The second-career student

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There’s a saying I’m fond of for its nudge to face life with boldness: “Leap, and the net will appear.” It’s an especially relevant credo for those thinking about graduate school and a second career at an older age.

Second-career concerns were not top of mind for me until recently. I enjoyed meaningful work as a writer and editor in Seattle, working for nonprofits, in TV and public relations, and for an innovative philanthropist. I wrote about museums, space exploration, community affairs, technology, film, history, and pop culture. Then, a move to a rural area in another state changed things; interesting communications work was much harder to find. I concluded I needed to augment my skill set rather than expect opportunities where few existed.

Tracy Huddleson

Tracy Huddleson at an educational and performance festival she produced for Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.

Thinking long and hard about what that might look like, I considered what stimulated me most in my personal life. For me, that was history. I wanted to learn new things I could add to existing skills and advance my career. I had a few qualms, though. Would I be taken seriously as an older student? Were history jobs available for someone my age? Would I even be accepted without a BA in history? 

I was lucky to find a respected public history program at California State University Sacramento, an irresistible combo plate of museum studies, archiving, and historic preservation. The program director told me that, for many people, public history graduate work represented “phase two” in their careers. 

While it’s true that most people in grad school are in their late twenties to early thirties, older students constitute a small but growing trend. The reasons behind this are varied. Some students want to learn specific new skills that lead to a second career. A 2013 study by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave revealed that 71 percent of interviewees aged 50 or older said they expect to work during retirement. “Older workers are seeing this sort of as a gateway to create a lifestyle later in life that they want,” said Cyndi Hutchins, director of financial gerontology at Bank of America/Merrill Lynch. A second career can stave off retirement for years and deepen professional satisfaction.

On my first day of school, any nervousness I had vanished. Although I was older than the faculty, it quickly became clear that we were all just random people joined by a common passion for history. In a cohort of only fifteen, a warm classroom rapport fell into place. 

As I became immersed in my program, I noticed something different from undergrad days: Support. Years ago, I sprinted for the career placement office the second I got my bachelor’s degree. Bulletin boards swarmed with job offers in government, environmental science, and teaching, but I was a writer and filmmaker. Someone pointed out a box of index cards marked for creatives like me. All it held was a suggestion under the tab “humanities,” which read: “Play your guitar at the local coffee shop and pass the hat.” Cue the berets and bongos.

Awareness of mentorship and its value has changed. My public history advisors offer support with teeth and muscle. They bombard us with opportunities for internships, scholarships, conferences, and part-time jobs. They recommend us, go to bat for us, warn us of pitfalls, help strategize next steps. Their academic requirements are rigorous, preparing us for good work in our field.

My program director recommended me for a great eighteenth-month sideline as a historian, conducting research, writing a publication, and working on short films. Any of my cohort would have served well in the research position, but I happened to be the only one with a background in writing and filmmaking. It’s a well-paying gig that may bear fruit for me in the future; but when I showed up in the office for the first time, the receptionist looked blankly at me, and then around me, looking for the young grad student she was expecting. Once in the saddle, though, I could tell no one thought twice about my age, and I was treated respectfully as someone with talents they needed.

Exciting mash-ups can result when new knowledge is tagged to existing skills. Deborah Kallman, a history student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, came from a background in accounting. She had no undergrad history degree, but married a historian and after a move, fell in love with antiquity-drenched New England. She took the leap into public history.

She now uses her expertise as CFO and assistant treasurer at Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts. “My background in accounting and finance is essential, but my graduate work in public history helps me understand the opportunities and threats historic museums face,” she says. Kallman was recently accepted into UMass’s Ph.D. program in public history for Fall 2019.   

Daniel Milowski from Arizona State University worked for years in educational publishing, but his thoughts turned elsewhere. “I was looking for a fulfilling career that was more intellectually rewarding and had a service component,” he says. Milowski is delighted by new digital resources that make school easier than in undergrad days; but as an older student, he worries about age discrimination. He offers other second-career fledglings the advice he takes to heart. “Do your homework. I researched not just graduate programs but also the job market. It helps to know what your educational program will be like, but also your post-degree experience.”

It’s true: Age discrimination might be a smaller issue in grad school, but it’s a reality in the workforce. For the faint of heart, let me tell you that coming to grad school from the workforce has major advantages. You may be more focused now than when you were younger. You’ve probably shepherded projects to fruition and learned to meet deadlines. You likely have strong time-management skills because of competing demands like kids, elder care, a spouse, and a job. 

All these things prepare you well for a return to school, but it goes without saying that students in their forties, fifties or sixties face daunting choices, such as gauging whether the investment of an advanced degree will pencil out. 

There will still be a need for public historians when you graduate. Between 2016 and 2026, the demand for professional historians was projected to grow by six percent. Computer scientists, by contrast, will enjoy a 24 percent bump. But if the idea of putting history at the center of your professional life makes your heart pound, you’ve already parsed the cost of doing work that doesn’t interest you. At the end of your life, will you regret having gambled on a career that sets your heart and mind on fire?

I don’t have an iron-clad solution for age discrimination, but here’s something I believe: When people actually get to know you and the good work you can do, age discrimination often falls away. So, enroll in those public history courses. Attend the networking events. Take the internships. Make the connections. Let people see what you can do. And like me, bank on the probability that if you do all this, that “net” I mentioned is likely to appear. You’ll find your opportunity, and I promise: You won’t need a hat and guitar.

Tracy Huddleson is a graduate student in public history at California State University, Sacramento. She is also lead historian for a national environmental firm celebrating its centennial year, for which she conducts historical research, writing, and film production.

4 comments
  1. Diane Painchaud says:

    CONGRATULATIONS, Tracy!! And best wishes in your new life as a grad student and wherever it leads you. I celebrate YOU and your intuition and openness. Just keep listening and following whatever feels right. I thoroughly enjoyed your writing too!
    Diane Clement Painchaud
    Dunedin, FL

  2. Tracy J Huddleson says:

    Thanks very much for your enthusiasm, Diane!

  3. Carolyn and Bill says:

    Thank you Tracy for this timely article intersecting the talent residing in folks looking for a second career with the need to preserve historical documents and artifacts in an online culture looking to declutter and dispose. We have always admired your imagination, charitable commitment, loving devotion to family, and innovative world view. Those qualities have led you along a fascinating career journey, and now enable you to inspire others to make their dreams come true!
    Congratulations on your leap-taking!
    With much love, Carolyn and Bill

  4. Cecelia Guinee says:

    Fabulous! So inspiring on so many levels. Glad to know you’re thriving. Very true…to know you and the good work you do is a timeless treasure. Kudos!
    Congratulations on embracing life to its fullest. Such a good role model.
    Cecelia Guinee

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