Second Chances

In 1993, at the age of 34, I began a Ph.D. at Caltech, which I finished four years later. I probably didn’t make much more money afterward, but I’m a lot more satisfied with my life. Apparently this is a common outcome of late life schooling:

This paper addresses the economic returns on tertiary degrees obtained in ages above 30 for individuals with upper-secondary schooling [in] Sweden [where] labor market legislation supports employees who take a leave to study. … Late degrees were found to increase the employment rate by 18 percentage points and earnings while employed by 12 percent. … The effects were absent in the higher parts of the earnings distribution, and females gained more than men. (more)

Human lives are long. If you are willing to work, you can radically change direction, even at the age of 34.

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  • dWj

    I’m a 35 year old second-year PhD student. I’m enormously pleased to see this.

  • Geoffrey

    I got my economics PhD at George Mason when I was 43.
    (A good school – maybe you have heard about it)

    I have never been happier. It also boosted my earning potential – a happy bonus.

  • David

    I like this conclusion, but I suspect it’s a hard thing to show with a survey like this. I mean, 30-somethings who take the leap into academia are not exactly typical members of their age group, and even if you control for previous achievement, test scores, etc., they will still be atypical in their subgroup. I suspect that much of their increase in earnings is caused by the same restless intellectual ambition which also led them to want a Ph.D.

    Also, in a natural experiment like this, the way you account for dropouts is very important. Were the reported gains seen in *graduates* or in the whole population who went back to grad school, whether or not they dropped out? The “late degrees” part makes me think they looked only at graduates. But if so, it could very well be that the *decision* to go to grad school could be a big statistical setback to a career: You’d get that result if few such people graduate and while trying they pass up advancement opportunities in the private sector. And yet this would be consistent with all the reported data about improvements among the graduates.

    In any case, people who join *and graduate* a Ph.D. program are surely more curious, driven and talented compared to their peers who don’t, and such people would plausibly have made the same or larger gains if they had simply remained in the private sector.

  • I stopped teaching high school and got a law degree in my mid-thirties. I worked for a law firm for 3 years and then decided to run a couple start-ups. I make MUCH more than I did as a teacher or lawyer now and love working for myself. Many of my friends that I taught with thought I was making a huge mistake turning my back on a safe and secure teaching career. In law school, with mostly 20-somethings, I sometimes felt like an odd-man out, but I loved school and the knowledge I learned gave me the tools to do everything I’ve done since.

    I recommend the mid-thirties switch to all my friends who are unhappy where they are.

  • dufu

    Robin, how much student loan debt (or other debt) were you still carrying at the time you switched?

    I’ve considered something similar, but my student debt load would make such a move inadvisable for me I believe.

  • Senescence

    As a vet contemplating a similar move in my late 20s, your example is encouraging.

    As another commenter said, student debt is a big factor, making expensive law, business, and other masters degrees from lower tier schools questionable choices.

    For those pursuing PhD’s in science/engineering fields, which often include stipends and tuition grants, the cost/benefit calculations are much more favorable.

    Prof. Hanson, did Caltech provide you with stipends and/or tuition grants when you studied Social Studies/Econ?

  • Nikki

    This is illuminating: I would never have guessed anybody in the first world thought 34 was too late to change direction. Based on life expectancy in the US, at 34 you have more than four decades ahead of you: obviously enough time to do pretty much anything, with a few exceptions that require a very young body at the starting point, like a career in sports or ballet.

    The puzzling thing is not that some people make a career change, but that so many never do. You choose an occupation at, say, 16 or 18, and at 45 you still find it so exciting that nothing else deserves even a try? Seriously?

    • I see I’m a Luddite here but some of us still believe you work to live. I’m not happy with the job chose at eighteen but here I am twenty years later still working in that field, making twice the median income, and plan to work this job another thirty years with almost no chance of promotion or being fired. I work forty hours a week (45 including commute), do not think about work outside work hours, and rather enjoy my life.

      I know that whole work/life line went out of fashion since everybody felt the need to be connected all the time but there is something to be said for simply being content with your job and enjoying your life.

  • FoundOnWeb

    On the Wednesday before my 50th birthday, I quit my job as a successful DoD contractor/consultant in DC. On the Wednesday after my 50th birthday I filled up my 1987 Ford Escort and drove from VA to Portland, Oregon to get a PhD in Systems Science there. I’m now teaching at a small regional college in the NW. The cost was high, even with some VA benefits, and the opportunity cost was horrendous, but I’m a lot happier now.

  • I suspect there is a selection effect in the comments here. Surely some folks tried the switch and it didn’t work out so well.

