Opportunities after completing PhD in your 40s

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In summary: Do the reverse engineering. Find people doing the type of jobs you want to do and see what their background is. Are they 50 year olds? Are they PhDs? In general, what you want to do is look at the people who have the sort of job you want and see what they did to get there. Look at their CV's. Look at their publication history. Look at the type of post-doc work they did. Look at their recommendations. In summary, it seems like you have a deep passion to pursue a PhD later in life and you are willing to make sacrifices to achieve your goal. However, you are also aware of the potential challenges,
  • #1
tal0n
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I think I've read nearly every post about starting towards a PhD later in life, but haven't found my particular questions answered.

My questions are:
- What paths are possible to move from a lower ranked school in undergrad to a higher ranked school for a grad program?
- If you finish a PhD in your mid-40s, can you expect to be able to work with interesting research organizations, such as NASA, Fermilab, US Antarctic Program, CERN, JAXA, etc? Especially if you complete your PhD in a non-Top-20 university?

Context:
- I'm 33, planning to go back to undergrad in about 2 years to finish a BS in physics & math (I'll likely take the full 4 years, just to be thorough) and, ideally, move on to a PhD with a goal of working in public research.
- My wife and I have no children, and will never have children.
- My wife and I are comfortable with the lifestyle we can expect with me as a 40-something student.
- My current career is virtually non-existent, and has no relation to STEM.
- I've checked my math skills and they're the same as always—definitely above average, but not brilliant (and I've worked out a 2 year plan to improve these skills).
- As for where I'm likely to get accepted for my undergrad, I don't expect to be able to go to a Top-20. Maybe a Top-50?

Yes, I have the deep passion to pursue this, but I also don't want to end up >$150k in debt only to discover at the end of things that I won't be able to actually go beyond the degree in a way that's meaningful to me. That said, I have no illusions about working on the next world-changing thing. I just want to at least be some cog in the public science machine.
 
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  • #2
tal0n said:
...
- If you finish a PhD in your mid-40s, can you expect to be able to work with interesting research organizations, such as NASA, Fermilab, US Antarctic Program, CERN, JAXA, etc? Especially if you complete your PhD in a non-Top-20 university?
...
That said, I have no illusions about working on the next world-changing thing. I just want to at least be some cog in the public science machine.
Just to clarify: For you, the journey would be successful only if the end goal is a position at a government lab? E.g., an academic or industrial position would be failure?
 
  • #3
It sounds like you have a handle on what the realities are of what you'll be facing. When people ask questions of this type there are both the life implications to consider, as well as the dedication aspect. Sometimes what seems like a good idea in the moment turns out to be a passing infatuation that changes when people are confronted with the reality of a decade of work, a lot of which isn't nearly as interesting as some of the popular science media make it out to be.

tal0n said:
- What paths are possible to move from a lower ranked school in undergrad to a higher ranked school for a grad program?
I think the key is to focus more on the programs that are going to be the best fits for you. While I wouldn't completely ignore rankings, it's important to remember that a lot of factors that determine those may not be relevant to you or your career goals. So the first step is to get into the best school that you can for your undergraduate education. Look for one that's going to allow you to build the best foundation you can while balancing everything else in life and not going too deeply into debt. You'll be more competitive for your desired graduate program if you do exceedingly well in a moderately ranked school than if you do moderately well at an exceedingly well ranked school. Establish that foundation. And look for opportunities to get involved in research. You become more competitive as a graduate school applicant when you have research experience.

tal0n said:
- If you finish a PhD in your mid-40s, can you expect to be able to work with interesting research organizations, such as NASA, Fermilab, US Antarctic Program, CERN, JAXA, etc? Especially if you complete your PhD in a non-Top-20 university?
Sure. Your age won't be your most pressing obstacle, if that's what you're worried about. The biggest concern is that there are far more PhDs granted than academic positions available.
 
