Several professors, including my former advisor and a senior member of my research community, have been encouraging me to apply for a faculty job. I am torn about it mostly because I am 40 years old. Leaving a job in a research lab to start as an assistant professor would in a way seem like a starting all over again.

I believe that my pre-PhD experience leading projects would lessen the learning curve that new tenured track faculty goes through. On the other hand, I am not sure if there would a be a stigma associated with my age. I would have gone for an academic position ten years ago in a heartbeat, for the research, freedom, and teaching. But I had personal reasons for not being able to pursue PhD sooner.

Is it too late to do it now? Would the low academic rank to age ratio make my job harder, leading to possibly being prejudiced that I must not be successful to still be at the lowest branches?

There are several threads here asking about pursing PhD later in life, but I do not recall any of them addressing starting an academic carrier.


2 Answers 2


I would say it depends. In the following question, JeffE resoundingly stated that age does not play into the decision whether to appoint somebody for an academic position. Yet, ETH Zurich (one of the world's premiere institutions in the technical sciences) even publicly states that they will rather not hire an assistant professor older than 35 (see the information box on the right).

Pragmatically, you may be a bit out of the norm. This may give you a small edge in some cases, and may be a small disadvantage in others. For every academic that is concerned about your age, there will be another one that values your industrial experience. I would say, if age is the only thing holding you back, then go and apply for assistant professor positions.

Leaving a job in a research lab to start as an associate professor would in a way seem like a starting all over again.

Assistant professor isn't the same as associate professor. Both are not the same as "starting all over". In practice, in most places I have seen, professors on all levels are able to work quite independently, so none should be seen as an entry-level job. Assistant professor may be entry-level in terms of professorships, but it is actually a quite senior position in the wider context of academia.

  • I've got a question. When it says "not to be older than 35" that means that if I'm 35 and 4 months then I'm older than 35? Or is it up to 36? Thanks
    – GniruT
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 1:58

As an assistant professor, you would have four constituencies: undergrads, graduate students, your department's tenured and "sure thing" pre-tenured faculty, and the school's administration.

Undergrads want to know what's going to be on the test. If your age isn't going to be on the test, they won't notice it. To them, a professor is a professor is an old person. Just be prepared and predictable and they'll be happy. Being 40 might command more respect than being 30, and should mean fewer crushes to fend off. I consider it a plus for this group.

Grad students want you not to be insane. "Dear Lord, please allow that my advisor be not changeable like the wind, be not stubborn like the glaciers, and be not crazy, and be not on drugs. Also I would be grateful if you could manage that she not work me like an indentured servant, please, and thank you." They'll judge you by your recent publications, your connections and intelligence.

Some or all of the faculty will be writing reviews of you and your research program in three or four years. For that reason, you should talk to them about theirs. For real. They can judge your acuity better on home turf than when adrift in a sea of unfamiliar words and ideas, and they'll be flattered. If you came in as a 23-year-old wiz-kid, there might be some resentment or envy. If you are pleasant and dedicated to your career, irrelevant factors like your age will not undermine your prospects with your new colleagues.

Presidents and Deans want to hear only good things about you. The Dean will be told of any difficulties you experience, and could possibly alert the President, so don't have any. They might not even know your age, and I can't think of a reason they'd care about it. Help the department move up the prestige ladder and they wouldn't mind if you were 60.

Age could be an issue when you apply for jobs. They'll assume you were 18 when you started undergrad, regardless of when you graduated. If you graduated late, you could put the year you graduated instead of the years of attendance. Your age might be off-putting for the hiring committee before they meet you. If they get over it and invite you to interview with them, you'll have your CV, references, and many chances to make a good impression. You haven't been playing mahjong for the last few years. As long as you "read" like you're of the tribe, your age will not be a negative in academia.

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