when you’re older than your professors

This is a guest post from Dr Noelle Sterne. Noelle runs a coaching and editing practice and in 2015 published Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles.



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 Sociologist, 36(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 DoctoralStudies, 7, 199-219.

Photo by Wolfgang Rottmann on Unsplash



About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in 'mature' doctoral researcher, academic writing, doctoral experience, doctoral researcher, feedback and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to when you’re older than your professors

  1. Dr Sterne, thank you – I smiled all the way through this post. I am a Doctoral candidate at 72. I worked for decades in male-dominated corporate life, reaching a senior management level, often dysfunctional, & in industrial relations – highly confrontational.
    Contrary to the reports, I thoroughly enjoy my own academic learning, and value highly my supervisors’ critical comment, which I have only ever interpreted as in my interest.
    As life-spans increase – at least in the developed world – & the 4th IR changes life, it occurs to me that increasing the number of mature students is to be encouraged. The benefits are for both mental health, & adjustment to new technologies. To my mind, thinking of tertiary education as only for the young is an outmoded viewpoint.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Almost-Dr. Sylvia–
      Bravo! I certainly agree with you about the benefits to older individuals–and society. Contributions–the wealth of information, wisdom, drive, and passion (and more, I am sure). And most important–breaking the age stereotypes–no limits!


  2. Nicole says:

    Thank you Dr. Sterne for an engaging piece. As a mature age student about to embark on my research degree, I found your thoughts most stimulating. My problems are somewhat greater as I am faced with a disability which may play havoc with my studies. At the moment I have not discussed this issue with my supervisor (due to start this degree in January 2020). So it will be interesting to see how my relationship plays out with my supervisor. I can only hope that she has put her red pen away when reviewing my future chapters!! I will certainly follow your advice Dr. Sterne, as it is timely and provides very valuable ideas on how to forge an effective working relationship.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Nicole–
      Appreciate your thoughts and honesty. You may want to consider discussing your disability with your supervisor and assuring her that it will not deter you. She may be more understanding than anticipated–and yet, it is her duty not to relax academic standards. Very Best to you.


      • Nicole says:

        Thank you Dr. Sterne for your kind comments. I have found that discussing my disability leads to all sorts of negative consequences. Sometimes it’s better to be less open. If my disability does interfere with my studies, then I will terminate my degree. I know Universities are supposed to support students with disabilities and have instituted comprehensive policies. But at this stage I feel it’s best to hold off until I know my supervisor better. I will then be able to make a clearer judgment call.


  3. Douglas Taylor says:

    As a 67-year-old PhD student, with almost 20 years of full-time teaching behind me and having supervised almost 100 MBA research reports, I am very lucky that my PhD is in a field about which I know very little. My background is finance and accounting and my PhD in human geography, so I know my supervisors know so much more than me. I think, if I had remained in my field, I would have been a difficult student.
    What I have learned in my role as a supervisor is to not just give feedback, but to give the reason why I think things should change or be rewritten. When the student understands that you are acting in their best interests the entire dynamic changes.
    There have been two big lessons learned on this PhD journey. The first is that, along with the responsibilities to remain income positive, my six granddaughters are growing up fast and I should have gone part-time; and, secondly, 3 or 4 year PhD’s are criminal. I have had so much fun wandering down byways and distractions and just wish the time limit was 8 years at least. I might then graduate impoverished, but I would graduate happy and fulfilled.
    And of course, the downside of “mature student” status is that when I want to continue researching (and earning) no one will employ a 67-year-old post-doc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Douglas–
      Your wisdom on being a supervisor and taking supervision is heartening. You have the key–the supervisor is acting/critiquing [cruelly] in the student’s best interest.
      Understand about your granddaughters–make dates with them. Your suggestion of 8 years would make many graduate students tear more hair out than they already have . . . but I disagree that “no one will employ a 67-ear-old post-doc.” The mores are changing, so
      expect to contribute.


  4. Roomi says:

    Hello and thank you for this article. I did my EdD in the UK ( Bristol) which was basically part-time. Although from the UK I was working overseas at the time, so was a loner researcher in another part of the world. I finally received my doctorate at the age of 53. It took me 8 years including two years off for personal bereavements. This perhaps reflects the different issues us oldies have compared to the younger more traditional research student.

    Actually, I was always ready to listen to my supervisors. Although I could call on my practical experience ( educational assessment) and debate the points made by my supervisor, I felt they were always ready to take on my point of view with an open mind. So whereas I could talk about my particular research/work context i felt i still had a lot to learn in terms of academic writing, describing what i was researching, and clarifying points for the potential reader. Giving the thesis the right shape and what readers expected was essential.