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  • #4
@Choppy wrote a very good message. I think you need to factor in a few other things. One is that typically there are two 3-year postdoctoral fellowships before one is competitive for a permanent staff position at a Lab. That means you will be around 50.

How are you planning on funding your retirement? If the alternative is putting $10K a year into a retirement account that grows at 8%/year, you will have an opportunity cost in excess of the $150K you mentioned. Health insurance for students varies from pretty good to...not pretty good.

The distribution of PhD institutions for recent Lab hires is not too different from that of PhD recipients as a whole, but... There is a correlation between big schools and high rankings, and about half of the PhDs come from a dozen schools, maybe a few more. So when you are saying you don't think you can get into a Top 20, you're also saying you don't think you can get into the top half. You might want to consider that.
 
  • #5
tal0n said:
What paths are possible to move from a lower ranked school in undergrad to a higher ranked school for a grad program?

In my experience, it happens more often, than the reverse. Not in my personal case however.- If you finish a PhD in your mid-40s, can you expect to be able to work with interesting research organizations, such as NASA, Fermilab, US Antarctic Program, CERN, JAXA, etc? Especially if you complete your PhD in a non-Top-20 university?

I think this is the wrong question. Suppose you want to work in NASA or a govt lab, and you are going to undergrad school. I do not think to be successful, you necessarily need nor want to finish your PhD first. You want to establish contacts, and looking for internships along the way. At many labs, we see potential employees, before they get their PhD. Some never get it. Some do. Many get some financial support, potential work schedule flexibility, etc, if the area they get their degree in is sufficiently in demand.

I think maybe the way to continue is to plan a little at a time, say going back to undergrad, meeting people at job fairs, even before you are job-seeking. Seeing if you can wangle and internship, etc.

I completed my doctorate a a university that is in the top 20 in my particular field, but many others in my workplace did not, one did formerly work at NASA. Some are in my mid-40's.
BTW, working at an interesting organization, is not the same thing as doing interesting work. Internships are tricky. I have seen some interns getting very interesting work, and others doing quite routine tasks. Sometimes, the ability to complete a necessary but not ground-breaking task effectively, says a lot positively as an attribute for you as an employee. You can usually expect to get better and better assignments as you grow and invest more time in the job.

Bottom line: My advise is try not to plan to begin 10 or more years down the road. Work your goals as you go along your educational journey, and be flexible. Your questions suggest you are looking for limitations. The good news is that there are fewer limitations, than you might envision. Best of luck.
 
  • #6
CrysPhys said:
Just to clarify: For you, the journey would be successful only if the end goal is a position at a government lab? E.g., an academic or industrial position would be failure?

I was perhaps a little too negative in how i phrased that. I wouldn't consider the whole thing a failure. Especially if I did end up in an academic role. Industrial would be fine too, as long as it felt like I was doing more than just lining pockets and/or destroying things.

That said, I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't be disappointed if I never got to engage with one of those "hero" institutions at some point in my journey, even if it was just an unpaid internship during my UG.

Choppy said:
It sounds like you have a handle on what the realities are of what you'll be facing. When people ask questions of this type there are both the life implications to consider, as well as the dedication aspect. Sometimes what seems like a good idea in the moment turns out to be a passing infatuation that changes when people are confronted with the reality of a decade of work, a lot of which isn't nearly as interesting as some of the popular science media make it out to be. I think the key is to focus more on the programs that are going to be the best fits for you. While I wouldn't completely ignore rankings, it's important to remember that a lot of factors that determine those may not be relevant to you or your career goals. So the first step is to get into the best school that you can for your undergraduate education. Look for one that's going to allow you to build the best foundation you can while balancing everything else in life and not going too deeply into debt. You'll be more competitive for your desired graduate program if you do exceedingly well in a moderately ranked school than if you do moderately well at an exceedingly well ranked school. Establish that foundation. And look for opportunities to get involved in research. You become more competitive as a graduate school applicant when you have research experience. Sure. Your age won't be your most pressing obstacle, if that's what you're worried about. The biggest concern is that there are far more PhDs granted than academic positions available.
I was in my high school's 4-year science research course, and my passion never died since then, even though it's been almost 2 decades. Life just got in the way (almost made it back to school at 24, but it didn't materialize). So, I've had a long time to really consider the realities of what "science" means (talked to a lot of real, working scientists), the good, bad, and boring.

