Monday, September 05, 2011

Ageing Out

Someone recently asked me if there is an age limit for getting one's first tenure track position. That is, if you follow a "non-traditional" path and/or spend a long time getting your various degrees and maybe also some time as a postdoc, is there an age beyond which institutions won't want to hire you in a tenure-track position?

Maybe, but from what I've seen at my university and from the experiences of some of my friends who are my age and are assistant professors, this age bias, if it exists (and of course it can't officially exist) probably doesn't come into play in a serious way until someone is older than 50.

I'm not saying that ageism for people older than 50 is OK. My point here is to attempt to assuage the anxiety of people who are older than 50, and certainly for those younger than 40, who think that because they are no longer 'young', they won't be able to get a job.

The question of the day, therefore is: How old were you when you started your first tenure-track position?

I think the answer to this question may be somewhat generational -- i.e., it was more common in days of yore for first-hires to be in their 20s -- so I could be ageist and confine the poll to people hired after, say, 1990-ish, but that is more complex than I want to make it. I know the answer will also vary depending on the type of institution, field, country etc. etc., but despite all this, I made a simple poll. You can of course elaborate in the comments to provide context to your answer.

How old were you when you got your first tenure-track position?
less than 30
more than 55


Anonymous said...

I got my first tenure-track position before I even finished my PhD (I had to go back during winter break to write another chapter). That was in computer science in 1982, and I was in a hot subfield (VLSI design). But even now it is fairly common to hire people who have just finished their PhDs into CS tenure-track positions. Postdocs in CS are rare in the US.

Kea said...

I can assure you that, in my field, age discrimination sets in at 40 or sooner.

MathTT said...

The pole is a little misleading. My "real age" was on the high side, but I got my tenure track job essentially right out of grad school (no postdoc).

I worked for many years before going back to grad school for the PhD. So my "PhD age" is young. At least in the initial interview stages, my real age is not as apparent from my CV, and they were already interested in me by the time they could make a reasonable guess at my real age.

Is your contention that these days more people are doing the non-traditional path of working before PhD, or that more people are spending a lot of time post-PhD and pre-tenure track? Those seem like really different things.

David Stern said...

I got a US tenure track position at age 37 as an associate prof with a 3 year tenure track. I got my PhD at age 29 and had a post doc in the UK, a VAP in the US, and a 5 year fixed term research position in Australia first.

I then got tenure at age 40. After that things took some unusual turns but I just got promoted to full prof back in Australia at age 46.

queenrandom said...

That dropoff after 35 (as of viewng the poll at 8AM) is looking a bit daunting. I just got the PhD at 29.8 D: (I spent few years teching and it did me good). I hope and pray this breaks down differently in molecular biology and that I'll be a super kickass candidate despite my advanced years ;)

qaz said...

This is going to be very field dependent. In fields that do not expect post-docs, getting a faculty job at 30 (plus/minus) is not unusual. For fields that require multiple post-docs, it would take a rare superstar to get a faculty job before 30. It would be particularly interesting to know what the correlation is between fields. Remember that the average age at first-R01 has been 42 for most of the last decade.

Anonymous said...

I agree with MathTT that there are two very different questions here: physical age vs "Ph.D. age". I think there is definitely more discrimination if you have a long Ph.D. age with no TT job -- the perception is that you were unable to get one via the "normal" process. There is less (but non-zero) discrimination against people who are physically old, but with a young Ph.D. age. But in the faculty searches that I've participated in, I cannot recall an applicant's age ever being on the radar screen at all.

Anonymous said...

Cell bio.
<30 yr old.
Liberal arts college.
This was just a few years ago.

Ms.PhD said...

FSP, while this post may have been well-meant, your poll doesn't support your hypothesis.

Not encouraging.

Pagan Topologist said...

I got my first (and only) tenure track position in 1968, when I was 24. I have always been really puzzled by any age discrimination that may exist in this regard. Isn't it likely that cautious, budget conscious, administrators would prefer an older person, since the long-term committment is much shorter if the person gets tenure.

inBetween said...

