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How Old Is Too Old for a PhD?

  1. Dec 31, 2013 #1
    I am 44 and want to get my PhD in Physics.

    I am not really concerned about my ability or love of physics, but I am
    somewhat concerned that there may be a bias against me in the admission
    process because of my age. There is the fact that much of my formal
    mathematical and physical education was obtained a while ago (which
    I hope to at least compensate for with strong test scores, excellent recommendations and
    suffienct preparation).

    Perhaps this is not enough information for people to comment on; but I would
    welcome any feedback from current or prospective PhDs about the
    age factor in PhD-level physics. Are there PhD students my age? How rare is it?
    Given my age, what steps can I take to improve my chances of being accepted to
    a top program (apart from the obvious ones)?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 31, 2013 #2
    Personally, I'm 35 and just started on my PhD in physics last year. So, let me fill you in on what I can tell you from my personal experience...

    For starters, one disadvantage that you will have is regarding scholarships. A lot of scholarships are aimed for students coming directly out of high school (or within a few years of it). As such, there are a lot of scholarships that are age discriminatory that you will not be a candidate for.

    Secondly, financial aid is also designed to focus on the younger students. As such, it fails to take into consideration an income adjustment that will occur due to you cutting back hours to take your courses. You can ask for a professional judgement in this regard, but since it is up to the financial aid departments discretion, it is a gamble.

    As far as being accepted into top programs, I wouldn't worry about that. The fact that you will take your education more seriously will give you an edge. The fact that you have less time to put into your professional field will hurt you. Altogether, the good and bad balance out as far as college acceptance.

    Once you finish school and pursue a position in the field, the disadvantage that you *might* face is an employer looking for someone long-term. However, I don't know what degree you have up to already, how much more school you need for your PhD, or any of that information. Also, this will most likely not be a concern because even if you are starting from the ground up as far as college, if you can go full-time and earn your degree in 10yrs or so, you could still easily put 10-15yrs into the field. Hell, my chemistry professor in college was 85 and he was STILL sharper than most of the younger professors! So, age won't be an issue so long as you have the competency, drive, etc.
  4. Dec 31, 2013 #3
    I started on my path to a PhD in Physics in Jan. 2012 at the age of 41 at the local community college. I can say thus far my experience has been very positive. All my professors have been very encouraging and say that my older age will work in my favor with the maturity and dedication over high school students. I haven't had problems with financial aid, however my wife is also attending college so I'm sure they take that into account. Visiting universities to transfer to after community college together has been really funny. They will address her as a prospective transfer student(due to the fact that she is 14 years younger than me) and me as the supportive husband. The look on their faces as I tell them that I am also a prospective transfer student is priceless.

    I have really enjoyed the experience thus far, and still have a long way to go.
  5. Jan 2, 2014 #4
    I have seen very open age-discrimination for post PhD fellowships, tenure-track positions, and post-doc appointments, mainly in South and Central America but also in Europe (and as far as US fellowship granting institutions go, "young scientist" is something that is often thrown into the fellowship title, take that fwiw).

    I asked the same question here, where I posted some examples from big job postings like AAS/APS:


    This practice is strictly illegal in the US and much of Europe for jobs, but if it's fellowships for independent research for instance, there's probably nothing you can do about it.
  6. Jan 2, 2014 #5


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    I am quoting the original post because I see many responses that (i) missed the clear aim of the post and (ii) went BEYOND what was asked! So people, please, PAY ATTENTION!.

    I had just graduated a student with a PhD who was in his late 40s. He was a high school physics teacher, and decided late in life that he wanted a PhD. He now has a postdoc.

    You asked how difficult it is to get an admission. It isn't, if you have decent results already from your undergraduate degree (which you did not elaborate on). There are many different tiers of US schools, and with a decent grade, I do not see your age as being a factor in getting an admission.

    Career-wise, which was what a lot of responders seem to want to gravitate to, is a different matter.

    Last edited: Jan 2, 2014
  7. Jan 2, 2014 #6
    Thank you for that feedback.

    It is reassuring to know that others have pursued a PhD in physics when they
    have been older. I hope that my experience and commitment will be viewed as
    assets rather than hindrences. I know much more now than when I was younger
    what I want and how to go about getting it.

    Regarding discrimination in the US, I assumed that it exists de facto in terms of
    fellowships and research positions. And though it is illegal, I know that it goes
    on in the corporate world as well (I work for a Wall Street bank). In my opinion,
    it is best to acknowledge this and to optimise my strategy give those (real or
    imaginied) constraints.
  8. Jan 2, 2014 #7


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    There is no outright discrimination of age in terms of hiring, especially in physics. However, you need to understand that, in many cases, when a college is hiring for new tenure-track position at the Assistant Professor level, the department is looking for someone who could potentially be at the school for a long period of time and build up the program. They often need an infusion of fresh, young blood, so to speak, and whether it is fair or not, someone younger is more desirable for such a goal than someone older.

