OK, so you are in your late 20s or 30s, and you are thinking of doing a PhD. I am sure you are thinking, is doing a PhD in your 30s crazy? The answer is an definite ‘no.’ While many people start their PhD before they turn 30, or immediately after their undergraduate education, it is absolutely normal to start a PhD in your 30s. It is OK to do a PhD in your 30s.
What happens when you start your PhD in your 30s? In many fields, starting your PhD in your thirties is absolutely normal. The one that is nearest to me is pursuing a PhD in Business Administration. In my strategy program, I was a typical age to start a PhD in the sciences (25 years old), but I was the youngest by about 5 years. Read this post if you want to learn how many hours that professors work each week (It’s very interesting). Pretty near the majority of the people I know that have done a PhD in Business Administration, has started their PhD in their late 20s and early 30s.
If you want to watch the video for this post about doing your PhD in your 30s, check out:
Why do people pursue a PhD in their 30s in the business school?
Most of the time, the reason why people start their PhDs in Business administration in their 30s is because they tend to favor people that have an MBA or an equivalent degree. Most of these MBA programs require you to have at least a couple of years of work experience before you apply. Indeed, students are often discouraged if they want to apply right after their undergraduate degree to gain experience in the workforce.
Another important factor is that many people do not know what they want to do when they grow up until they work for a while. You would be surprised the number of engineers, lawyers, and accountants that decide that they like studying and discovery a lot more than the day-to-day operations of running a business. The reason they were in those programs was because they liked the challenge, but when the get their real jobs, they realize that the real job was not nearly as challenging as the education to obtain the degree.
Some people also might have multiple goals and dreams in their life. Having conflicting goals and dreams in life is fundamentally human. Indeed, on a poll on R3ciprocity in 2020 (n=23), 57% of the people suggested that they wanted to become a scientist or engineer when they were a kid. Many people might have chosen a safer career path, but then decided to pick up on this dream that they had as a youngster.
Finally, life changes a lot for many people. What sounds like a sexy career in your early 20s fades quickly. Many people that go into business as a consultant or a manager work long-hours away from home, have to put up with the daily commute, and travel extensively. Many people are drawn to the academic career because you get a lot more flexibility. You still have to work many long hours, but you get to choose (at least some degree) the place that you do you work.
Some people even do multiple PhDs as well! They change their academic career by doing so.
We all have our doubts in academia-this is normal. You can check out why all of us struggle with self-doubt in this post about impostor syndrome (It’s helpful to know why).
In sum, it is totally normal to start a PhD in Business Administration in your early and even late 30s.
I used to think that there was all these tips and hacks to becoming a Business Professor, but now, I don’t think so for a number of reasons. Check out this post about productivity tips and non-hacks for your PhD journey.
By the way, if you do not know what to expect with grad school, and you are thinking of going to grad school. You might want to watch this video about the pros and cons of going to grad school. I hope it will be useful for you.
How about in other fields? How common is starting your PhD in your 30s or 40s, compared to your 20s?
Again, it is totally common to see people that start a PhD late in life. While the proportion of younger folks is much higher in many fields, you will still see a proportion of them that are in their 30s and 40s. One thing that you will realize with a PhD is that the reasons why people choose to pursue a PhD or a research career are surprisingly diverse. Doing a PhD is a pretty intimate affair because you have to be self-motivated to stick with the career.
However, I am going out on the limb to point out that there are definite advantages and disadvantages to starting your academic career later in life. This career, of course, is like any other career, but the lag between when you put in your efforts and when you see rewards is quite long. Doing research is closer to drug discovery than working at a Walmart. It is closer to becoming a chess grandmaster or a world-class musician than being a lawyer. In the later examples, the returns are quick and relatively instant. You work, you get paid. In the former, it takes years of practice to reap any rewards. A good rough estimate is to say that it will take 25 years before you reap substantial rewards from doing a PhD (4-7 years for your PhD, 5-7 years for getting tenure, 10 years for becoming a full professor). It just takes a long time before you peak out in the career.
By the way, you really need to understand why it takes so long by reading this post about how PhD students are evaluated. I also have a great post on the advantages and disadvantages of doing your doctorate.
What Is The Average Age Of PhD Student?
