How much of a factor is age in getting a PhD/teaching job?
August 12, 2008 4:22 PM   Subscribe

Middle age career-switch filter: I am considering getting a PhD in a subject in the humanities that is notoriously difficult to find work in-- in order to become an academic and teach at the college level. Am I too old to reasonably expect to be able to make this happen?

I will likely be either 45 or 46 or possibly even 47 by the time I finish the PhD: is this too old to find a teaching or even a TA position, or does anyone have first-hand experience or second-hand knowledge that might be helpful here, i.e. of people who have done this and been successful at it? Any advice on this is welcome. My background up until now has been in a mostly unrelated field. I am confident I will do well in school and as an academic--but worry about the realities of finding a teaching job as a fresh PhD in my mid forties. In particular, I would think ensuring I am in a program where grad students serve as TA's and teach intro classes is essential?
posted by anonymous to Education (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Your certainly not too old...

However, one of the first things you should do is to tour the various programs you're interested in. The faculty will be able to give you a ground level assessment of whether this is a good move for you or not.

You may find that a program that is slightly divergent from one you're interested in now may offer better career potential.

You won't know until you start making contacts and talking to people...
posted by wfrgms at 4:33 PM on August 12, 2008

They say if you do the work you love, the money will follow. They are wrong, of course.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 4:33 PM on August 12, 2008 [11 favorites]

Absolutely not! As a matter of fact, the fact that you have years of experience doing other things is likely to help you get into a reputable program and get a job once you´re finished. It would be more helpful to know what field you are going into (as in, would your chances of getting an academic position be slim anyway?), but generally, your age should be irrelevant. If you are ready for this transition, go for it.
posted by cachondeo45 at 4:34 PM on August 12, 2008

Would you mind disclosing what field you're interested in? Answers will certainly be discipline-specific. As for your last question, most PhD programs have their grad students TA and teach intro, for the benefit of PhD students and the department. Once you're through with your degree, it is likely (again, depending on your field) that finding a good teaching job right out of the PhD will be difficult, as it is for most people regardless of age. But you can always work adjunct and build up your credentials, which is how a lot of people do it. When I was in college, the chair of my department and all around bad-ass-in-the-discipline had earned his PhD in his early or mid forties. He was an attractive job candidate for the college because of his mastery of a number of subfields that they needed someone to teach. It's my guess that the professional atmosphere and disposition towards mid-age hires is discipline, if not institution, specific. Feel free to mefi mail me if you have more specific questions. And good luck!
posted by farishta at 4:35 PM on August 12, 2008

I wouldn't recommend doing this at any age, really. Getting a PhD is no picnic and trying to find a job is even worse. That said, my mom got her humanities PhD in her 50s and has been teaching grad school as a lecturer (not tenure track) for the last 10+ years now.
posted by phoenixy at 4:48 PM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

In the "humanities" more generally, finding work teaching is easy as a qualified Ph.D., particularly if you want to relocate. Finding steady, secure, and well paying work is, as you have heard, very difficult. As farishta said, it depends on the discipline. It also depends on your specialization, it depends on what your life was before your Ph.D., it depends on the institution granting your degree, it depends on what sort of professional development activities you do while a student, it depends on how promising your scholarship is when interviewing, and it depends on what new positions receive funding that particular year.
posted by mrmojoflying at 5:41 PM on August 12, 2008

I always feel like I have a moral obligation to warn people not to get a PhD, even as someone who has one and went into academia. It's only rewarding at all to demented people like me who have never found any other socially useful application of their skills. You are likely to spend years or decades in awful schools in places that even the locals despise, be far away from lifelong friends and family, and make far less than you could have in other professions. It nearly killed me in my twenties with no family to take care of and a very supportive graduate program. I always apply the old "turn them away three times" rule to my students and maybe one every five years or so can make a successful go of it.

That being said...

