Recently, a graduate position, supervised by an emeritus faculty member has been offered to me. The aforementioned professor is one of the most famous contributors of his field on the planet for over 3 decades, but his age is over 75...

Some people just advise that the old faculty members would not capable of the active research and support of the graduate students and one better tries to inhibit cooperation with them.

The others asserts that the worthy and coherent experience and cumulative knowledge of such people shall be grabbed by graduate students by working with them!!!

I just struggled to contact with his current and former students to know his code of ethics, specifically, but they refrain from answering me.

Does someone have any experience to pass graduate studies under supervision of such aged emeritus faculty members?

  • 7
    One thing to worry about is whether or not he will be able to advise you throughout the entirety of the PhD. My advisor is 77 and has health problems which it worries me some, but he is very active in research and more or less gives me carte blanche to pursue whatever I want. Having an advisor pass away or be forced into retirement for health reasons while pursuing your PhD can be a big concern. If you want to work with him, consider getting a co-advisor so that - should something happen - you will not be left on your own with an incomplete thesis. Oct 13, 2015 at 19:07
  • 1
    75 is not that old in some ways or for some people. I know a professor at a local university who is almost 80 and he was (is?) a lifetime marathon runner and is still exceptionally healthy, both in body and mind. My own father is 75 and in good health and his mind is probably better than it's ever been. Oct 13, 2015 at 19:50
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    @ToddWilcox and I have seen many people who died before 60, and can barely walk and talk intelligently after 70. Also marathon runner just means that someone participated in marathon (which is actually really easy to participate in stuff, the hard thing is to win all the participants). You can participate in marathon and finish it in 12 hours barely moving. Anyway I was trying to say that one example from your life does not generalize to the whole population of 80 years old. Oct 14, 2015 at 3:43
  • @CameronWilliams your comment is far better than any answer here, might you consider posting it?
    – user18072
    Oct 15, 2015 at 3:28
  • @djechlin It's more of just a side comment that is not really related to the concerns OP had. I considered making it an answer, but I don't like being a bit off-topic like that in an answer. Oct 15, 2015 at 3:52

5 Answers 5


Quick Answer: The downside might be his age, but the upside is plenty!

It is obvious that the age might be a factor, however you are not dealing with a dance instructor or a body builder here. Look at Prof. Stephen Hawking, beside his age, there are other limitations; but everyone listens to him and want to learn from him. Put his name on a conference, and people will line up. The following points popped up in my head:

Experience: Being dominant in a field for any amount of period, let alone 3 decades, is not easy. What you will get is a world of experience and vision (my second point here).

Vision: It is not all about hard work to be on the top, the individual needs to have a vision of the field as well. You will have the privilege to lean how he come up and deal with research issues. Believe me, I had supervisors that did not have the 'vision' part, and working with them was not pleasant.

Less Politics: He already 'done it all', and therefore not looking forward that much to the next promotion or something of that sort; what you get is a person that everyone knows that he is the leader in a field; so all the help you get you from him; you get it through no or much less jealousy and/or office politics.

Decision On Your Overall Career: If you get a position to work with a young supervisor, you can't truly answer the big question: What I will do after my PhD?. However if you work with an experience academic, you can see yourself after 20/30/40 years. You can see how hard you need to work to get there and is it something you want to do or not.

Conclusion: Take the position, there might be a little downside because of his age, but the positive points are plenty.

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    This seems like uninformed idealism, not reality. Have you never met old professors? For every one that is great to work with, there are another three who will assuredly dead-end any students' careers, by working on something no one cares about anymore and by generally not understanding the community. You are enthusiastically advising someone on a course of action that is more likely than not career suicide. (Also, the sad truth is Stephen Hawking is not capable of doing research anymore; no one professionally listens to him.)
    – user4512
    Oct 13, 2015 at 22:18
  • @ChrisWhite It is not just the age factor here. For better understanding imagine learning guitar from Keith Richards!
    – o-0
    Oct 13, 2015 at 22:36
  • @ChrisWhite, OP said that the emeritus prof is still in active research, as for the risk of a dead-end career, there are far more worrying issues than the age of the supervisor, like unethical, over ambitious supervisors that work you to death for little to none recognition, or those who want to impose their personal agenda. He is a risk like any other supervisor is until you actually meet and assess the situation, at least in this case he has proven experience and knowledge in his field. Of course it is wise to have a co-supervisor in case his health deteriorates if the worry is his age.
    – yanes
    Oct 14, 2015 at 16:09
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    The advisor might also retire or die. This is certainly more likely than with a younger advisor. Besides that glaring detail, the rest of your answer is really unsubstantive opinion.
    – user18072
    Oct 15, 2015 at 3:28
  • One consideration regarding this frame, is whether the emeritus would continue in his field or research area, or wanted to do something new (e.g.: turning to obscure projects that he/she shouldn't have done prior emeritation or switching disciplines completely), or whether there are institutional limitations on research space or acquiring further funding (note: and thus existence of your lab members)
    – tsttst
    Apr 4, 2017 at 2:24