    I did sometimes think that my very first supervisor was half my age, but it did not really bother me. I had to make many changes after my defence, and gladly did so knowing that at the end of the day, this would improve the quality of my thesis.

    In a sense, the process of doing the doctorate is a partnership, and both sides have value to add to it. I would encourage the more mature doctoral candidate to go through the process with the intention of learning, as this never stops. Age is immaterial.


    • Thank you, Roomi–
      You are absolutely right–age is immaterial (I keep looking for older and older role models in many fields–and find them). Your acceptance of supervisors’ guidance is the way any
      graduate student should take it. And as you project your acceptance, understanding of the partnership, and dignity, which you have, the supervisor responds in kind. Congratulations on your doctorate, Roomi.


      • Roomi says:

        Hello Noelle. Thank you for your reply which I really do appreciate, and thank you for the congratulations. I would add that although age is immaterial, it’s so important to convey the message to others, and that success is something can be achieved throughout life. If anything, I would encourage more people to take on further study. It really does have an emancipating effect, and brings out the real self. Warm regards.


  5. Lesly Watson says:

    Very wise advice. Thank you for sharing your experience as we relate to your examples every day..Great reminders. Best

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Alan W. says:

    While I appreciate your perspective and advice, and agree with the characteristics and attitudes of many doctoral chairs and committees, I am disappointed that the solutions offered are still so biased against the student. I am currently in a position somewhat like Merlene. I’m in an EdD program in the prospectus stage. I came up with a unique application of an advanced statistical technique as methodology for a quantitative study. I researched for 6 months to create a literature review that supported my approach and expected directions. My chair was complementary, “well researched, well written,” he said, followed by telling me that he was leaving the university. Ny next chair wanted me to restart the prospectus. He said the work I had done could be used in the proposal. That began a steady whittling down of my topic under the guise of “focus.” Last week, he told me that my prospectus would not be approved by the committee, because they would not be able to understand the the statistical technique I was using (it has been used in the literature many times). Only simple descriptive and inferential statistics like the “t-test,” would be acceptable. My unique quantitative study would be required to be a run-of-the mill qualitative study that would produce results of almost no meaning. The claim might be made that they are trying to help me focus my dissertation topic. Yes, they are, but at this stage, I’m fully capable of doing that myself as I refine my knowledge of the literature.

    As background, I am one of those students who is in the 60’s age range. Without an advanced degree in higher education, I was appointed to faculty positions in departments of Education, Electrical Engineering, and Physiology and Biophysics at a medical school. I was an Asst Dean for 5 years at the same medical school. Do I appreciate input from faculty and chair at my institution? Yes, of course, but I I have noticed that my faculty and chair have little interest in listening to me, in spite of my experience and stated post-graduate purpose.

    This has all come to a head this weekend. My persistence is in deep jeopardy, when I’m being forced into a topic that is beneath my skill level and which I would be too embarrassed to ever submit for consideration. Next week, I will either have a new chair and understanding with the committee, or I will be an ABD.

    I’ve included my email, but not my full name. As a doctoral student who might still persist after the current crisis, remaining anonymous is prudent.


    • Roomi says:

      In response to Alan, I would say that you explain what you have outlined in your message on this forum to your supervisor and the team.

      We spend our whole lives living by the choices and rules of others, yet we are capable of much much more. If you know you can do something better, how can it not benefit the institution and add more value. More importantly, your research represents you and your unique perspective.

      All the best with the EdD.


      • Hi, Roomi–
        Thank you! A constant challenge is, as Douglas says below, to live and make choices by our hearts and heads. And especially our hearts. You are right about Alan’s unique perspective, and I am sure his research will benefit not only the institution but the field.


    • Hello, Alan–
      Your forthright and passionate response is much appreciated. And the responses you have gotten are not only unfortunate but unconscionable. Expect resolution with your new chair. If now, can you present your high scholarly purpose and desire for meaningful research to a “higher power”–a dean, perhaps? I recognize the risks in doing so, but such a step may produce the outcome you want–and deserve. If you wish, keep me informed.
      Rooting for you, Noelle


  7. Hi Alan
    Perhaps as I have aged I have become more user-unfriendly (approaching user-antagonistic at times) but it took me to my 4th university before I eventually settled on a supervisor with who I could work. I just could not relate to some (or perhaps them to me). As I did not want to change universities again, when my then supervisor left, I found another who was quite prescriptive about what I could or could not research. I accepted this for a while and then decided that I was not going to sacrifice either my academic integrity or my interest, and (politely) told my supervisor that I was going to do things my way. He agreed and we’ve had a great relationship ever since.
    So, follow your heart and your head. Do not kowtow. You’re about to have the ride of your life – why do it in a Beetle when you could do it in a Rolls?