I would say that you'll be very much the exception starting a humanities PhD in your mid-40s. It's not that uncommon for people in other fields to start later (my father was thinking about one in computer science in his 50s) and it's not uncommon to have people in their early 30s starting PhDs, but it's very rare to start as late as you're suggesting. But I once shared an airport shuttle with a fellow philosophy conference participant who was just a few years into his teaching career in his mid-50s, having started around the age you're describing after a career as a cop. He's the only such person I've met, but it's not impossible.

One thing I would say that's a bit off the radar here is that both in graduate school and after graduate school, if you do this, it's essential that you finish quickly and publish and teach steadily and effectively. While you may have perfectly legitimate reasons for taking a while to finish and getting a slow start, it's easy for anyone working through a pile of 300 applicants for the same entry-level assistant prof job to assume that you just had a mid-life crisis or enjoy a kind of intellectual tourism and aren't really serious about your work. As for programs and TAships, in the humanities it's important to understand funding as a reflection of your priority to the program. Places that can't and won't fund you probably don't have the credibility in the field to help place you when you graduate. Places that can fund you and won't are effectively saying that you're a very low priority to them and you should probably turn down any such offer. English programs and philosophy programs are notorious for taking far more people than they can reasonably guide to PhDs and place on the job market and using them as cheap labor for intro cattle courses, so be very wary of any program that wants you to start out teaching a full load of courses right off the bat, too.
posted by el_lupino at 6:04 PM on August 12, 2008 [5 favorites]

My wife studied Old English under a lecturer who had started out in Maths, and then requalified to teach English Language, OE specifically, in her 40s. So yes, it obviously can happen.
posted by rodgerd at 6:11 PM on August 12, 2008

el_lupino, I think OP is actually closer to late 30s if s/he foresees finishing at 45 or 46- big difference.

We all (meaning all academics) know of older grad students who've made it on the job market, even some who've done very well. One in my cohort was 40 at the start of her program and 48 at the end and she ended up in a very nice position at a major research uni in upstate NY. My office mate when I was in the first year of my postdoc had just completed an anthro PhD at age 58, and she did, believe it or not, move on to a permanent position- it was in cont ed at a tiny satellite campus of a state U but it was as much as she needed at that stage of life.

The thing about both of these women was that they were willing to relocate. The "mature" grad students in my own program are not like this: They are, to a person, women from, say, 40 to around 55 and none of them has any plans to move; they're all holding out on this hope that they can find some way to become tenurable instructors here (they'll never be hired as "professors" at my uni; our faculty almost never hires its own grads) or maybe find work at a local college. This is not how you do grad school and nothing makes you look more like an "intellectual tourist" (thanks el_lupino) than intransigence around this issue. YOU DON'T GET TO DECIDE WHERE YOU WILL TEACH after you get your degree, that is unless you're willing to accept the servitude of the sessional instructor or you're just monstrously, hugely lucky. This is true for a fresh-faced 28-year-old PhD or a grizzled 50-year-old one. You must accept this about academia: a tiny percentage of new PhD's get hired at the elite schools where your professors probably earned their doctorates. Most of the rest go to the South Alabamas (myself included, once upon a time) and U of Nebraska-Kearneys of the world; the ones who can't achieve the former and refuse the latter end up in contract hell because they refuse to "settle" for Albany GA or Eau Claire WI or wherever. And they complain about their plight and become bitter people.

Sorry for the rant, but I think I've been in all three of these circumstances (my current job is, I gladly admit, the best one I've had by far but it's been hell getting here) and it's one thing to go through my trial by fire at 29 and another to go through it at my current age, which is 44. I would not want to.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 6:39 PM on August 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

One encouraging thing. What determines hiring of philosophy PhDs at least is not age, but:
-(for a research university position) quality of work published, quality of your letters from well-known profs in the department, OR
-(for a smaller college position) subject area (eg applied ethics) + teaching experience.

Some grim discouragement about academic careers: The job market is dismal. You don't get to choose where you will live. If you don't get a tenure track position you will be in temporary positions which pay something like $3000/class/semester with no benefits. This is a gamble that may make sense starting in one's 20s, but starting a lot later in life it might make less sense.

