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Older grad students/ phd's?

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Hello,
Since no one wanted to touch my last topic, let me ask something a little more narrow.
I'm curious how many of you have seen 30+ year-olds in grad school? Also, how many of you have worked with/hired 30+ year-olds that have recently finished grad school?
Money is not much of an issue; I'll be pretty financially stable; but time is an issue. I feel I can succeed in a grad program, but I don't want to finish a 4-year physics degree and wind up working back in construction because no grad program wants to take in a guy 10+ years older than the typical student. I also don't want to finish a grad program and not be taken seriously for post-doc/ national lab positions because I'm a non-traditional student.
I'm just looking for any examples of older, successful physics phd's that some of you might be able to share with me.

Thanks for your time.
 
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  • #2
marcusl
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Older grad students I've come across have returned to school part time to get an advanced degree while they work. Usually part or all of their schooling is paid for by their employer. I have a lot of respect for these grads--they are highly motivated and organized to get a degree while working full time and (usually) supporting their families.
 
  • #3
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I am doing a research project as an undergrad along side two P.h.d students both of whom are 30+. One of them is 32 and will probably finish in two years. The other one is 34 and will finish this year. Both of them are actually better students than the three other typical p.h.d's who work for the same prof. Also, I personally know maybe 6 other people in their 30's who are doing a p.h.d, 2 of them at top 5 schools, so I don't think age is a problem.
 
  • #4
Choppy
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There are lots of successful people in grad school who are over 30.

This question seems to keep coming up, and I really don't know where it comes from - insecurity about returning to school perhaps. There seems to be a perception out there that if you don't go straight into grad school out of undergrad, and don't finish in a minimum amount of time, you are somehow behind the curve. Lots of people work, travel, volunteer, get married, have kids and/or generally find themselves before going to graduate school and do just fine.

Post-docs are generally not discriminated against by age in my opinion. In fact sometimes maturity can be seen as an advantage.
 
  • #5
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There are lots of successful people in grad school who are over 30.

This question seems to keep coming up, and I really don't know where it comes from - insecurity about returning to school perhaps. There seems to be a perception out there that if you don't go straight into grad school out of undergrad, and don't finish in a minimum amount of time, you are somehow behind the curve. Lots of people work, travel, volunteer, get married, have kids and/or generally find themselves before going to graduate school and do just fine.

Post-docs are generally not discriminated against by age in my opinion. In fact sometimes maturity can be seen as an advantage.
It's because getting old sucks!

I won't be done with my BS until I am 34 and I plan on going to graduate school. If I think about my age I get instantly depressed. :)

Although I have done enough stuff in my 20's that I normally wouldn't have been able to do if I would have kept on with school through my 20's.

This issue bothers me more than a few times a week. Best not to think about it and just go to school. :tongue:

The only downside is working full time and going to school full time. That takes its toll.
 
  • #6
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Hello,
Since no one wanted to touch my last topic, let me ask something a little more narrow.
I'm curious how many of you have seen 30+ year-olds in grad school?
Thanks for your time.
I'm 30+ years old, have been out of school for about 5 years now, married, have a kid, etc. And, now I'm a new physics grad student.

Welcome to the club!
 
  • #7
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There are lots of successful people in grad school who are over 30.

This question seems to keep coming up, and I really don't know where it comes from - insecurity about returning to school perhaps.
I think some of it is the lore in physics that all the great physicists did their most awesome work in their mid-20s (i.e., Newton, Einstein, Feynman, and most everyone else at the "Physics Awesomeness Personified" list). Once you hit 30, you're considered over-the-hill, intellectually speaking. You can still be productive, but your chances of being "great" are slim to none.
 
  • #8
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I think some of it is the lore in physics that all the great physicists did their most awesome work in their mid-20s (i.e., Newton, Einstein, Feynman, and most everyone else at the "Physics Awesomeness Personified" list).
It's curiously also not historically true for Newton and Feynman.

Newton published Principia in his late-40's and did some very useful things in the mint well into late life. Feynman started doing his major work in his 30's and continued to do interesting work until he died at 70.
 
  • #9
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I'm curious how many of you have seen 30+ year-olds in grad school? Also, how many of you have worked with/hired 30+ year-olds that have recently finished grad school?
There are fields in which it is typical for graduate students to be working professionals in their 40's. Pretty much everyone I know who is working on a Ph.D. in Educational Administration is a working professional, that wants the degree for career advancement.

