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When do people normally graduate from a PhD? What is the normal range for postdocs, and the first research group leaderships or assistant/junior professorships?

Some context:
I completed my PhD which took 9 years at the age of 36, but I also worked full-time (I have 14 years of experience in academia and -mostly- in industry). The predefined duration of a PhD is 4 to 6 years in my home country since it consists of the US-like course/qualification/thesis phases, but also longer durations are not uncommon. AFAIK in some places, an engineering degree (bachelor's) takes 3 years, a master's 1, and a PhD 3. That would be extremely unusual in my home country.

I completed one postdoc fellowship that didn't help making a great network, and I ended up unemployed. I am currently trying to decide what I should do, another postdoc or going back to industry (which I don't want much). But I feel that I might be ignored because I am 38 with a PhD that took extremely long, from somewhere without a great reputation (Turkey). And my work experience, though it included research team management and grant applications etc., might also be ignored for academic jobs.

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    There is quite a spread in "normal" age ranges, at least in the US.
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 1, 2023 at 21:41
  • That's what I thought, but I heard from a few PIs that my background was unusual (maybe in a bad way), and they were kind of shocked with the duration of my PhD (I can understand and it's long even for Turkey), but also they weren't much accustomed to having a -research- career along with (but apart from) PhD.
    – groove
    Jun 1, 2023 at 22:37

3 Answers 3

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In the US:

In my experience, there is at least a 10-15 year range of possibilities. First, there is the common crowd who start a PhD straight out of undergrad, who are typically 22-23, and so graduate around 28-29 on average. While these may be around half of students (in my experience), there are also many who start a PhD after a gap year of a few years, or even after a decade or two of working in industry. So as a result, you have many who are graduating at 31-32, and then the (smaller, but certainly not unheard of) group who have returned to complete a PhD after working, and graduate in their late 30s or 40s.

Additionally, there are those who take 7-10 years for their PhD rather than the 5-6 average, so that adds another 2 to 5 years.

After graduation, some go directly to a faculty position, so they may start a faculty position as early as age 28-29. While others do a postdoc, or two (depending on the field), in which case you start a faculty position in your early-to-late 30s. And again, there are those hired to a faculty position after a stint in industry, so these can be 10-20 years older.

In short, I hope all of this makes it clear that looking at age is a rather pointless exercise! There are people of all ages at all academic ranks. All that matters is that you are taking the right step in your career for what you want to do next.

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    I heard similar things about the US before, so maybe it is more welcoming, but of course it's just a hunch with my limited experience with Europe. I don't have any idea about the UK though. Brian May's PhD took longer than mine, so I might still have some chance to find something despite the fact that my PhD is not in astrophysics and I never got knighted, among other things.
    – groove
    Jun 2, 2023 at 1:07
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As others have said, this depends greatly on country and I would think even more so on the field. And, like for all other things, there is always a spread so there is very little value in fixating yourself on absolute age, which you cannot control anyway.

I know you are not asking what I am writing next, but... I would try to be honest with yourself and ask what you really want. Now and in the immediate future, for starters, as well as in the long run. Do you value certainty and long-term planning or do you just want to enjoy what you are doing for the next couple of years? Either is fine, it's your life/career, and this will affect your choices (and their associated consequences).

You say you don't want to return to industry: why not? What is it that makes you lean towards academia? You also mention professorship: What is it about academia that attracts you? You mention a long PhD, which is not a deal breaker in and by itself, but also a postdoc that didn't really help to build a network. So how do you see yourself positioned? And where do you want to be/go next? Do you want to be in your home country or abroad?

As hard as it is, face the reality of the situation and see what you can do under the given circumstances: if you want to continue in academia, you either will need a strong network (in a given geographic area or scientific field) so you will be in the know of who is hiring/where opportunities for employment are, or - if you strive towards full independence - a solid scientific track record with good visibility in your field, solid publications/output and some sort of funding track record.

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In Europe It actually depends on the country. In the U.K. for exmaple, most people go straight from 3 years undergraduates, 1 year masters and 3-4 years phd, meaning that most people graduate around the age of 25 - 29 depending on when they began University. In other European countries like Germany the age range is higher and varies. So they have 3-4 years undergraduate, 2 years of masters and 3-5years PhD. However, most Germans go for an overseas experience before they begin university so the age range could vary from 27-36.

Answering your second question about whether industry or academia. My straight up verdict will be go to industry for two main reasons. Firstly you get a permanent job, which can help you plan your life better and you earn more money, which can also help you buy a house faster if you have not yet done so. The main problem with persisting to remain in academia is the unavailability of permanent roles. So you may have to continue to do a series of short-lived postdoc in which you will travel from city to city or country to country and that makes settling down difficult and also, the salaries are not that great and in some places you don’t even get a relocation allowance, meaning that all your savings may go to paying for your relocation bills.

Finally, which you stay so much in academia, without getting a permanent role, you turn to be less attractive to industry and also getting a permanent academic job.

Side comment Regarding the statement you made about your country of origin, as fair as that may sound, I think you should stop seeing yourself as a victim of your origin. Competent people will always find a job regardless of their origins. Keeping such a mindset is not very healthy especially if you intend remaining in academia. You may easily get depressed from thinking that you are not getting a permanent job because of your origin meanwhile the job market is tight for everyone.

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