Pursuing a PhD in my 40's
A Lifelong Ambition
I started my career as an electrical engineer. Although a part of me wanted to pursue a PhD after my undergraduate studies, I was able to land an engineering position with a major automotive supplier and chose the corporate route.
Two decades and several career changes later, I had a Master’s degree in Mathematics and my career prospects were solid. Still, that desire for a PhD persisted. At 40 years of age, getting a PhD felt like a long shot, but I felt that I needed to look into it.
Fortunately for me, my employer places a high value on professional development and gave me their blessing to take classes part-time while working. After many many conversations with my friends, family, and Indiana University Fairbanks School of Public Health (Biostatistics), I decided to take a shot and apply.
First Steps — the GRE
I had taken the GRE in my early 20's, but those scores had long since expired and I needed to take it again. At the time I still was not 100% sure I was going to go through with this, so I spent a few minutes looking over a sample test. About 30 minutes total — that was the extent of my preparation. I figured that if I couldn’t do high school level math I had no business in a PhD program anyway.
The morning of the test was surreal. The GRE moderators asked me to place my belongings in a cubby hole, and they then proceeded to use a wand to search for any metal — just like the TSA. I then sat down to take the test at a computer (no more #2 pencils!) and noticed a camera facing directly on me. I would be monitored the entire time. Was this a graduate exam or prison?
I muddled through the math, not doing quite as well as I had hoped. The verbal portion was a bit of an afterthought. The admissions people were more interested in math than verbal.
I got my preliminary results immediately after the exam — that was one nice change from yesteryear. I scored in the 90th percentile in math and, to my surprise, scored almost as well in verbal. At any rate I was done, and I felt I had done my best given my time away from school.
The GRE was the most significant step in the application process. The rest was managing the logistics of getting my transcripts in on time, soliciting recommendations, and writing a short essay on why I was applying.
In the end I was accepted into the program. Happy day! I would enroll in the Fall of 2014 and see where life would take me.
Shortly before the beginning of the semester, I met with my advisor to discuss which classes I should take. He asked about my family situation (wife and 2 kids) and noted, after reviewing my transcript, that it had been 10 years since my last graduate level course.
Although his look was one of skepticism of my chances of success, he was very supportive in helping with my first semester. We selected 2 classes to start — so that I could start “thinking like a statistician.” One class was an intro to Linear Regression; the other was an intro to Probability.
The regression class was focused on application more than theory, which fit my applied background from my Master’s and personal study. I did not have much trouble with this course.
However, the probability class was focused on the theoretical fundamentals that I would need as a statistician. I realized then how much of my calculus I had forgotten. It took most of the semester to shake off the rust.
When all was said and done, I made it through the first semester with an A and a B in regression and probability, respectively. It was as difficult as I anticipated, but I felt like I could handle the work. Others decided the program was not for them, and they dropped after the semester.
Finishing the First Year
I took another 2 classes my second semester. Although I still felt shaky on some of my undergraduate mathematics at the beginning of my second semester, I was able to persist and felt reasonably ready to continue forward.
Few courses at this level are typically offered during the summer, but I found an online class that fit a requirement. This class was on Epidemiology, which was a new and fascinating topic to me.
At the start of my third semester, I was considering whether to increase my course load to 3 classes instead of 2 per semester. I knew that 3 would be tough, but it would decrease my time in school by at least a year; maybe more. In the end I decided to stay at 2 classes, which was far more manageable in my second year than my first year.
By more fourth semester, I felt that I could handle 3 classes and signed up for my first 600 level advanced class plus two required Master’s level classes. I reasoned that I could use the extra studying to help prepare for my qualifying exams in the summer, which determine whether a student can continue in the program or not.
I definitely felt the crunch of 3 classes, but managed to get through mostly unscathed. The next major challenge, and source of dread, was the qualifying exam scheduled for the following summer.
The qualifying exams are required for every PhD student. The results determine if they have learned the fundamentals of the program and can successfully complete the PhD. Our exam was over two days — one part theory, and one part applied. The scope of the exams was our 5 core classes, with little else as guidance.
Of all of the work so far in the program, preparing for the qualifying exams was, by far, the most challenging. It was like studying for 5 final exams all at once, plus remembering all of the R/SAS programming on the applied portion.
While most of my preparation was on my own, I found that a study group was helpful both in terms of reviewing the material and for moral support. I was blessed also to have the continued support of my wife and family during this stressful time.
I also kept a problem notebook, which I used to keep my ‘gold’ solutions to key problems that I anticipated could be asked. This turned out to be invaluable, as two of the problems covered material that I had documented in my problem notebook.
By August 2016, I felt that I had prepared to the best of my ability. It was an exhausting grind, though I had learned quite a bit from my preparation. In the end I had filled more than 13 single subject notebooks with problems and other notes.
The exams were difficult, as I had expected. Some material I knew well, and there was other material that I wished I had studied in more detail. And some material that I was sure would be tested was omitted completely.
After my tests I thought I would be relieved, but I was mostly just tired. If I failed one or both parts, I could take another attempt the following year. But I was not sure I wanted to put myself or my family through that grind again.
My concern turned out to be unwarranted as I was fortunate to pass the full exam. I would get to continue in my program and was one major step closer to my PhD.
As I write this, I am in the beginning of my third year in the program. If all goes according to plan, I should be through my coursework in three more semesters.
Studying for a PhD is every bit the marathon I expected. I have been pleasantly surprised at my ability to keep up with the younger generation, but I continue to worry about my family.
Onward I go; and more to come….