Your advice on picking schools seems really sound. What's the best way to tell what type of undergraduate programs have the most opportunities for undergrad research? I know that's the #1 thing (and my #1 interest to boot), so I want to optimize for that so I start on the right foot.

As for my "most pressing obstacle": At this point, I feel I'm ready for that risk. The reality of it may be different, 12 years down the line, but I'm as confident as i think is feasible.

Vanadium 50 said:
@Choppy wrote a very good message. I think you need to factor in a few other things. One is that typically there are two 3-year postdoctoral fellowships before one is competitive for a permanent staff position at a Lab. That means you will be around 50.

How are you planning on funding your retirement? If the alternative is putting $10K a year into a retirement account that grows at 8%/year, you will have an opportunity cost in excess of the $150K you mentioned. Health insurance for students varies from pretty good to...not pretty good.

The distribution of PhD institutions for recent Lab hires is not too different from that of PhD recipients as a whole, but... There is a correlation between big schools and high rankings, and about half of the PhDs come from a dozen schools, maybe a few more. So when you are saying you don't think you can get into a Top 20, you're also saying you don't think you can get into the top half. You might want to consider that.

I'll be 100% honest: I don't know how I'll deal with retirement. I have some rough ideas, but it's something I'll need to develop some tentative plans for over the next 2 years.

As for my Top-20 comment, I meant specifically for undergrad. I don't see a realistic way for me to get into a top-ranked school for my undergrad. However, my understanding is that if I do exceptionally well in my UG, I can get into a top school for the PhD.

However, if you have advice on how I could make myself competitive for a top school admission for UG, I am all ears. Like I said, I have 2 years before I can go back anyway, so I have some time to beef up, if that's possible. But I really don't even know where to start.
 
  • #7
mpresic3 said:
I think this is the wrong question. Suppose you want to work in NASA or a govt lab, and you are going to undergrad school. I do not think to be successful, you necessarily need nor want to finish your PhD first. You want to establish contacts, and looking for internships along the way. At many labs, we see potential employees, before they get their PhD. Some never get it. Some do. Many get some financial support, potential work schedule flexibility, etc, if the area they get their degree in is sufficiently in demand.

I think maybe the way to continue is to plan a little at a time, say going back to undergrad, meeting people at job fairs, even before you are job-seeking. Seeing if you can wangle and internship, etc.

I completed my doctorate a a university that is in the top 20 in my particular field, but many others in my workplace did not, one did formerly work at NASA. Some are in my mid-40's.
BTW, working at an interesting organization, is not the same thing as doing interesting work. Internships are tricky. I have seen some interns getting very interesting work, and others doing quite routine tasks. Sometimes, the ability to complete a necessary but not ground-breaking task effectively, says a lot positively as an attribute for you as an employee. You can usually expect to get better and better assignments as you grow and invest more time in the job.

Bottom line: My advise is try not to plan to begin 10 or more years down the road. Work your goals as you go along your educational journey, and be flexible. Your questions suggest you are looking for limitations. The good news is that there are fewer limitations, than you might envision. Best of luck.
Thank you for that great perspective. I agree that I definitely don't want to get ahead of myself. But I do like to get a feel for the terrain ahead, so to speak.

I definitely understand the crapshoot that is research opportunities on internships and the like. And, frankly, that's fine by me. The world doesn't run on big incredible things alone. It runs on all the little pieces of minor genius that make the big genius stuff even possible in the first place.

My big concern right now is figuring out how to pick the best university for my undergraduate degree, to ensure I have the best opportunity to both: do well academically and do research.
 
