What It’s Like To Go Back To Grad School (When You’re in Your Fifties!)


John Hoffmann, Student & Alumni

Quick. How would you describe what a typical communications graduate student looks like at Purdue?

I’ll bet that no matter how you painted that picture of someone pursuing a master’s degree – or even a Ph.D. – you estimated his or her age to be in the mid-to-upper 20s. Maybe even in the low 30s. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that’s what made me the most nervous about going back to earn my MS in Communications degree. You see, I was a little bit north of the high end of that age range. And by a little bit, what I really mean is more than 20 years.

Returning to Graduate School

When I began classes as a communications graduate student at Purdue University in 2014, I was 53 years old. I was pretty sure I could handle the work, but I wasn’t quite as certain what the experience would be like. At the time, the school said the average student had earned his or her bachelor’s degree nine years earlier, which I figured made that “average student” around 30 years old. I work with people that age all the time, but I wasn’t sure if that kind of age gap would be problematic in school. What I quickly learned was the age gap between the so-called “average student” and me wasn’t a problem at all. In fact, it was hugely beneficial to all of us.

In a traditional classroom, the professor lectures for most of every hour and entertains a few student questions along the way. However, in an asynchronous, online environment, not only do the professors engage their students, but the students support, challenge and teach one another far more than in a brick-and-mortar classroom environment. In some instances, being an experienced PR professional allowed me to offer observations about situations some of the younger students hadn’t yet seen in their careers. At the same time, the millennials in class who had deeper knowledge of subjects I wasn’t as experienced in, such as global PR and social media, helped me better understand that information and see things differently.

It didn’t take me long to realize my nervousness about being the “old guy” proved to be completely misplaced. Like all of my classmates, I was able to give to and learn from everyone else. Our differences as individuals made us better collectively in every sense, including age. As a result, I’m certain any professional communicator -- no matter their level of experience -- can benefit from such a learning experience. I know because I did it, and if I can do it – even in my 50s – so can you.

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*The views and opinions expressed are of the author and do not represent the Brian Lamb School of Communication.