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Is there an age bias in physics?

  1. May 10, 2013 #1
    I'm 27 years old and I recently quit my job to go back to school for physics. I just finished up my first semester and I'm about to start the Summer semester (I'm technically a sophomore though, even though I'm just starting, because I do have transfer credits). I have to do a few different math courses before I can begin my first physics course and so I will be taking Physics I during the Spring 2014 semester. My physics advisor and I have estimated that I should pretty easily be prepared to graduate with my B.S. in 2017 or late 2016. Assuming I graduate in 2017 I will be 31 or 32 years old when I obtain my B.S. First question: Will I be "too old" for most grad schools to consider admission? Now lets say that I do get into grad school, no problem, and it takes me 5 years to complete my Ph.D. Upon completion of the Ph.D. program I will be 36 or 37 years old. This is my primary concern. While, in my own mind, at that age I still have at least a good 30 years of working life ahead of me, which I think is pretty good, my concern is that there may be some sort of age bias in the physics community that might prevent me from obtaining employment. I'm afraid that potential employers in the field of physics might think that I am too old to seriously contribute anything to science and, therefore, refuse employment, or that they'd simply prefer to hire "the younger guys/gals." Is this an irrational fear or is there reason for concern? In all honesty, even if all I get out of this is an education in a field that I truly enjoy, I'll be happy. But I really hope to be able to work in the field after graduation.
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  3. May 10, 2013 #2

    George Jones

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    I finished my physics Ph.D. at 33. I didn't perceive any age bias then, or for many years. These are my experiences, and other people may have had different experiences in the physics community. Also, most people that get physics degrees end up in jobs not directly related to physics. I don't know about the biases in other communities.
  4. May 10, 2013 #3
    Thanks for the encouragement! There's another physics major at my school who just started working on his B.S. at the age of 39.
  5. May 10, 2013 #4
    I don't think there's much, if any, age bias in the physics community, exactly.

    But you're probably not going to end up with a job in the physics community. So are you sure you're asking the right question?
  6. May 10, 2013 #5
    Thanks for the feedback, and yes, I'm sure I'm asking the right question. I understand that many physics majors end up doing something outside of the field of physics, but that doesn't mean that I'll be one of them. There's no way to know without going after it and seeing what happens. I certainly won't end up working in physics, however, if I give up before I try, simply because some physics majors don't work in physics.
  7. May 10, 2013 #6


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    I know of a guy that started his PhD in physics being in his late fifties. He had an earlier MSc in EE or something similar. He had some interesting theory - interesting enough that he was invited to work on it somewhere in Poland as a graduate student. My understanding is that he had enough money made earlier to not be afraid of the financial part. But I know only some second hand sketchy details.
  8. May 10, 2013 #7
    Yes, there is some age discrimination, but not at the graduate admissions level. Just higher up the ladder. It's well documented that many grad schools take people in their 40+s for phd's.

    Look at these tenure track and post-doc postings:

    Openly discourages applicants older than 40 or 35, respectively.

    Obviously there are laws against explicit age discrimination in the US and many other countries, these two jobs happen to be in a country that is probably without such laws. But I'm sure it still happens at a more subtle level. Then again I have heard of cases of people in their 50's getting offered their first tenured positions.
  9. May 10, 2013 #8
    Phew, thanks Borek, I was getting kind of worried with the other posters. The story you mentioned is encouraging because I'm in pretty much the same situation as that guy. Thankfully, I'm "only" 45, and my intention is to enter an applied math program focusing in neuroinformatics and robotics. Compared to others in the program, my math skills are atrocious, but they want me because of a semi-popular brain model I developed and "shopped" at various neuroscience-related conferences. I'm excited about the prospect because it is what I've wanted to do for a long, and I mean long, time. However, after reading many of the threads in the "academic" and "career" threads here, I'm getting nervous and existential about what the typical progression is going to be. It seems the "norm" is 6 years to get your PhD, and then another 6 of postdoc work until you get a "real" job and salary, so to speak. That will put me close to 60 years old! I'll be an emeritus before I even get a full-time position. I'm also assuming I'll be ruled out of any tenure-track position. And this is in the academic world. That's not considering age bias issues in private-sector employment.

