Why (and How) I’m Going To Grad School At 50

My psyche says, “just do it…now

It’s back to school time around our house, which means getting Child #3 settled into his new house near his university campus, getting Child #4 started off right for her first year of middle school, and leading Child #5 down the hall as she excitedly anticipates the first day in her new third grade classroom.

As for Child #2, she’s already graduated college and lives in her own house and has her own job in a city a few hours away.

Now that summer is over and everyone is back to school, I should be back to work as a freelance writer, using the precious hours when my two youngest are in their classrooms each day to write in solitude — perhaps working on the book proposal I’ve been toying with or at least writing on my blog. My goal is to write something every day even though I no longer have a “real” job. Or rather, I don’t have one right now. As someone who has never previously been without a paying job, it sounds better when I say it that way.

Why don’t I have a real job right now? Well, after a successful, 20-plus year career in media and communications, during which I always also freelanced on the side, I suffered an immense personal tragedy when my oldest child, Child #1 died of a drug overdose when he was a senior in high school. This blow led to me taking the cosmically necessary career hiatus that I’m on right now. So currently, my daily writing practice, along with caring for my family are what I do. It’s not much compared to what I did professsionally before I lost my son, but for a while now, it’s been all I can do, and I’ve become okay with that.

But in the last year or so, a little voice has been whispering in my ear as I sit at my computer screen to write something. “There’s something else, something more and different that you’re supposed to be doing,” the voice would say. “If you wait much longer, it will be too late.”

Too late for WHAT, I wondered? I wasn’t sure what my subconscious was telling me but I began to feel a vague sense of unease about “the future.” What did my future look like? After being a parent for more than half of my fifty year old life, I know finally that there will be no more babies — no more of those years of hyperneedy infants and toddlers and preschoolers. And as for my career, after having willingly stepped away a few years ago from the ultra-competitive world of corporate communications, was I ever planning to step back in, or did I plan to just freelance forever? Could I even step back in at this point, or had I been away too long? What am I meant to be doing now? Ten years from now?

Writing has been good to me. It’s been a wonderful career. I’ve been published everywhere from The New York Times to the Huffington Post to Disney’s Babble (where I was a featured writer for many years) to, well, a lot of other places I’ve been lucky enough to see my writing featured. I’m the author of a book and a contributor to multiple anthologies. Over the years I’ve written about everything from pregnancy to politics, but increasingly, since losing my eldest child to a drug overdose, I have felt the pull to write almost entirely within one area of interest: mental health and addiction.

It turns out that my calling — or that little voice whispering in my ear — has apparently decided to call me to do something entirely different than what I’ve done for the first half of my adult life. I’ll always be a writer even if no one ever pays me to do it again because, well, once a writer, always a writer, but recently, I made the rather huge decision to make a radical career pivot. I’ve decided to pursue my Master’s Degree in social work, with a post-grad goal of working in the area of dual diagnoses: mental health and addiction.

As soon as this idea that had been percolating inside my belly for some time actually bubbled up into my consciousness, I knew that it was the right one for me. I briefly considered law school or a Master’s in Fine Arts in literature, but after doing some research and talking to some people smarter than I am about my options, I decided that an MSW would offer me the training and licensure I need to do the advocacy and clinical work I envision for myself. Once the decision was made, I was very excited. But I was also terrified. Aren’t I too old to go back to school and totally change careers?

I remembered a conversation I had with my father, who went to law school at night, while working full time during the day during the years when I was in middle school. I had asked him why he had decided to go back to school at an age when all my friends’ parents seemed to be settled in their careers and done with school. My father was gone so much with work and school and studying that I missed seeing him as much. And so I asked him, why was he doing this?

He answered me by telling me that he was going to law school for multiple reasons but one big one was that he wanted to demonstrate to me and my little brother and sister that it’s never too late to do the work you feel that you’re supposed to be doing. I remembered this conversation vividly as I began to turn the idea of grad school over and over in my mind. Yes, I’m 50 years old, I thought, meaning that half my working life is now behind me. But you know what else? I’m also 50 years old, meaning that half my working life still lies ahead of me.

As for the hows and whys of graduate school — the nuts and bolts of how to get it done at this stage in my life, it’s actually easier now than it has ever been before to juggle caring for the kids or managing the career that older students like myself are usually consumed with while at the same time pursuing a degree. That’s because more and more undergraduate and graduate programs are offered online, in part or in whole. In the case of MSW programs — where my interest lies — some of the most highly ranked colleges of social work in the country now offer the academic portion of their undergraduate and graduate programs online.

