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I am 33. I live in the US. I am a neither a US citizen, nor a green card holder. I have worked in various jobs as a research assistant (physics, biology, economics) usually involving programming, mathematics or statistics. As a newly minted undergraduate, I didn't really have much confidence in myself and I completely ruled out graduate school as pointless. I didn't think of myself as smart enough. I drifted into working in labs, because those are some of the easiest ones for which one can get a work permit in the US as a non-American.

Having worked in academia for a while now, I've had a chance to leap into various fields and help build solutions to complex problems. I think I have literally gone as far as I can go researching in academia with no higher degree. I work at one of the top universities in the world. (If you looked at US News rankings or the Academic Ranking of World Universities, it's in the top 5.)

Lately, I've been thinking about applying for graduate school. I do have a few papers in various fields. I'm thinking of a PhD in either pure mathematics, applied mathematics, statistics or computer science.

I see two big minuses to applying to graduate school:

  1. Most people applying are more than a decade younger than I am. (Alas, more than a few gray hairs have made an appearance in recent years.)

  2. Perhaps my achievements would look good for someone younger, but partially my achievements are the result of a long career rather than any special brilliance. So, I wonder how my record will be perceived. I did take GRE and I scored 800 quantitative, 800 verbal and a 5 on the essay. (I would most likely have to do a GRE subject test depending on what field I ultimately decided.)

Please advise on how accomplished, but older candidates, are viewed in the graduate school application process.

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Don't sweat it. Accomplished but older candidates are viewed as accomplished candidates. What you view as minuses are, in my experience, positives. –  mankoff Mar 27 '12 at 20:02
    
Check the webpages off departments you will apply. If there are freshers and no mature candidates then they don't prefer them. –  user3997 Nov 1 '12 at 21:19
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8 Answers

Anecdotal, but: I was 31 when I started my PhD, and it wasn't an obstacle at all. There were more than 80 applicants for two places. I have the impression that what matters a lot (at least in neuroscience, at least at my institute) is how much training the supervisor would have to invest in you. I've seen many times that the applicant who already did some similar research gets the position, even though there might have been someone else who is in principle just as good. Previous research experience carries a lot of weight.

From what you write, it seems to me that you would have a very good chance in getting into a program - publications and good GRE scores are both a big plus. Recommendation letters are also important. I would be surprised if your age would be an obstacle. But beware that it might be an obstacle for some sources of funding! I don't know if it is the case in the US, but I'd guess that's the only potential problem with your age.

...And now we wait for someone on the other side of the application process to give their answer :)

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+1 I was 25 when I started my B.S. and now I am 30 finishing my M.S. and starting a PhD. The hardest thing for me was giving up my salary and office to become a full time student –  John B Apr 2 '13 at 4:47
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Age is something we might notice, but is rarely an issue. In fact, there are many schools where the added maturity you'd have would be a major plus, because you'd be able to articulate some clear research directions and would be able to get into research directly. If so, then you should be clear to say so in your statement.

While this is unlikely to come up in the application process, it might also be helpful to think about what your post-Ph.D career plans would be. Would you want to move into a research job (in academia or elsewhere) or is a Ph.D just something you'd like to do for the purpose of research exploration ? Because this age discrepancy issue will come up again and again in the academic line of work.

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Again, anecdotally: age is simply not a factor in applications. That being said, you'll also be expected to do all the things grad students would do; put in the hard work, write the papers, be available for conferences and such, take courses, act as a TA, and put in the necessary hours to get the work done. Given your description above, though, you're familiar with what the requirements are, so that shouldn't be a problem; if anything, you can put it to your advantage that you're more familiar with the experience than all those inexperienced undergraduates. Good luck with the application process!

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I do have to say that I have seen the age issue work both ways:

  • I do know of programs that are biased against older applicants, unless they have remained "active" in research-related fields; these tend to be "cutting-edge technology"-type programs where out-of-date knowledge is essentially useless for research purposes. These locations have also been international, where the funding situation is quite different in the US.

  • In the US, I do not know of any age-specific bias; technically, it's probably against the law in most states. On a personal level, I have known many students who have returned to academia after extensive careers outside of it, and some of them in fields quite far removed from anything of a traditional "academic" nature. The ones who returned to academia with a clear sense of purpose have thrived, and many of them have even won prestigious fellowships. On the other hand, I've also known people who have been unable to hack the rigors of a graduate education and essentially gave up within a few weeks.

In general, though, if you know what you want to do, and can convince someone to give you a shot, you have an excellent shot at getting a good PhD and having a fruitful career.

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33 is not old. We had 40+ year olds in my Ph.D. program.

The biggest hurdle might actually be that your study habits are rusty. You might consider taking a single class in the field as a continuing ed student just to get back in the studying grove. A good grade and reference from your professor won't hurt either and will show you're on top of your academic game.

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This is also anecdotal but I was 32 when I applied to graduate school and started when I was 33. My observations have been the following:

Many of the professors that I've interacted with (some of whom are inevitably going to be part of the admissions process) are very positive about accepting older students, especially if they have work experience. From what I've been able to tell, the reasoning is that having worked and been out in the real world, you probably have a better idea of what you want to do and where you're going. In addition, you are more likely to be dependable about getting the work done, will bring more experience to the table, and have more realistic expectations and strategies for coping with things. This can be really good for getting an RAship and it sounds like your research experience will make it even more applicable.

On the other hand, being a student again means that in many cases people will make assumptions about what you do and don't know and how you will act. I've had a number of people treat me like I've never worked before, making comments about, "You'll find out once you've actually worked..." and things like that. This can make a difference in how you're treated, it's disconcerting to be treated like a student again after being more of an equal with all of the people you're working with.

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I have a friend who worked in the automotive industry (all the bigwigs in the US) for about 7-8 years after his Bachelors degree. He joined a university for a PhD at 31 about 2 years and he is well on his way now having finished his qualifiers etc.

Although he isn't working in mathematics, I think it's fine to start your PhD in your 30s. You might actually have an advantage because you have several years of practical/research experience and also maturity that 20 year olds may not have.

Good luck!

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It really depends on your field and the admission committee. Some fields like mature candidate with lots of industry experience as they can be productive at lab work etc.

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