How to Get a PhD in Gerontology

Because gerontology is the study of aging, it is appropriate that the field seems to become more significant every year. Already, there are over 38 million Americans aged 65 and over. The biggest sector of the population by age group is in the 45-to-54-year-old demographic, which represents over 44 million Americans, or nearly 15 percent of the population. This means that the biggest single segment of the population is fast approaching retirement and old age.

What are the social, medical, psychological, and economic impacts of this boom of senior citizens? Gerontologists are on the front lines of finding out. If you want to be part of this effort, consider earning a PhD in gerontology.

This guide takes you through the process of exploring a doctorate in gerontology, most notably:

  • Assessing whether a PhD in gerontology makes sense for your career goals
  • Identifying which aspects of gerontology are most important to you
  • Evaluating campus and online PhD in gerontology programs
  • Understanding the application process for a graduate gerontology program
  • Making the most of your PhD in gerontology

In this decision process, online tools and resources can assist you greatly with your choices. In the end, this helps ensure that earning a PhD in gerontology is of benefit to you--not to mention a benefit to society.

Assessing Whether a PhD in Gerontology Makes Sense for You

The first step is to decide whether a doctorate in gerontology can help you reach your career goals. There are a number of reasons why this may be the case:

  • Gerontology is an emerging field. While gerontology deals with issues that society has recognized for some time, it is only in recent decades that these issues have been combined into a formal, unified field of study. Meanwhile, as people are living longer and the baby-boom generation grows older, the issues themselves are constantly evolving. In an emerging field, knowledge quickly becomes dated, and the best way to make sure your knowledge is both thorough and current is to maximize your education.
  • A PhD in gerontology gives you elite credentials. A doctorate is the highest level of academic achievement in a given field. Therefore, if you are looking for academic credentials within gerontology that cannot be topped, then earning a PhD is the way to go.
  • A doctorate provides credibility in a multi-disciplinary field. The nature of gerontology is such that it interacts with a variety of other fields, including health care, social sciences, and economics. Doctorates are common in these fields, so earning a PhD in gerontology helps ensure you can interact with other professionals on as equal basis.
  • Gerontology has important research aspects. Statistical and medical research are important aspects of gerontology. Due to the complexity of these research efforts, a doctorate degree may be required for any leadership positions involved.
  • Gerontology has teaching opportunities. The growing importance of gerontology means that more and more people have to be trained in the field. This means that if teaching appeals to you as a career path, your best chance of earning a substantial long-term position means earning a doctorate degree.

Ultimately, your reasons for pursuing a doctorate in gerontology can include any combination of the above or other considerations. What matters most is that you carefully examine your reasons, and have conviction that earning a PhD in gerontology is the right move for you. After all, earning a doctorate degree requires commitments of time, financial resources, and energy. You can make the most of those commitments if you are perfectly clear that the effort is worthwhile.

PhD in Gerontology: A Diverse Degree Option

Gerontology is a multi-disciplinary science that involves interaction with a variety of other fields. For this reason, while it rests on a broad body of knowledge, gerontology offers several different specialization paths you can take. As you prepare to earn your doctorate in gerontology, you should focus on which of these areas of specialization appeals to you. That way, you can make sure you get the most relevant training possible.

Examples of different aspects of gerontology include:

  • Epidemiology. Studying age-specific diseases can affect both the length and the quality of people's lives. As people live longer, diseases like Alzheimer's pose more and more of a threat. From a gerontologist's standpoint, epidemiology involves both the macro and the micro aspects of dealing with diseases in the elderly. The macro aspect studies long-term trends to better understand patterns that may suggest emerging problems. The micro aspect deals with problems once they emerge--examining the most effective way of treating people whose health and stamina might generally be compromised by age. This treatment perspective also includes devising wellness programs that can prevent diseases in the elderly, or at least diminish their impact.
  • Public policy. As the average age of the U.S. population climbs, important policy decisions have to be made to accommodate the growing proportion of elderly people. How can Social Security continue to be funded as the number of retirees grows relative to the number of people still working? How can society provide adequate health care for the growing elderly population? How do personal freedoms balance against society's laws? Studying, formulating, and administering public policy with respect to the elderly continues to be an important aspect of gerontology in the years ahead.
  • Social sciences. The demographic shift of the population brings social, cultural, and psychological changes. How societies deal with these changes as a whole, and how individual people and families deal with these changes, represents a constantly evolving area of gerontology.
  • Statistical methods. So much of gerontology depends on identifying and projecting demographic trends that a strong grounding in statistical methods is another key need of gerontology. Statistical methods entail the collection and analysis of data, as well as the formulation of computer models to project changes into the future. To one extent or another, the various other aspects of gerontology depend on this type of statistical work.
  • Economics. The economics of aging is another area of gerontology that has both macro and micro implications. Society needs to understand the impact of an aging population on consumption, entitlement programs, and economic production. Individuals need to understand the costs associated with aging, and how to fund for retirement as life spans lengthen.

