Now here’s the issue… Those who inquire, “Am I too old to begin a Ph.D.?” are typically attempting to talk themselves out of it. This may shock you, but I believe that you should begin this process by trying to talk yourself out of it. If, even after trying to find reasons not to do it, you still feel and KNOW in your gut that you want to and need to, then you should move forward with a more detailed analysis.
The first question in this analysis is often “is this the right time?” or “am I took old?” The truth is that there is no single “optimal” age to begin a Ph.D. because choosing to pursue graduate education is quite individual and influenced by a number of circumstances. When I entered Yale’s History Ph.D. program, I was 27, which was about average. There were no people straight out of college in my program, and the oldest person in my cohort was a man in his early 50s who’d had a lucrative career at Goldman Sachs before deciding that he wanted to spend his retirement years writing about and teaching history. Thus, there’s no set path that people have to follow, and while there are many good reasons NOT to pursue a Ph.D., age isn’t one of them. If you feel like you still have the juice and desire to spend long hours diving into a single subject, then do it!
Going deeper into this question, though, you should at least project out what your timeline would look like. You can assume 5-8 years to finish your Ph.D. People who hope to enter academia with STEM degrees will typically then need to complete postdocs of 2-5 years, after which you’d pursue professorial positions on the hyper-competitive job market. For people in the humanities and social sciences, postdocs and adjunct positions are becoming increasingly common, and thus your path may look a lot like the long road STEM PhDs face.
Thus, the tough reality is that you may find yourself twelve years from now with a Ph.D., a postdoc, and scrapping and fighting for an academic job. While you can certainly find some form of gainful employment with a Ph.D. of any kind, the idea of being 12 years older than you are now and hustling and scrapping to get one of the few jobs out there may be more palatable to someone who’s 27 than 47. Again, this is something that you’ll need to reflect on as you think about your circumstances, family reality, and financial needs and expectations.
It’s also crucial to think about whether you have the time and money to go to graduate school, as well as the needs of a Ph.D. program. In addition to requiring a major time commitment for classroom, research, and writing, a Ph.D. program may also include moving away from home or pausing your existing employment. You could opt to do a Ph.D. later in life if you are not prepared to undertake these obligations now.
When determining whether to begin a Ph.D., there are other practical factors to think about, such as finance options and the employment market. My advice is never to pursue a Ph.D. unless you are certain of funding. The top schools fully fund their Ph.D. students through stipends, teaching awards, and maybe some work requirements. If you are accepted into a program and there’s a gap between what you’re provided and what it costs, it’s not a real admission and you should walk away. This might be doubly so if you’re older or have a family, and thus the idea of pursuing a PhD full-time while ALSO working a full-time job+ to pay for it is just not acceptable.
Lastly, if you’re looking to enter academia, you should accept that this industry tends to love “shiny young things.” So if you enter grad school in your late 30s, you might not be viewed as a promising future star, even if you produce stellar work.
Generally, the best age to begin a PhD will depend on your personal and professional objectives, your level of education and work experience, as well as your availability and commitment level to graduate school. When choosing a choice, it is crucial to give these aspects significant thought and to consult academic counselors, mentors, and other experts.
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- Association of American Universities. (2018). The academic job market for new PhDs in the humanities. Retrieved from https://www.aau.edu/policy-issues/the-academic-job-market-new-phds-humanities
- National Science Foundation. (2018). Doctorate recipients from U.S. universities: 2017. Retrieved from https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsf18319/
- National Academy of Sciences. (2018). The supply of and demand for science and engineering PhDs in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/115/9/2062
- Inside Higher Ed. (2017). How likely are PhD grads to land tenure-track jobs? Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2017/02/13/how-likely-are-phd-grads-land-tenure-track-jobs-essay
- Association of American Universities. (2018). The academic job market for new PhDs in science, engineering, and health. Retrieved from https://www.aau.edu/policy-issues/the-academic-job-market-new-phds-science-engineering-and-health