    Think about it. You are 44 now. If everything goes well, you will be in your early 50's by the time you get your PhD (assuming you do not need any remedial undergraduate courses). You have 5 years to try and obtain a tenure, and then you have 10 to 15 more years to work before retirement. For most physics professors, by the time they are in their 50's, they usually have full professorships, they are often well-established in their fields, and they are often directing the programs and establishing research agenda and goals.

    So we can't simply look at the preference for schools to hire younger talents for such positions as being "discriminatory". There are long-term goals here being set and need to be fulfilled. And age is one criteria on the ability to accomplish such a goal.

  9. Jan 2, 2014 #8
    Thanks for that reply. It was so much more...imperitive than what I was expecting.
  10. Jan 2, 2014 #9

    Vanadium 50

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    I know of one person who was ~55 when he got his PhD. (He had, as they say, "made his fortune" in industry beforehand). He had no trouble finding a university to take him on as a student.

    Zz's message is good - it's missing a few words, though. "a tenure" is "a tenure-track position". But the key point is that you be looking at retirement about the time your classmates will be in the early middle of their careers.
  11. Jan 2, 2014 #10

    George Jones

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    Suppose that tenured professor C retires. Possible courses of action by C's university:

    1) the university advertises a tenure-track replacement for C;

    2) the university uses stipend instructors(s) to take up the slack in teaching;

    3) C's department is told to take up the slack through some combination of increased teaching load for the remaining faculty, or by cutting course offerings.

    In these days of tight budgets, 2) AND 3) really do happen; I have seen 2) and 3) happen at several universities at which I have worked.

    Suppose, however, that C's department fights hard (and it often is a difficult fight) and gets 1). C's department likely will want to put off another fight (which they might lose) for a reasonably long time. Consequently, there might be some age discrimination in the hiring process for C's replacement. In physics, such age discrimination is difficult to prove because most positions have a number of good applicants.
  12. Feb 14, 2014 #11
    I was 47 when I started and 55 when I completed my doctoral work. However, I took physics and engineering courses while employed (US government even paid for the courses part time) almost continually over three decades. I was also fortunate the government required my math and physics skills and allowed me to keep sharp. I was even lucky enough to get educational leave of absence from govt (but no financial support) for a year to see if it might work out, before electing to resign.

    It was surprising to me that I felt the admissions officers I talked to were quite supportive. (They were my age). My physics GRE was 70%, not stellar, but quite good (I had to take it again). This was average for my doctoral school when I applied.

    You have to be committed to physics to undertake a program now. Employment is difficult right now. I am having a hard time obtaining a similar position that I walked away from ten years ago to pursue a doctoral degree. (Government is not hiring. After the debacle last February with the sequester, my E-mail had 6 positions that were eliminated that I had applied for come to me within 5 minutes.!)

    Getting a faculty position will be more difficult for you when you finish than perhaps a younger PhD.
    So far I have had a hard time even getting something at a community college, although I have had three interviews in the last year.

    It may also be difficult to adjust to your colleagues who will be at least a later generation. I had no friends who I related to as comfortably as my earlier co-workers. We were not at the same stage in life.

    In addition, I passed up my life of rewarding work, extracurriculars like yoga, step aerobics, hiking, karate, volunteer work and community service to complete my degree. At my age, I do not know if I will ever do the extracurriculars to the same extent.

    It was interesting that in my physics subdiscipline, I examined the front row in a conference and realized there were a fair number of greybeards like myself present. This was in geophysics. I think the "historical" physics might be less inhabited by "young turks" than high-energy physics, cosmology, and other "cutting- edge" subdisciplines.
  13. Feb 14, 2014 #12
    Re: How Old Is Too Old For a PhD


    Thanks for your feedback. I am aware of the challenges facing me due to my age, but I am not daunted by them. I am curious to know, however, if you regret the experience (it sounds like you might).
  14. Feb 14, 2014 #13
    The bottom line is : No, I do not regret my decision.

    My working with the new generation of colleagues gives me some optimism they may be able to ameliorate problems our generation continues to struggle with.

    I also believe as older folks we have advantages in focus and attention and self-sufficiency(we grew up with fewer distractions without cell phones, computers etc. ) that we can contribute to our discipline

    I know I did not say this in the earlier post: I wish you well. Best of luck.
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