Retiring: Taking On the Ph.D. Later in Life

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Rob Hevey, a Ph.D. student in a plant biology and conservation program, expects to finish his doctorate around five years from now, when he will be 66. Credit Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

ROBERT HEVEY was fascinated by gardening as a child, but then he grew up and took a 30-year career detour. Mr. Hevey earned a master’s in business and became a certified public accountant, working for accounting firms and businesses ranging from manufacturing to enterprise software and corporate restructuring.

“I went to college and made the mistake of getting an M.B.A. and a C.P.A.,” he recalled with a laugh.

Now 61, Mr. Hevey is making up for lost time. He’s a second-year Ph.D. student in a plant biology and conservation program offered jointly by Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Mr. Hevey, whose work focuses on invasive species, started on his master’s at age 53, and he expects to finish his doctorate around five years from now, when he will be 66.

“When I walk into a classroom of 20-year-olds, I do raise the average age a bit,” he says.

While the overall age of Ph.D. candidates has dropped in the last decade, about 14 percent of all doctoral recipients are over age 40, according to the National Science Foundation. Relatively few students work on Ph.D.s at Mr. Hevey’s age, but educators are seeing increasing enrollment in doctoral programs by students in their 40s and 50s. Many candidates hope doctorates will help them advance careers in business, government and nonprofit organizations; some, like Mr. Hevey, are headed for academic research or teaching positions.

At Cornell University, the trend is driven by women. The number of new female doctoral students age 36 or older was 44 percent higher last year than in 2009, according to Barbara Knuth, senior vice provost and dean of the graduate school.

“One of the shifts nationally is more emphasis on career paths that call for a Ph.D.,” Dr. Knuth said. “Part of it is that we have much more fluidity in career paths. It’s unusual for people to hold the same job for many years.”

“The people we see coming back have a variety of reasons,” she added. “It could be a personal interest or for career advancement. But they are very pragmatic and resilient: strong thinkers, willing to ask questions and take a risk in their lives.”

Many older doctoral candidates are motivated by a search for meaning, said Katrina Rogers, president of Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif., which offers programs exclusively for adult learners in psychology, human and organizational development and education.

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