In the recent years I have observed more often some existing limits on the age of a person pursuing an academic career and in the postdoc years spent after the PhD. For example, it is very common to read an academic job opening where the applicant must be under the age of 35 and at maximum must have spent 5 to 7 years of postdoc. It is well known for example that in China (maybe in all country or some part of it) that if you want to apply for an assistant professor position you must be under the age of 35 and not older.

What surprises and annoys me about these age limitations is that they seem to not take into account the academic structure of the country where the applicant got the PhD. For example, I got my PhD in Europe where in my country is valid the Bologna academic system (3+2+3) and I got my PhD regularly in time at the age of 27-28. Even if I wanted to finish my studies earlier, it was not possible to defend my PhD before the age 27-28 because the academic system in my country is structured in such a way that forbids you to end the studies before. On the other hand, there are some countries like the UK, Russia, USA, France etc., where in general the age when you finish your PhD is between 22-25. In these countries, as I was told by some colleagues, the academic system allows the students to finish their PhD regularly in time between the ages of 22-25.

The problem with the situations that I described above is that they tend to create discrimination based on age for someone pursuing an academic career because in some countries you can finish your PhD much earlier than in some others. Supposing for example that someone finishes the PhD at 23 in UK while some other person finishes the PhD at 27 in Italy or Germany, this age gap of 4 years would give an advantage to someone getting the PhD earlier in those cases where exists starting tenure track age limitations. Also the person who finishes the PhD earlier might have an advantage because has more time available to produce scientific output. In addition, it is very common to hear people in academia saying something like: " this person finished the PhD at 23 so he/she must be a genius" without taking into account the academic structure of the country that awarded the PhD.

My questions are:

  1. Have you already noticed in your academic career the situations that I described above?

  2. Does the university/institute where you work takes into account the PhD completion age of the tenure track candidate and the academic structure of the PhD awarding country?


This is an update to my question based on some comments that people have written so far. In my question I considered China as a matter of example where official age limitations exist. I also know some universities in EU that have introduced some age limitations as well for an assistant professor entry. The point of my question is to make people aware that if these age limitations become officially in many countries, then it is obvious that those people who get the PhD earlier have more advantages. The ugly truth is that theses age discriminations happen unofficially during candidate selection by a tenure track committee, where the person who got the PhD earlier is more favoured. I know this information from people that took part in a tenure track selection committee.

  • 3
    This way to open-ended. Questions should be answerable.
    – Arno
    Jul 16 at 22:11
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    "there are some countries like the UK, Russia, USA, France etc., where in general the age when you finish your PhD is between 22-25" Can't say about all those countries, but in the US if you start undergrad at 18, PhD at 22, you'd expect to have the degree around 27. Yes, it's possible to shave some time off if you do an undergraduate degree in 3 years or a PhD in <5, or start college as a minor, but that's not the norm at all. I'd guess the median PhD age in the US is well over 30, but that would be somewhat skewed by people getting professional PhDs eg in ed or nursing.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 16 at 22:49
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    At least in Germany (with old, non-structured PhD) and in Russia (at least in Soviet times), there were options to get your PhD earlier, if you were exceptional enough. I personally know someone, who got a PhD, like, in one year, but they are retired by now, so it's not a current thing. If you google the bios of quite some star mathematicians from the East Block, you'd see things like "got fast-tracked to PhD from school, omitting the university completely", "solved a famous problem XYZ as an undergrad, was immediately awarded a diploma and a PhD after its publication", and so on. Jul 16 at 22:52
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    I'll state the obvious (and vote to close): This is not a question, it is a rant. The underlying premise is also incorrect: overall there are fewer formal age restrictions on academic hiring than there have been in the past, and the trend is increasingly towards illegalizing age discrimination. Jul 17 at 1:27
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    I originally thought there could be some merit here despite what I see as some poor/misled assumptions, but with the edit I'll echo Elizabeth Henning: this is a rant. "The point of my question is to make people aware" is not indicative of a good question for Academia.SE. The site is meant to be about targeted Q&A, where questions are questions that anyone could ask and answers are answers that help others that find the question.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 17 at 1:35

As @Buffy says, in the U.S. (in math, my field), finishing a PhD is rarely achieved by age 22-25, but at a minimum something more like 27-28.

And, especially given the job market, there's no advantage to finish in 4 rather than 5, or rather than 6. For example, using a couple extra years of funding to get a couple papers out is far better than finishing as early as possible.

In principle, the only version of "age" that can be legally considered is "PhD age", meaning age since PhD. The idea is that senior people should not compete with new PhD's for postdocs. Yes, this does tend to create a situation in which there is a window in which to get/do a postdoc or two, after which it's tenure-track or nothing... more-or-less.