It's going to depend on the person, of course.

Is he still actively engaged in research? How much time does he spend on campus?

Does the university have a policy that professors have to retire at a certain age?

Go and talk to him--ask him about his mentoring style and how often he'll be available, etc.

  • He is active in research and the host university has no policy to retire emeritus fellows... But as I am an international applicant, there is no straightforward approach to either check his presence in campus or talk to him...
    – user41207
    Oct 13, 2015 at 18:19
  • "It depends, go talk" does not answer this, or any, question.
    – user18072
    Oct 15, 2015 at 3:28

I sometimes think gathering information on your future supervisor creates unnecessary bias. There is nothing like first impression, if you already have some mis-conceptions about this person, it might ruin any chance of great collaboration you might have had with him/her. I believe checking his publications show you if he/she collaborated with other researchers in the past or not (does he/she have a high number of single author publications or a number of the publications are collaborations? with their name appearing both at first, middle or last of the author list in different papers?). I believe working with such a renowned person in your field of study is a special opportunity you can benefit from professionally and should just put your best collaborative behavior and take a chance. At the end of the day every personal information you get from past co-workers is not without bias.

  • One's Patience is the point, will which not be revealed but just checking the roster of the publications. My concern is focused on the effective Personal interaction with the supervisor...
    – user41207
    Oct 13, 2015 at 18:15
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    @matinking: What do you mean by that comment? What really is your concern? Can the old dude still think clearly? - by and large, I would assume yes, very much so. I TA-ed for such a person (Nobel Emeritus), and he was sharp and very pleasant, but he had lost interest in academic research. Another even older Nobel Laureate at my school, on the other hand, was still very active in contemporary research, and excellent at placing his students. So I think checking publications, then talking to him or her, is the right idea. Check where prior students teach now as well. Oct 13, 2015 at 18:26
  • The stated cases are inspiring... Thanks... As I am an international student and can not talk to him, face to face, in your view, what kind of points and questions should I mention in the email to conclude about his activity?
    – user41207
    Oct 13, 2015 at 18:32
  • @gnometorule: Thanks in advance... However, I even doubt about the possibility to devise a skype-based interview...!
    – user41207
    Oct 13, 2015 at 18:55
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    @gnometorule just one more :), I assumed this "Recently, a graduate position, supervised by an emeritus faculty member has been offered to me" part of your question meant you already have the place. So sooner or later you are going to meet in person to talk about the heavy stuff, why not drop him/her a line about how you are excited to start working with him/her and whether he has a date and time in mind to meet before you start your duty?
    – yanes
    Oct 13, 2015 at 19:08

Of course you can talk to him! You can use the phone, you can use email, and you might be able to use Skype or WebEx.

Rather than asking about mentoring style, have a conversation -- that will show you something about his mentoring style.

You need to evaluate the person, not the numerical age.

Of course, if there are health problems, then do make sure you and your advisor make arrangements for a colleague or collaborator of his to adopt you, so to speak.

Code of ethics? Pardon me? Perhaps something was lost in translation. How would this guy have reached the respected status he reached if he engaged in unethical practices?


First, you are lucky to work with a person so distinguished in your field.

Second, age doesn't matter. I would completely ignore the age of your mentor.

Third, everyone has different ways of doing things. How you contact someone, how you work with someone, how you say "hey"... that is up to the person not their age. Let go of your age-bias.

Fourth and most important, if the mentor is as distinguished as you claim then their interaction/help will be relative to the "spark" you provide in your field, your ideas, and what you bring to the table in your relationship.

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