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Programs Too Old for Math PHD?

  1. Oct 13, 2012 #1
    Hi all. Well, I was all prepared to apply to graduate school this year until I missed my subject test date due to unforeseen circumstances. Let me just say that my memory is not too great and this is definitely entirely my fault.

    A bit of background, I'm 25 now and it looks like by the time I enter my phd program, i'll be 27. Is this too old to be starting a PHD in mathematics? I have a genuine passion for the subject so my interest level or motivation is not an issue here. Logistically and financially, would I be better served trying to find a job in industry?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 13, 2012 #2


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    Never say "never"!
  4. Oct 13, 2012 #3
    This sounds like me. I missed the subject test (I just went into a Master's program that didn't require the subject test.) I just started grad school this semester, and I'm 26. I think we'll be OK. Just a little older than the people we start with.
  5. Oct 13, 2012 #4
    Robert, out of curiosity, what schools did you apply to? I was thinking of doing the same thing. Also, did you get funding?
  6. Oct 13, 2012 #5
    I applied to Georgia Tech, University of Georgia and Georgia State. (Guess what state I'm from.) And yes, I got funding, though about 60% of what the Ph.D. students get. But, where I go, it is easy to transfer from the MS to the Ph.D. (easy in the sense that if you meet certain requirements, you transfer, but you don't have to take the subject test.
  7. Oct 13, 2012 #6
    What are your plans for after the PHD? I'm just trying to get a sense of where I should go from here. Originally, I wanted to go for the postdoc after the Phd. My goal is to do research. I'm thinking a year off might kill my momentum.
  8. Oct 13, 2012 #7


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    This question has very little to do with your age.

    What makes you think that 27 is too old to start a math PhD?
  9. Oct 13, 2012 #8
    Well, my plans are, uh, I don't know. Ideally I would go into academia. But since that seems a little risky, I'm doing a bunch of stuff now to make myself marketable to industry. For example, brushing up on Java and learning C++ and other software development stuff.
  10. Oct 13, 2012 #9
    I guess that's an insecurity issue. Hardy wrote in A Mathematician's Apology that math was a young man's game. I am surrounded by people who are a good 4 years younger than I am.
  11. Oct 13, 2012 #10
    Lol. When I saw this thread, I was thinking it was going to be a 60 year old. 27 is fine. I've seen a lot of people who go work for a couple years and then go to grad school. Actually, I'm inclined to think that it's probably a better idea to start later, not really in terms of age, but in terms of background knowledge. Taking an extra year to study seems like a good idea to me.

    I thought that wasn't an issue for me, but it turned out it was. The problem is that I need complete intellectual freedom to be happy doing math. And when I say, complete, I mean complete. Like, if I want to learn about number theory one day, I should just be able to pick up a book and start learning it, just on a whim. As it is, I can't afford to do that. Why? Too much pressure to get certain things done, like publish papers or write a thesis, as well as teaching and pleasing the students. This just ruins the whole thing for me. Of course, even if somebody gave me a salary and told me to do whatever I wanted, I still would probably have to hold myself back a little bit from exploring everything I get curious about, just so I could get stuff done, but not even in the same ballpark as what I am having to do now to finish my PhD.

    "It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for what this delicate little plant needs more than anything, besides stimulation, is freedom. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty."

    --Albert Einstein

    I don't know what your situation is. Financially, of course, no one gets a math PhD for the money, but if you only have to support yourself and don't care about buying shiny things, then it's fine, assuming you can get full funding.

    In terms of the effect of age on ability, the only effect that I have seen as a 31 year old is due to graduate school making me feel stupid and robbing me of my confidence.
  12. Oct 13, 2012 #11
  13. Oct 13, 2012 #12


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    OMG, when I saw the title line of this thread, I figured you were probably 50. Starting at 27 is fine. That's only 5 years older than the youngest you could be.
  14. Oct 13, 2012 #13
    Not true, Terence Tao completed his PhD at age 20, starting at age 16.
  15. Oct 13, 2012 #14


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    These threads are always like this. It's always like "Am I too old to begin studying math at the university? I'm seventeen and a half". (OK, that was an exaggeration, but not a big one. I think they're usually 21-24).

    In the general discussion forum, there was recently a thread where a girl of "almost 22" asked if she's too old to break up with her boyfriend.
  16. Oct 13, 2012 #15
    I'll try to type this out as clearly as possible.