You should only go to graduate school in the humanties if you can get a fully-funded spot in a top program. That will usually include some TA-ing or teaching, and one or more semesters of fellowship (in which you don't teach). Expect that the grad student stipend will be just enough to live frugally on. It is not enough to support a family without extreme frugality (eg I have a friend who hunted deer as the primary protein for his family all the time he was in grad school).

The Chronicle of Higher Education has free forums where you can ask this question and more academics will see it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:04 PM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

How applicable would the advices given so far if one is getting a PhD in a subject in the sciences instead at such age ?

Not that I'm considering to get one (I'm still in my 20s), but just in case ...
posted by joewandy at 7:21 PM on August 12, 2008

What you did before hand can make a big difference. For example, a colleague at my university who just finished his dissertation in his early 40s had gotten a JD from Columbia and practiced law for at least a decade before deciding to get his PhD. He's not going to have that hard of a time getting a job in academia, as he can apply to both graduate programs and law schools. But even if he does, 1) he made a lot of money practicing law, so it's not a huge deal, and 2) he can always go back to being a lawyer if he has to.

If you're doing this just because it's something you think you'll like... sorry to rain on your parade, but I'd suggest sticking with whatever it is you're doing, assuming it can provide for you and your family adequately. Academia is rough, and the market for professors sucks. Liking teaching is all well and good. Liking research is a whole different story, and much less common. Liking to teach might get you a job at a community college somewhere. But unless you're both willing and able to consistently turn out excellent papers in your field--meaning at least one a year--you can't really hope for much better, and even that will be a stretch.
posted by valkyryn at 7:23 PM on August 12, 2008

Just to echo all the other posters who've said that it would be helpful to know what field you want to go in to and what your background is. I'll also echo those who've said that it's really worth thinking about -not because of your age, but because of the nature of academia in general.
posted by ob at 7:52 PM on August 12, 2008

I 'm 42 and am set to defend my dissertation in the fall of 2009. I'm in one of the worst fields you can possibly imagine, especially in this economy (hell, even Click and Clack make fun of Ph.D.s in my field). I'm going to be a newly-minted, middle-aged Ph.D. in an over-saturated field (and not a very popular one at that), with some nice fat student loans to pay off. I worry about my age coming out of this. I've pretty much come to terms with the fact that I will probably never get to retire.

I also realize that I have another 30 years to give. I love teaching, I love research, I love my research. As hard and cold and isolating as the doctoral program has been for me, I wouldn't trade this experience for anything (although I don't think I would do it again, either). My first semester in grad school, a fairly new Ph.D. from Columbia U. told me that the most important thing about going all the way to the end was finding a topic you love for your dissertation, because it will become your shadow. It will become the most important thing in your life and it will become incredibly hard to finish your dissertation if you can't stand spending time with your topic and your own thoughts. I've never forgotten that and it's been a constant point of focus for me.

I like to think that, as an older student, I made a well-informed choice to pursue this degree based on my own personal experience and knowledge of myself and how I work. I'm interested in teaching as a profession, and my advisor has been diligent in keeping me in front of the classroom as either an AI (TA) or as instructor of record. Because of this, I have three years' experience teaching as instructor of record alone, most of that at the 200-300 level teaching classes that I developed. Finding a program that can offer you that kind of opportunity to refine your teaching philosophy and your syllabus writing skills in theory as well as in practice is invaluable if you want to teach with your degree (plus it will pay for a good chunk of your tuition). I'm two years older than my advisor, but she is a fountain of knowledge, advice, and support, so there's no weird age dynamic there. Having a good advisor who you can talk to easily and who sets a good example makes a huge difference in your progress and motivation.

Up next is the conference circuit (into which I have already dabbled my toes) and pushing to publish. The busyness never ends and some days I feel very, very old. I have an M.L.S and quit a a nice job as a rare book cataloger to go back for the doctorate in my current field. But for some twisted reason, I love this pursuit and I can't imagine doing anything else right now-- at this age-- as difficult as it is. The goal for me was to get in, do what I need to do, and get out with as much experience as I could grab. What happens next is worrying, but the experience I've gained getting to that point has equipped me with the skills to deal with the consequences of successfully completing a doctoral program in the humanities. If nothing else, I'll make a damn fine barista somewhere.