You would be surprised on how old most people that start a doctorate are, particularly in more professional oriented degrees. For example, if you check out this survey from the Council of Graduate Schools, it appears that the median age of a PhD student graduate is roughly around 33 years old. There is a super interesting NSF document that shows the cohort of people that are 30s that are starting a PhD is growing over time. But, in a graduate program, you learn that you should learn never take averages at face value! There is a large distribution of when people get their PhD. In other words, the average age of a PhD student can vary a lot between programs, institutions, and countries.
Indeed, if you look at this poll of the R3ciprocity community about age of starting a PhD (who is predominately made up of people that are grad students, professors, academics, and folks who are interested in research), the average starting age was around 29. However, the distribution of PhD age is really quite spread out. Note: This social media poll should be interpreted cautiously, as you are likely aware of the problems of social media. Yet, it is very much illustrative that you are normal to start a PhD at almost any age. There is no “best” age for PhD, just whatever is right for you.
A PhD Is Not Like A Masters / MBA In Your 30s.
You can recover your costs and have a good ROI with a MBA / Masters in your PhD. However, with a PhD, you have to forgo your wages for a very long time. I would highly recommend a Masters in your 30s, but for a PhD, you have to be committed to the program. You need to really want it.
What Does This Long Lag-time Mean If You Are Thinking Of Doing A PhD And Your Age?
I want to clarify upfront that I am not specifying that you need to be a certain age to do a PhD. I am also not discriminating based on age, either. Many people in academia have sky-rocketing careers late in life, after they were doing research in obscurity for years. Indeed, this is quite normal in academia, particularly if someone was working on a strange idea that did not get attention until other people take it seriously. You can also start your PhD late (say in your 50s), and become outstanding productive until your 80s. This is one of the joys of getting your PhD – you don’t have to stop at a specific time if you love the career. While you might have to formally retire (become an emeritus professor), many professors keep interacting in academia late in life.
However, there are advantages and disadvantages of doing a PhD in your 30s and 40s. Consider the following:
Research Outcomes Take a Long Time.
If you choose to do a research intensive PhD in Business, you should know that the outcomes of doing research generally take a long time. To get tenure at almost all universities, it will take you about 10-15 years by the time you start your PhD to when you get tenure. For example, if you start your PhD in Strategy in your 40s, you might not get tenure at a Business School until you are 55. This could be even later if you experience any ‘life’ during this time, and experiencing ‘life’ is quite likely.
I should also point out that not getting tenure is not all that bad – it just means you have to move to another institution or try another career. Depending on your view, this could be a good or bad thing for you. Often, this might mean that you get to go on an adventure to a new city or country, meet new people, and see how things work in a new location.
I have learned a lot about how long doing a PhD takes, and I have detailed how long most PhDs now take in this blog post (most other websites are not accurate).
Young PhDs Have Less Credibility In The Classroom.
Young PhD’s are usually greatly discounted in the classroom. This is especially true if you are expecting to teach Executives or MBAs. It is not uncommon if you graduate with a PhD in Business Administration or a related degree (PhD in Managerial Economics or A Doctorate in Business Administration) when you are young to be teaching Executives that are 5-10 years older than you are. Being younger can create an awkward situation because you cannot teach based on wisdom or to simply say ‘do as I do.’ Rather, young PhDs have to teach based on novelty, intellect, and knowledge. This is not to say that older PhDs do not have the same struggles, however, they can rely a bit more on wisdom arguments. In general, being older is often an asset if you want to teach.
Extensive Work Experience Gives You An Edge With Administration Roles.
At the current moment, academia is facing a situation where many senior faculty are looking to retire in the near future. These are all of the baby-boomers. The problem is that because tenure requirements have generally increased over the years (particularly within competitive academic fields), few people are able to replace their administrative roles. Thus, if you do have related management experience in other fields or industries, and you are lucky enough to get tenure at a university, you are in a very fortunate position from an administrative position. People with administrative experience might actually have an advantage when they are thinking of roles like the Dean of a Business School, or some role like that. They are likely to have an easier time convincing others that they are suitable for the role.
Work-life Balance Is More Challenging If you Enter A PhD A Little Bit Older Than Others.
If you have a family or friends (ok – I might be the only one. 🙂 ), you will face many more demands as you get older. For example, you might have to run your little ones to school, take care of sick parents, or care for friends that need emotional support. Just because you are older and you have more experiences, you like have more connections with people, which may pull you in different directions with obligations.
These obligations are important to deal with, but know that doing a PhD will put a lot more stress on these relationships, and many people might not understand what is expected of you during the PhD. Indeed, nobody knows what a PhD is, unless you actually have a PhD.
