Career Advice

How I navigated my way through a midlife PhD

How I navigated my way through a midlife PhD
Written by Publishing Team

Roger Tipton works in the laboratory at the University of South Florida in Tampa; Next to it is a station for developing sensors to detect harmful gases in the air.Credit: Whitney Wilder

In January 2017, after another particularly difficult day in the office, I complained again to my wife of feeling professionally unfulfilled and yearning to work in academia, running my own engineering lab.

At the time, I was running Unbounded Labs, a technology company based in Tampa, Florida. Prior to that, I had held engineering and management positions at companies including Rubbermaid in Wadsworth, Ohio, and Little Tikes in Hudson, Ohio.

None of these jobs were bad, but I’ve always wanted to do research, add something important to the world, and also teach the next generation how to do the same.

My wife provided the clarity I needed, saying, “You’re going to be 50 in a few years; do you want to be 50 and be an academic or do you want to be 50 and still complain about not being a professor?” That was really the motivation that I needed. I needed him to call my local university, the University of South Florida in Tampa, and ask about becoming a part-time graduate student. To my surprise, I was told that I had to sign up for some classes right away. To prepare myself for my Ph.D., I spoke to my employer and agreed to keep all of my current responsibilities in exchange for a more flexible schedule.

My company recognized the value in having a leader who is keen on self-improvement and committed to the organization over the next five years, bringing stability to my team. My discussions with management focused on performance rather than office hours: I knew I wouldn’t be there much, but I hoped it wouldn’t matter in terms of results.

Roger Tipton with his lab friend Abhijit Iver, on their graduation day in December 2021.

Roger Tipton (right) with his lab friend Abhijit Iver, on their graduation day in December 2021.Credit: Whitney Wilder

In 2017, on my first day in graduate classes, I made my way into the lecture hall freaking out, feeling too old and out of place among students 20 years younger than me. I arrived early and sat in the back hoping I wouldn’t be noticed.

After a few minutes, the two students – Dave and Kevin – sat down next to me and immediately began to include me in their conversation. That was all I needed to feel comfortable. Suddenly I became part of the class. They graduated in 2018 but they have always been a part of my journey.

Five years later, I graduated at the age of 51 with a PhD in chemical, biological and materials engineering. It was the best experience of my life and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Master time management to be successful

Most university graduate programs are designed for students who have just finished college, have few outside commitments and can spend most of their time in the classroom or lab. By contrast, many middle-aged students will get a mortgage, a partner, children (two sons, in my case, ages 11-13), and possibly also a full-time job, with less time to stay at university.

My days usually start with two hours in the lab, 7-9 in the morning, after which I’ll work until 2 p.m. at my job. Two days a week, I’m back in the lab until 4.30 to teach a senior class in chemical engineering. Twice a week I leave work for lessons for an hour and a quarter and then go back to work. Then I came home to play with the children until we put them to bed at about 9 pm, after which I studied until 11. In fact, I worked 12 hours a day during the week and 6 hours a day on the weekend, mixing work and school in Try to fulfill any commitments you have made for that day. I also have to thank my wife, Rachel, for all her support during her PhD as she took the boys to sports while I was writing papers – as well as cooking all the meals as I worked through research problems, and getting a portion – the time I spent teaching the job to earn money Additional, since I never got a salary increase from my company while working on my Ph.D.

I definitely wouldn’t recommend working long hours every week. My productivity and mental state both suffered; Better time management skills would have allowed me to work less and get more done. In the last couple of years, I’ve delegated more things to my team at work – something I should have done years ago – and saved myself a lot of extra time and effort.

The limited time I had in the lab was a constant source of contention with my advisor. I would have liked to be there more, but I could hardly comment on managing all my responsibilities. Oftentimes, I would be in the lab early in the morning and finish the analysis when the kids were in bed. Using these quiet times has enabled me to accomplish a lot. I would suggest that this is something that should be discussed and agreed upon with your advisor, at the beginning of graduate studies, so that expectations are set.

Help me find outside funding to support me

I was worried about the cost of my PhD course. My university charges $65,500 for a 5-year program, and that was a struggle for me. My advisor suggested that I apply for a NASA fellowship, to study additive manufacturing of fiber-optic links and instrumentation, and it helped pay for my studies. My teaching assistant salary covered most of my remaining tuition, but I still had to spend thousands of extra dollars. I recommend that you start your PhD program with a program that offers you a stipend right away, and also that you work hard to get a fellowship and give money away.

Academia is still possible

I was told many times that at my age, a position at a leading institution was out of the question, and that universities only wanted young researchers who would be productive for decades. However, I am proud to write that I will be starting a professor position at the University of South Florida in January 2022. So, work in academia is definitely possible for a middle-aged PhD holder.

I am so glad I finally took the lead and got my Ph.D. I’ve waited 20 years to start, but I did and I’m really excited about my new life. My dream job in academia started in just a couple of months, and in the city I currently live in. Not having to move makes everyone in the family happy. As a professor working a half hour full-time job, I will be able to teach and conduct research as well as some flexibility to continue working with my current employer in a paid consulting role and continue to help the company grow.

In December of 2021, I tried my first graduation registration with my family. Everyone was excited and proud of what she had accomplished. I think I set an example for my young sons of what is possible, no matter what your age. My experience was very different from what I thought it would be, but I am so glad I finally completed my Ph.D.

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