    I believe the reason why there are so many threads like this is due to the culture of mathematics. In two of my upper division classes, I have had an eight year sitting in the front row, yelling out answers before anyone even had a chance to think about the question being asked. I am surrounded by people who are less than 20 years old, and a good portion who have just barely turned 21.

    For anyone who holds a passion for mathematics, I believe that there is a learned culture that goes along with it. Perhaps my biggest mistake was reading A Mathematician's Apology and taking it too literally. I've read opinions on the book that it has added unwarranted stigmas about age and mathematics.

    Why do I want to do mathematics? This question should remain the same for me regardless of my age. However, every so often, I am faced with a perceptual dichotomy where I begin to look at the bureaucracy and formalities that come along with pursuing a career in academia as opposed to only cherishing and cultivating my passion.

    Posting the above was a decision I made whilst suffering from the aforementioned perceptual dichotomy. After reading your replies and rereading my original post, I've realized that waiting a year really won't matter. At 27, I'll still have a good couple of decades to function at a high mental capacity. And after all, am I really worried about rushing myself into financial security?

    I wish these questions did not have to cloud my judgment.


    @Fredrik: Read the explanation above. You are all right, it's foolish to be worrying about my age at 27. So what if I am not on the direct track to a Phd? It's not like I've wasted my time. In between pursuing my bachelor's, I've done two research projects. One of which culminated in two conference appearances and the other which ended with a 12-day trip at Johnson Space Center and a flight on their Microgravity airplane. I should have nothing to feel ashamed about.

    @homeomorphic: Thanks for the replies. I am often in the same position, yet at the undergraduate level. I rarely am just reading my assigned textbooks. Last year alone, I was going through Herstein's Algebra (the only decent one I could find at my library), and a book on Probability Models. I also did a lot of reading on non-linear dynamics and control theory. I find myself perusing random mathematical objects on the wiki, and also reading books on the philosophy of math. I feel like I'm only trying to narrow down my focus so that I will have an easier time in graduate school. Financial obligations aside, if I could just spend the rest of my life playing music and learning all kinds of math, I probably would.

    Also, I've heard of Birman before. I will definitely keep that example in my head whenever I see imaginary wrinkles appearing on my face.

    ASIDE: Perhaps I am so worried because I'm losing my hair. I want some hair left to lose before I get into grad school! :p
    Last edited: Oct 13, 2012
  17. Oct 13, 2012 #16


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    this is not joan birman, but it is another example (me):

    http://www.math.uga.edu/%7Eroy/Roy.pdf [Broken]

    and i was losing my hair a while back too. washing it properly and eating right can help, but it is fundamentally a genetic thing.

    here is a picture of one of the most dominant mathematicians of the last half century:

    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  18. Oct 13, 2012 #17
    Grothendieck is one of my inspirations. I've been reading a lot about him lately. The hair comment was a joke.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  19. Oct 13, 2012 #18


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    I am myself at the "old" age of 26, and I am doing Msc in Maths.

    Yes, I have seen youngsters taking the same courses as I am, and to tell you the truth I don't see them any better than me (quite on the contrary).

    It's all about dedication, you can start at any age as long you have a young spirit to learn new stuff and most importantly understand the material.

    The kids that answer quickly are usually those who already learned the material before class, if you want to answer questions quickly learn the material before class (but in that case why to bother to go to class?!).
  20. Jan 6, 2013 #19
    you are never "too old".. i am sure you will have "Dr" prefix soon.. Good luck.
  21. Jan 7, 2013 #20
    I usually read over the material before class so I am not really lost and to ask questions on topics that are tough for me to understand. But I don't answer questions I know, however, I do attempt to answer questions I don't really know just to try and see if I am following the lecture as well as I think.

    Many people from what I do know about tend to go from job to job with no real working knowledge of the world outside the usual grind of either punching numbers aimlessly for their employers own end, or just filing papers away.

    For my own personal philosophy, even if it took me 15 years to earn a PhD like Joan but in physics, I will have learnt much along the way.

    In my eyes, you are letting your insecurity define you as less and insufficient. So you go on into industry, then what? You will be 40 one day and looking back, regretting your decision wishing you just stuck with it a bit longer.
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