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Interview: Second Acts Reinvigorate Lives


Dr. Pamela Pitman Brown

Dr. Pamela Pitman Brown

Life expectancy grows by five hours a day, opening up new opportunities for middle-aged and older adults. Just ask eight career women, who pursued doctorates more than 20 years after leaving school.

Despite the challenge, new careers in gerontology reinvigorated their lives and refocused their futures.

Pamela Pitman Brown and Candace Brown reported their findings in Educational Gerontology on Sept. 25, 2014.

AHB reached Dr. Pitman Brown at the department of behavioral sciences, Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, N.C., U.S.A.

Ruth Dempsey: More older women are returning to school today. What's driving the numbers?

Pamela Brown: That's a good question. There are many reasons women are returning to graduate studies. Some, like the women in our sample, are looking for a promotion or a pay rise in their current position.

Some are searching for an encore career. They are changing careers after reaching a glass ceiling, or they are finally able to return to college having completed their child-rearing responsibilities.

The reasons vary. Our study showed that some always anticipated further studies stemming from a belief in the importance of education or influenced by parents with advanced degrees.

Indeed, women move in and out of careers, caregiving duties and even educational endeavours often following a non-traditional route, but these routes are rarely considered.

RD: Many encountered pushback from friends and family.

PB: I know. Surprising isn't it? We tend to expect our family and friends will be supportive of our life choices.

Anne's husband cheered her decision to go back, even the idea of moving halfway across the country, but her friends were very shocked and surprised. She actually gave up a great job to follow her dream, so, of course, people were a bit taken aback.

Teri's friends didn't want to lose her time. They wanted her to join them for lunch and volunteer with the junior league. In fact, her friends kept reminding her, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Teri found that humorous afterwards, but she said it reinforced her determination to master statistical software programs.

Yvette's friends and family reminded her how she had never been a great student so she was setting herself up for failure. She told us that she had found her high school transcript from the 1970s, and she had over a 3.8 GPA. She had no idea why her friends or her family considered her a poor student.

However, Yvette's husband was very supportive of her studies.

So while there were some negatives, for most of the women there was positive support, too.

RD: In the classroom, Paula found younger students could not understand why she would return to school when she had other alternatives.

PB: That's right. So while we understand the concept of retirement and encore careers, some younger students might feel that with retirement we have arrived and would simply enjoy doing nothing, as in not working. Retirement is reaching the pinnacle of success!

Paula had a great career, good retirement benefits and opportunities to travel and enjoy life with her husband. But she discovered this was not enough. She wanted to do more with her life.

RD: And women had to deal with ageist attitudes from professors . . .

PB: I know. How odd that people who are gerontologists would be ageist! It was a little shocking to hear.

As Suzy put it, "Your age is against you." For one thing, the faculty assumed students would be less technologically savvy because they were older.

As I see it, some professors failed to understand that most of these women had been employed and had grown up dealing with technological change in their workplace.

One woman, for instance, had taught computer skills in her "previous life," and had worked with numerous computer programs in the field of journalism. Another woman found that younger students came to her for assistance with Excel, but the faculty ignored her abilities.

The women mentioned again and again how their prior careers and successes were overlooked in academia. Obviously, this hurt deeply.

RD: On the job front, the women were winners . . .

PB: That's right. Everyone in the study did really well.

One of the women is limited based on her husband's job location, but most secured positions and they are working successfully in their field. In fact, many of them ended up with their "dream job."

So, I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks!

RD: What advice would you give readers thinking of returning to school?

PB: Everyone is different, but I do think that you need to realize the amount of work it takes, regardless of whether you are completing an undergraduate or a graduate degree. The boy scout motto of "be prepared" comes to mind.

A few quick tips:

  • Be prepared mentally, emotionally and physically for the work.

  • Look at your schedule. Can you fit in class time and study time? How much time can you allocate a week. Can you go part-time? Should you go full-time?

  • Do you have the space to study? Most of the women carved out a very small space of their own for computer, books, printer and supplies.

  • If your previous job did not entail work with computers, take some technology classes and invest in a computer and a printer/scanner.

Probably the best advice I received was to remember it is a marathon not a sprint. Start small and work up. Take one class. See if you like it.

RD: In your paper, you mention Catherine Bateson's fascinating book Composing a Life. Did the themes in the book resonate with the women?

PB: Absolutely, I love Bateson's book and happened to find it when I was going back to school.

In Composing a Life, cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson explores that act of creation that concerns us all – the composition of our lives.

She shows how five women have learned to shape their lives around unforeseen and unplanned circumstances by using the art of improvisation. Bateson says that constancy is an illusion in women's lives.

Similarly, the middle-aged women in our study used improvisation to:

  • respond to new circumstances
  • respond to the shifting priorities in their lives, and
  • to compose a new life chapter.

Editor's note: The original article appeared in AHB March/April 2015 with the headline Interview: Career Women Return to School.