  8. Douglas–
    Your advice is stellar! You have shown how following one’s heart and head can produce the results one wants–and preserve integrity. Great reminders for Alan and all of us.


  9. Alan Weatherhead says:

    Thanks for your response Noelle, and also advice and comments from Douglas and Roomi!

    I regret to share that I am no longer a doctoral candidate. I submitted my prospectus in May and my chair approved it. The 2nd reviewer also approved, but only with “(heavy) conditions. The conditions imposed were applicable to a methodology of classic manual content analysis, but inapplicable to the methodology I was using, based on a high performance computer-based statistical technique, commonly known as automatic topic analysis. Among other disparaging comments, the reviewer noted that I “wavered” on the number of categories to be used in the “content analysis.” This in spite of my repeated explanation that the automatic topic analysis technique generated the categories from the data, not me. I asked that my prospectus be reviewed by someone who could understand the difference in methodologies, but I was told that I had no choice, I must move to the proposal stage and trust that my chair and committee would shield my methodology from promised future scrutiny by the 2nd reviewer.

    When I insisted that I could not move ahead in the “process” without an accurate review of my prospectus, I was sent two formal letters of censure by the faculty. I was accused of being argumentative, disrespectful, and unscholarly, and given the ultimatum that I could either leave the program or be directed by one of the letter writers who would judge my “disposition.” I asked for evidence of the charges and was told that the faculty were under no obligation to provide any. The Provost eventually became involved and told me that I was a student and therefore not in an equitable relationship with the faculty. When I refused to change my research methodology, or accept the flawed approval of my prospectus, the Provost said he would force my withdrawal from the program.

    My original dissertation topic was based on analyzing a large number of journal articles, over 1000, to uncover the evolution of hidden trends in the literature. Previous research, using classic content analysis techniques, had been limited to samples of 200 or less because of the onerous manual labor required. For automatic topic analysis, at least 1000 documents are required, the more the better. The statistical technique constructs word frequencies over all of the documents in a collection and then identifies patterns representative of the data. The number of words analyzed by the technique is typically in the hundreds of thousands to millions, and is used extensively for social media analysis and big data application in variety of fields.

    During my literature review, I found that Wang, Fikis and Bowers (2017) had already published almost exactly what I had planned for my dissertation topic. Upon further research, I discovered that no one had attempted a similar analysis of doctoral dissertations. Accordingly, I changed my topic to the analysis of doctoral dissertations in higher education leadership using automatic topic analysis. I approached ProQuest to request bulk access to over 2000 dissertations going back to 1998 (my faculty told me ProQuest would never give me access). ProQuest was so intrigued by the uniqueness of my topic that they offered me a showcase on their website (https://about.proquest.com/products-services/dissertations/) (showcase since removed). They proposed a blog in 6-8 months where I could describe my research and a full case study when I graduated. I applied to Amazon and received a reoccurring grant for computer time. Until the prospectus results, I was excited to move forward, to chart evolution of themes in the collection of dissertations, and potentially advance the epistemological knowledgebase of higher education.

    I do hope that what I have experienced is not generally representative of EdD programs at other institutions. It would mean that doctoral students are being actively discouraged by a hidebound faculty, to the point of dismissal, if they pursue a course of research that is anything but the bare minimum required to receive their degree. How can the field of higher education leadership, or any field, break from circular scholarship if new ideas and modern techniques of analysis are looked on by faculty as a threat to their ascendancy of knowledge?

    I’ve lost access to an academic library and the opportunity to download bulk dissertations from ProQuest for my analysis. I do have a much smaller collection that I was using for testing, and with that sample I plan to continue my research. The results will not meet the standard of reliability and validity because of the small sample size, but perhaps I can generalize a methodology using automatic topic analysis that can be of use to future forward-looking researchers.

    Thanks again for your encouragement! It has been much appreciated and a help to my state of mind through this difficult time.



  10. Alan–
    Thank you for your details and candor. I have great empathy for your unfortunate experiences. And thank you so much for your appreciation of my words–heartening to know they have helped you, even almost a year after this post was published. Your solution and resolution to use your smaller research base for your research sounds entirely viable. Although a small sample size, you could of course state this as a limitation, call it “exploratory research,” and later suggest larger samples for future research. All all all absolute best to you, Alan.


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