People in midlife return to school at the doctoral level for all sorts of reasons. Many want to further a career that has hit a salary or positional impasse, some desire to teach their well-honed skills in an academic setting, while others want a 180-degree life turnaround (think a frustrated accountant who longs to study literature–yes, a thing). There are definitely those who pursue a doctorate purely as a personal goal for their own intellectual satisfaction.  

Whatever the reason, midlife Ph.D. studies continue to be common. Even though the overall age of Ph.D. candidates has dropped in the last decade, approximately 14 percent of all doctoral recipients in the U.S. are over age 40, according to The National Science Foundation. 

As a dissertation coach who supports graduate students working to complete their degrees, I can definitely vouch for the reality of individuals choosing to continue their studies later. Many of my clients are in their mid to late 40’s and are consumed not only with their studies, but with careers and families.   

What’s it like to re-enter university later in life? Definitely challenging but not as daunting as you may think. Many midlife students I work with as a dissertation coach report that they are comfortable being back in an academic setting after years spent in the workforce or pursuing other dreams. 

For others who find the return to higher education tougher than they expected, the real struggle may lie with adapting again to the intellectual rigours involved. 

Luckily there are methods to sharpen your midlife brain and prepare for the reality of re-entering a real or virtual classroom setting with ease.  

Before you start: Write a dissertation to yourself. Prior to entering the academic world again, it’s critically important to do a deep-dive into self. Fully flesh out your reasons for returning to school, examining every motivating factor in detail. Want a more rewarding career helping people instead of crunching numbers? Okay, great…but why now? How do you want to apply your new education to help others…exactly? Get specific, granular. This “life thesis” will be your source of inspiration when the going gets tough.

Sharpen your brain. As we get older, our brains may become a bit entrenched. In some subject areas we might lose the agility of a younger brain. The good news is that the brain can be retrained and re-awakened, starting with an old stand-by: reading. And this is something graduate studies provide in spades. 

According to a study done by the Fisher Center, the cognitive requirements of reading can heighten overall brain function and protect memory. The authors behind the study go so far as to suggest that reading every day can slow down mental decline. 

And apparently, it doesn’t require a lot of reading to keep your brain in shape. Experts suggest between 30 minutes to one hour per day of learning new material. Any less than this will not yield much impact. So, if you have had a lapse, pick up some literature in your subject again on a daily basis and get back into the reading routine.

Get physical. The brain and the body need to be in good shape before you enter the classroom again. Just like a runner prepares for an upcoming marathon, get in shape via daily exercise and a diet rich in healthy fats that feed the brain. (Healthy fats can be found in fatty fish, such as herring, salmon, mackerel and sardines. Avocados, nuts and seeds contain good unsaturated fats.) 

Aerobic exercise is equally important. In a 2015 study, researchers found that consistent aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. Exercise also naturally improves mood and helps us sleep better, both key when taking in complex information. The standard recommendation is at least half an hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week (or 150 minutes a week).

Important to remember: In the words of Henry Ford, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” One way to stay young is to take the doctoral leap – irregardless of age. 

Returning to school mid-life has many benefits which I’ll detail in my next post. Searching for a dissertation coach for your midlife studies? Contact me. Let’s get you to the finish line.