Physics is not one of those fields, but that has to do with funding issues.

I feel I can succeed in a grad program, but I don't want to finish a 4-year physics degree and wind up working back in construction because no grad program wants to take in a guy 10+ years older than the typical student.
If you get an undergraduate physics degree that would be useful even if you decide not to go to grad school. With construction experience you can go into say, civil engineering.

One thing that I think will help you finish is if you figure out ways so that you can get some immediate return.

I also don't want to finish a grad program and not be taken seriously for post-doc/ national lab positions because I'm a non-traditional student.
The problem here is that you'll find getting a post-doc a tough slog, not so much because you are older, but because it's tough to get a position.

I'm just looking for any examples of older, successful physics phd's that some of you might be able to share with me.
I can't think of any that I know personally *in physics*, but there are times when you have to say "I'll be one of the first." What I think would be useful is to track down the people that do this and form a support group.

Also, the main reason I can think of that people don't end up doing this in physics is funding issues. In educational administration (and petroleum engineering) the departments are set up so that students are part-time and so they often take 10+ years to finish the Ph.D., but they can do that because they are full time employed. Most physics departments don't work like this, so that you are looking at five to seven years of making 20K/year + at least six years of making 35K as a postdoc. This isn't a bad thing if you are in your 20's, but if you are in your 40's, it can be a mess.
 
  • #10
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Or even Einstein. Einstein was 37 when he published GR.
 
  • #11
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I can't think of any that I know personally *in physics*, but there are times when you have to say "I'll be one of the first." What I think would be useful is to track down the people that do this and form a support group.

Also, the main reason I can think of that people don't end up doing this in physics is funding issues. In educational administration (and petroleum engineering) the departments are set up so that students are part-time and so they often take 10+ years to finish the Ph.D., but they can do that because they are full time employed. Most physics departments don't work like this, so that you are looking at five to seven years of making 20K/year + at least six years of making 35K as a postdoc. This isn't a bad thing if you are in your 20's, but if you are in your 40's, it can be a mess.
Why does it become a mess when one is in their 40's? Family and money? Or is it something else? I'd love to pursue a PhD but I wouldn't be done with it until I was 41-42. I could care less about the money aspect. I got all of the spending and hobbies out of my system during my 20's. :)
 
  • #12
Choppy
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Why does it become a mess when one is in their 40's? Family and money? Or is it something else? I'd love to pursue a PhD but I wouldn't be done with it until I was 41-42. I could care less about the money aspect. I got all of the spending and hobbies out of my system during my 20's. :)
I don't think it necessarily becomes a mess.

It's just that by the 30s and 40s most people are raising a family, paying off a mortgage, saving for retirement, etc. and the the lifestyle of a post-doc can be rather demanding. The amount of money that you make is not great and often you will have student loans to pay off. On top of that, post-docs tend to be contract positions for terms of ~ 2-3 years, and when they're up, you will generally have to pack up and move to a new city, which can be a strain on a family or a blossoming relationship.

That being said, not everyone is in that same boat. You may not have dependents to support. You may not have student loans to pay back and you may be happy with a post-doc salary. On top of that, if you may find fulfillment in the work that you do.
 
  • #13
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Why does it become a mess when one is in their 40's? Family and money? Or is it something else? I'd love to pursue a PhD but I wouldn't be done with it until I was 41-42. I could care less about the money aspect. I got all of the spending and hobbies out of my system during my 20's. :)
Keep in mind that even after the phd, there are the postdocs. Can your significant other be highly mobile during your postdoc years? Will he/she be happy with the sacrifices that will have to be made in his/her career to move every two years? These are all relevant questions. Also, someone in their 20s can live on 20k a year, but someone raising a child might have more difficulty.

Also, keep in mind that if you are aiming for a university position, after your postdocs, you'll be in your late 40s, which means when committees look at you as a potential hire, they'll certainly take into consideration that you'll be in your early to mid 50s by the time you are up for tenure.

And as far as finances go- building up a rainy day fund/retirement account is very hard on a grad student salary, and can still be difficult as a postdoc, especially with family/children considerations. If you hope to retire someday, this can be an issue. What about sending children to college, etc?