  • farmer

    The Post-2008 corralary to this is *forced* job switching. Ie- construction, Bear Sterns employees etc. I wonder if being “pushed” rather than “pulled” has the same results.
    I mean, informally, I’m sure many of those displaced always thought “y’know? i’d like to try something else”, but being forced to try something else rather than electing to try something else might skew the expected happiness

  • farmer

    again, on a skeptical note, American culture undervalues the extent to which age is important. Different ages have different attributes. As an obvious example, joining the Army at 35 will be tougher than 25. But less obviously, there’s “peak ages” for almost all fields. Nobel prizes are bi-modally awarded for discoveries/actions at the ages of roughly the mid/late 20’s and then “end of career”. There are very few 30/40 somethings making nobel-type finds in chem/med/sci
    Similarly, amung Public Defenders, there is a notion that the career peak is ~5 years into it
    It might be the case that the 28 year old “you” WOULD have been good at field xyz, whereas the 35 year old “you” WOULD NOT be good at the same field. So switching has a component of “is the current you a you that can make this work”

    • rrb

      “There are very few 30/40 somethings making nobel-type finds in chem/med/sci”
      I found how old this year’s nobel prizewinners were when they made their discoveries, by looking through the press releases on
      This year, seven people were awarded prizes in chemistry, physics, and medicine.
      Three of the seven were late thirties/early forties.
      (29, 30, 31, 39, 39, 41, 57)

      But your claims about nobel prize winners is awfully specific, so I figure you must have some source though, right? But at first glance they look completely untrue so I’d like to know where you’re getting your information.

      • rrb

        three of the seven were late thirties early forties when they made their discoveries, I mean.

  • E.J.

    As a 31 year old who was last employed (briefly) during the Clinton administration, I think this belief is in the category of things it would be useful for me to accept regardless of its truth value. Free will would be another example. It can be a challenge to internalize an idea merely for its utility.

    Of course, a dysfunction where I am unable to remember the last time I left my dad’s basement requires a change at least an order of magnitude more unlikely than finding a more rewarding career.

  • JScarantino

    As a 34-yr-old finishing my first graduate degree in less than 6 months, I, too, have been considering a PhD. I got a late start on my graduate studies, but am much more focused than my peers and brought over 15 years of work experience and knowledge to my graduate experience. Sadly, most of my peers have never even had a full-time job, let alone know what they want out of life. Schools (and parents) just want to push them through the system as a rite of passage before entering the workforce. I know few who have any desire to continue on for a PhD or see any value in it.

    To me, the real question for the PhD isn’t anything about timing. It’s about the opportunity cost, as mentioned by some of the previous comments. I already know I can accomplish nearly anything I want to in life, regardless of age. But the financial constraints that the institution of education places on knowledge and learning will likely keep me from taking that step in the near future until a badly-needed revolution comes around.

    Having said that, I know of few people who pursue a PhD for the money. It’s a labor of love and accomplishment. That’s the only aspect I’m interested in. Only a shame it is managed the way it is.

  • Dr. Tim Hadley

    Good point, Robin. I got my Ph.D. at Texas Tech when I was 57. I’m now happily immersed in a 2nd career that is much more satisfying and rewarding than my first career was.

  • dero

    I’m 22 and a high school dropout. My marks were not good enough (absolutely no work ethic with homework and such) for any program worth the paper the degree was printed on (science, engineering etc.). A major concern of mine is that a university degree is not what it used to be, in regards to earnings especially.

    Is it worth it going for me? Again, my marks were bad, doubly so for senior year, which is what the universities in Canada look at. I would apply as a ‘mature student’, do they consider school marks for the above listed high-earning degrees? Should I try, or just keep on drifting through life, doing whatever it is I do, odd jobs here and there?

    • none

      You should go to college

  • I started med school at 35 and left a lucrative career to do so. Currently halfway through and nothing but glad I went, although the readjustment to
    no income was harder than I thought. I don’t want loans in the end so I’m paying as much as I can out of my pocket. I share Alexander’s odd-man-out feelings with the twenty-somethings in the program, but being older, we think a lot more about what we actually want out of what we’re doing, and about our financial situation – and pondering the latter is often ignored or outright discouraged by the administration and fellow students buy the story, or at least talk the talk.

    The opportunity cost calculation is exactly it. Earnings are in there, despite what would-be self-sacrificers might try to convince themselves of, but so is how much you enjoy the work and your life outside of it. Not just work but lifestyle and status all figure into that. People who insist that they’re different from everyone else in terms of those things mattering to them are certainly headed for tragedy.

  • Mitchell

    I got an MBA at night when i was 30. but didn’t really capitalize on it and kept on at my gvernment job. At 37 I went and got my law degree at night graduating when I was 41. i learned from my prior experience and focused on clerkships and graduated number one in my class. my income increased roughly ten times over the government job that i had. Am now at 63 thinking of pursuing a degree in geology to cash in on the oil and gas boom but my wife has balked. But inspired by this Swedish survey I might just do it.

  • A sleep deprived clam

    Last fall, at age 51 I entered the George Mason economics PhD program and I’m happy as a clam. I expect to have a +/- 20 year career ahead of me instead of the 40 years of my classmates, but that does not make it any less meaningful to me. I think I appreciate the opportunity more because I have a larger base of life experience for comparison.