Chris Blattman

Bleg: When (if ever) are you too old for a PhD? And what should you know?

In June 2013 I wrote a short post on the question. I didn’t think much of it, and I didn’t have very many useful things to say. Even so, somehow it bacame my most-viewed post in 2014. Almost 39,000 people viewed it this year (and there’s still a few more hours to go.)

I think I have discovered one of the great sources of existential angst on the Internet.

Now I feel kind of bad that it’s such a crap post. My new year’s resolution is to better it. Before I do, I am asking for stories, comments, and opinions from readers. What advice do you have for older PhD students? What should they consider?

You can put comments below, tweet them to me, or email me directly. If you want to make sure that the most number of people see them, however, please comment on the original post, since that’s where people seem to go.


46 Responses

  1. I have an additional, related query. I’m going to drop out of my economics PhD programme this year, hopefully getting an MPhil instead (I’m at a UK university), because right now I am not a good fit for a PhD or a career in academia. But there’s a chance that after a few years (5+ probably, I’m currently in my late 20s) working as a professional economist (either consulting or civil service) I might find something that really inspires me, and I can really see how I can turn it into a 3 year research project worthy of a PhD. Would my previous attempt at a PhD rule me out?

    One of my problems with this attempt is that I just feel so ignorant about the world that it’s hard to really develop a research agenda and anything I have wanted to pursue has been more-or-less outright rejected by my supervisors (my supervisor told me my initial proposal I used in my application was fine for my application but I wouldn’t actually do any work on it – not a great start).

  2. My guess is that there is a ‘sweet spot’ in between ‘young’ and ‘old’ that is an optimal age for completing a PhD and pursuing an academic career to its fullest. If you are too young, then you are relatively undisciplined, you can’t focus properly on your work, you spend too much of your time angsting about the dating scene, and overall you may be a little less efficient when it comes to completing your PhD and using your time wisely to set yourself up for a good postdoc or faculty position. If you are too old, then you probably have a spouse and/or kids in tow. Then after you finish your PhD, if the best faculty position is in Kansas, then you’re not really in a position to move there to pursue it. If your spouse’s job opportunities are narrow in general (eg., s/he is a professor of art history) or have a very narrow geographic focus (eg., s/he is a computer programmer and needs to be in Silicon Valley), then you are stuck.

  3. I started mine at 39 and finished at 44. I don’t regret it. While my age will likely work against me in trying to find domestic faculty jobs (I am currently faculty at a university in Japan), I don’t think that it makes a difference at all for a research based career.

    I don’t think that age matters and people who do say it matters are really missing the point of education overall. While my retirement account is in the doldrums, my life, both personal and intellectual, has improved by leaps and bounds.

  4. Finished my PhD @ 37. Worked for 9 months in industry, then landed a great academic job. Have tenure now, a solid lab and my career is taking off. I have taught undergrads in their 60’s. It’s all relative. Anybody in their mid-20’s who thinks they’re over the hill just needs to get a grip.

  5. It depends on the field. I started a PhD in Public Affairs at 33 (something not so uncommon), and I have some advantages coming from my previous experience. Since I worked inside the public and nonprofit sector, I can contrast my real life experience with theoretical ideas coming from my field. I also did research outside of academia, so I think like a scholar from the first year, according to my professors, which is allowing me to publish articles before starting my third year. On the other hand, a friend of mine started a PhD in economics at 33, and he found himself revisiting a lot of math and not using his previous experience in applied research at the very end. He also felt odd, since he was surrounding by “kids”, who did not have to worry about a wife and a daughter, and could work for long hours (and more years at the end) without having to worry about the money.

  6. I would nominate 30 as a hard cutoff; there is a throwaway line in Thiel and Masters’ Average is Over when the authors say that usually it is considered weird and unfortunate to be 40 and still in grad school, and I think they are right.

    In the absence of other factors (i.e. pre-existing research that arose through other circumstances) I would nominate 25. In my own anti-English PhD post I began by writing to a woman who was IIRC 25 or 26.

    There seems to be a strong job market bias against people who get their PhDs over age 35 or so.

    The extent to which academic life distorts relationships and relationship choices is underappreciated, and the distortionate effects get worse as one gets older. I think most people who are 24 do not estimate well how they will feel at 30, which I say as someone who recently hit the latter milestone and entered grad school at the former.

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