You are Never too Old to Begin Studying Again

Jeffrey Keefer

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Ever wished that in the past, you focused on your studies earlier so you would have been finished with them by now?

Perhaps you regret not having started a degree you always wanted to enhance your interests or career aspirations.

Maybe there was a certification you considered, though it was simply not the right time way back when. It could have been that one certificate course or program that tickled your fancy, yet somehow life got in the way, and it was put on a semi-permanent hold? Or, perhaps you started a degree, program, course, certificate, or other learning endeavors that you did not finish.

Life does get in the way, and sometimes not in the way we want it to.

It can be easy to think that time slipped, and we are now in a different place, and it is too late. Perhaps for some things, it is, and it is far easier to assume it is too late than to take active steps to look into it and determine if it is. Suppose the sense that you shoulda, coulda, woulda done something different with your educational pursuits sits with you and reappears in your mind at the most inopportune times. In that case, that sense of missed opportunity and its related loss may recur in your life. There is only one way to handle that--go explore that thing that keeps coming back to you and try it on today.

Well, my friends, why not now?

Okay, before you turn me off and think to yourself that I am unrealistic, unreasonable, or ridiculous, give me just five more minutes to explore this together.

Take a few deep breaths to help clear your mind. Clear it of all those assumptions that cloud the future, those about how it is too late. Those about how life is much too difficult now to entertain those thoughts of going back to study. Those thoughts about your many current responsibilities. How could that missed opportunity from the past fit into your demanding life today? There may be a whole host of other points that come to mind, but let's leave them there and breathe.

Work with me here, and you may feel a bit better at the end (or otherwise, you may not feel worse!).

Breathe in the fresh and good, and breathe out the stale little voices that hold us back. Breathe in opportunity and breathe out challenges. Breathe in and out and feel the chair or whatever else is holding you up. The solid earth is beneath us, and we are supported.

Breathe in and out and consider how you are a person of great value. Great potential. Filled with opportunities. On a path through life with better days ahead, we can change them into the future we want.

After you take a moment, gently think back to those little negative voices that came up earlier. Don't start replaying them in your mind. Instead, think about them from a 20,000-foot view. No particulars, just the overall feelings they left you with.

Those feelings are your past. They connect with past events and will not speak to future ones unless you allow them. We are not who we were ten, twenty, thirty years ago. We have had many new experiences, successes, and good things happen since then, yet somehow those past feelings persist and do nothing good for us beyond encouraging doubt.

So, What to Do?

You are right; you cannot go back in time and take those educational opportunities that existed in the past and make them real. The past is the past, and as I wrote elsewhere, the best thing we can do with it is to learn from it and then build upon it for a brighter future. We don't want the past to hold us back.

What to do about those feelings that we somehow feel incomplete due to not finishing some degree, program, or other learning endeavors. We know regret does not help, though if the feeling of something undone remains, ask yourself:

What can I do about this NOW?

The key there is doing something about it in the present to plan for a future where we do it. We go back in time and embrace former opportunities, but we CAN explore those possibilities that exist for us now.

Let me give an example of my own doctoral work.

Many people, when they want to do doctoral studies, are encouraged to begin them immediately after a bachelor's degree, moving right into a master's as a precursor to a doctorate or directly into advanced study that often awards a master's along the way. The traditional notion of this is to prepare one for academic research and teaching, so the sooner you do the studies, the better off you will be.

I am not one to follow the traditional paths, as they often contain too many assumptions that do not speak to my life. As a result, I tried that initial path, and it did not work for me. I started several doctoral programs before finding the right fit. I completed several master's degrees in the process, not to lose the credits, though they were not the goal I had. That nagging feeling I had to complete my studies, my doctoral studies, remained.

Taking my own advice, I realized it would not help me to find the right program at that time in my life based on the early voices I was told. I could not apply for a program and then potentially move and reorder my expectations for years to come. I was working, had a family, mortgage, and responsibilities that were not part of that traditional equation that assumes none of that is in place.

Indeed, at least in the United States, the traditional doctoral model assumes all this happens in one's mid-twenties to mid-thirties, before we settle into the responsible part of life. I was past that, yet the internal drive for this degree was alive and well within me.

So, rather than spend my time regretting it, I decided I needed to look for other options. Perhaps I needed a part-time program, one that had the studies doable through some form of distance model, or even one that may not be directly in my field, but aligned enough to feel right while allowing me the flexibility to bring in my research interests as I had them.

Guess what. I achieved my goal. I did this ONLY because I focused on the goal itself and not on the previous structures around it that I remembered through that earlier regret. Those structures are gone, so why look to the future while still wearing them?

Suggestions for Next Steps

So, I ask you, what studies have you somehow left incomplete? You are not who, what, or where you were in the past, and as you have moved on, so you likely have new and unexplored flexibilities around completing your studies. Yes, the key here is being flexible. Where else can you look for this? Who else offers something comparable? How can this work into your current life's responsibilities?

You will not know these answers until you open your horizons and explore them, as looking back with regret freezes us into thinking of those same older structures. That is not where we are any longer, so why should that limit how we look to completing our studies, either?

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Educator. Writer. Open Knowledge Advocate. Institutional Researcher. I help people navigate their learning needs and take informed action.

New York City, NY
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