The variety of specific disciplines involved with gerontology represent both an opportunity and a challenge. That variety provides a range of career choices suited to different skill sets and temperaments. However, it also requires that as you prepare for a doctorate in gerontology, you start to narrow down your focus and choose one of these aspects of gerontology as the direction for your career.

Evaluating Campus and Online PhD in Gerontology Programs

Choosing an area of gerontology for your career emphasis can help you choose appropriate PhD programs. Indeed, because some coursework can be offered in conjunction with other departments (for example, sociology, economics, or science) you want your research to include not just the gerontology department of candidate schools, but also any other relevant departments.

How do you approach this process of researching schools and making a decision? Start by accessing the resources available to you, and then asking some key questions that can help you narrow the field to the most suitable choices.

Researching PhD Programs: Available Resources

First, assemble a list of programs that offer a PhD in gerontology. At this stage of your search, include both campus and online PhD programs. This gives you the widest range of possibilities. As you move through the search process, you can start to narrow down whether you want to earn a campus or an online PhD in gerontology--or enroll in a hybrid program--by putting the pros and cons of each approach in the context of other decision factors. Here are four factors to consider during the decision-making process:

  • Flexibility: While attending school, will you need to work, or will you have other responsibilities in addition to education? Many online doctorate programs allow you to study, participate in work groups, and/or attend class from home. And many online programs can be completed at your own pace.
  • Resources: Both full and partial online programs often provide students access to a wealth of Internet resources for study, research, and communicative purposes. With campus-based programs, you have the benefit of interacting with seasoned faculty on a daily basis, as well as access to a variety of research labs and print materials.

You may find that online resources can help you identify colleges that meet your educational needs and provide guides and tutorials to help you work through various aspects of the selection process. Publications such as Kiplinger's and U.S. News & World Report publish annual college guides and typically make their results available online. And, of course, virtually all college programs have an online presence. This makes it possible for you to do a good portion of your research via the Internet.

Key Questions in Choosing a PhD Program

Choosing the right graduate gerontology program is a multi-factor decision--there usually is no single, deciding criterion. Here are some of the questions that can help you identify and weigh the different factors:

  • Does the school offer the appropriate coursework? This goes back to matching the school's offerings with your chosen area of gerontology.
  • Is the location of the school accessible to you? Once you've identified schools that offer the programs you want, you can assess how accessible their locations are to you. This is where an online PhD in gerontology may become an important part of the mix. Online PhD programs can give you access to the right education from any location.
  • Can you fit the coursework into your schedule? If you have to work while you pursue your PhD, or have family obligations, you may have difficulty fitting course schedules around your other responsibilities. An online PhD program might allow you more scheduling flexibility.
  • Is the school properly accredited? Make sure the school you're interested in has all the right credentials. WorldWideLearn.com's section on accreditation breaks down what it is, why it's important, and how it should impact your online PhD program selection.
  • Can you afford the school? Affordability is important, but don't make a final decision on this until you've looked into financial aid options.
  • Is the campus environment suited to you? This is less of an issue if you choose an online PhD program, but if you go the campus route, you may want to decide whether you work best on a big or small campus, in an urban or rural setting, and similar issues.
  • Does the gerontology department have a high-quality faculty? Look at the academic and publishing histories of the faculty to get a feel for this.
  • What is the reputation of the school? National rankings are one expression of reputation, and talking to potential employers can give you some practical insight into reputation even as you make some contacts for future reference.
  • How likely are you to meet the admission standards? It's good to aim high--but realistically high.

Answering these questions should help you narrow your choices to a very short list. Now you can turn your attention toward the application process.

Understanding the Application Process for a Graduate Gerontology Program

When you apply for a doctorate program, you are likely to need some or all of the following:

  • Prior college transcripts
  • Standardized test scores from the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or a similar examination
  • Letters of recommendation from previous teachers and/or employers
  • Summary of any work or research in the field up to this point

Make sure to identify the relevant application deadlines for each college to which you are applying. This way, you can start to fill out applications and assemble materials with the appropriate target dates in mind.

Making the Most of Your PhD in Gerontology

Earning your doctorate in gerontology is an important step forward in your career, but there are other things you can do to improve your career prospects, even before you have completed your education. These include:

  • Participating in gerontology research projects
  • Competing for academic awards related to gerontology
  • Networking with professors and potential employers
  • Publishing or assisting with articles on gerontology
  • Joining a professional society, such as the Gerontological Society of America

The overall aging of the American population is not going to stop anytime soon--it is an inevitability of demographics. This means there is important work to be done in the field of gerontology, and starting your PhD in Gerontology can be your first step helping with that work.


Sources

  • Gerontological Society of America
  • Purdue University
  • University of Maryland
  • University of Massachusetts at Boston
  • U.S. Census Bureau
  • U.S. Department of Education

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