When you’re older than your professors


Marlene was one of the brightest and most conscientious doctoral students I’ve ever served in my academic coaching and editing practice. An older student, she had returned for her doctorate after three of her four kids were grown and out. Marlene held down a full-time job in medical billing, and her youngest was now in high school, so Marlene embarked on a lifelong dream—she enrolled in a doctoral program. We were working together on her dissertation.

When I answered the phone, instead of greeting me, Marlene raged for ten minutes. Her professor had track-changed almost every page of her paper and added a four-paragraph single-spaced memo stuffed with questions. Marlene shouted over the phone, “I’m calling the doctoral police!”

I understood why Marlene was so upset. At fifty-two, she had (bravely) entered graduate school. The professor was younger by at least fifteen years. She had done well in her courses but now, with the dissertation, he challenged Marlene at every turn, and just about every sentence.

Older Students Are Increasing

Marlene’s situation is not unusual. Like many other older students, she chose an online program to accommodate her full-time jobs and family responsibilities. Although with a passionate interest in helping primary-grade reluctant readers (as two of her children were), she had neglected graduate study for decades because of her job and family.

Most doctoral candidates I help to complete their degrees are in their forties and fifties, with a surprising number in their early to mid-sixties. They often blurt out their ages apologetically, and I ignore the self-deprecation and immediately congratulate them for their guts, spirit, and drive.

But they find working with younger professors—who could be their children or even grandchildren—difficult. The students may resent and resist the professors’ critiques and advice, and the issues that arise threaten to sabotage the degree programs and dissertations.

Why Do I Get All the Critiques?

As I told Marlene, expect revisions throughout your doctoral program, and especially your dissertation. if you’re an older graduate student and in a similar situation, your professors’ cries for revisions can stem from one of two main motivations. The first may indicate their perfectionism, vindictiveness, and pettiness and point to less-than-healthy desires to prove themselves and show you who’s boss. The professors may also recall their own tormenting doctoral tribulations and want to extract revenge.

The second motivation may be more wholesome. Your professors may push for revisions because they recognize your abilities and want a quality work for you and, by reflection, for themselves. Their comments aren’t personal, and they’re not out to get you. They genuinely want to help and so press you to live up to your potential. Probably too they see a publishable spinoff (with an acknowledgment to them) in your postgrad future.

From the other side of the doctoral program, U.S. dissertation advisor and distinguished sociologist Michael Burawoy (2005) candidly observes how he formerly handled his advisees:

I used to make detailed comments that would go on for pages and totally overwhelm and even paralyze you. Sometimes you would never come back. It was rather disingenuous of me to complain about your retreat since I suspect that my barraged aimed to establish my authority, my credibility as a young sociologist—with little thought as to what might be helpful to you. (p. 47)

Burawoy’s confession is admirable. If, though, you’ve received a sheaf of critiques such as he describes or Marlene received, whatever you do, don’t act like an irate graduate student I heard of. Without an appointment, he stomped into his professor’s office, threw down the marked-up manuscript, which he’d peppered with own brigade of sticky-note soldiers ready for battle, and argued with every point the professor had made. Needless to say, the candidate only reaped more endless-revision reprisals.

As an Older Student, You Have Advantages

As an older student, though, you have some assets, so take heart. Research confirms you’re more persistent than younger students in reaching academic goals, more self-reliant, and more purposeful in mastering the required skills (Bertone & Green, 2018; Deshpande, 2016; Dunn, Rakes, & Rakes, 2014; Offerman, 2011; Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012).

Here’s encouragement by Offerman (2011):

The contemporary doctoral student is older, more mature, and brings into the learning situation a wealth of real-world, career experience. The effective faculty member understands this and expects to learn as well as to teach, to act more as a colleague at times than a supervisor. (p. 27)

Hopefully, your professors embrace such an ideal perspective. If they don’t, you can nevertheless navigate successfully through your doctoral experience by keeping several points in mind.

What You Can Do

  1. Forget age and age comparisons (“He’s half my age, already tenured, published in five top journals, with twenty-three grants!”). Remember why you’re a graduate student and what your degree will do for you.
  2. If you’re an online student, your status can be a blessing—you don’t have to stare into that impossibly fresh face two or three times a week (unless the professor insists on Skype conferences).
  3. With your extensive experience in your field, swallow your pride and tamp down your knowledge.You may know a lot more about aspects of your topic than your professors, particularly if your dissertation investigates a problem in your workplace. And you may seethe at some of their critiques. But keep in mind that they likely know what’s acceptable for your dissertation.
  4. If, though, yours is an applied dissertation to suggest solutions to that problem at your workplace, and some of the professors’ critiques are based on inexperience with procedures, diplomatically verbalize your corrections shored up by your experience.“Professor ____, I realize you may not be familiar with . . . . but . . . .” (They have egos too!)
  5. After you get back your blood-red track-changed paper, arrange a meeting.

Admit your doctoral frailties, be open to the critiques, and ask for clarification. As Offerman (2011) and Cassuto (2013b) say, good advisors collaborate with their students. If you don’t understand, persist.

  1. Don’t whine or unburden about your other worries. Your professors have their own problems.
  2. In person, in the phone, or in email or text, act professional, as you do on your day job. You will gain the professors’ respect.
  3. Remember your real-world experiences in other testy situations with colleagues and family and how you resolved or responded reasonably and creatively. Transferring and applying your abilities can help you weather the tempests of an advanced degree program, and especially the dissertation.
  4. Treat yourself with self-respect. You have a right to your professors’ guidance and explanations (after all, you’re paying for it).
  5. Seek outside help if you feel you could really benefit from it (a peer, a recently-graduated colleague, a coach, an editor).
  6. Do the work diligently and consistently and do it well.

See how these suggestions can work for you. As an older graduate student, you’ve plunged into a highly challenging educational path that others half your age often avoid. (If they start, they frequently quit, most often before completing the dissertation.) So, wear your age proudly and be grateful for your life experiences. When you’re older than your professors, use your previous encounters, interpersonal skills, and infinite patience to complete your long-awaited degree.



Bertone, S., & Green, P. (2018). Knowing your research students: Devising models ofdoctoral education for success. Postgraduate Education in Higher Education, 471-498.

Burawoy, M. (2005). Combat in the dissertation zone. American Sociologist36(2),43-56.

Cassuto, L. Remember, professor, not too close. Chronicle of Higher Education.Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Not-Too-Close/138629/

Deshpande, A. (2016). A qualitative examination of challenges influencing doctoralstudents in an online doctoral program. International Education Studies9(6), 139-149.

Dunn, K. E., Rakes, G. C., & Rakes, T. A. (2014). Influence of academic self-regulation,critical thinking, and age on online graduate students’ academic help-seeking. Distance Education35(1), 75-89.

Offerman, M. (2011). Profile of the nontraditional doctoral degree student. NewDirections in Adult Continuing Education, 129, 21-30.

Spaulding, L. S., & Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. J. (2012). Hearing their voices: Factorsdoctoral candidates attribute to their persistence. International Journal of DoctoralStudies7, 199-219.

Author Bio: Dr Noelle Sterne runs a coaching and editing practice and in 2015 published Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles.