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Going back to school at 50
Old 12-15-2010, 08:06 AM   #1
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Going back to school at 50

This is in "Life after FIRE", but it's really "Life change before FIRE".

About a year ago, in what I assume to have been a hideous clerical error, my MegaOrg moved me from "IT operations" to "HR development". I've been interested in (or rather, "curious about") coaching and training for some time, so this wasn't as bad as it sounded to some of my colleagues.

In my new job, I find myself without a theoretical basis, which is something I'm not very comfortable with. So I'm thinking of taking a year off (we have a sabbatical programme) and doing a one-year taught "professional conversion" master's in a specific field of psychology, starting in September 2011, 30 years after I finished my bachelor's degree.

I've identified the course and the college; I can even get a room on campus (age 50!). DW is OK with it - she can come over (we live in France, the college is in London) every few weekends. It will break me out of a number of work and home ruts, and let me see a little more of my mother, who is one of those people who's best in very small doses.

I've only mentioned the idea so far to one colleague, who is also reasonably money-savvy. He wondered if it was worth the cost; not the tuition and board, but the loss of earnings (which, even when some of our benefits are transferred to DW who works at the same place, will be in excess of 100K). My reply is that since I plan to retire before I have to anyway, all I'm doing is having one of my early retirement years now, and in a way which might help me better enjoy the rest of my working time, and/or open up avenues for ESR jobs. (Give or take a small loss from compunding, I'm assuming that going for ER at 55 after a year out, or at 54 without a year out, is more or less the same thing.)

Has anyone else done anything like this? What should I look out for?
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Old 12-15-2010, 08:38 AM   #2
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Has anyone else done anything like this? What should I look out for?
Your biggest concern will be remembering to move over to the other side of the road after exiting the Chunnel ...

Seriously, as one who did not have the opportunity to attend college at the "normal time" (drafted at age 18, and had a family to support after I was discharged), but still felt that something was missing, I took my first college course at the ripe old age of 39 after starting with a company that provided tuition reimbursement ...

You're never too old to learn, especially if it will enhance your value to your company. Over the years, my promotions came as I went through the semesters and my "value" increased to the company.

Unfortunately, in my case I was too successful. My schooling led to promotions, which led to global travel, which led to me missing so many class sessions that I had to finally give it up - even though I did enjoy my time there and was two classes short of senior status. Oh well, maybe in my next life ...
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Old 12-15-2010, 08:56 AM   #3
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Lots of people don't finish school until "later" in life. I didn't finish a BS until I was 46, DW was 49 when she finished hers. Just having the paper, no matter the subject matter, opens a lot of doors.

As my father put it "Everything you learn might put food on the table some day".

As to whether the reduced earnings is worth it, everything has an opportunity cost. Only you can make that decision.
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Old 12-15-2010, 09:42 AM   #4
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Have you looked into executive education programs? Many companies will support you in taking one of these where you go to school on the weekends and spend 1 full time week at the school every couple of months or so. That way you get the education and you still get paid. I have had a few people who work for me do this and it worked out very well for them. (It was a lot of work during the program but it really helped them in their careers). Some companies will even pay for the program (ours did with a 2 year commitment from the person).
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Old 12-15-2010, 10:34 AM   #5
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Have you looked into executive education programs? Many companies will support you in taking one of these where you go to school on the weekends and spend 1 full time week at the school every couple of months or so. That way you get the education and you still get paid. I have had a few people who work for me do this and it worked out very well for them. (It was a lot of work during the program but it really helped them in their careers). Some companies will even pay for the program (ours did with a 2 year commitment from the person).
I'm in charge of the company training budget, so I know that that won't fly.

I can get about £800 of the £6500 course fee back, and that fee may be reduced a little by the school because, depending on which of their Web pages you read, they reduce fees for people with higher passes in their bachelor's (even if mine was 30 years ago and not remotely related).

Anyway, I need every minute of my weekends right now to come down from 5 days of BS.
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Old 12-15-2010, 12:00 PM   #6
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I don't think you are ever too old to learn as I did not complete my degree until my 30s.

However, just curious as to how many more years you intend to work. What would the expected ROI be? Personally unless I was planning on working a number of years I wouldn't bother. If I was to do a college course now I would only want to do the interesting bits, listen to lectures etc. The thought of going home and researching and writing papers, well that bores me just thinking about it.

What are you really hoping to achieve by doing it?
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Old 12-15-2010, 12:31 PM   #7
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I would do a lot of thinking and soul searching related to exactly what your motivation is in wanting to seek an additional degree. Then, once you have identified your motivation, do some research and figure out whether or not getting a degree will actually bring you the desired results.

If your motivation is to increase your lifetime earnings, would this really be the case given the loss of salary and additional expenses while you study?

Personally, I think the most valid reason for getting an advanced degree in mid-career is personal fulfillment, not income potential. For someone who is established in your career already, as you are, I suspect that being present on the job every day is helping your income potential through networking even though it may not seem like that is the case. When you are off at school, I would imagine that "Out of sight is out of mind" as far as your organization is concerned.
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Old 12-15-2010, 05:18 PM   #8
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Personally, I think the most valid reason for getting an advanced degree in mid-career is personal fulfillment, not income potential. For someone who is established in your career already, as you are, I suspect that being present on the job every day is helping your income potential through networking even though it may not seem like that is the case. When you are off at school, I would imagine that "Out of sight is out of mind" as far as your organization is concerned.
I have decided that my chances of promotion between now and retirement are essentially zero. There are almost no posts in the grade above mine which do not require a degree in law or political science, and a tongue which perfectly fits at least one orifice of the senior managers; plus, I tend to tell it like it is, whereas an ability to live in a fairy-tale world (and have some flunkeys to hide the bodies) is a definite asset in our organisation. My main aim for the next few years in my HR role is to be as subversive as I need to be to make life more bearable for the victims of the macho(*) posturing of the senior managers, most of whom are spoiled brats and bratesses.

So, this is definitely all about personal fulfillment.

(*) Macho as in swaggering, but not actually terribly sexist. Our female managers are just as arrogant as the male ones.
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Old 12-15-2010, 05:50 PM   #9
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I think this is something you should look at as a luxury purchase. If you are comfy plunking down 100k on a luxury, go for it. If not, perhaps you may wish to re-evaluate.

As for the suggestion of an executive program, it saves the opportunity cost while having its own cost. I went to business school at night while holding down a pretty hefty day job and it *sucked* big time. I was beat all the time and constantly short on sleep and sanity. This ended when I graduated at 30. I cannot imagine doing it at 50.
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Old 12-15-2010, 05:58 PM   #10
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I took a year off at 43 to do an MBA. The opportunity cost was about the same. I did not become richer, but I was able to refocus my career and greatly increase my job satisfaction. But I worked my buns off during the sabbatical!
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Old 12-15-2010, 06:07 PM   #11
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Good on you, BigNick and the others who went back to school later in life or are thinking of doing so. Personally, I finished my B.S. at age 24 and Ph.D. at age 28, but my wife finished her B.A. at age 22 and then went back to school after having our seven children, when she was about 40 and finished her Ph.D. when she was about 48. She couldn't go full time because of family obligations, so it took eight years, but she had a marvelous 16-year career as a professor before we both retired from the university 2.5 years ago. Life has been good for us.

You'll never regret getting more education.
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Old 12-15-2010, 06:10 PM   #12
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Good on you, BigNick and the others who went back to school later in life or are thinking of doing so. Personally, I finished my B.S. at age 24 and Ph.D. at age 28, but my wife finished her B.A. at age 22 and then went back to school after having our seven children, when she was about 40 and finished her Ph.D. when she was about 48. She couldn't go full time because of family obligations, so it took eight years, but she had a marvelous 16-year career as a professor before we both retired from the university 2.5 years ago. Life has been good for us.

You'll never regret getting more education.
Well done to DW! There is no way I would undertake a PhD. I wouldn't have the patience to slog away at it for the many years it would take. My own approach was the executive MBA (63 credit hours in 11 months). Get 'er done!
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Old 12-15-2010, 06:35 PM   #13
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I have some devil's-advocate questions. This is a conversation that happens a lot in the military, even among retirees in their late 30s/early 40s.

I was sent to a three-year master's program by the U.S. Navy. My spouse was already committed to go so I joined in. I was paid to go too, and I repaid it with nearly a five-year service obligation. The thesis requirements thoroughly quenched both of our thirsts for higher learning. I wouldn't do another master's or a PhD program.

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In my new job, I find myself without a theoretical basis, which is something I'm not very comfortable with. So I'm thinking of taking a year off (we have a sabbatical programme) and doing a one-year taught "professional conversion" master's in a specific field of psychology, starting in September 2011, 30 years after I finished my bachelor's degree.
If you want to have a piece of parchment suitable for framing then this program is what you should do. However are you required to do it in residence? Could you do some sort of distance-learning online program, or through correspondence courses? Can you validate out of the curriculum? Could the school put together a tailored program for someone of your already advanced skills, perhaps with credit for time served life experience?

If you only want to enhance your knowledge with your theoretical basis, and you don't care about a degree, then could you just read the textbooks?

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I've identified the course and the college; I can even get a room on campus (age 50!). DW is OK with it - she can come over (we live in France, the college is in London) every few weekends. It will break me out of a number of work and home ruts, and let me see a little more of my mother, who is one of those people who's best in very small doses.
If you're in London full-time, will she expect full-time visits? It sounds as if you may be setting yourself up as a hostage. If you want to visit her occasionally you could just buy a ticket.

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Has anyone else done anything like this? What should I look out for?
These may sound like dumb questions, but is the school ready for you? Have they had to "take care" of experienced professionals like you? Do they have people on their staff of similar age/experience? You won't have much patience for bureaucratic B.S., especially if you're paying for it. If the staff have become accustomed to dealing with undergraduates or 20-something impoverished grad students then you are not exactly going to be a breath of fresh air to them. You are not going to put up with practices that they may have been able to get away with.

Are the professors ready for you? You've been in the "real world" for quite a few years more than they have, and you're probably not terribly impressed by academic accomplishments... or egos. You might actually have more experience than they do, and you won't have much patience with "works in theory, not sure about practice". They won't be happy to be challenged in class, especially if they're younger than you, and if they have an authoritarian teaching style then the both of you will react badly together.

Are your fellow students ready for you? By this I mean that they might not have time to participate in group projects or study sessions to the degree of time/interest that you have available. You're hypothetically able to work on this degree 24/7, except for the time you waste sleeping, while they may be carrying an additional courseload or taking this program in addition to coping with workplaces/families. They may feel that you're putting too much into something, or obsessing over details, while you may feel that they're bagging you with all the work and not showing any of their own interest.

Do you really need to do a bunch of homework, write a bunch of papers, study for exams, and (possibly) write a thesis to acquire your theoretical basis? You have to decide if you really have the patience to put up with all the bureaucratic nonsense that has little to do with you learning anything, but everything with the school justifying their tuition invoicing. Frankly they're more interested in proving that they've taught something in your vicinity than they may be in actually sharing knowledge/experience/skills with you. If you're looking for coaching/mentoring, I'm not sure how you'll be able to satisfy yourself that it's really there until it's too late to get a refund.

Assuming all of this hasn't changed your mind, I know from our own college-touring experiences that you'll want to spend at least one day on campus, sitting through the programs you'll be taking, and ideally watching the professors you'll be learning from. Even better would be some sort of three-day or one-week program where you get to sit in on seminars, see the facilities, and meet/greet the instructors. You're making a not-insignificant investment in the ability of these people, and you owe it to yourself to do the due diligence on their ability to deliver.

I spent eight years in military training commands, and one of my jobs was to pop into classrooms unannounced to fill out a performance checklist on the instructor. Today I still find myself more likely to focus on the speaker's skill & mannerisms than on the subject matter. I have very little patience for ego or attitude or hyperbole or even factual errors. It's totally ruined me as a student, and I find I much prefer to read the book or watch the video instead of attend the class...

Are you going to be totally free of work, or are they going to be asking you to "help" with projects or refresh them on how to do something?

And finally, one of the most dangerous milestones to ER is the sabbatical. You've acquired all sorts of office-coping skills and defenses which currently stand you in good stead at your workplace. After a year in an institution of higher learning, you're going to be sadly out of practice at putting up with office drama & politics. When you go "back to work" after your sabbatical, like all the others who've done so you may find out that you no longer have any patience for it.

I'm just sayin'. You don't have to defend the answers to these questions-- but be satisfied for yourself that they're what you want.
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Old 12-15-2010, 08:39 PM   #14
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Are the professors ready for you?
That was my father's problem when he tried to re-credential himself, after a pretty successful career in welfare administration, first as a county director and then at the state level in Ohio. It didn't work for him at all, because he was so frustrated at how little his instructors knew. After all, he was a pro.

And I tried some credential enhancement, too, unsuccessfully, because I couldn't do sufficiently shoddy work. I thought it would be good to get a masters in computer science, but my standards for the class work were so much higher than those of my undergraduate classmates, that I couldn't keep up with the work -- I was spending too much time at it.

So, there are a couple of potential problems, arising from a mismatch between your own sophistication and what your college instructors will be expecting and will be prepared to cope with.
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Old 12-16-2010, 11:12 AM   #15
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I'm just sayin'. You don't have to defend the answers to these questions-- but be satisfied for yourself that they're what you want.
Wow! Your hard-hitting questions are thought provoking. They include some issues that I didn't consciously consider when I was a professor--although I did unconsciously consider some of them when I taught a biochemistry class to practicing nursers who returned to college to upgrade their skills or to receive higher credentials. Going back to school worked for some--especially the younger ones--and not for others. (They just couldn't figure out how the details of biochemistry could help them in their nursing. And for most of them, it couldn't!) I'm sure my wife didn't consider all of your questions when she went back for her Ph.D. And in some ways, I'm glad she didn't. She had such a burning desire to get a Ph.D., gained at a young age when she helped her university-professor father with his research and writing, that she just went ahead and did it despite potential problems of being much older than the other students. Fortunately, in almost all cases, she found her age and experience an asset in her classes and in her research project.

Thanks for the post. Very interesting.

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Old 12-16-2010, 11:47 AM   #16
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I think this is something you should look at as a luxury purchase. If you are comfy plunking down 100k on a luxury, go for it. If not, perhaps you may wish to re-evaluate.
As I said, I don't see it as a 100K luxury, any more than each year I retire before I have to is a luxury. If you've spotted some way in which taking the year out now is significantly more expensive in terms of lost earnings than waiting until I've retired, please tell me now before I make an expensive mistake!

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However are you required to do it in residence? Could you do some sort of distance-learning online program, or through correspondence courses?
I'm with Brewer here. I believe that if I try to do that, I will fail. Distance-learning courses have high drop-out rates.

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Can you validate out of the curriculum? Could the school put together a tailored program for someone of your already advanced skills, perhaps with credit for time served life experience?
My bachelor's degree doesn't meet the formal entrance requirements, so I'm already claiming that my life experience exempts me from that. I'm already using all the available traction on that side.

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These may sound like dumb questions, but is the school ready for you? Have they had to "take care" of experienced professionals like you? Do they have people on their staff of similar age/experience? You won't have much patience for bureaucratic B.S., especially if you're paying for it. If the staff have become accustomed to dealing with undergraduates or 20-something impoverished grad students then you are not exactly going to be a breath of fresh air to them. You are not going to put up with practices that they may have been able to get away with.

Are the professors ready for you? You've been in the "real world" for quite a few years more than they have, and you're probably not terribly impressed by academic accomplishments... or egos. You might actually have more experience than they do, and you won't have much patience with "works in theory, not sure about practice". They won't be happy to be challenged in class, especially if they're younger than you, and if they have an authoritarian teaching style then the both of you will react badly together.Are your fellow students ready for you? By this I mean that they might not have time to participate in group projects or study sessions to the degree of time/interest that you have available. You're hypothetically able to work on this degree 24/7, except for the time you waste sleeping, while they may be carrying an additional courseload or taking this program in addition to coping with workplaces/families. They may feel that you're putting too much into something, or obsessing over details, while you may feel that they're bagging you with all the work and not showing any of their own interest.

