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Firstly, I know that there are plenty of questions here like this one but hopefully this is not a duplicate.

I was born and grown up in Iran and belong to a religious minority (Bahai faith). As you know Bahais are not allowed to attend universities in Iran because of their faith. I was no exception and so could not study at university because of my religious beliefs. Between the age of 18 (when I finished my highschool in Iran) and 24, I worked as a construction laborer. At the age of 24, I together with my family (my parents and sister) travelled to Turkey and became refugees in UNHCR and two years later UNHCR sent us to Australia. I studied English for two years and after that I repeated year 11 and 12 because Australian universities did not accept my Iranian qualifications. At age 30, I started my undergraduate studies in Bachelor of Electrical Engineering and I will graduate very soon. I am now 35 years of age and would like to apply to be a PhD student in the first 5 or 10 top engineering schools in the world. I have maintained a GPA of 6.9, a WAM of 93 and was on Dean's merit list every year except the first year of my undergraduate studies. There is a possibility that I also get university medal but that is not certain yet.

Should I explain these details to the graduate admission committee explaining why I started my undergraduate studies very late at the age of 30? and what I was doing before that?

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    No, you did not bore me at all. The second paragraph of your question touched me. I think you can put it into the Statement of Purpose or the cover letter. In my opinion, it will be helpful and enough. – scaaahu Nov 3 '14 at 13:03
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    It's a great story to explain how motivated you are to study. But you're not too old. – Moriarty Nov 3 '14 at 14:49
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    Your age will probably not be held against you. In fact, in my experience, older graduate students are often more driven and scientifically mature. I think this will also hold in your case. Good luck! – Bitwise Nov 3 '14 at 17:56
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    "Bahais are not allowed to study in university because of their faith". can you explain how dozens of Bahais in Iran and abroad hold those degrees in various disciplines? – user23872 Nov 4 '14 at 17:52
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    Just signed up to upvote this question. Good luck. – camden_kid Nov 5 '14 at 10:59
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Such information would be relevant. The real trick would be to keep such a paragraph short and to the point. As such the question would be a good draft of such a section. I have two comments:

I would not start the second sentence with "as you know". If a committee member did not know, you make her or him feel ignorant. It is good to avoid invoking negative emotions in such a letter. Especially since leaving that part out does not change the meaning of the sentence.

It was not clear from the text whether it was the Bahai faith that prohibited it's members from going to university or whether it was the Iranian government that prohibited people with the Bahai religion to enter university.

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    Thanks for your reply. It was the Iranian government that prohibited people with the Bahai religion to enter university. – Vafa Khalighi Nov 3 '14 at 14:12
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    @user65472: You should definitely turn that around when you write your letter, then. Something along the lines of "Iranian universities impose a religious test and will not admit Bahai students." I also agree with Maarten that it's a bad idea to assume the readers already know this, so instead of "As you (do already) know", you could say "As you may know" or "As you may have heard". But neither of those actually add anything, whether the committee already knew it does not change the facts in any way. – Ben Voigt Nov 3 '14 at 23:03
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I wish scaaahu had put that comment in an answer so that I could up-vote it.

Perhaps it will help you to know that I started the Ph.D. at age 56. It wasn't in a top ten university, but neither am I ashamed of my alma mater. Admissions committees are interested in potential for research and teaching. Show those and, with your background, you will get offers.

Do include a very brief explanation in either your cover letter or statement of purpose as scaaahu has suggested. It need not be as extensive as what you posted here. Just address the committee member who is thinking, "I wonder why...?" Something as simple as, "People of my faith are not allowed to study in university in my native Iran, so I got a late start."

  • Thanks for your reply. Your kind words motivated me heaps. – Vafa Khalighi Nov 3 '14 at 14:13
  • I suggested minimal detail in your letter or statement of purpose. I note that those who have suggested more detail have far more experience in academia than I. Listen to them. – Bob Brown Nov 3 '14 at 20:28
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I recommend that you put the information you gave us in your statement of purpose for a PhD application. At least for a US-style statement of purpose (which is usually about two pages) I would not suggest abridging the story you told us. Rather I agree with @scaaahu that your story is extremely compelling, much more so than what one normally reads in these kinds of statements.

If you can craft this as a narrative of the triumph of your intellectual interest and academic success over the adversities you've faced over a period of many years: look, that's awesome. If I saw that in a PhD application to my program (mathematics, UGA) then I would be passing your statement around for the entire admissions committee to read. If the other parts of your application were reasonably competitive, I would be well on my way to pushing strongly for your admission.

Let me end my saying that I was personally touched by your story. You have a lot to be proud of and will certainly serve as an inspiration to many others. Academia needs people like you.

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DEFINITELY include information on what you describe. More importantly, though, you are a more mature student, and at your age you should show a very solid understanding of why you need a PhD to pursue your career goals.

"Atypical" students can be great additions for departments, but if I were the one doing the choosing, I would be looking for more than your history, academic or otherwise -- I'd be looking to see whether you understand why you want the degree, and what you intend to do with it. Give your admissions committee your whole picture.

  • Can you help me with your last paragraph? I want a phd degree because I want to be an academic, because I want to solve open problems in electrical engineering, because I want to help others. Would that be enough or I need better reasons? – Vafa Khalighi Nov 4 '14 at 7:01
  • That's a very different question. With the exception of "I want to be an academic, the other issues are done by engineers, and they don't generally need to spend five or six years after their degree to do them. – Scott Seidman Nov 4 '14 at 11:38
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There are some people that probably should "dodge" this issue. You are NOT one of them. So an explanation will help you, with very little risk.

You come from what most Western institutions would consider a "disadvantaged" background. You have succeeded in spite of that fact. You got a later start in university life because you got a lot of life experience in what we Americans would call "the school of hard knocks." That's very much to your credit. Most western universities would give a positive weight to "maturity" and sense of purpose in evaluating an application. You have both.

The kind of person who might have something to fear regarding age is someone from a (probably) rich family who had a "wasted" (or misspent) youth. You are not that person.

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