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Graduate school and age

  1. Jan 3, 2013 #1

    First post and sorry if the forum is flooded with similar questions, I'm 24 and I was a physics major but haven't spent a day in a class room since 2007 when i dropped out of college to care for an ill family member. I want to go back to school but what concerns me is how much of a disadvantage I would be at in my late twenties early thirties applying to grad school?
    Earning a masters or doctorate in physics or a similar field would fulfill a child hood fantasy of mine, but I don't want to be flinging frozen taco dogs on a roller grill at swiftstop when I'm in my mid thirties wishing pursued a more marketable bachelors degree.
    My question is does any one have any experience with graduate school at 30ish when all the other students are 22-23? I have the feeling I am getting ahead of myself but I believe I have a level of discipline and patience I didn't have 5 years ago and I really want to see if I can do it.

    Any advice anyone for someone who hasn't spent any time in a classroom for 5 years and has high hopes?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 3, 2013 #2
    What you are attempting is going to be difficult, but it is doable. We have quite some members here who started their undergrad at a later age.

    First of all, not doing math or physics for a while is not making things easier for you. You probably forgot a lot of mathematics and you are probably very rusty. I would recommend you to start self-studying math from the beginning. Get the book "basic mathematics" by Lang and work through it. This is good since you can refresh your memory and you can assess what you still know about mathematics.
    The college you're going to probably has some "placement tests". So if you take that test, they decide what kind of class you fit in. If you manage to self study the basic math, then you will probably be put in a calculus class.

    Being an older student has some advantages though. For one, you are more serious about your education than the younger students. You know what's at stake and you are less impulsive. I doubt you are going to waste days with binge drinking. This is a serious advantage about being older.

    I do want to warn you: physics and grad school aren't for everybody. Chances are nonzero that you will not like physics or that you are not good enough in physics. This has nothing to do with age, but as an older student, you are typically less flexible. You can't waste 5 years of your life on BS in physics only to find out that physics is nothing for you. A BS in physics isn't immediately the most useful degree either (not saying that it is useless though), see this discussion for example: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=657250
    I would recommend not only taking physics classes, but also taking classes on subjects such as programming, mathematical modeling or even stats. These might prove very useful when finding a job.
  4. Jan 3, 2013 #3
    I know plenty of people who've started school late and gone on to top-tier grad schools for chemistry/physics such as Harvard, Stanford, etc. in their late 20s. I don't know anyone who went when they were 30 or over, though. So I don't think there's much age discrimination around that age as long as you have some sort of valid reason for that hiatus.

    One fallback plan would be to get a bachelor's in engineering and then go to grad school for physics, which many people have done. That way, if you don't go to grad school, you are still employable with an engineering degree
  5. Jan 3, 2013 #4


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    This question comes up here rather often.

    The major concers with being an older student are more practical ones. Most people, once they get into their thirties become concerned with entering into a long-term partnership (marriage) and starting and supporting a family. These can be difficult to do while living on a graduate student stipend.

    On the other hand mature students tend to have some advantages. They tend to be more focused in their work. They aren't just in school because they're afraid of the real world (not to imply this is the case with all younger students). In my experience they also seem to be a little less shy.

    And if youare concerned about leaving with only a BSc in physics I would recommend looking at the data that's available on employment with one. Physics graduates tend to do rather well statistically compared to other BSc degree holders and even end up in the middle of the pack compared to engineers.
  6. Jan 3, 2013 #5


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    Some of my colleagues in my undergrad program were in their mid-20s, since they did military service first. So age isn't a big issue. I was 30 when I left grad school.

    My dad did an MA degree in his late 40s, and PhD in his early 50s.

    The mother of Prof. Francis Chen (author of Introduction to plasma physics and controlled fusion) obtained her PhD at age 72.

    So one has plenty of time.
  7. Jan 3, 2013 #6
    I've read a lot of posts here from people stating they got into physics grad programs well into their late 20's, don't think I've read about one in their 30's though, but I have seen some in their 40's-50's in another forum.

    I'm sure age discrimination exists in grad admissions, but it's probably not as big as you think for people in their late 20's.

    The real problem will be continuing in academia post-phd. You'll be competing with younger and (very likely) more flexible candidates in a fierce labor market. I'll be 26 by the time I graduate and while my advisor encourages me to do so, he warns me to not take any longer than necessary, else I'll just be at a greater disadvantage. If you're thinking of establishing a decent living and/or want to offer some stability to a potential partner/spouse, that is something important to consider.
  8. Jan 3, 2013 #7

    George Jones

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  9. Jan 3, 2013 #8

    Vanadium 50

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    I knew a guy who started grad school around 50. Did fine.
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