This is, I believe, what messy means.
 
  • #14
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Also, keep in mind that if you are aiming for a university position, after your postdocs, you'll be in your late 40s, which means when committees look at you as a potential hire, they'll certainly take into consideration that you'll be in your early to mid 50s by the time you are up for tenure.
That is a great point that I had never considered. I'm 28 now, but I still have 2 years until I finish my BS, and then who knows how long for a PhD. I suppose 35 would be a good early estimate. Fortunately I don't have children, or a family, and my school (and living expenses) are completely paid for.

Do you guys think that this (age) is something that can really set someone back?
 
  • #15
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Although I have done enough stuff in my 20's that I normally wouldn't have been able to do if I would have kept on with school through my 20's.
Heh, I sometimes get a little down considering that I'm 24 and just finishing my first year of university.

Then I consider the fact that I have way better stories than any of my classmates that have been doing nothing but school from age 5+.

Stories that start along the lines of, "So we're in a small town in northern Scotland, we've been drinking all night, and two tattooed German girls on motorcycles are offering us a ride to the next town..."
 
  • #16
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Do you guys think that this (age) is something that can really set someone back?
Keep in mind that there are dozens (maybe more) of extremely qualified candidates fighting tooth and nail for every faculty spot, even in the liberal arts colleges (maybe a few less in the liberal arts colleges). Committees will consider how many years they think you can be productive when they interview.
 
  • #17
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Keep in mind that there are dozens (maybe more) of extremely qualified candidates fighting tooth and nail for every faculty spot, even in the liberal arts colleges (maybe a few less in the liberal arts colleges). Committees will consider how many years they think you can be productive when they interview.
It's unlikely that the difference between a 30 year old candidate and a 38 year old candidate will be significant.

Also, "at least 6 years" of post-doc experience is likely only for the top research schools. My liberal arts state college is in the process of trying to hire tenure-track professors, and both of the people they offered a position (both turned it down) had fewer than 3 years of post-doc.
 
  • #18
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I read from the dept of labor (gov) site that most physicists ultimately end up working for a university etc. after a career in the private sector (if they went that route). I sort of assumed that meant that a significant amount would be applying for these positions later in their life anyway. Maturity and pre-PhD experience goes nowhere? I have a great deal of lab experience outside of the university from my career before my physics degree that I think would benefit an institution.
 
  • #19
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That is a great point that I had never considered. I'm 28 now, but I still have 2 years until I finish my BS, and then who knows how long for a PhD. I suppose 35 would be a good early estimate. Fortunately I don't have children, or a family, and my school (and living expenses) are completely paid for.
But what happens if while you are in university somone knocks on your dorm room because they think that something you taped on the door is interesting, and it turns out later to be the love of your life (which is what happened to me)?

You can work around these sorts of issues, but the point that we are making is that these are the sorts of issues that will impact you, and it's things like that you need to think about (and the people designing the programs need to think about).

Also, it makes a difference if you are male or female. If you are an unattached male, it's feasible to wait until you are 50 to start a family. If you are female or a attached male, biology is going to force you to make some choices. The other thing is that once you have a kid, other clocks start ticking.
 
  • #20
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It's unlikely that the difference between a 30 year old candidate and a 38 year old candidate will be significant.
If you have 100 candidates and one position is tight then small differences can be important. If you have a 30 year old candidate and a 38 year old candidate, and the committee thinks that the 30 year old is .0000001 percent better, then he gets the job (and note that in the US age discrimination laws don't kick in until age 40 and there are specific exceptions if the university can offer any reason why age is important).

Also, "at least 6 years" of post-doc experience is likely only for the top research schools. My liberal arts state college is in the process of trying to hire tenure-track professors, and both of the people they offered a position (both turned it down) had fewer than 3 years of post-doc.
It's also not "at least six years" but almost precisely six years. At six years you are expected to get a permanent position. If you don't you *might* get another post-doc, but after three post-docs, you aren't going to get a fourth.
 
  • #21
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I read from the dept of labor (gov) site that most physicists ultimately end up working for a university etc. after a career in the private sector (if they went that route).
Can you point me to that site? I think it's wrong. It is possible to move from industry to academia and there are some PF'ers that have done that, but it's uncommon.

