We’ve often seen discussions on social media about whether or not you’re ever too old to get a PhD. This question, which we explore in this post, is more complicated than it immediately appears.
Are you ever too old to get a PhD?
The median age of doctoral recipients in the US is 31.5 years.
According to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics’ 2020 Survey of Earned Doctorates, the median age of doctoral recipients in the US across all fields (including humanities and education) is 31.5 years. Education graduates tend to be the oldest at approximately 39, while PhDs in the physical sciences tend to be around 29.
While these trends reflect the experience of the majority of PhD graduates, several recent reports by major news outlets like The New York Times, the CBC, and NPR have highlighted the stories of PhDs who received their degrees in their 60s—and even as old as 89, in the case of Manfred Steiner.
Manfred Steiner’s circumstances, in particular, highlight the problems with assuming that it’s never too late to receive a PhD. As NPR’s article points out, Steiner had a decades-long career as a successful doctor and professor of hematology at Brown University before starting his PhD in physics.
After he retired from medicine in 2000, he began taking physics courses at MIT. Years later, he completed his physics PhD at Brown. That is, he pursued a PhD after a successful—and likely lucrative—career as a distinguished doctor at the Ivy League institution from which he retired. These facts make his advice to readers (”follow your dream”) seem rather shallow.
Late-stage PhD success stories are prime examples of the elitism of doctoral education.
Likewise, a 2016 New York Times article, chronicling Robert Hevey’s pursuit of a plant biology PhD in his 60s, notes that Hevey fulfilled his doctoral dreams after a 30-year career as a certified public accountant for “accounting firms and businesses ranging from manufacturing to enterprise software and corporate restructuring.”
In both of these instances, the recipients were already successful, high-level professionals who clearly had the time, leisure, and money to pursue a PhD in their later years. The point is that these exemplars of late-stage PhD success are prime examples of the elitism that plagues doctoral education.
Who actually gets a PhD?
Tracy Evans, who wrote about her experience obtaining a PhD at 66 in Science, confessed that she pursued a doctorate because she “needed a change.” Yet, like both Steiner and Hevey, Evans already possessed advanced degrees in other fields.
That is, all three of the highlighted individuals who pursued a PhD at a later age already demonstrated that they could succeed in a graduate program, in spite of the fact that nearly 50% of PhD students in North America drop out of their programs before completing their degrees.
Why do so many PhD students drop out? Is it because of the grueling and competitive nature of the degree? Is it the case that some simply can’t keep up?
Nearly 50% of PhD students in North America drop out of their programs.
While the rigor and intensity of doctoral programs are typically cited as reasons for the high non-completion rates of admitted students, the reality behind the statistic is more complex—a reality that the above examples of late-stage PhD recipients make excessively clear.
According to a 2022 study of the socioeconomic roots of academic faculty, “family socioeconomic status (SES) […] influences graduate school applications and admissions, as well as students’ experience once accepted” (1). The study surveyed 46,692 tenure-track faculty from over 1300 institutions across most major fields. Over 7,000 faculty members provided information about their parents’ level of education.
The authors explain that “individuals with parents who have a doctorate or professional degree are increasingly overrepresented among doctorate and professional degree holders” (2). In fact, “research on social mobility suggests that the association between parents’ SES and their children’s status is larger among post-graduate than bachelor’s degree recipients” (2).
PhD students whose parents have advanced degrees are more likely to become academic faculty.
The results of the study indicate that “across all disciplines, over half (51.8%) of faculty have at least one parent with a master’s degree or PhD” (4). Importantly, there is a strong correlation between parental education and academic support. Ultimately, this means that PhD students whose parents have advanced degrees are more likely to complete their degrees and go on to become academic faculty.
Is a PhD right at any age?
We need to get past the debilitating, unethical narrative that says PhD programs must be utterly grueling.
In the end, one’s success in a PhD program actually has almost nothing to do with age. You are never too old to get a PhD if your family’s (or your own) income or educational background position you to succeed.
The questions we should be asking are: how can we restructure PhD programs so that they provide the maximum academic, financial, and emotional support for all promising students, regardless of family SES or educational background? How can we rethink the PhD pipeline?
And, finally, how can we get past the debilitating, and frankly unethical, narrative that says that PhD programs must be utterly grueling, emotionally draining, and downright nasty at times?
Chappell, B. (2021, November 7). He always wanted a Ph.D. in physics. He finally earned it at 89. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/11/07/1052005447/brown-university-89-phd-physics-dream
Employment Opportunities. (2019, November 15). Data snapshot: Graduate students, social class, and academia’s promise. AAUP. https://www.aaup.org/article/data-snapshot-graduate-students-social-class-and-academia%E2%80%99s-promise
Evans, T. (2018, July 12). It’s never too late to stretch your wings: Why I got a Ph.D. at age 66. Science.org. https://www.science.org/content/article/its-never-too-late-stretch-your-wings-why-i-got-phd-age-66
Kang, K. (2021). Survey of Earned Doctorates. https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf22300/data-tables
Litalien, D. (2015, May 12). Improving PhD completion rates: where should we start? Wiley.com. https://www.wiley.com/network/researchers/writing-and-conducting-research/improving-phd-completion-rates-where-should-we-start
Miller, M. (2016, April 15). Taking on the ph.D. later in life. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/16/your-money/taking-on-the-phd-later-in-life.html
Morgan, A., LaBerge, N., Larremore, D., Galesic, M., Brand, J. E., & Clauset, A. (2021). Socioeconomic roots of academic faculty. In SocArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/6wjxc
Oh, B., & Kim, C. (2020). Broken promise of college? New educational sorting mechanisms for intergenerational association in the 21st century. Social Science Research, 86(102375), 102375. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2019.102375
Ziaee, D. (Last Updated: July 22 2019). Aren’t you too old for that? The late life plunge into a PhD. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/sunday/the-sunday-edition-october-14-2018-1.4858401/aren-t-you-too-old-for-that-the-late-life-plunge-into-a-phd-1.4858402