The U.S. system used to be less rigid, but that also did lend itself to various forms of abuse of junior people, stringing them along with some vague promise of maybe-tenure-someday... The rules that prohibit this do also accidentally create some other complications.

EDIT/ADDITION: In the U.S., there is no mandate to put one's birthdate on a CV, so one's chronological age is not immediately obvious. Probably, though, yes, date of B.S. gives a strong clue to chronological age (more, perhaps, than PhD date). Work-and-experience history would, too. And if people want to under-the-table determine chrono age, marital status, and all kinds of stuff, it is not possible to prevent it. ("Blind" applications would not succeed at this... though it's something to imagine, perhaps.)

For grad admissions, in fact, I am very interested in people who give evidence of being not-so-naive, a little more grown up. Sometimes this is correlated with other incidental experiences, etc., but not necessarily. (The joke is that "Sometimes age brings wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone".)

  • I wasn't able to start my postdoc because of Covid. What would PhD age would mean for me?
    – Mehta
    Jul 16 at 22:55
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    @Mehta, I myself would tend to count Covid Year as just a void in all our lives, ... But I don't know what conventions different places will make. Mercifully, we do not have recent precedents for the pandemic and its impacts... I suspect that some of the economic and structural ramifications will be permanent... and if people don't take it sufficiently seriously, the mess can/could linger for a long time. I have no idea... Jul 16 at 23:06
  • @paulgarrett NIH, for example, has some relevant policies already baked in. For example, for "early stage investigator status" which is for new PIs, mostly pre-tenure: "Some researchers may have lapses in their research or research training, or have experienced periods of less than full-time effort. NIH will consider requests to extend the ESI status period for reasons that can include: medical concerns, disability, family care responsibilities, natural disasters, and active duty military service, determined on a case by case basis at the sole discretion of NIH"
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 16 at 23:08
  • @BryanKrause Good! I was not aware of that! At my own place, it's only been relatively recently that any sort of non-hostile accommodation was made for family leave at all, even for new kids, etc. Decades ago, there were tenure-denial cases that were thinly-veiled prejudicial rejections of "people who got pregnant and took time off"... Jul 16 at 23:11
  • @paulgarrett Yeah, for sure. Of course the caveat is what NIH actually does in those circumstances vs when they say you can apply, which I know nothing about. And I'm guessing reduced productivity when kids are born might only count if you take the time off entirely. Alas.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 16 at 23:25

Actually, you are making a logical error. It isn't that some people have an advantage, it is just that you compete with a different cohort. But the number of people in the pool is about the same as it would be otherwise.

And, getting a doctorate at 22 in the US, at least, is very rare. It would require some special set of circumstances, which are possible, but not common. I think that 27 is much more common than 22, for example. And many are older still since there isn't a maximum time for doctoral studies. (I was a few months short of 29).

Moreover, I don't know what your remedy would be. Not permit a person who earned a degree at 22 to get an academic job for five years because your educational system is different?

Generally, with a few exceptions, people get hired for the work that they have done and how people (letter writers, say) project their future accomplishments. Not their age.

If there is age discrimination it is more likely at the other end; those who earn a degree at 45 or so.

If you want to work in a system like that of China, that is your choice, not their discrimination. It certainly isn't a conspiracy against you managed by the evil academics in China and Europe. You need to follow their rules, as does everyone else.

Much of what is disadvantaging you now is the pandemic combined with a terrible marketplace for academics generally. But that isn't discrimination. No one planned it. If you want to thrive in hard times, you need to work harder and smarter than your peers.

  • 1
    Where is the logical error?! Suppose that you and me will get the PhD in 2021. You are 23 years old and I am 28 years old. In addition suppose we want to apply for a tenure track position in China where does exist the age limit of 35 for an assistant professor. Who do you think has more advantages? Me or you? You will have 12 years to apply before the age deadline while I will have 7 years
    – Felix
    Jul 16 at 22:25
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    Why is China so important? If you study in one system and want to move to another you have to adapt. The whole world doesn't need to adapt because you think 7 years isn't enough. If you want a job it China, maybe it is best to study there, actually, rather than in Germany.
    – Buffy
    Jul 16 at 22:33
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    @Felix In addition to being totally off on the ages at which it is expected to have a PhD in the US, I think you're really missing how research careers are assessed for faculty applicants. It's not like applying for a faculty job by one person after 12 and one person after 7 years means that one person got 5 extra years to add to their CV, the denominator of "years as a post doc" matters, too.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 16 at 22:56

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