I'm in my late 30's and started a Ph.D. program and am wondering what my academic career prospects are. From my understanding, after the Ph.D., there are 2-3 years of postdoc, then 4-6 years of tenure-track before becoming a Prof. Is that correct?

My field is machine learning (or artificial intelligence) and I'm in the US.

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    Broadly speaking, can you tell us what field you are in? In my experience this can vary pretty widely. – Jeff Feb 24 '20 at 14:59
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    Updated the question with relevant information – Shamoon Feb 24 '20 at 15:03
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    If you work hard and get extremely lucky on the job market, that's what your career could look like. In practice, you may need to spend 5+ years as a postdoc, and even then that's no guarantee of landing a tenure-track or permanent job. – astronat Feb 24 '20 at 15:29
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    @astronaut I don't believe that's true at all for data science and machine learning. But maybe turn your response into an answer? – Jeff Feb 24 '20 at 15:46
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    What are the academic career prospects for anyone!? – T_M Feb 25 '20 at 10:44

I think the answer here is that it depends on a lot of factors, but that you'll generally do better in the Machine Learning field than you would in many of the older, more established fields.

For starters, there's just not that many people out there with PhDs in Machine Learning. I'm an economist, but I've spent a lot of time working around the edges of machine learning and data science. Many of the faculty in that area have degrees in different but related fields. Econ, stats, math, and computer science are common.

Machine learning is also an incredibly hot field right now. Before I went back to academia I worked in applied research, and finding an experienced person with a "data scientist" title in their job history was a nightmare. Private sector jobs are common, and the salaries are high, which pulls people away from academia.

So while being an older graduate hitting the job market may be a challenge in academia, I think the shortage of talent available in this field will offset it. Especially if you have relevant work experience in data science, research, and/or machine learning from before now.

On a side note, unless your goal is specifically to do PhD research (i.e. are you interested in applying ML in teaching or research, or are you interested in working on the mathematical underpinnings?) in the field and earn tenure, you can accomplish a lot, even in academia, with a master's degree in this field. Might be something to explore if you decide not to go the whole way.

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    Can you elaborate a bit on “you can accomplish a lot, even in academia, with a master’s degree”? – Dan Romik Feb 24 '20 at 18:29
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    Just as university examples personally known to me, people with MAs are full-time lecturers, and program directors in this field. – Jeff Feb 24 '20 at 20:17
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    Why is being an older graduate unquestionably a challenge in the academic job market? – Elizabeth Henning Feb 25 '20 at 0:08
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    I cannot speak for @Jeff, but I would say two practical impediments are older graduates being more likely to face two-body or other familial constraints, and general physical decline, particularly dealing with fatigue. And that's ignoring the challenges of outright age discrimination on behalf of hiring committees. – eclarkso Feb 25 '20 at 2:29
  • It's good to hear others don't think age is an issue. That hasn't matched my experience, but I edited it to say "may". – Jeff Feb 25 '20 at 14:46

A slightly utopian answer, but I’ll wait for all the naysayers out there to correct me if they want to:

Your academic career prospects as a beginning graduate student in your late 30’s are the same as they would be for a beginning graduate student of any other age group.

If you are talented and work hard, you will succeed. Don’t overthink this.

In addition to that, your area is super trendy and I’m hearing about a lot of hiring activity currently going on in this and related areas (anything that falls under the label of data science). So your prospects seem generally good, both in academia and (perhaps even more so) in industry.

Good luck!

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    Minor quibble: If you are talented and you work hard... – Mark Meckes Feb 24 '20 at 19:07
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    It's a nice hypothesis, but it's not backed up by evidence and I would venture the guess that it's wrong. – Wolfgang Bangerth Feb 25 '20 at 1:07
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    Kinda sad that complying with the law and basic ethics would be considered utopian. – Elizabeth Henning Feb 25 '20 at 2:10
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    @ElizabethHenning I never mentioned law and ethics. But yes, in general I agree it would be better if I could post the same answer without feeling like I ought to qualify it as slightly utopian. – Dan Romik Feb 25 '20 at 3:18
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    @WolfgangBangerth well, I personally know some successful academics who started their careers late. But you are correct that this is more based on personal opinion than on hard statistical data. Anyway, if you have evidence for your guess to the contrary, please share it. – Dan Romik Feb 25 '20 at 3:24

Your age is not the thing you should be worrying about. You only have one life and you should be working to live it as you find comfortable, pleasurable, useful, ...

The particular field you think you want to enter now should also be a secondary concern in terms of its "hotness". Whether it actually interests you and you feel it is worth pursuing is a much more important consideration. Your chosen field, whatever it is, will probably have a different "hotness index" when you finish than when you start.

You will be older in a few years whether you do the doctorate or not. If you don't, then where will you be in your life's plan. My former spouse finished a doctorate at about 40 and went on to a nice career. And, of course, a decision made now can be altered somewhere along the line as things, including your own needs, change.

Whether you need to spend time in a post-doc depends on a lot of things. Many people do now-a-days, but a lot of that is just the job market. If it takes you a few years to earn the doctorate then the market is highly likely to be different when you finish than when you start. Unfortunately you can't say whether it will be better or worse then, but that would be true if you were 20, now.

And being on the tenure track in the US (an assistant professor) is really being a professor. You just don't have quite the same job security as a tenured person, but the job is really just the same: Teaching, Research, Service in some proportion depending on the institution.

So, my best advice is to do what most appeals to your sense of self-worth.


Anecdotal evidence:

  1. I started in my PhD program at age 40, and now have a permanent faculty position (teaching) in Electrical Engineering.

  2. A friend was a little older than me when she started the program, and she is now an Assistant professor in computer science.

Here's what my friend and I found. As I aged, my raw ability to solve problems and memorize things has diminished. In exchange, I am really good at the following: prioritizing my time, presenting, writing, networking, taking initiative, and other important skills. Essentially, even though we're older, we still can have a good package, and other people know it.

  • I'd absolutely love to have a conversation with you if that's possible. Would that be okay? – Shamoon Feb 25 '20 at 13:44

By and large, ageism in academia is less pronounced than in many nonacademic fields. In some fields like pure math and theoretical physics, arguably there is a bias that young minds do the best work, but even there demonstrated research success overcomes that bias, and I believe it is less in computer science to begin with.

However, age often correlates with greater family responsibilities and less geographic and schedule flexibility. The "two-body problem", navigating the job market, is challenging enough for a couple in their 20s, starting out a life together but (usually, not always) without additional dependents, and a decent tolerance for temporary distance relationships and sleeping on lumpy couches. It then gets more difficult when a move is required (e.g. postdoc to junior tenure track) just as the family unit wants to put down roots.

Since you're about 10 years older, think about how you and those close to you will react when your academic career requires you to move to a different corner of the country when you're, say, 42. Maybe that's not a problem, or maybe your specific qualifications will be enough in demand that you can be choosy, but worth considering how much this will constrain the optimal random walk through academia your career will take.

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