The 20-Something PhD: Possible?

Some young people ask, am I too young to pursue a PhD in my twenties? This is a great question that does not have an easy answer. There are pros and cons to doing a PhD program in your twenties.

Outlined below are some of the potential advantages and disadvantages of starting a PhD program in your twenties. In addition to considering age and stage of life, everyone should carefully think about whether or not it is a good idea to pursue a PhD before sending in that application. You will be investing three to six, or more, years of your life in pursuit of a PhD so treat this decision very seriously and consider every pro and con.

Check out this post on how long it actually takes to get a doctorate. You will be surprised.

Dave began his doctoral career at the age of 25. He says, “absolutely, you can do your doctorate in your twenties, but in your twenties you are on the young side.” The average age for starting a doctoral program is the late twenties. Starting in your late twenties will mean graduating in your early to mid-thirties. But many people do not begin a doctoral program until their thirties. Then there are those who start in midlife either while they are raising kids or making a career transition. There are advantages to pursuing a PhD in your thirties or in midlife as well.

Here is Dave talking about some of the advantages and disadvantages of starting your doctoral career in your twenties, which are expanded on below:

This post was written by Dr. Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD in Social Work) on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

Advantages of pursing a PhD in your twenties

1. You will have ample time to build your research resume

One of the most important advantages of starting a doctoral program young, according to Dave, is having a longer time to build up your research pipeline in academia or in industry. The academic game is focused on academic research, so Dave talks a bit more about this. If you enter a doctoral program in your twenties, you will have a great research resume by your thirties. If you enter a program in late middle age, however, you will not have built up an impressive body of research until perhaps retirement age! It can take a good ten to fifteen years to build up a body of research and become respected as an expert in a particular area.

Accumulation of ideas and research is what matters in academia. If you start in your twenties, you will have a great head start and will be well established in your academic career (hopefully) by your thirties. This will make you more marketable in academia and provide you with plenty of time to become a well-respected authority in your particular area. Many programs do not even consider hiring a professorial candidate unless they have a number of publications (this varies a lot between discipline!) so, those who begin their doctoral careers younger will have ample time to write ten or so papers by their thirties.

Also, you are still be highly optimistic about doing research when you are young (you do not have to become negative about research when you’re older, but some negativity and burnout may creep in) and this will shine through and inspire others.

2. You have more freedom to relocate and travel

When you are young, you may not yet have children and your parents are still young; therefore, you have fewer caregiving obligations. You will have less obligations and connections to worry about, that can distract you from research. You can travel more freely to teach, study, or conduct research abroad.

You can also relocate to attend a preferred a program. With fewer family and professional obligations, you may be able to move through a program more quickly. If you do not have a romantic partner or spouse yet, you also will have more freedom to move around and travel. You can live in a large city where many great research universities and institutions are located when you do not have kids.

Check out this blog post on moving for grad school. You will love it!

3. You have that youthful energy and optimism

When you are in your twenties you are often in optimal health (although there are many exceptions to this rule, as some people are healthier during subsequent decades). You can still pull an all-nighter when you are young; but you probably should not really do that in graduate school as your course assignments and work really should be taken very seriously and the utmost time and effort should be invested in learning. People view you as young and eager and want to be around someone with these traits. You are likely idealistic and optimistic which will also propel you toward doing your best. You are laying the groundwork for your career so you will be driven to do high quality work and get noticed.

4. You are used to being a student

See below for some cons about entering a PhD student when your main experience to date has been being a student, but there are some pros as well.

You are used to being a student. You are in the academic mindset and writing papers is what you do. You are not intimated about being on campus or in a classroom because you are used to it. You know how to hack your way through some academic things (although you should be a much more serious student as a doctoral student. Overall, you are continuing to do what you know best, and you are very good at it.

5. You have more time for friendships and peer support

In your twenties you have more time for friendships and peer support. This is particularly important when you are single because being in academia and an adult student can be isolating and highly stressful. In your twenties you have more time and enthusiasm for joining young professional groups and other professional associations. This is something many older students miss out on because of time constraints, other obligations, and sometime lack of interest in networking and meeting new people. Friendships in your twenties are an invaluable support and something many people with kids and other family obligations miss. You can also relocate based on where your support network is and travel with friends.