Because I am busy caring for two still relatively young children, plus my husband and I aren’t in a position to relocate for me to pursue a graduate degree, the ability to go to grad school primarily online is a game-changer for me. But as I started to research the idea, I learned that you really have to be careful when selecting an online academic program. While it’s absolutely true that the number of highly respected colleges and universities offering more and more of their academic programming online is increasing at a rapid pace, it’s also true that there are a lot of less-than-reputable and for-profit schools offering overpriced and low-value degrees via entirely online curriculae.

When doing my research about choosing a high quality graduate program that offers online degrees, I learned how important it is to be sure that the program you’re considering is accredited by the professional educational body for that particular area of study (in my case that’s the Council on Social Work Education). Other points to consider are whether the school offers mostly live (synchronous) or taped (asynchronous) online classes. Most experts I read and talked to seem to believe that you want a school with at least some live classroom interaction rather than just a series of videotaped lectures.

With many specific degrees, including the one I plan to pursue, it’s also critical to determine whether a school that may be physically located states away from where you live will be able to find you necessary in-person practicums or field placements local to you. In my own case, an MSW or MSSW (different programs call the degree by slightly different names) generally requires around 1,000 hours of fieldwork — something that can’t be done online. For this reason, as I considered various colleges and universities for my grad degree, I asked a lot of questions of admissions advisors about how the schools handle placement of online graduate students into local practicum environments. Some of the admissions directors with whom I spoke had good answers to this question, plus track records they could point to. Others did not. It was very good that I asked.

The scariest part of starting graduate school at age 50 is undoubtedly taking on student debt to complete my degree. Unfortunately, like most graduate students, I will be forced to borrow in order to graduate. I won’t lie; I have had wake-up-in-terror-in-the-middle-of-the-night moments when I consider paying for student loans when I’m in my 60s, but in the end, I’d rather be doing work that’s meaningful and satisfying to me at age 62 and still making a student loan payment every month than drifting aimlessly toward retirement, never having gone after my goal. And I have never been a person who intends to retire at 65. I’ve always assumed that health allowing, I’ll continue to work into my 70s, and maybe even beyond.

After doing all of my research, I chose four graduate MSW programs to which I am applying. One is a large private university in Los Angeles, one is a small private university in NYC, one is a small college in Boston, and one is a large public university only 15 miles away from me. Yes, one of the best colleges of social work in the country happens to be right here in the county where I live.

For financial reasons and because I want to ease into graduate studies (given that it’s been more than 25 years since I attempted anything academic), I plan to start school on a half time basis and see how things go. I need to make sure that I have time to care for my children and also time for the self care that’s been necessary for me to remain healthy in the years since my son died. I would rather take things slowly as I re-enter student life than rush headlong into a demanding graduate program and find myself totally overwhelmed. I want to get this right.

Over the last week I’ve been working on some of the toughest writing assignments I’ve had in a very long time: the essay portions of each school’s graduate admissions application. Although each of the applications asks me to explain my motivation for selecting a graduate program in social work, the rest of what each application wants to see in its essay is different. I’ve been taking my time with each application, feeling more and more confident in my decision to apply to graduate school as I’ve realized that I am actually enjoying working on the applications.

Within two or three weeks I should have all four of my applications complete and submitted for review by each school’s admissions committee. All of my letters of recommendation should also be turned in by that time. And then…I wait. And wait. I remember well how it felt to open the mailbox each day when I was waiting for undergraduate college admission decisions more than a quarter century ago, and while it’s been three decades, and the mailbox I’ll be scanning anxiously each day will be on my Macbook instead of at the end of the driveway, I suspect that my emotions will be the same as I await word from each school. I am preparing myself emotionally for the possibility that I won’t get in to any of the four schools to which I’m applying. That could definitely happen, and if it does, I’ll be back to the drawing board, applying to a second tier of MSW program choices. I don’t plan to give up on this “calling” thing easily.

But if things go well, and I am accepted to one or more of the grad schools to which I am currently applying, next year’s back to school rush at our house won’t just include a college senior, a 7th grader and a 4th grader. It will also include one very enthusiastic graduate student in social work.

Please consider becoming a friend of Henry’s Fund.

Follow Katie on Twitter @thekatieallison

Follow Katie on Instagram

Visit Katie’s blog, Big Good Thing

Read more from Katie on Medium.