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I’m thinking about taking a 70-year old math professor as my PhD advisor, in a US school. I like his teaching and research. If I don’t choose him, I would probably have to switch fields, which I can do with some pain, since I have not specialized deeply yet. My main concerns are:

  • As he is far more likely than a young supervisor to pass away suddenly due to his age, how should I best plan for this scenario? What will happen to me if it happens?
  • He is also far more likely to retire than a young supervisor – could his retirement (in the unspecified future) cause problems for my future career in academia, with respect to references and networking?

Related: How should I take a potential PhD supervisor's age into account, when planning to follow PhD with habilitation?

  • 17
    Have you already asked him whether he accepts new students? If not, this question might be irrelevant, because he might simply say "I'm going to retire soon, so I won't mentor any new PhD students". – Earthliŋ Apr 20 '16 at 12:42
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    Just the age itself is a poor indicator of longevity and capability. I know people in their early 60s who are in a worse condition than some I know who are over 80 and very active. – vsz Apr 20 '16 at 12:52
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    While you are young and 70 may sound like it is forever away, once you do graduate and get on with your life, the years go by really quickly. You eventually realize that 70 really isn't all that many years. Could you please change "excessively old" in the title to something less inflammatory? – Dunk Apr 20 '16 at 14:46
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    Age doesn't matter, you could die at any time! – Nuclear Wang Apr 20 '16 at 15:54
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    @vsz: Nor is being in good physical condition any guarantee. My first advisor, who was in excellent physical condition (and younger than me!) died in an accident. – jamesqf Apr 20 '16 at 18:09
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One minor counterpoint to @adipro's answer: rather than age of the professor, consider where they stand in their professional career. Age aside, you want to make sure that they're still highly active in the research community. I made the mistake of being what turned out to be my advisor's last graduate student; not a good position to be in. To present the case more generally: While all the positive points listed by @adipro were are true of someone close to retirement, they may simply might not care as much about things you care about. Specifically:

  • They have no pressure to publish, and consequently, your need to publish doesn't scratch any itch of theirs
  • Since they're close to retiring, they won't want to enter extensive collaborations, as they will likely be gone before the work is done. (This is referring to long, multi-year projects, not smaller stuff.)
  • Their interest in grant-writing will be far less than yours, for the same reason as the preceding point; multi-year research efforts will likely complete after they're gone.

When researching potential advisors, talk to their graduate students about the number of grants they've applied for in the past two years, the number of new students they've taken on, the number of new collaborations they've started, and the like. You want to make sure they're not winding things down, as that means they'll be less interested in things you care about, such as creating new relationships, writing more papers, and finding new grants.

  • 2
    It may not even be their interest in grant writing - the funding agency may refuse grants to people they think close to retirement if they think there's a risk that the project is not finished (because of death, retirement) or even if they think it likely the group will disassemble immediately after the project is finished, so the grant will have low on-going effect. – cbeleites Apr 21 '16 at 18:12
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    @cbeleites That kind of age discrimination would be illegal in many countries. And, besides, one could just as well say that a professor who has dangerous hobbies is also quite likely to die before the end of the grant period. – David Richerby Apr 21 '16 at 21:57
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    @DavidRicherby: professors are state officers here (Germany) and are retired automatically when reaching pension age. They usually go on working if they like. AFAIK any money they receive for their work is subtracted from the pension - so if they stay at university, it is typically not in the form of a work contract or anything similar. The funding agency presumaby discriminates against this change in contract situation. Age discrimination law is tricky: more holidays for older people were discriminating, but driver's licenses can have age-limits... – cbeleites Apr 21 '16 at 22:17
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    The concerns raised in this answer are not so important in mathematics, where 1. Advisors typically don't coauthor papers with their students (so whether the advisor has a need to publish is irrelevant) and 2. Most research does not require grant funding (if the advisor has a nice grant, it may mean less teaching for the PhD student, but lack of a grant won't be a serious detriment to research). On the other hand, the point about making sure that the advisor is still highly active in the research community is a very important one. – Alex Kruckman Apr 21 '16 at 22:50
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My PhD advisor was already retired when I started my PhD. He is in his 80s now. One of my collaborators is due to retire soon; the other is in his 90s. All I can say is that everyone of them has had a tremendous impact on me. They have been the most brilliant people I know.

So I don't see any problem at all with very old PhD advisors. In fact, my experience suggests that you should consider yourself privileged to have an old PhD advisor. A few reasons stand out, at least from my experience:

  1. They have a wealth of experience.
  2. Old professors are usually kind, generous, and so eager to share with you what they know.
  3. They have nothing to lose. They don't have issues that younger professors face such as getting promoted, tenured, or the pressure to publish.
  4. Retired professors don't have as many responsibilities as they used to, and so can devote more time advising you. Of course, they probably have other interests they would like to pursue now that they are retired, but research will always be their main interest.

All I wanted to say is that age doesn't matter when it comes to choosing an advisor. Passion is more important. Some professors manage research; some others do research. Choose the latter.

  • 3
    What if the advisor suddenly dies or backs away? Would the PhD student be able to continue without that weighing very heavily on their references or PhD program? – Panzercrisis Apr 20 '16 at 14:04
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    @Panzercrisis: All advisors are at risk of suddenly dying or backing away. Don't live your life in fear but go forth and succeed. Be ready to adapt if you need to. – Lightness Races in Orbit Apr 20 '16 at 14:29
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit risk of death increases with age. Not all risks of sudden death are equal. – user18072 Apr 20 '16 at 14:49
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit that's a lot less probable than dying in the next 5 years if you're 77. Advisor departures deaths etc. are incredibly destructive to one's career. I don't see why we should ignore this as part of a carpe diem philosophy. – user18072 Apr 20 '16 at 15:03
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    @first-yearPhDstudent, I think your concerns are not unique to old advisors. A young advisor is more likely to move to another place or break down due to stress. Your concerns equally apply. – adipro Apr 20 '16 at 17:00
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For a male who has reached age 70 in the United States their average life expectancy is 84.3 years. So unless it is going to take you upwards of 14 years to get your degree, the odds are very much that your adviser isn't going to die.