Just be aware that you might have to learn how to balance these demands as you do you PhD. I guess for some people, it might be easier because you might have established yourself financially, which might give you a little more slack resources to take your time with your research. Or, you might be able to do things like rent or buy a more comfortable home in grad school, or have house-cleaners help with your weekly chores.
Either way, there is not a good answer as people of all ages face resource constraints, but it is something to consider if you pursue your PhD in your 30s or 40s.
You Might Affect Your Student-Advisor Relationship.
One of the cool advantages of being a bit older in graduate school is that you might have more in common with your PhD advisor. In business school, it is extremely common to see PhD students that are just as old, or older, as their advisor. The benefit, then, is that you can connect more readily with the business professors. You might be less intimidated from status divide between PhD and advisor, allowing you to have increased communication and trust. We created a pretty awesome blog post about meeting with PhD advisors which you should read.
Doing A PhD In Your 30s May Give You A Different Perspective.
For me, my 20s was a great learning experience. I am sure that I am not the only one that learnt a lot about life in my 20s. You go through a lot of transitions: Finishing undergraduate school, first job, first real relationships (I got married), first home, first heartbreaks (my Dad and Father-in-Law died), and many other things. I personally grew up. Of course, I would have said that about every year of my life, but your 20s seem more instrumental for some reason.
My major breakthrough was when I realized that life was not about what I can get, but rather about what I can I do for others. It seems like a rather mundane change in perspective, but it had rather large impacts on my life, marriage, and academic relationships. It would be nice to know some of those ideas when I first entered the PhD, but then again, maybe I might not have pursued a PhD, but that is hard to know.
What I do see though, and I have had many wonderful discussions with others, is that people that enter a PhD program in their 30s and 40s (whether it be a PhD in Business, or something else) have a different perspective. Maybe it is because people worked for many years in the business world, or they did want they wanted to do. Many people that enter later in life enter the PhD because they truly want to become an academic. When you enter really in your 20s, you kind of view getting a PhD as a stepping stone towards some larger career, which is good of course, but just is different. By the way, you might want to watch this video about getting a PhD in Business Administration to become a consultant:
Doing A PhD In Your 30s Is Not Crazy.
In summary, I think there are many things to consider if you are thinking of doing a PhD in your 30s. In many fields of study, you will be absolutely normal and fit in with the other students (ie. business administration). Many people do their PhD in their 30s and 40s. However, from my experience, life does get a bit more challenging as you age because you gain a few more obligations. If your total number of obligations has not changed much over the years, this probably won’t affect you, but if you are like me, it will.
If you are truly passionate about research and thinking about ideas, I would highly recommend a PhD. Why do a PhD? Because you love to learn and you like the idea of search and discovery. There is no other great reason to do a PhD, other than you like the ‘hunt’ for new ideas.
There are so many myths before your start your own PhD journey. You can read 10 of the most common myths in this post. You do learn some pretty cool ideas that you will not be able to learn in any other setting. The key thing to remember is that you will not get financially rich (relative to those that pursue industry careers), but you will be rich in insight and knowledge. And, yes, you can’t ‘eat’ knowledge, so you have to be somewhat practical with this choice, and weigh the pros and cons for pursuing a PhD for yourself.
The R3ciprocity Project
I should qualify who I am. I am David Maslach, an Assistant Professor in Strategy, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, and am doing an interesting project. As part of my research, and years of listening to Dave Ramsey – by the way, his advice is quite sound from a behavioral economics / strategy perspective (there are very few things that I would disagree with his approach) – I wanted to create a sharing economy proofreading platform where I could help out as many people as I could. I was thinking a lot about ways I could positively contribute to society (mid-life crisis anyone?) and reciprocity. Reciprocity is often discussed in the context of innovation where there are many people that do things online where they expect to get little back in return. Josh Lerner and Eric von Hippel had some interesting ideas that I wanted to explore further. There was also a creditability revolution that was occurring in science, which had a part in the project, but this was later on, and is a longer story.
Anyway, long story short, I created the r3ciprocity.com as a way to give back, but then I realized. Oh crap – nobody even knows this site exists. What do I do now? I did a bit of paid advertising, but then I thought, it might be better for me just to lean into this reciprocity idea, and try to give back even more. Thus, started my YouTube channel, and this blog where I try to give back even more than before. Right now, I try to give back to the people that I know the most – people that are interested in research, graduate school, business administration, strategy, and innovation.