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A few weeks ago, I sent an email to a professor in a western European country in the hope of getting a Ph.D. position in the field of management. I have 17 years of work experience and 8 years of academic experience at the same time, I am a 45-year-old man, married, from Iran. Although the first round interview was successful, the professor called me on the phone and said that my age and marital status is his concern and the scholarship can only cover my expenses not my wife, I said I have enough money to cover my wife expenses and the evidence which was my life-time saving is available. At first, he said OK, but still do not receive any contact from that university. I have already asked questions that if my age can affect my Ph.D. application? Almost all of my friends said no, and I am almost sure that this is true in The United States and Canada. But I was shocked for the first time when I had such a conversation with that professor. I do not mention the name of the country and the university because it may seem immoral. Another question is whether it is moral to record all the interview by an application or software, and if you are judged by your age or any other personal issue then we can bring the case to the court of law?

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    Can you please specify the legal jurisdiction of the university, beyond merely Western Europe.
    – Ben
    Nov 30, 2021 at 6:39
  • From my knowledge, assessing your ability based on your age, race, and sex is strongly prohibited in most western countries and if this happens we can bring the case to the court of law. If the professor simply said no, it was acceptable but when he called me on the phone and left his concerns about my age and marital status, it is another issue. I currently communicate with many university professors in Australia and New Zealand and never heard any remark about my age and other things which may seem problematic from their sides.
    – Afshin
    Nov 30, 2021 at 10:54
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    I know the question is about Western Europe, but interestingly, in the US, what has been done may not actually be illegal. As the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes, non-US citizens which are not authorized to work in the US are not protected by equal opportunity laws. I think the conduct as described is highly inappropriate, but I think you would have great difficulty in winning a court case given that you are neither a citizen of the EU nor physically present.
    – Ian
    Nov 30, 2021 at 17:46
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    Sorry to say this, but it might be connected to the fact that you come from Iran. It can actually be very difficult to employ you. Not so long ago, a colleague at a neighboring institute (not a university, but still public) tried to hire a person from Iran as a postdoc. Financially, everything was fine, but there was no way to achieve that this person was allowed into the country as an employee. They really tried hard. A family (wife/children) was involved, too. I thought it was really sad, a missed opportunity for all sides. Nov 30, 2021 at 19:32
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    @Afshin: That is true, but the details of anti-discrimination laws can vary between jurisdiction in ways that may affect assessment of your matter. If you can specify a legal jurisdiction then it will be possible to identify the operative laws at issue and see the relevant prohibitions and defences.
    – Ben
    Nov 30, 2021 at 22:59

3 Answers 3

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Whether or not something is legal depends very much on the jurisdiction. There is nothing we can help you with without knowing what the country is (and even then it would not be a suitable question for this particular forum). This also pertains to the question of whether or not it is legal to record a conversation without the other person's knowledge -- this is different even from state to state within the US, for example.

As for the actual concern: Whether judging an application by the applicants age and marital status is legal is something that I cannot evaluate, as mentioned above. But from the perspective of a potential employer or student supervisor, it is a concern one could have: If you have a family and the university cannot cover your family's living expenses, it is probably that you might not finish the entire program or stay with the research project. If you have a family, you may also not be able to work as many hours as a 24-year-old single person. I would like to stress that I do not think that these are legitimate concerns to have without concrete evidence -- for example, one could have a conversation with an applicant about these specific points -- but it does not surprise me that some potential supervisors may have such concerns.

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  • "for example, one could have a conversation with an applicant about these specific points" Hmm, from the OP it seems to me that this is precisely what the professor in question did. Nov 30, 2021 at 6:39
  • @JochenGlueck The way I read the OP is that the interviewer informed the applicant of these concerns, not had a conversation about them. Nov 30, 2021 at 17:40
  • Thanks for your reply! Since the OP answered to the interviewer's concerns by explaining his financial situation and the interviewer seemed to be ok with it (at least at first), it seems that there was indeed somekind of conversation. But admittedly, it's impossible for us to tell whether the interviewer entered this conversation with good faith. [...] Nov 30, 2021 at 20:37
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    [...] The sentence "The professor [...] said that my age and marital status is his concern and the scholarship can only cover my expenses not my wife" could, of course, mean anything from "The prof said he doesn't want me as a PhD student due to my age and marital status" to "The prof said he'll be happy to have me as a PhD student, but wants to make sure that I'm really completely aware of the financial consequences which my decision might have for me and my family." Nov 30, 2021 at 20:37
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Yes, it is illegal to discriminate based on age in the area of employment and occupation (and often, a European PhD position is a form of "employment"). The legal framework is the same in all European union countries, based on directive 2000/78/EC. Martial status is not covered by any European regulations, but some individual countries do have laws concerning this.

All European countries also have a national equality body that can investigate alleged cases of discrimination (and provide a lower barrier-to-entry than the formal judicial system). They might be able to help you out and provide you with additional information. However, if you did not record the phone call and have no other evidence concerning the alleged discrimination, this will make it much harder to succeed.

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    It is not clear to me whether making access to a PhD position depend on the applicant's age necessarily constitutes age discrimination as specified in EU directive 2000/78/EC. Article 6(1) allows for various exceptions (which might or might not apply to PhD positions). Nov 30, 2021 at 19:46
  • @JochenGlueck It allows for "objectively justified" exceptions. It sounds like in this case it was an ad-hoc decision by the professor (since the application was only rejected after the first interview round) based on a hunch that the applicant would be more likely to drop out because of his age rather than some kind of formal policy. The bar for objective justification is set very high and an ad-hoc decision like this would never meet it. Of course it depends on the individual situation, my answer simply provides a pointer in the right direction for OP to further investigate his rights. Nov 30, 2021 at 21:19
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    Yes, I agree that these exceptions are unlikely to cover the particular situation described by the OP (assuming that he was indeed denied the position due to his age - which is not completely clear to me from the information provided in the question). I just wrote my comment to point out that the sentence "[in the EU] it is illegal to discriminate based on age in the area of employment and occupation" comes with a number of legal subtleties. Nov 30, 2021 at 21:40
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It might not be discrimination from the professor or department but instead legal restrictions and limits on mature students.

Some scholarships do have age restrictions for example the Rhodes scholarship is for 19-25 years. It might not be something in the professor's control.

Additionally, some countries have age limits on student visas for example Switzerland has a 30 year age limit on visa for Master's degrees. They may have another restriction for PhDs.

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  • Yes it was, fixed!
    – R.Buchanan
    Feb 13 at 15:27

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