    The reason for my delay in pursuing the academic path was that I ran my own company for about 15 years up until the crash of 2008, and was making really good money. With the economy coming back around I may be able to re-ignite some old contacts, etc., but that's not really what I want to do. I want to do science. But the facts I presented above seem daunting and depressing. Any insights from anyone?

    P.s. I hope I'm not hijacking this thread, but it is an "age bias" issue in the spirit of the OP's query.
  10. May 10, 2013 #9
    I don't understand why a school (or anyone else for that matter) would specifically look to hire someone under the age of 35/40. I don't get it. Regardless, the two links you posted are the only positions I've ever seen that specify an age max.
  11. May 13, 2013 #10
    In the US it happens for two reasons: older individuals are more expensive, and older individuals are sometimes perceived as less capable. The second objection can be handled; there’s not much that can be done about the first.
  12. May 13, 2013 #11
    How is an older person more expensive for an employer like a university or government research lab? They pay them the same salary yes? I am guessing you are referring to the base costs of health insurance.
  13. May 13, 2013 #12
    And other benefits. If the employer has any benefits that are not pre funded, adding older individuals results in a sharp, immediate cost. Can be similar in funded ones, though it will depend on how generous they are.
  14. May 13, 2013 #13
    If I were an employer and I had to choose between:

    The 36 year old, mature, recent Ph.D. graduate who has actually lived in and advanced through the real world.


    The 27 year old recent Ph.D. graduate who has only ever known school, still lives with mommy, and knows nothing about the real world.

    I'd take my chances with the older guy.
  15. May 13, 2013 #14
    Of course you would like to think that. It is convenient, as it is for me.

    But I'm sure the attitude that one does their best work before or around the age of 30 still lingers around in academia. The majority of academics were successful from very early on in their academics and rarely had impediments to graduating and procuring tenure early, so it's easier for them to buy into this idea. But there are also plenty who don't have these expectations and don't pass judgment on late achievers.

    An adviser said I wasn't too old to be starting a phd at the age of 27, but that I "shouldn't wait much longer" alluding to the fact that 'learning new things only gets harder' past the age of 30. In part I think I agree, since most people become less energetic with age (something that has been speeding up for me with my sedentary lifestyle, which I really need to fix).
  16. May 14, 2013 #15
    I'm a second year grad student, and I'm 35 years old. I'm acutely aware that I'm more than a decade older than every one else in my program. That awareness comes from myself, though, and isn't the result of any perceived bias towards me.

    I'm not on the job market, though, so I can't comment on how future employers will view us older graduates.
  17. May 15, 2013 #16
    I'll complete a Physics BS within a few weeks of my 32nd birthday next spring, and my goal is to pursue a PhD.

    Any professor I have discussed my age with has mentioned one thing with regards to grad school applications: it's all a matter of what you've done when not in school. If you were a totally lost child working at McDonald's for 10 years before going (back) to school, that is looked upon differently than someone who had a more professional career (and probably gained skills in a workplace) for 10 years then decided to go (back) for their degree. What you've done with your life during the gap-time matters, and in some cases may help as you bring a unique perspective.

    The department chair at my university taught high school before going back to get his PhD a decade later. He's one of the most engaging scientific speakers I've seen, and I like to think he gained that type of skill in his time before his PhD (that he's now using in his responsibilities).
  18. May 15, 2013 #17
    I agree with mege: If you spent 15 years as a professional programmer, for instance, you would be looked on extremely kindly around my parts. Being able to write good code is becoming more and more important in modern physics, at least in my area, and getting that kind of experience from a dirt cheap grad student is a pretty big win for some groups.
  19. May 15, 2013 #18


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    I don't think you'd be looked down on that much for not accomplishing much BEFORE you started undergrad. It's a different story if you don't do much AFTER you finish undergrad, but what happened BEFORE is ancient history.
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