  • #8
Not tying to be a downer, but ...
Vanadium 50 said:
@Choppy One is that typically there are two 3-year postdoctoral fellowships
The postdocs that you land could be such that the postdoc institutions and your Ph.D. institution could all be widely separated geographically, i.e., are you (and your wife) willing to make major moves? I made made many big moves, some of which happened when I was in my mid 40s to early 50s and married: 1700 kilometres west, then 2600 kilomtres east, and then 4100 kilometres west. Many couples in their mid to late 40s would be unwilling to do this.
 
  • #9
George Jones said:
Not tying to be a downer, but ...

The postdocs that you land could be such that the postdoc institutions and your Ph.D. institution could all be widely separated geographically, i.e., are you (and your wife) willing to make major moves? I made made many big moves, some of which happened when I was in my mid 40s to early 50s and married: 1700 kilometres west, then 2600 kilomtres east, and then 4100 kilometres west. Many couples in their mid to late 40s would be unwilling to do this.
We're 100% ready to move wherever. We've already accepted that we probably won't see a lot of each other for roughly 10 years at least. Which sucks. But we're both extremely dedicated to our academic paths (and to each other—maybe that sounds contradictory, but it's not to us).
 
  • #10
tal0n said:
I was perhaps a little too negative in how i phrased that. I wouldn't consider the whole thing a failure. Especially if I did end up in an academic role. Industrial would be fine too, as long as it felt like I was doing more than just lining pockets and/or destroying things.

That said, I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't be disappointed if I never got to engage with one of those "hero" institutions at some point in my journey, even if it was just an unpaid internship during my UG.

However, if you have advice on how I could make myself competitive for a top school admission for UG, I am all ears. Like I said, I have 2 years before I can go back anyway, so I have some time to beef up, if that's possible. But I really don't even know where to start.
There may be no harm in dreaming big dreams, but what you have is a dream. It'll be two years before you start an UG degree. That, at this stage, must be your objective. The rest is ifs and maybes.

If you do a degree in physics, maybe you'll be glad eventually to battle your way to an average degree.

How to make yourself competitive to the top schools? Be brilliant. Physics is no different from music or sport: if you want to be one of the best, you have to be one of the best. It's not something where a unique approach or clever marketing can win the day. You can't blag physics.
 
  • #11
tal0n said:
Your advice on picking schools seems really sound. What's the best way to tell what type of undergraduate programs have the most opportunities for undergrad research? I know that's the #1 thing (and my #1 interest to boot), so I want to optimize for that so I start on the right foot.

At the risk of starting with the obvious, you can start by browsing the web pages of schools you find interesting. Look at the research they're doing within the department and usually you can get a pretty good feel for the degree of undergraduate involvement.

You can contact the undergraduate physics societies/clubs and maybe exchange emails with a few current senior students. (Often undergrads and graduate students enjoy it when someone takes an interest in the work they're doing and are happy to answer a few questions.)

Sometimes you can contact an undergraduate advisor to ask about these kinds of things as well.

You can also look up undergraduate physics conferences. In Canada, for example, they have CUPC. When they post the abstracts, you can browse through them and look for projects that look interesting and see what programs those students are from.

One other tip is that you don't need to look for the place with the *most* opportunities. Rather, what's important is that (a) there are opportunities, and (b) the specific opportunities seem interesting to you. If you really have no interest in a particular sub-field but that's where the majority of undergraduate research projects seem to be, that might be a flag indicated that's not a school for you.
 
  • #12
@Choppy That's all fine and well, but you have to start doing physics as well. It's a bit like asking how one gets an invitation to play the US Masters golf tournament. Beyond anything else, you have to start playing golf.

And if someone says they're planning to take up golf, then that's all they can do until they start getting good at it!
 
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  • #13
PeroK said:
There may be no harm in dreaming big dreams, but what you have is a dream. It'll be two years before you start an UG degree. That, at this stage, must be your objective. The rest is ifs and maybes.

