getting a master's degree at midlifeHave you been considering a return to the classroom for an academic credential? Are you hesitating because you are daunted by the prospect of fitting it around your work schedule?

Being a woman over 50 usually means being a woman who has to work, who doesn’t have the freedom to quit for a year or two or three to go back to school full time. Some advanced degree programs have part time options, and if you know exactly what professional credential you need, then you can often find an option that will work for you. But what if your academic desires are less defined? What if you have more than one subject you want to pursue?

When I went looking for a masters degree program in 1997, I honestly didn’t know what academic discipline I wanted to explore, exactly. I just knew I wanted another credential in addition to my undergraduate degree, because that didn’t seem to be enough to get a more satisfying, and more lucrative, job. I had been a studio art major, although I had taken so many academic courses I ended up with a B.S. instead of a B.A., something I’ve joked about ever since (a B.S. in art? – you can probably finish that joke yourself). But I really wasn’t interested in pursuing an MFA. I wanted an all-academic experience this time around. What to do?

Thanks to the enthusiastic stamp of approval given by a former boss of mine, I was introduced to the Master of Liberal Studies program. At that time, the late 1990s, I was living in Minneapolis (I currently reside in New York City). The Master of Liberal Studies program my former boss recommended was offered through the College of Continuing Education at the University of Minnesota, where we both worked. There are over 105 such programs at various colleges and universities, both public and private, around the United States.

These programs, whose degrees are sometimes alternately identified as Master of Liberal Arts or Master of Arts in Liberal Studies in addition to Master of Liberal Studies, are committed to providing the necessary support and encouragement to adult, part-time students. This is a real selling point for midlife women – you will not be that one “old person” with other obligations in a class filled with 20-somethings. The faculty and administration will be knowledgeable and understanding and ready to assist you, and your fellow students will have very much the same life circumstances as you.

These Liberal Studies programs are also interdisciplinary and self-designed, which is ideal for midlife students who are often ready and able to integrate varying areas of knowledge after many years in one profession, itching to study a topic or answer a question that cannot be addressed by a single discipline. And many of the courses, seminars, and workshops in Liberal Studies programs are offered in the evenings or on Saturdays – another bonus.

For me, the most demanding aspect of the Liberal Studies degree was that it was “writing intensive.” When these programs say that, they mean it. When I began the program, I had not had to write an academic paper for over 18 years. But the program had a writing tutor on staff, and the required introductory course sympathetically but rigorously walked us through the expectations for academic research, documentation, and writing style.

It wasn’t always fun, but it was satisfying to stretch myself to understand the rules and add new skills. My fellow students and I leaned on each other for help and encouragement. We were all somewhat unfamiliar with the intense academic challenges, but since each of us had already attained mastery in some other arena, we were able to cheer each other on and combine our different ways of approaching the assignments to help each other.

It took me five years to receive my degree due to family and work obligations, but what a feeling of accomplishment I had when I held my published thesis and hung that framed diploma on the wall! In addition, the people I met and the knowledge I acquired were worth all the late nights and early mornings, weekends and lunch hours spent on coursework.

So, think about it. Is there a reason you could use a masters degree? Is there something you have always wanted to study? When I was in the MLS program, I had fellow students who were public school teachers who needed a master’s degree to advance in their profession. I had fellow students in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s who were writing family histories or memoirs and were looking for structure and resources to help them complete their projects. I had fellow students who were mid-career professionals working to advance in their organizations. And I had fellow students who were there simply because they were wildly curious about a particular topic – or multiple topics!

There are Liberal Studies programs all over the country. There are so many, in fact, that they can’t be listed here. So check out the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies ( to find the one nearest you. Don’t wait – satisfy your curiosity!


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