Am I too young to get a PhD? Am I too old to start a PhD program?

These are some of the frequently asked questions from students who want to pursue an advanced degree but are hesitating.

Is there really a perfect age to take up PhD program?

The answer is no.

You are never too old or too young to pursue higher education. There is no perfect age to start a doctoral program. The perfect timing is when you have a strong desire and determination to get your PhD.

Although there is no specific age you should have finished an undergraduate degree and perhaps a master’s degree first. As long as you have the required educational background, however, there is no limit on age. Admission committees do not even consider the age of applicants. In America considering age as a factor for graduate school admission is against the law. The admission committee is more likely to consider the applicant’s research skill and probability of successfully completing the program.

Nevertheless, there are pros and cons of studying “young” (right after college) or “old” (40s and up).

In this post, we’ll talk about some of the factors regarding age when it comes to starting a PhD program.

If your age is making you reluctant to start a program perhaps you are looking for an excuse not to start.

Here are the pros and cons of studying at a young age and older age.

#1 Research Ability

The research ability is one of the primary factors for the admission decision and faculty hiring decision. For an applicant to be considered they should be able to display their research capabilities. Often through an undergraduate thesis or published work.
It is the same for older applicants. The admissions department will judge your research abilities based on your previous work. Older applicants do have an upper hand because they normally have more work experience. Years of working in related fields can give a good impression to the admission committee that these applicants have more knowledge in their fields compared to others who do not have such experience. Especially if you are in an applied field job experience would be even more appreciated when you get a job as a faculty. However, long-term experience in an industry can create an adverse effect. Some older applicants may believe that they are more knowledgeable in their field because they have significant work experience. Usually, research and industry experience do not have much correlation. This means that even if you have significant industry experience your research capability cannot be guaranteed.

Younger doctoral students who start their program right after college or getting their masters without any job experience are more eager to develop their research skills. Instead of relying on their field expertise. Experience or the lack of experience can fully gauge a person’s research ability. More experienced students, however, might have access to certain information and valuable connections with the industry. A student straight out of an undergrad program might have to exert more effort in getting ahold of information and establishing the right connections.

#2 Ability To Handle Stress

An older PhD student is the winning combination of experience and maturity. Most of the students fresh out of an undergraduate program are still recovering from the mental stress of a classroom setting. On the other hand, older students who would have a few years or more being away from the classroom and will look forward to the thought of challenging the academic world once again. The combination of the maturity and experience can also mean having a better handle on stressful situations. Older PhD students may have a better grasp of making decisions in a difficult situation, speaking their mind to people in authority, such as dissertation committees professors or chairs in
coping with stress. More mature PhD students would already know their stress triggers and know how to handle them better than the younger ones who probably still figuring things out.

#3 Energy Level

Younger students have an upper hand in energy level. They are able to function with less sleep, go longer without rest and have more energy to burn. Starting a PhD program in your 40s or even 50s might mean being even more physically tired and challenging, just because you will not have the same energy you used to have in your twenties. Unfortunately, these are the unavoidable consequences of aging. A PhD program requires a lot of long days and sleepless nights. Your body will tell you it is catching up with your age and there is no shame on this. Part of being more mature may mean lower energy levels but it also means more wisdom in time management and prioritizing. Older students tend to be more experienced in handling their time and working on top priority tasks. They know how to be more organized, which might be a foreign concept to some of the younger ones. While it means lower energy levels it also means knowing how to work smarter instead of harder

#4 Juggling Responsibilities

This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Many older PhD students have a family of their own or more responsibilities on their shoulders like paying bills, mortgages, loans, childcare or parent care. They would have a better grasp of balancing work-study
and personal life. Most younger PhD students are solely focused on their education and thus have more mental space to allocate to their academy responsibilities compared to more mature students who have to think about their other responsibilities outside of their
studies. The downside comes when considering allocation of time. Students who have their own families will have more demands on their time. On the other hand younger students will be able to devote most of their waking hours to research and also other PhD program related events. Older students who have to split their time should be careful not to risk their personal relationships because of their desire to attaining higher education.

I have witnessed several of my friends whose spouse or significant others ask for a separation or divorce because of their partner’s lack of attention to their relationship in the process of getting a PhD. Here is the crux of this issue – am I too old for a PhD program? Am I too young and inexperienced? The answer again is no.

No two PhD students are the same. Your reason for pursuing higher education will differ from others’ reasons. The way you handle it will be different from the way others handle themselves as well. There is no such thing as being told or too young to learn. The majority of the
PhD students are in the age range of 30s to 50s. Though there are some factors related to age that might affect your progress. It’s truly all about having the self-discipline and persistence to finish what you started. If a doctoral degree is really what you need to better secure your future, brace yourself and go for it. Age should not be the problem. It is the mindset that counts. One more thing to keep in mind is that in higher education there is no specific age for retirement. Most of the professors tend to retire after 25 to 30 years of service but many work for much longer. Obviously higher education attracts workhorses.

Please share your thoughts on the pros and cons of studying a graduate school at a younger age or older age in the comment section below. If you have your personal experience to share, please feel free to do so. Your story can change someone’s life.