The more likely issue is whether or not your adviser is going to retire. Lucky for you, you can easily get an answer to that question. Go ask him.

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    The average life expectancy is not going to tell when someone will die. This is a terrible abuse of that information. Plus retired doesn't mean that they cannot continue to mentor. – DarioP Apr 21 '16 at 8:47
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    Life expectancy is by definition an "average" so that word is redundant. At this age the survival curve of a human cohort is more toward an exponential shape so the median survival is actually greater than the mean survival ( which is how "life expectancy" is calculated). Furthermore a currently active academician is going to have much better survival prospects both for survival and for survival free of dementing illnesses than an average 70 yo male. – 42- Apr 21 '16 at 18:59
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    @DarioP - You are correct that it doesn't tell when a specific person will die. The entire point of the post and using the statistic is to point out that the OP is placing too much emphasis on something that isn't likely going to happen. Can it happen, sure. But a 30 year old professor can die also. – Dunk Apr 21 '16 at 19:08
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    I already said the median would be higher than the mean, which was actually in support of your main point, so that cannot be the source of any dispute. Just because people use the wrong definition for a technical term, doesn't make it correct or accepted. This is not really an English language usage issue. You gave a specific number and I will lay very long odds that you got it from a life table calculation of the mean expected lifespan based on a period lifetable. – 42- Apr 21 '16 at 22:23
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    @42-: I'm very suspicious of your claim that the median would be higher than the mean. This seems like exactly the sort of statistic that would be right-skewed (long-tailed, mean > median). Do you have a source? – ruakh Apr 22 '16 at 17:37
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You seem to be thinking only about the downsides, but having an experienced supervisor has many benefits as well:

  1. Decades of experience as a research mathematician.
  2. Decades of experience as an advisor.
  3. Connections to lots of other experienced mathematicians.
  4. A developed mathematical taste.

I would gauge your decision accordingly, but if he is an accomplished mathematician, you will probably get to know many of his contacts. If, God forbid, something were to happen to him, both the department and his colleagues/friends should be able help you. Looking after orphaned PhD students sometimes doesn't go very well, but I think the risk of being abandoned is much higher as a student of a young and inexperienced advisor (who quit/moved/whatever).

My biggest worry would actually be #4: If he hasn't been keeping up with new developments in mathematics, you might be learning classical theory, learning to think about problems in an old-fashioned way. This can go two ways: (1) gaining solid foundations in an area of mathematics that's still relevant today or (2) learning mathematics that's not relevant in modern mathematics. There are many old mathematicians who lead research in modern/new developments. There are also old mathematicians, who haven't substantially changed their focus of attention for 40 years and keep on working on old problems that your future colleagues might not find interesting any longer.

If your potential advisor still publishes papers in a range of journals and with younger collaborators from well-known universities, you probably don't have to worry that your knowledge will become obsolete and/or unfashionable any time soon.

  • 3
    Your #4 was very relevant for my previous 70-year-old advisor. He didn't follow the current state of the field, and he told me this, so consequently I had the complete freedom to do whatever research I wanted. Which was great for my undergraduate research, but would be unacceptable for a PhD student. – first-year PhD student Apr 20 '16 at 16:13
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As he is far more likely than a young supervisor to pass away suddenly due to his age, how should I best plan for this scenario? What will happen to me if it happens?

Well, you will need to find another advisor. You will also need to deal with the emotional trauma of having lost your advisor. It sounds like there is no one else at your university in this field, so depending on how far you are along if this happens, you might switch advisors and move into their field, or someone might take you on as your official advisor and not be able to provide you with much help. If your advisor has several former students who are successful academia, one of them might be willing to be a (possibly unofficial) advisor for you. (If this is not the case, look for another advisor now!) I know cases where this has happened (even if the official advisor was still alive, but perhaps just in very poor health, and deteriorating health may be a more likely scenario than sudden death).

He is also far more likely to retire than a young supervisor – could his retirement (in the unspecified future) cause problems for my future career in academia, with respect to references and networking?

As long as he is well connected and respected now, people will still value his letters and students. But, some people stay quite active after retirement and some don't. Certainly having an active advisor can help a lot after graduation (if they organize lots of conferences they'll invite you often, they may continue to suggest problems or involve you in collaborations, talk about your work at conferences, recommendation letters, etc). It may not be quite the same, but if he has a large group of former students who support each other, probably they will provide a good support network for you.

7

Ultimately it is your decision. But one thing to keep in mind is that an advisor is not only your advisor during your PhD, but also for the next ten years if you stay in academia as you navigate postdocs and then tenure. In the US, it is common to need letters of recommendation from an advisor in one's tenure case, which is probably over ten years from now for you. The actuary tables are not perfect for the onset you're looking at, but in the end, it's your choice to decide whether or not it's worth a risk to work on what you want to work on and work with him instead of transferring fields or institutions.

Another option is to get a secondary outside advisor with this current one in order to mitigate the risk.

  • 2
    A secondary advisor is a very interesting solution I hadn't thought about. – first-year PhD student Apr 20 '16 at 7:45
  • You might also consider how big your 'academic family' would be. How many of your potential advisor's previous students are still in the field, and do they have students now etc. – Jessica B Apr 24 '16 at 15:48
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Try to get another younger co-supervisor. That way you can benefit from the strong sides of both a younger supervisor and an older supervisor.

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