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Is It Too Late for Graduate School?

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Laid off after more than a decade in the corporate world, a reader asks, "At 42 years of age, is it too late for a career in science? I stayed with the job for its fantastic pay. That's over and I've always wanted to make new discoveries. Is it too late to go to graduate school?"

The quick answer is no. Age will not hurt your application if you're prepared. It’s never too late to learn new things, carve out a new career path, and go to graduate school. But it may be more difficult to gain admission to graduate school after a several years or decades in a career as compared with fresh out of college simply because of the gap in your education.

What’s much more important than the amount of time elapsed between earning your bachelor’s degree and applying to graduate school is what you have done with that time. Many fields, like business and social work, often prefer applicants to have some work experience. Science fields emphasize a background in science and math. Recent coursework in these areas will aid your application. Demonstrate that you can think abstractly and have the mind of a scientist.

Learn About the Graduate Program: Do You Meet the Basic Requirements?
Once you have decided to apply to grad school after years away from academia your job is to carefully examine each graduate program's requirements. Are there any stated expectations about a particular major, coursework, or outside experiences? Evaluate your background and skill set. Do you have the basics? If not, what can you do to enhance your application? You might take classes in statistics, for example, or volunteer to work in a faculty member's lab. Volunteering is easier once you have taken a class or two and have a basis for a relationship with a professor. That said, it never hurts to ask as every professor could use an extra set of eyes and hands.

GRE Scores are Important!
Good scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) are part of every successful application. However, if you’re applying to grad school after several years, your GRE scores may be even more important for your application because they indicate your potential for graduate study. In the absence of recent indicators (such as graduating within the last few years), standardized test scores may be scrutinized more closely.

Solicit a Range of Recommendation Letters
When it comes to recommendation letters, there are a variety of options for students who have been out of college for several years. Try to obtain at least one that evaluates you within an academic context. Even if you’ve graduated a decade ago you may be able to obtain a letter from a faculty member. Unless you were particularly stellar, he or she may not remember you but the university has a record of your grades and many faculty keep a permanent file of their grades. Even better, if you’ve recently taken a class, request a letter from your professor. Also get a letter(s) from recent employers as they have a current perspective of your work habits and skills.

Be Realistic
Know what you're getting into. Graduate study is not glamorous and not always interesting. It is hard work . You'll be broke. A research assistantship, teaching assistantship, and other funding resources can pay for your tuition and sometimes offer a small stipend but you're not going to support a family on it. If you have a family, think about how you'll manage your family responsibilities. Where will you study and how will you carve out uninterrupted time? You will have more work than you can imagine and it will require more time than you plan. Think about it now so that you're prepared later - and so you prepare your family to support you as needed. There are many students who combine grad school and family quire successfully.

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