Woman with cap and gown and diploma.

Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Get a Ph.D. at 64

By Barbara Krasner
August 25, 2023

Don’t Tell Me I Can’t is a series designed to celebrate all the ways you can forge your own path in midlife and beyond.

The worst thing anyone told me when I started looking into getting my Ph.D. nearly 10 years ago still sticks with me. A faculty member at a university interview told me I was “too old,” and that the “ship has sailed.” I didn’t give up. And I am grateful for that every day.

My Educational Journey

Education has always been the backbone of my life.

After earning my bachelor’s in my early 20s, I knew I wasn’t done with school. I headed back to get an M.B.A. in marketing at 26. I worked in the industry for a long time before deciding to pursue my M.F.A. in writing at 48, and then earned a master’s in history at 58. Every decade of my life has brought a new degree and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What Next?

Still, the Ph.D. remained the stretch goal. I pasted the letters on my vision board. It symbolized a culmination of all my varied paths of study.

I made appointments with faculty members I thought I’d like to work with at City University of New York (CUNY), Drew University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, American University, and Rutgers University. The CUNY phone conversation was brief and disappointing. I sensed no interest on the part of the faculty member.

At Drew, I felt I was being pushed toward an expensive D.Litt. degree because of my age and the university’s belief that someone older meant someone with ample retirement funds to pursue this expensive degree. When I arrived for my appointment with a renowned history professor at UMass Amherst to discuss the Ph.D., this person said, “Thanks for stopping by.” I’d come from New Jersey. “Stopping by” felt more than a little dismissive of my several-hour drive to pursue my higher education.

Every door I opened, I felt quickly close. With every appointment, it became clear I wasn’t being considered in a serious way and I was frustrated. Why shouldn’t I be able to pursue my studies, regardless of my age?

My Plans

At that time, I thought I might want to write my dissertation about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. At one university, a faculty member asked me if I knew Yiddish, which hardly seemed like it should be a prerequisite to join a doctorate program in American history. It felt like yet another dismissal.

Rutgers was the most painful rejection of all. The faculty member I’d asked to have a phone chat with said, in no uncertain terms: “You can apply, but we'll never accept your application. You're too old—your ship has sailed. We measure our success on our graduates getting tenure-track jobs, and you'll never get one.”

Her comments hit me right between the eyes. I had called her from Cincinnati, where I had a research fellowship at the American Jewish Archives. I spoke with my mentor there, someone who believed in me and my work, and my dreams. All she could really do was commiserate.

Making My Own Path

I quit pursuing my dream after that. I couldn’t even score an interview for a full-time position at the university where I was already serving as an adjunct professor. It seemed clear that the ship had, indeed, “sailed,” just as I’d been told all those months ago.

My mentor in the history department was blunt when he said: “You’re too old.” At the time, I’d had one appointment left at American University. I canceled it. I was so defeated. What was the point of any of it?

I tried to make myself feel better. After all, why would I want a doctorate if I was never to get beyond a series of adjunct positions?

As a teenager, I’d wanted a Ph.D., but I’d also jokingly referred to it as “Piled Higher and Deeper.” But maybe I’d been right thinking of it that way. Maybe there was no point. All I could see of academics was arrogance, elitism, and ageism.

Until 2018.

A New Beginning

I was working at home in New Jersey when I received an email from Tablet, a Jewish publication, and saw an ad for a new Ph.D. degree in the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program at Gratz College based in Pennsylvania. It's an online program with a summer residency. The program did not expect you to give up your day job, and that worked for me. The school offered no teaching assistantships, which was also fine by me. As a teacher, I didn’t need more experience in what I was already doing.

I got up my nerve and I applied. The whole experience was so different than any that had come before. The program administrators were thrilled with my academic experience, my publication record, and my three decades of corporate management experience, all of which others had completely ignored.

The Gratz administrators accepted me in every sense of the word. And the best part? While I am not the youngest in my program, I am also not the oldest. I found that plenty of people in their 60s have similar dreams and now I was among them.

I gave the Ph.D. dream new vigor and focus as I readied myself for two years of intense coursework. Gratz called me some time later and asked me to teach a course in professional writing, so the experience turned into a job, as well.

A Dream Come True

I'm now 64 and hard at work on my dissertation while I teach a variety of courses at four different schools. I hope to defend my dissertation this summer and graduate.

I’ve added two years of Yiddish to my coursework and have translated an important article into English that was recently published. My biography in verse, Ethel’s Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems debuts Fall 2022.

My diverse background and age are now working for me, rather than against me. They give me options most Ph.D. candidates don’t have. As I’d believed so many years ago, I am piled higher and deeper now. I am piled higher and deeper in opportunities and rewards. And I owe it all to the wisdom that comes with my age.

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