Disadvantages of pursing a PhD in your twenties

1. You may lack of real-world work experience

If you begin a PhD program in your twenties, your work history will be brief. You may have only a few years of real-world job experience, if that. You will have spent most of your career being a student if you moved quickly from college to a master’s program. This lack of real-world experience can mean there is some naïveté about life, work, and academia.

You may be overly idealistic and lack experiences of having difficult bosses or colleagues, knowing how to balance work and life, or having a healthy perspective about success. This potential disadvantage will vary by discipline as some academic fields require a much greater understanding of real-world practice or industry to be successful as a researcher or professor. But, in other disciplines that experience being a student, retaining knowledge, writing papers, and developing ideas may be more important.

2. You will have limited funds and may run into financial difficulties

Most people in their twenties are not millionaires and these days struggle to even leave home, rent their own apartment, and have some semblance of financial independence until their late twenties. When you are older or have kids, you might actually be better able to balance the financial aspects of a doctoral program if you have a spouse with a full-time job and health insurance. Taking out a loan to pay for a PhD program when you are in your twenties and still in debt from college and grad school can be a daunting prospect. It is difficult to start life in so much debt and can lead to mental health problems. If you are entering a program in your twenties, choose a program (even if you have to relocate) that can give you best deal in terms of tuition remission, research assistantships, teaching assistantships, scholarships, and other forms of financial aid.

Check out this YouTube video about how to pay for grad school.

3. Having real life distractions can actually ground you

When you are a young full-time student you sometimes identify too much with your career, school, and/or research. You have limited distractions, and thus may actually be more prone to developing mental health issues. Being a caregiver can help you put what is most challenging and important into perspective. But also, being a student while having young children will give you a sense of moving forward in your career while you cannot work full-time and a sense of accomplishment and excitement. It will also help you stay connected with the professional world.

4. Mental health issues often emerge in your twenties

The majority of mental health issue emerge in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Being a young doctoral student can be quite isolating and stressful. Many graduate and doctoral students develop depression or anxiety; or the symptoms of an even more serous mental illness that runs in their family may manifest at this time. The importance of social support, quality mental health services, and self-care cannot be overstated for students in their twenties. It is a very tough decade in terms of identity and professional development, and in securing or forming lifelong relationships and friendships. People in their thirties and in mid-life are often better able to handle the stressors of being a student because they have more life experience, support, stable relationships, and resilience.

5. People may treat you like you are young and inexperienced

Older people have been known to treat anyone under thirty, or who looks under thirty, like an inexperienced kid in the workplace or academia. This is an unfortunate bias that does occur. They may even take advantage of your perceived less life experience (even if you have experience things as a young person that they never did in their greater number of years). You may appear to lack confidence in public speaking or teaching or feel insecure in your authority or knowledge because you are younger than most of your student and professional colleagues.

On the flipside, some people in their twenties are overconfident which can come across as being a know it all (often for no good reason- and this is really annoying to older colleagues). You may lack life experience, social skills, or maturity which can come across in how you relate to professors, classmates, and colleagues. You are likely going to be rough around the edges and have some more learning to do about how to interact with others. You may also be intimated by working with older established professors, especially those who are your parent’s age. But you will lean on your age peers who are in a similar life stage and experiencing many of the same challenges and insecurities; and in solidarity, the youngest generation in a doctoral program or at work, or in a profession can have a lot of power and influence!

In this vlog, Dave discusses how to increase your confidence as a doctoral student

The bottom line

There is a lot to consider when deciding what is the best stage of life to pursue a PhD. The best time will vary for each individual who wants to pursue the highest degree one can get in their respective discipline. I would lean toward advising young people to at least wait until their late twenties to apply and enter a doctoral program, but this is largely a personal decision, and it might be perfectly fine to start when you are in your early 20s. By then you will have had a few years of non-academic real world work experience and some life experience as well. But if you have the opportunity to do a combined master’s/PhD program, go for it, even if you are still in your twenties. It will take you less time and you will have ample opportunities during and after the program to get that practical research experience in academia or industry.

For me personally, the best time to pursue a PhD was when my child started elementary school and my husband had a good paying job. I studied part-time and worked part-time, including as a TA, to earn tuition remission. But everyone’s life course varies, and you should think about all of the pros and cons, in addition to age and life stage, before making the profoundly important and life changing decision to dedicate three to six (or more??) years of your life to intensive study, teaching, and research.  

Check out these additional resources that will help you:

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