There is no age limitation to getting a PhD. In fact, getting a PhD later in life has a lot of advantages. Older PhD students tend to master the ups and downs of doing a PhD better than those who start the process at a younger age. Here are ten reasons why.
1. You bring a wealth of experience
One of academia’s major criticisms is that many academics sit in the so-called ‘ivory tower’. It means that many academics are rather detached from the rest of the world, and pursue research that lacks practical implications.
Older PhD students, however, bring a wealth of experience from outside of academia to their PhD. These experiences shape their worldview and allows them to be more reflective when it comes to the connection between theory and practice.
Even if previous experiences are thematically disconnected from their PhD topic, they provide older PhD with advantages. Think, for example, of experiences in professional settings, such as collaborating with diverse groups of people or dealing with conflict.
2. You have more self-confidence
On average, older PhD students are more confident than younger ones. One simple reason is that confidence often comes with experience. Older PhD students had more opportunities in the past to prove themselves. They have experience with handling criticism. And they overcame challenges in the past.
Combined, these experiences tend to give older PhD students a stronger sense of control over their life. Older PhD students are more aware of what they are capable of. And speaking from experience, they know that they will get through difficult times.
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3. You have created a life outside of academia
Academia can easily become all-consuming. Those who finish high school, go straight to a bachelor’s programme, sometimes a master’s programme, and then immediately do a PhD often have the majority of their social relations with people who are also working in academia.
There is nothing wrong with having a social network within academia. Instead, strong academic networks are very much encouraged. However, having for instance all your friends also doing a PhD makes it much harder to switch off from work.
Older PhD students tend to have a more diverse network of friends. They have established hobbies and some have started a family. Having a life outside of academia makes it easier to put work aside and focus on other important aspects of life. This ability is fundamental for a PhD student’s mental health and well-being.
4. You treat your PhD as an activity, not your identity
Older PhD students spent time outside of the university, and outside of formal education. They have established their lives and identities disconnected from their academic achievements, such as good grades on exams or praise for their university assignments.
Therefore, older PhD students tend to treat their PhD as an activity, rather than their sole identity. This means that they consider a PhD work. Something they do for several years. As a result, if something does not go as planned in their PhD (think of a failed experiment or issues with their theoretical framework), they don’t immediately question their whole purpose in life.
5. Your financial situation is in order
Older PhD students tend to have their financial situation in order. The reason is simple: A PhD often goes hand in hand with rather small stipends or limited income. After several years in the non-academic workforce, older PhD students (have to) make a conscious decision to pursue a PhD regardless of the financial drawbacks.
Therefore, many older PhD students make financial calculations and create firm financial plans before committing to a PhD programme. They know what to expect, more frequently do part-time PhDs to continue earning a living outside of academia, or have amassed considerable savings in advance.
6. You are less affected by peer pressure
Peer pressure is one of the driving forces that lead many PhD students to experience symptoms of burnout. If PhD students know that all their peers work during evenings and weekends, it is hard for them not to do the same. After all, PhD students want to keep up with their peers.
Older PhD students, however, are less affected by this peer pressure. They often find themselves in a different stage of life than their peers, which makes it easier to detach themselves from their peer group and to avoid comparisons.
Additionally, older PhD students know that rest is as important as work and makes them more productive (and competitive) in the long term.
7. You are better at setting boundaries
Many PhD students have the feeling that whatever they do is never enough. There are always more experiments to conduct, more articles to read and more papers to write.
Older PhD students are much better at setting boundaries, which is a pivotal skill when doing a PhD. They know that no one can do it all, and that sometimes it is better to say ‘no’. Instead of over-committing, they focus on a manageable amount of tasks and complete them well.
And because older PhD students are more self-confident, they are also better at openly communicating their boundaries.
8. You are more self-aware of your strength and weaknesses
Self-awareness is the first step to acknowledging your strengths and working on your weaknesses. Older PhD students tend to have more self-awareness than younger ones. This allows them to play on their strength in their PhD research.
At the same time, self-awareness helps older PhD students to put systems in place to tackle their weaknesses. For instance, if older PhD students know that they tend to commit to too many things at once, they implement a 24h rule: Whenever a new opportunity emerges, they think it over for at least 24h before making a decision.
9. You truly appreciate time to read and learn
Many PhD students dread reading literature and easily feel lost in the sheer amount of articles, books and reports published in their research field. Older PhD students, however, tend to truly appreciate the ability to sit down, read and learn.
Older PhD students often feel a higher sense of appreciation when it comes to reading simply for the sake of learning. Why? Because many of them have not done this in the while. In many non-academic professions, time to read and learn something new is rare.
10. Your motivation to do a PhD is strong
There are many different reasons and motivations to do a PhD. What sets many older PhD students apart is a very strong motivation.
Doing a PhD at an older age is often a more life-altering decision than for younger people. It often means letting go of a more standard 9-5 job, considerable income and security in exchange for uncertainty. Without strong motivation, this change is difficult. However, most older PhD students are not regretting this choice!