Do you really need to do a bunch of homework, write a bunch of papers, study for exams, and (possibly) write a thesis to acquire your theoretical basis? You have to decide if you really have the patience to put up with all the bureaucratic nonsense that has little to do with you learning anything, but everything with the school justifying their tuition invoicing. Frankly they're more interested in proving that they've taught something in your vicinity than they may be in actually sharing knowledge/experience/skills with you. If you're looking for coaching/mentoring, I'm not sure how you'll be able to satisfy yourself that it's really there until it's too late to get a refund.

Assuming all of this hasn't changed your mind, I know from our own college-touring experiences that you'll want to spend at least one day on campus, sitting through the programs you'll be taking, and ideally watching the professors you'll be learning from. Even better would be some sort of three-day or one-week program where you get to sit in on seminars, see the facilities, and meet/greet the instructors. You're making a not-insignificant investment in the ability of these people, and you owe it to yourself to do the due diligence on their ability to deliver.
Good points, which I will check out. I believe that an interview is a likely element of the admissions process, and it's an overnight return trip, so I will be checking the place out thoroughly.

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Are you going to be totally free of work, or are they going to be asking you to "help" with projects or refresh them on how to do something?
Totally free. Indeed, I may be even more free than that. For the Nth year running we have to make cuts, and I'm going to throw my hat in the ring to have my post abolished, which would come with a 200K+ payoff *and* a transfer of 1K/month of my benefits to DW, who works at the same place but currently falls foul of our double-dipping rules. Of course, if that happened, I'd have to check that this course would still be what I'd want to do, but it is an area which really interests me.
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Old 12-16-2010, 01:31 PM   #17
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BigNick, it might be worth considering how motivated you really are. If you can't see yourself doing it online because of the dropout rate then maybe your subconscious is trying to tell you something.

I had several Navy junior officers complete their master's degrees through online courses, back in the day when 56K dialup was hot stuff. They couldn't do it at local schools and they couldn't travel, so online (or get out of the military) was their only choice. But once they got into it, nothing would stop them.

Online might also give you a way to complete prerequisites before you show up, or to shorten your overall time in residence.

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I'm sure my wife didn't consider all of your questions when she went back for her Ph.D. And in some ways, I'm glad she didn't. She had such a burning desire to get a Ph.D., gained at a young age when she helped her university-professor father with his research and writing, that she just went ahead and did it despite potential problems of being much older than the other students. Fortunately, in almost all cases, she found her age and experience an asset in her classes and in her research project.
I don't object to the process of learning as much as I object to the bureaucracy. I'd happily pursue a history degree as long as it was more of a book-club seminar or a research internship. But just like work, I'm not a fan of academic commuting, dress codes, administrivia, meetings, and so forth.

I did go to five days of surf school last year. I had to deal with North Shore traffic and parking and everything else, too!

FWIW, I know a guy who just received his business PhD at the age of 70. (He says his long-term retirement & investing plan is called "probate".) He spends a lot of his time doing business-oriented philanthropy in Vietnam and mentoring entrepreneurs. When he speaks, I listen up.
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Old 12-16-2010, 02:32 PM   #18
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I would advise a non-traditional, adult oriented program. After retiring from the Navy, I attended a large state university, pursuing an education degree. I could handle the academics, but the bureaucratic nonsense was intolerable. Mainly running around campus getting people to sign-off on things, and making no exceptions for an adult with considerable leadership experience. I still remember a big Susan Boyle looking PhD, sitting in her closet of an office, telling me my age and military career didn't count for anything. I put up with that crap for a semester, then left. Probably wouldn't have gotten a teaching job anyway.
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Old 12-16-2010, 03:42 PM   #19
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BigNick, hope your tolerance for professorial pompousness is high to very high.

I did a BS in my mid thirties, while w*rking full time, often found myself arguing with profs, and adjuncts. Frequently my life experience collided with their professed theories.

This life experience business also got in the the way of learning. Along the way always had to examine and understand differences in my experience and the new material to be learned. There were many times when I was unable to reconcile the class material with life experience.

Though ultimately I found the school experience rewarding many years later, when recalled learned material.

YMMV
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Old 12-16-2010, 03:55 PM   #20
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DH is currently in a fulltime masters program and arguably is the oldest student ever to do so there. As it was something he had always wanted to do, it has been wonderful for him (although I nixed the dorm idea ). Go for it.
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