree that I wouldn't recommend going directly from a Bachelor's degree into grad school—I think most people would be much better off with a few years away from school, for several reasons. First, as I mentioned above, a full-time job gives you perspective on the academic workload. Second, work experience encourages you to develop a work ethic—do the work because you're interested and you committed to do it, not because some parent-analog is going to frown at you if you don't. Third, it's a chance to save up some money to help defray the cost of graduate school, rather than piling up student loans.

Unlike Dorothea, I'm not sure I'd insist on some time out of school as a condition of admission. For me, time away from school was beneficial, but there are certainly people (some in my department) who are organized and dedicated students who went straight from Bachelor's degree to grad school. The trick for admissions committees is trying to figure out who's a motivated future scholar, and who's only applying to avoid the job market—but that's just as true with reentry students.

Finally, Dorothea is 100% right about departments that take the opposite tack, preferring to only admit non-reentry student—what can they be thinking? A student body made up entirely of grad students who have never done anything else but be students must sound pliable and manageable to the faculty, or something, but what a waste of human potential. I promise that lots of us reentry students are smart people with interesting perspectives, even though we've [gasp] worked outside the academy. Remember all that talk about student diversity? That's us.

[Now playing: "so. Central Rain" by R.E.M.]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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Well now, *this* I know something about. (As Tensor has mentioned, I tend to tune out the more technical linguistic ramblings, er, *posts*.)

Both of my trips through graduate school have been in professional programs that strongly prefer re-entry students. The reason for that is they want the students to have a meaningful context for what they're about to learn. This is very helpful when discussing problems of practice. It also makes class discussions way more interesting. In fact, when I, still an undegrgrad, inquired about the public health program they told me not to even bother applying. For various reasons I did anyway, and lo and behold, they let me in. Mistake. I was so burned out. I didn't really engage with my fellow students, skipped as many classes as I could (we will not discuss my biostatistics grade,) and was basically the invisible student. Except that my program had 12 people in it, so it was obvious. Ick. I am not proud of this. (I did graduate.)

Fast forward five years and there I am entering a doc program in education. Everything was different. I became the student I always hated--the one who outlined every article she read and took class notes in multicolored ink (black--professor's comments; blue-student comments; green-my comments; red-urgent reminders.) Always had questions and comments in class. Seemed to actually *enjoy* writing term papers.

This, I think, is the true strength of the re-entry student. You *want* to be there and are studying something you are really interested in. You've given it serious thought. You've had the time and the opportunity to make other choices and you've chosen this. I definitely see the advantages of requiring students to take a few years off between undergrad and grad school.

But...the programs I'm discussing are professional programs. It makes sense to want the students to have work experience. It makes sense in a lot of disciplines. But what job do we want a new graduate to take for two years that is going to give her new and special insight into history? Or math? For some people mandated time off would just be a pointless waiting period during which they have to start paying back their student loans while simultaneously trying to save for grad school.

So while I certainly encourage undergrads I know to take some time off before going to grad school, I think it would be a mistake to require it across the board.

On a related note, I got a big laugh out of a recent column in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which the author left academia for the first time ever and took a non-academic job. His marveling at working in a "real" office made me want to smack him upside the head and say, "*That's* why they call it the Ivory Tower." But he did point out how difficult it was to get employers to take him seriously when all he had was academic employment on his resume. Interesting.

Posted by: The Wife at Jun 16, 2004 12:28:36 AM

She's not certain, but The Wife thinks that this:


...might be the article she was thinking of. She says that upon re-reading it, though, it doesn't have a couple of lines she thought she remembered, so it might be the wrong one. (So I guess it's possible the author doesn't require a smack upside the head after all.)

Micro-rant: Articles (including this one) on the Chronicle of Higher Education are behind a subscription wall, which is annoying, but I understand. *But*, sometimes if you Google for the title and author, you'll find another location for the article that's available to non-subscribers, like the link above. What kind of a subscription system is that? Am I supposed to be able to read the article for free or not?

Posted by: The Tensor at Jun 16, 2004 1:03:27 AM

No, he still deserves a smack. "I've also realized that just working in an office is a skill." Yeah, actually, it is, you incredible snob. I can see how this would be surprising for someone who thinks that being a *grad student* is the bottom of the barrel. Dude, you want fries with that? [Insert eyeball roll here.]

Note: I'm aware of his blog http://www.frolicofmyown.com/ ("What about Ray Bradbury?" "I'm aware of his work...") and that he's probably achieved some perspective on this by now, but it just sounded so arrogant.

Posted by: The Wife at Jun 16, 2004 1:22:15 AM

It's probably unwise to enter a conversation where the participants have already expressed a desire to do you physical harm, but I did intend the column in the Chronicle to have a self-mocking tone. I'm perfectly aware how absurd it is for a grown man to just be learning the ways of the working well. Unfortunately, it's all too common among post-academics.

In all the articles and books for recovering academics that I've read, there is a optimistic rhetoric that you can repackage the skills that you developed in graduate school in a way to appeal to employers. I wanted to make it clear that, in the end, there is no substitute for experience.

I never meant to imply that being a graduate student was somehow worse that making minimum wage to monitor a vat of hot grease. What I meant was that being a graduate student is the bottom rung of the academic profession (some would argue that adjuncts occupy this place, I suppose). It is probably the case that in professional schools graduate students don't feel that way. They are accomplished in their fields and have returned to burnish their skills and advance their careers. This is the not the case in non-professional programs.

Always happy to hear feedback, whether positive or negative.

Posted by: Frolic at Jun 16, 2004 11:44:32 AM

Hmmm, being a foot from being killed in a car accident on delivery, or having your self-worth destroyed as a first-year grad student? At the risk of getting thrown in the pizza oven I slaved over for three years, I'd say that the first year is worse than minimum wage, even normalizing for wrecking my truck. Among other things, as a first-year your constantly getting shown just how much more you have to learn and do before you're a competent physicist, whereas you can always pick up and move from one food job to another, or to lawn care, or Wal-Mart stocker pretty easily and you can do a bang-up job at the same time (your mileage may vary, depending on your chosen field). I've yet to reach the point where I've felt, "I'm a good scientist". Hell, right now I can't even call myself a physicist, and it'll be a couple more years before I really have that honor.

Posted by: agm at Jun 16, 2004 2:39:36 PM

I tried to trackback this entry but it was rejected. You can view my post here: http://blinger.org/index.php/weblog/comments/229/

Posted by: Blinger at Jun 16, 2004 10:27:05 PM