I was reading about a “young researcher award” recently being attributed in my field to a colleague who is 40 years old (and has had a permanent research position for 12 years now). It may be viewed as borderline ridiculous, so I must ask: in this context, how young is typically “young”? For the purpose of this special projects/grants/awards, how do research and funding organizations define “young”?


Here are some awards presented to people aged 35 and below:

  1. The Young Scientist Awards of the Singapore National Academy of Science
  2. The Young Scientist of the Year Award of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility
  3. The Young Scientist Award of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research
  4. The WMO Research Award for Young Scientists of the World Meteorological Organization
  5. The Young Scientist Award of the European Powder Diffraction Conference

There are many more; just use a search engine to search for the terms "young scientist" award 35.

A similar list of awards can be found with a search for "young scientist" award 40.

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The Fields medal also has an age cutoff of 40 (Andrew Wiles being the most recent example of someone who missed the age cutoff for an otherwise sure award).

Grant agencies usually define "young" in terms of "years since Ph.D", or "years in academic position" with the typical cutoff being 6 or so.

Note that while for most things*, 40 might not be considered "young", in many disciplines you might only get your first academic position near that age (especially in biology).

  * politics being the other venue where 40 would be considered young :)

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  • 2
    I missed the cut-off too. – Dave Clarke Feb 25 '13 at 20:46

"Young" does in fact have many different connotations. For example, in the ERC Starting Grant program, applicants can have been out of graduate school for as many as twelve years before applying as a "Starter" (or "Consolidator"). So technically, they're still "young," according to that program, but not what we would normally think of as "young."

But, in general, "young" can refer in terms of age (in which case I've normally seen the cutoff be about 35 or so), or in terms of relative experience in the field (typically five years, although it can be shorter or longer, depending on the field or country).

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In economics, the most prestigious award outside the nobel prize is probably the John Bates Clark Medal (most winners go on to eventually receive the Nobel too). It is awarded biannually to only one person, so in a sense is even more prestigious than the Nobel (which is awarded annually to typically more than 1); to who is deemed the leading 'young' researcher under 40. So 40 as a cutoff for 'young' doesn't surprise me much, but there are obviously no hard rules.

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The EU has the program FET OPEN Young Explorers, where young is defined as:

A project must be led by a young researcher, and the leadership by young researchers of all work packages is also required. No more than six years should have elapsed between the award of a Ph.D. (or equivalent) for each such young researcher and the date of submission of the short proposal.

I have also seen postdoc position reserved for people who obtained their PhD less than 5 years ago, but I can't find the reference back.

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Sometimes what is still considered "young" also depends on the specific situation of the individual: I've seen exceptions described in the areas of paternity leaves, compulsory military service, or receiving additional clinical training.

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The NSF CAREER award (Faculty Early Career Development Program) is a grant for "young" scientists, and requires that winners have the title "assistant professor." This typically means that the person has spent < 6 years in a tenure track academic position. Of course, such a person need not be "young" -- someone who worked 2 years in industry before grad school, spent 6 years doing a PhD, 2 years of postdoc, and then spent 5 years as an assistant professor might win one of these awards and be nearly 40.

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