If you do a degree in physics, maybe you'll be glad eventually to battle your way to an average degree.

How to make yourself competitive to the top schools? Be brilliant. Physics is no different from music or sport: if you want to be one of the best, you have to be one of the best. It's not something where a unique approach or clever marketing can win the day. You can't blag physics.

PeroK said:
@Choppy That's all fine and well, but you have to start doing physics as well. It's a bit like asking how one gets an invitation to play the US Masters golf tournament. Beyond anything else, you have to start playing golf.

And if someone says they're planning to take up golf, then that's all they can do until they start getting good at it!

Of course. And I have an active program I've designed for myself to increase my math skills (among other skills) as much as possible over the next ~2 years (it's not just designed, I'm already well into working seriously at the program).

However, whatever school I'm applying to for my second undergraduate degree will have no way to know how much time I spent at my kitchen table, or how much better my practice testing went, or whatever.

I'm wondering if there are any reasonable ways a 33 year old person could increase the viability of their application to highly competitive undergraduate programs specifically for a second bachelor degree. Sort of like if you were to give advice to a high schooler, you might suggest joining the math team and the rocketry club (for example). What can an adult do similarly (if anything at all).

Like, it's fine if the answer is, "Not much, don't worry about it. Just improve your skills and get into any decent UG program and then be brilliant. If you pull that off, you can get into a competitive grad program and then no one will care about your UG." I just figure I might as well ask.

Choppy said:
At the risk of starting with the obvious, you can start by browsing the web pages of schools you find interesting. Look at the research they're doing within the department and usually you can get a pretty good feel for the degree of undergraduate involvement.

You can contact the undergraduate physics societies/clubs and maybe exchange emails with a few current senior students. (Often undergrads and graduate students enjoy it when someone takes an interest in the work they're doing and are happy to answer a few questions.)

Sometimes you can contact an undergraduate advisor to ask about these kinds of things as well.

You can also look up undergraduate physics conferences. In Canada, for example, they have CUPC. When they post the abstracts, you can browse through them and look for projects that look interesting and see what programs those students are from.

One other tip is that you don't need to look for the place with the *most* opportunities. Rather, what's important is that (a) there are opportunities, and (b) the specific opportunities seem interesting to you. If you really have no interest in a particular sub-field but that's where the majority of undergraduate research projects seem to be, that might be a flag indicated that's not a school for you.

Interesting advice! I'll keep all that in mind when the search begins.
 

Related to Opportunities after completing PhD in your 40s

1. What are the job prospects for someone who completes their PhD in their 40s?

The job prospects for someone who completes their PhD in their 40s are generally positive. Many companies and organizations value the experience and maturity that comes with completing a PhD later in life. Additionally, having a PhD can open up opportunities for higher-level positions and leadership roles.

2. Will I be at a disadvantage compared to younger PhD graduates?

While it is true that younger PhD graduates may have a longer career ahead of them, completing a PhD in your 40s can also bring unique strengths and perspectives to the table. Your life and work experiences may give you an advantage in certain fields, and your determination and commitment to completing a PhD later in life can be seen as a valuable asset.

3. What industries or fields are open to PhD graduates in their 40s?

Many industries and fields are open to PhD graduates in their 40s. This can include academia, research and development, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and more. It ultimately depends on your area of expertise and the specific job market in your region.

4. How can I market myself and my PhD to potential employers?

When marketing yourself and your PhD to potential employers, it is important to highlight the transferable skills and knowledge that you have gained through your PhD journey. This can include critical thinking, problem-solving, research, and communication skills. Additionally, make sure to tailor your resume and cover letter to the specific job and company you are applying to.

5. Are there any resources or support systems for PhD graduates in their 40s?

Yes, there are resources and support systems available for PhD graduates in their 40s. These can include networking events, career fairs, and online communities specifically for mature PhD graduates. Additionally, many universities and research institutions have career services departments that can provide guidance and support for job searching and career development.

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