Good luck!
posted by Heretic at 8:02 PM on August 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would also consider what your life will be like when you get out. If you're going tenure track, after you're done you're going to have a few intense years trying to get tenure. Do some math. If you don't get tenure and can 'relax' until a certain age, are you okay with that?
posted by k8t at 9:41 PM on August 12, 2008

"You should only go to graduate school in the humanties if you can get a fully-funded spot in a top program. That will usually include some TA-ing or teaching, and one or more semesters of fellowship (in which you don't teach). Expect that the grad student stipend will be just enough to live frugally on. It is not enough to support a family without extreme frugality."

LM says this in nearly every "Should I get a PhD" question and every time I cheer. I'd say that this is also true for social sciences.
posted by k8t at 10:31 PM on August 12, 2008

You should only go to graduate school in the humanties if you can get a fully-funded spot in a top program. That will usually include some TA-ing or teaching, and one or more semesters of fellowship (in which you don't teach). Expect that the grad student stipend will be just enough to live frugally on. It is not enough to support a family without extreme frugality (eg I have a friend who hunted deer as the primary protein for his family all the time he was in grad school).

Cheering and seconding and thirding too. Making your way through a doctoral program is hard enough without accumulating debt or being distracted and drained by excessive teaching obligations.

Are you single? Have you talked to your family and/or partner about your plans? Do they understand the financial and lifestyle changes that will come with your time in graduate school, and are they willing to make the same compromises you are when it comes time to hit the job market? If you are single, and are interested in having a partner and a family, are you willing to relocate to a small town social options for a tenure-track position?

I don't think the problem is age. The problem is graduate school in the academic job market. The caveats are the same for everyone- but choices cast longer shadows as you grow older.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 5:22 AM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I always advise people not to set their heart on becoming an academic. Look at the size of a graduating class and look at the number of people in the department leaving academia this year and do the math. Many people would like to be an academic, there will be jobs for very few. (Obviously some areas do grow and add new jobs. Some shrink. How do you forecast the difference?)

The drop out rate for PhD students is jaw-dropping. Some of the dropouts may be totally unsuitable. Some of them were probably just like you. Circumstances change. You yourself will change during that timespan.

I am not saying don't do it, just don't do it unless you can see alternative uses for that new degree.

Also, sadly, academic prestige tends to be attached to research, not teaching. If it is the teaching that attracts you, it would probably pay to keep your mouth shut about it until you are well embarked on a PhD program.
posted by Idcoytco at 5:51 AM on August 13, 2008

When I read your question the first thing that came to mind was that for someone of your age to seek advice with this kind of question says you will be doing whatever it happens to be for love because you certainly won't be doing it for money. Age is a factor but not always for the reasons you imagine.

I am older than you and have successfully changed careers in every decade of my life. But there are trade offs that come with age, the experience makes you more efficient because both your energy and your willingness to put up with the B*S* inherent in all things academic are going down. Confirmation bias will give you success stories because who wants to report on failure.

This is a cheer leading crowd for anyone who wants to set out on an independent path, but they won't be covering your bills, or paying down your debt. Please take those things into consideration before you give up your day job. Good luck.
posted by ptm at 5:54 AM on August 13, 2008

Depends on the school. One of my favorite professors was in his 50s and this was his first teaching gig. He brought with him decades of work experience from the lousy (A junkyard!) to the extraordinary (Teaching English in Russia when it was the USSR). His grounding in real world, practical things made him five hundred time more valuable than any theory academic ever could be.
posted by GilloD at 7:36 AM on August 13, 2008

A tenure position in the humanities is a rare commodity, especially considering that most PhD’s in this area are gunning for academic life (as opposed to the sciences where many more PhD’s are industry bound). The few tenured positions that are available will go to the candidate with the most publications and ability to publish. Unless you think that you could be happy as a session instructor, realize that you will have major competition for a permanent position and, realistically, a shorter period from graduation to retirement to produce research.
posted by saradarlin at 11:22 PM on August 14, 2008

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