When Gail Taylor left her job as a systems analyst at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, her post-retirement options were plentiful: She could dabble in French, take piano lessons or travel the world with her husband. Instead, she chose to pursue a doctorate in history at UC Irvine.
Leisure activities will have to wait. Taylor, 65, is too busy preparing for oral exams, checking in with faculty advisers and researching her dissertation, on the use of medicinal plants and herbs from the Americas in 16th century Europe.
“I’ve always enjoyed school, learning and reading,” says Taylor, who retired in 2008 after 30 years in healthcare. “Studying for a doctorate is a huge commitment, but I enjoy it because every year is different. It’s never, ever dull.”
A grandmother of eight, she brings her schoolwork home, to the delight of her husband, a retired Los Angeles County government executive.
“He’s very supportive of my going to school,” Taylor says. “And I think people are generally interested in learning about history. Immunochemistry wouldn’t make as good dinner conversation!”
Taylor, who earned a degree in biology from the University of Pittsburgh, has always been passionate about history. She came back to the subject in 2007, enrolling in night courses at California State University, Fullerton to earn a master’s in it.
She had little trouble balancing her studies with her full-time job, thanks to the time management skills she picked up as the working mom of four children. After getting her master’s in spring 2008, Taylor transferred to UCI’s history Ph.D. program.
And she’s not the only doctoral student in the midst of a second act in academia. Her cohort in UCI’s program includes a retired airline pilot and a law school dean.
“I think the decision to go back to school full time as a second career is incredibly brave,” says Laura Mitchell, associate professor of history and one of Taylor’s dissertation advisers. “The extent to which Gail has integrated with the student body is amazing. She really is part of intellectual life on campus.”
Doctoral students – no matter their stage in life – are a supportive bunch, Mitchell adds. “A number of them fall outside the average, 26-year-old graduate student. Gail is part of a group who talk about ideas, share papers and help each other prepare for class.”
Even while recovering from an ankle injury at her Coto de Caza home in fall 2009, Taylor turned every paper and assignment in on time. “I’m really motivated by deadlines,” she says. “I’m never without a list or spreadsheet.”
Now three years into a seven-year program, Taylor plans to teach history at the university level after she graduates but won’t pursue a full-time, tenure-track position. “College campuses are great, but I’m really interested in teaching online courses,” she says. “It’s a wonderful way to reach out to military personnel, single moms and disabled people all over the world.”
Taylor gets a kick out of sharing firsthand knowledge in classes such as “America: FDR to Obama,” for which she was a teaching assistant.
“I lived through many of those presidents,” she says. “It’s so gratifying when students ask questions and speak up in class. You feel successful when they engage with the material.”
Like many of her peers, Taylor is preparing to travel to Europe this summer. But instead of cruising the Mediterranean, she’ll be hitting the books at Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbuttel, Germany, on a Fulbright scholarship.
“My friends always ask, ‘Are you done yet?’ but it’s a seven-year process,” Taylor says. “And I’m learning so much and having so much fun.”