Maturity and pre-PhD experience goes nowhere? I have a great deal of lab experience outside of the university from my career before my physics degree that I think would benefit an institution.
The trouble is that for post-docs and tenure track positions, you are competing against a 100 other candidates for one position. If you don't meet the committees idea of the "perfect candidate" you aren't getting in. In industry, you are competing against a dozen people, and it's likely that the perfect candidate just doesn't exist.

One other thing is that I get the impression that academic jobs care less about "broad diversity" than industry. By "broad diversity" I don't mean gender or ethnicity, universities do take that seriously. What I mean is that in industry, if the last person we hired was a physics Ph.d., we will go out of our way to not hire a physics Ph.D. or any Ph.D. for the next position.

One thing that I can't imagine a department doing when hiring a particle physicist is to intentionally pass over someone who has deep particle physics background for someone that knows some particle physics, but whose specialty is atomic-molecular or even something totally non-physics related. Whereas in industry, people do intentionally do this.
 
  • #22
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Also, it makes a difference if you are male or female. If you are an unattached male, it's feasible to wait until you are 50 to start a family. If you are female or a attached male, biology is going to force you to make some choices. The other thing is that once you have a kid, other clocks start ticking.
Very true. I'm a 30+ female, married to a math prof, and we have a young daughter (unintended pregnancy). The reason I took the past ~5 years off from school is because of pregnancy and parenting (we live in a very high cost-of-living area, and I couldn't earn enough after taxes to cover the cost of child care). Not the best plan, career-wise, but at least I no longer have to worry about that damn biological clock...

One of the math profs I do research with (who's around 40 years old, I believe) is a stereotypical overachiever: went to great, big-name schools, lots of quality research in high-impact journals, great collaborations with "important" people in her field, nice list of grants, tenure-track prof gig, etc. Once, during one of our research meetings, I expressed my envy that she did everything right.

Her immediate response was laughter. She told me she's not managed to have a single long-term relationship because of her dedication to research and all the moving she's had to do. And she also said that, unless she met someone right then and everything moved very quickly relationship-wise, she'd never get to have her own biological children (something that clearly disappoints her very much). And she finished by telling me that I was the lucky one to have a husband and a kid...

...and now I'll have my Physics PhD, too. :D

Now, if this lady were a man, she wouldn't have these concerns.
 
  • #23
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Now, if this lady were a man, she wouldn't have these concerns.
I've often thought that one of the reasons women are underrepresented in professorships is the issue of children and maternity leave. I passed up a postdoc and left academia when the professor I'd be working with told me point blank that he'd prefer I not have a child in the two/three year period I'd be working with him.
 
  • #24
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If you have a 30 year old candidate and a 38 year old candidate, and the committee thinks that the 30 year old is .0000001 percent better, then he gets the job
In what universe will you find two identical candidates except for their age? If the 38 year old is 0.000001 percent better, then he gets the job. There are just too many other factors to consider before it comes down to an age "tiebreaker."

My research advisor is on the hiring committee, and we were talking about the process. It seems like the absolute biggest factor in who they offer the job to is their performance on their two talks. Each candidate being interviewed had to give a research talk and do a "teaching" talk, where they simulate a 1-hour class session. They weren't all the same age, but age seemed to play no role whatsoever. Granted, there were no 50 year olds being interviewed, but for the spread of ages we did have, I saw no evidence that it played any role at all.

In fact, the first one who was offered a job got his B.S. in 1997, which would put him at around what, 35 years old? He blew the 30 year old candidate out of the water.

I can agree with you that perhaps age could be a tiebreaker, but there are a dozen or more other traits to look for before you even get to the age. Again, it might be different at a big research institution, but at my liberal arts state school, it just isn't as big of a deal.
 
  • #25
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I've often thought that one of the reasons women are underrepresented in professorships is the issue of children and maternity leave. I passed up a postdoc and left academia when the professor I'd be working with told me point blank that he'd prefer I not have a child in the two/three year period I'd be working with him.
I was told by the assistant of a prospective employer that the company wasn't seriously considering hiring me. After all, I was newly married and relatively young (read: child-bearing age)...I would obviously end up leaving the company when the inevitable child came into the picture.

Might as well be the 1960s, eh?
 

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