Grad School In My Late 30s: “The Best Thing I’ve Ever Done For My Career”

Everyone follows their own path for education, and some paths take more twists and turns than others. Not sure where your education is taking you? It can help to see how things went for other people who have been there.

When David B. was in high school, he wasn’t sure he’d go to college at all. Spoiler: He did, but it took a long time. When he was 38, he went back for more, and got a master’s degree. More than a few years after that, he shared his experience with Aaron Weber.

So, what’s your academic story?

I barely finished high school. I was in and out of community college for about 4 years until I was able to transfer to a 4-year college, where I floundered around for way too long trying this major or that major before I just ran out of money and had to quit.

Almost 10 years later, I went back to finish my BA. I enrolled at UC-Irvine and picked the major that would get me graduated as quickly as possible, which turned out to be social sciences.

I was lucky to graduate into a strong economy, and I had some design sense and computer skills, so I wound up as a graphic designer. I found work at the University of Southern California, which meant I got to take steeply discounted graduate-level classes. There, I discovered more or less by accident that RIT, way over in Rochester, NY, had an MS program in graphic arts and printing. At that time, it was the only program of its kind in the country.

I applied on a whim and got in.

How’d you pay for grad school?

I was 38 when I started, and I moved to Rochester from Los Angeles a year in advance to settle in, get a job, and save some money. It was important to me to work the whole time—not just so I could pay for it, but so I could practice what I was learning.

I paid for it by cashing in my meager 403(b) from USC, taking out a regular student loan, and borrowing some money from a friend. At the time, I still had undergrad student loan debt, which I deferred while in grad school. I managed to pay the whole sum off in about 5 or 6 years, partly through selling my house.

How did it work out for you?

The degree has definitely been the best thing I’ve ever done for my career. I work in print training and machinery management now—helping people set up and operate their giant industrial presses and so forth. These days, it’s a shrinking profession, and having the degree definitely has helped me stand out.

Right now, I’m 51. If I didn’t have this degree, I’d probably be a press operator looking over my shoulder and worrying about layoffs. It was a huge risk to move across the country to study when I was already pushing 40, but it went really well for me and I’m glad I did it.

Any parting words for younger folks leaving college today?

I’m so sorry that you are entering your working years in such a terrible economy. Take whatever work you can get that is within your threshold of dignity, but never below it. Save your money. Be kind and support each other. Do not suffer fools or whiners.

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