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Does age matter for academic careers?

  1. Jul 24, 2012 #1
    Hello everyone,

    I'm a masters student(engineering) and interning at a lab (robotics) for the summer. The senior PhD students and post-docs in the lab are all in their 30s and even in their late 30s mostly because they worked a while, or changed fields etc. Most of them say that they would like to work in the academia and/or research positions. On the other hand the professors in the lab, who've been around for the last 6-7 years, are in their early-30s. So they definitely didn't take that long to finish with school.
    So, I've been wondering about this: is this practical? Is one equally competitive for an academic/research position in their late/mid-30s as compared to younger candidates? Is age a factor or do employers only look at the quality of the applicant?

  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 24, 2012 #2
    Age matters a lot, but I don't think it's so much the employers reaction to your age, rather than practical biological and psychological issues.

    If you are in your 40's, I think you are more likely to question whether or not it's worth the different to get an academic position, and you have to start making decisions (i.e. whether or not to have a family) that people in their early-30's can put off for a few years.

    There's also arithmetic. I don't think that any search committees will reject you directly because you are 40, but if you have three post-docs of three years each, you've "struck out" and academic employers are going to be inclined to let someone else take a swing at the ball.

    The other thing is that as you get older your view of life starts to change. Some people call it cynicism. Others call it wisdom, but I think most 40 year old are more likely than 30 year olds to question whether or not it's worth doing something.
  4. Jul 24, 2012 #3
    To me, psychologically it's a decision between spending a few more years in pursuit of what one loves versus getting started with one's career. So one would have considered this and the biological aspect before they even start.

    But what's really bothering me is that will employers not prefer someone who got their PhD at say 30 rather than 40? Does someone younger not show greater promise?

    P.S. I'm sorry if my age related comments sound stupid or offensive. I'm just trying to understand how this works. I see a lot of mature students in the university. So I guess it does make sense or they wouldn't be coming back.
  5. Jul 24, 2012 #4
    For a lot of people such as me, career isn't the problem. Family is. I can go bouncing across the world with a backpack, but once I had kids, the dynamics changes.

    The other thing is that you should think of graduate school as part of your career. Part of the reason that people emphasize the "love" aspect of things is so that they can squeeze work out of you without paying you. I've found as I get older that when someone I never have met starts talking to me about "doing what you love" then I start getting getting rather paranoid.

    This is the cynicism/wisdom part of it.

    Finally a lot of this stuff isn't logical. It's emotional.

    First of all, different employers will want different things. Second, a lot depends on how you market it. The best way of approaching this is to sell your Ph.D. experience as "work experience" which it is. Being a teaching/research assistant is a job, and if you treat as such the resume looks a lot better.

    Also Ph.D.'s are different for different fields. In education and geology, it's typical for Ph.D. to be part time mid career professionals. I knew a geologist that got his Ph.D. at age 50 at company expense.

    In a lot of situations, people are going to university because their employer is paying for it.
  6. Jul 24, 2012 #5
    Thank you for your replies, Two-fish. This sounds very reasonable to me.
  7. Jul 24, 2012 #6

    Andy Resnick

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    There are many paths to academic research and in general, age is irrelevant to doing good science. Having a track record of research is the most important criterion when applying for funding and an academic research position. That said, when filling an entry tenure-track position, it does make sense to take into account the 'useful life' of an applicant, since the institution is heavily investing (finances, resources) in that person.
  8. Jul 24, 2012 #7


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    I've served on a couple of search and selection committees for positions that have had academic appointments associated with them. In my experience, age has not played as a factor in committee decisions.
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