When are you too old for a PhD?

Updated January 2015

A couple of years ago a reader wrote me to ask how old is too old to start a PhD. Will schools penalize your application, and is it harder to get a job?

I blogged some thoughts in this spot. Not very deep ones. 18 months later, to my surprise, it was my most-read post of 2014: almost 40,000 views. Clearly, it was time to write a more thoughtful post. I sought input from readers and here’s what I’ve got.

In my case, I was 28 when I started my PhD and 33 when I finished. There were a handful of people older than me in the class, in their mid-thirties. Probably the median was about 25. Even though I wasn’t that much older, my (tenured) advisor was two weeks younger than me. That smarted a little.

Anyways, there were some clear advantages and disadvantages. I’ll talk about what I experienced, and what people who started older than me have added.

The short answer I like best came from one reader: “if you’re curious enough, never.” True, it is never too late to advance your professional career or your personal fulfillment with a PhD. With two important caveats. First, you properly understand the time, cost, and job prospects. Second, that if your goal is to enter elite programs and advance the research frontier, I think this gets tougher as you get older.

Admissions

If you’re under 35, I don’t think age will be a huge concern for an admissions committee. They are mostly concerned with your raw intellectual potential and ability to produce distinguished research.

Naturally, an admission committee will look at your career and consider what it says about you, whether it’s going to contribute to or detract from your research potential, and what the career switch says about your focus. So a lot will depend on your specific story and experience.

I’ve sat on committees where experience was an advantage: political science applicants who had spent many years as international correspondents or in the state department, economics applicants who had spent several years in Treasury or finance, or sustainable development PhDs with careers in environmental science. All are field where applied knowledge is useful, rather than raw intellectual fluidity and power (as in, say, in math or economic theory).

All the successful applied applicants I know, however, had a good rationale for a PhD and a very clear intellectual and academic thread to their previous work.

On balance, I do think that thirty-something applicants are treated with some suspicion, and that the burden is on them to make a case that they are going to be intellectually vibrant and focused. But only a little. Don’t sweat it too much, and don’t feel you have to write your statement defensively. Use your statement to describe, like anyone else, what questions interest yo and how you want to push the field ahead.

(For related advice, see my advice on whether and how to apply to PhDs, whether an MA program is for you, and how to get a PhD and save the world.)

If you’re over 35, I think admissions committees will start to wonder how much of a contribution to the field you can make, starting late and presumably having less time to contribute. This will matter most at elite research institutions.

Indeed, all of the above advice mainly applies to the top research universities and PhD programs. Their goal is to train the generation who will push the field ahead in terms of research. There are many more PhD programs that serve people who want to research, teach, practice (e.g. in the private sector, government of international organizations), or simply learn.

My sense is that there are dozens of very good research universities with PhD programs who not only are used to older applicants, but welcome them for these purposes.

Career considerations

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. It’s a long slog.
    • If you have an MA already, you might get away with a 2-3 year PhD at some universities (e.g. the UK), though almost never in the US. Plan on a minimum of 5 years, and more likely 6-8 depending on your discipline.
    • At best your program will cover your tuition and living expenses, and you won’t graduate with debt. You can calculate the present value of your salary sacrifice, and it will probably be large. Many people make their peace with this choice (I did) but do make it a conscious choice.
  2. Know thyself and thy options.
    • Remember that your counterfactual to a PhD is to spend 5-6 years investing in something else: your current job, a new career, a non-PhD skill set, etc. Some of these opportunities might actually be paid. They will get you experience, respect, and great opportunities. The opportunity cost of a PhD in terms of salary and other work is high. This is true for every age, of course. Your opportunity cost as a more experienced person is probably higher, though.
    • Make sure you understand your post-PhD career options. In some disciplines, like economics, there’s a lot of demand for PhDs and almost everyone gets a well-paid professional or academic job. Political science too, I think. Academic and even professional jobs in your field get scarcer in some social sciences and the humanities. I once heard that under a third of graduates from the best history programs in the world get academic jobs.
    • If you’re not planning on becoming a professor, think twice about a PhD. Yes it might advance you in your field. But most jobs I know would reward six years of intensive experience in many things, not just a PhD. I’m not sure the PhD is rewarded more. You have to want it for its own sake.
    • A lot of people gripe about the terrible options for many PhDs, and the maltreatment of adjunct professors. This says to me that a lot of people get a PhD with erroneous expectations.
  3. Older people will bring a lot of good things to the table.
    • PhD students are not known for being good at managing people, projects, or money. Presumably you learned a few things about being a professional whatever you’ve been doing. This will serve you well, and make up for some of the disadvantages of age. Maybe even more than compensate. Certainly my experience as a management consultant helped me run large research project better and sooner.
    • When you’re done, as long as you’re under 35 or 40, faculty hiring committees are probably going to focus more on what you can do relative to your cohort rather than your age. They might not even look at your age or previous experience. If you’re over 40, then yes I think you’ll see job market discrimination with any major career change, whatever the career.
  4. But there are a few drawbacks.
    • You may or may not enjoy being around a lot of 25-year old peers, and being treated similarly by your professors.
    • Unless you have savings or take on debt, you may have a much poorer lifestyle than you’ve grown accustomed to.
    • You’re more likely to have family or financial obligations when you’re older, and so you’ll have less freedom when you graduate to make high-return investments that are far flung or unpaid. Some jobs, post-docs, or fellowships won’t work out for your more complicated personal situation. You might also not be able or willing to pull 12-hour days for the same reasons.
    • This is true of any later-life career change, of course, especially ones in non-profit sectors or public service.
  5. Once you’re in it, remember that no one finds a PhD easy. It is a constant source of existential angst when you’re in the midst of it. Just know that everyone else feels the same way, and it’s not a special product of how old you are or what you brought.
  6. As one commenter put it, “I’m tempted to counter, when are you too young?” A good point. Here is another person voicing the same view. A topic for another day.

Other PhDs or faculty out there have comments?