Of non-traditional students and famous scientists

The “traditional” path (in the United States) for an academic scientific career is more or less as follows:

-Graduation from high school at about 17.
-If everything goes well, university graduation at 21-ish.
-Typical time frame to finish a PhD (many people are skipping the academic master’s degree): 5 years, sometimes more.
-After that, there is usually a postdoc (about 2-3 years, usually more).

This means that the typical academic scientist start his/her independent career at 29; this estimate does not take into account the current economic realities, but please bear with me… I have always compared these time frames with the “window of opportunity” to become an Olympic athlete or a model, in the sense that many people consider that if a person does not follow this path, then the chance is gone.

If you were able to follow this “suggested timeline to academia”, God bless you, good for you!

That said, not everyone follows these “guidelines” (insert the “Pirates of the Caribbean” music theme here); life happens. I want to tell you a little bit about non-traditional students; those people who enter the “race” later in life.

The ones that have my respect are those people that had to work, raise a family or had any kind of responsibilities that prevented them to follow their scientific calling at the time. Although I understand that there are as many situations in life as there are people, I have little patience with those who spend decades of their lives “finding themselves”, etc., not doing anything else in life, wasting their time when they’ve had every possible advantage and opportunity…..But I digress.

Back to those non-traditional students, some top-of-the-line scientists started this way. One of the most famous is Francis Crick (1916-2004), of DNA fame, who got his undergraduate degree at 21, but WWII intervened, and to make a long story short, he finished his PhD at 38. Despite that, he went on to share a Nobel Prize in 1962 for the discovery of the structure of DNA. Not bad, not bad at all, but he is not my favorite non-traditional student who was also a famous scientist.

Enter Julius Axelrod (1912-2004). He also obtained his undergraduate degree at 21, in 1933, but if you remember your history, this was right in the middle of the great depression. He simply was offered a job ($25 a month) upon graduation, and he took it. Over the years, he worked on many scientific problems. Here are some examples:

*He described the mechanism of action of caffeine (my favorite psychoactive substance) and its metabolism in humans.
*He worked on a series of compounds that were eventually developed into the analgesics acetaminophen and ibuprofen (a.k.a., Tylenol and Motrin). If these guys work for you when you have a headache, now you know know who to thank.
*He discovered and described the process of neurotransmitter reuptake. For all of you non-pharmacologists (nobody’s perfect), neurotransmitter reuptake plays a central role in many pathological states, from addiction to depression. Yes, it’s that important.

Did I mention that he obtained his PhD in 1955, at 42?

It gets better, in 1970, he shared (you guessed it!) the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the physiological basis of neurotransmission (I would have given the prize to him just for his caffeine work…).

Not bad, not bad at all!

Some of the commonalities that all successful non-traditional students share are perseverance, a strong work ethic, a willingness to work for what they want and the sense of dignity that makes them want to earn their degrees among others.

You see, if you have been bitten by the “science bug”, do not let age alone weight on your decision to go back to school or even to start with school! This, of course, applies to any choice in life; you may want to become a writer, a teacher, an accountant, etc., you get the picture.

I, of course, use the science example because I know a thing or two about it, and because I speak from experience, as I am a non-traditional student myself. After college, I was a high school teacher; after a couple of years I started working as a research technician in a medical school, where I worked for about ten years and earned a Master’s degree, got married and had my first two children while at it.

At 35, I got the opportunity to work on my PhD at a top institution; finished at 40, and now I am an active, practicing scientist and professor (no, no Nobel Prize…. yet (:-)…).


Picture credit: nobelprize.org

If you want to know more:

Axelrod J (1988) An unexpected life in research. Annu Rev Pharmacol Toxicol. 28:1-23.

Nobel Prize website: http://www.nobelprize.org

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  1. Respected Sir, You will win a nobel for this article. This is just written for me. It is frank and wonderfully written. Rajukumar, India


  2. Thanks for the encouragement through your blog. I entered college at 18 to pursue statistics while I always adored mathematics from childhood. An with increasing maturity, I started realizing that the technical stuff of statistics is going beyond my scope, however, the analytic sense required for maths is very natural in me. So even after coming to the final year of my graduation, I’ve decided to quit statistics and start studying maths from 1st year again. I am blessed with supportive parents who realize how much I love mathematics and to what extent I can relate to it, but whoever around listens to my decision ridicules me! But somehow, I never lose hope and decide to persevere and keep on studying mathematics …


  3. Today I had to take my son to Philadelphia. I got off the PA turnpike and headed south on Rt 1 (aka Roosevelt Bvd.) About a mile down Rt 1 was a huge billboard announcing, “The world’s oldest College Grad.” I forget her name but she is 95 years old!

    It is never ever too late.

    Plus, it is nice to be assured that I am not the world’s oldest student!

    Keep up the good work, this is a nice positive inspirational blog.


  4. As a late bloomer, I appreciate your sentiment and encouragement to keep learning and admire those that figure out the value of science much earlier in life


  5. It takes courage, drive and perseverance but it’s possible if you really want it. Thank you for being an example of what you wrote about. Maybe someone is home browsing the internet trying to forget about the horrible day they had, at a job they never liked, but they get up every morning and go to work because they think they outgrew their options. Maybe that person will stumble over your blog and realize they do have options and that it may sound like a cliche, but it’s never late.


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