Sometimes I wonder why it wouldn't be a little bit reasonable to be age-ist when it comes to tenure track positions. Since a department invests so much to help get a research career going, there is a point where investing so much in someone who is 57 is not as good of an idea of investing in someone who is 27. They could both be super stars and they could both fail, but if the younger person ends up being a super star they have a longer time to give back to the university. For the 57 year old, the department might find themselves debating over filling the position again in 7 years. I don't know... it's a tough one. Plus you need to consider WHY someone is applying for an assist prof job at 57. I know a student in my dept who was a graduate student for 30 years and only finished because his advisor was about to die (and signed his thesis literally hours before he did die). And then this guy applied for TT jobs. Clearly not the same thing as someone who had a career change, like a woman I know who just sold her company and is now pursuing a PhD in physics. I just might hire her, if I was in a physics department.

Anonymous said...

Physical age is a factor too.
Our group recently considered a candidate with a very young PhD age but not so young in physical age. One factor that went against the candidate was that the group wanted to space out hirings and retirements (in my field, lateral movement is rare. People get a job and stay there till they retire, which happens at a fixed age).

Of course, it may be argued that fixed-age retirement is inherently agist.


Doc said...

Biochemistry. 26. PUI with research programs.

I actually think there was one school that I interviewed with where my age was discriminated against, but I had multiple other offers, so it wasn't a detriment overall.

John Vidale said...

37, but hired with tenure after a couple of stints in permanent research positions.

Anonymous said...

I went straight from undergrad to grad school. Finished my PhD in five years, then did a 5 year postdoc. I started my TT position at a large state medical school at age 32. There have been several hires before and after me, also entering as assistant profs, and all have been older than me (35-40). They all spent time doing research before grad school, or spent longer in their postdocs (which are at least 3, if not 4-5 years, to be competitive).

Anonymous said...

to msphd: well I mean it is likely the case that more people follow the traditional gradschool->postdoc->tt route than those taking a break (or unusually long), so the numbers should be skewed leftward.

it's tricky to find out what *fraction* of well-qualified older candidates had much more trouble finding jobs than equivalent younger ones.

prodigal academic said...

I agree with Anon 11:49. I got my TT position after working at a National Lab on staff for a while. I had no issues with this while I searched, other than total ignorance of the TT interview prior to my first one!

Having been on the other side for several searches now, I would say that the VAST majority of our applicants did undergrad->grad school->postdoc->job search path. I'd guess on the order of 90-95%. A candidates' age has never come up in conversation during searches in my experience. Only their time since PhD.

I am in a field where most students plan on a career outside academia, even before admission to grad school. We would value outside experience for this reason, but few applicants (especially for a junior hire) have any.

Anonymous said...

Like many issues with hiring in higher ed, this depends on what sort of institution you are taliking about. Would an R1 hire someone >50 for theior first TT position? Probabably not, as they are ultimately looking for many, many years of research excellence post-hire.

Would a small, public regional college with little or no research aspirations hire someone over 50? Absolutely. In many case, if you can get a good teacher to stay for 5 to 10 years, you consider it an excellent hire.

Anonymous said...

This whole thread is making me feel rather long in the tooth! In my field and my location, it's practically unheard of to get a TT position before 30. In the Environmental sciences in Canada, it is typical to do a MSc before the PhD(though less so in the past few years because of a shift in the way things are funded), and it's VERY unusual to go from PhD to TT without postdocs. Never mind that in Ontario we used to also have a grade 13 in high school that you were expected to complete if you wanted to attend an Ontario university.

My path, thus, has been to leave high school at 19, a 4.5 year bachelors (because of a change in major), a 2 year masters (standard), and I'm currently 30 and in the final year of a 3.5 year PhD, with one year off for maternity (also standard in Canada). I'm about average age or even slightly younger for most people in my program. I can't even think of anyone in my program younger than 27, actually.

It's interesting to think of the cultural differences, and how they affect age at completion. Not just things like encouraging a masters before a PhD, but time to completion, attitudes about shifting focus, etc. It's been my perception that, because TT positions in my field are so rare in Canada, there's a general hesitance to hire an untested 'kid,' even if that kid is a total dynamo.

Anonymous said...

I am in basic biomedical science. We very seldom hire folks without a postdoc, making an under 30 hire fairly rare. I got my first TT position at age 34, after one year as a tech after college, 6.5 years as a grad student and a four year postdoc. In my Department and University, I agree we'd be happy to look at older candidates, but would also be looking at the CV to see what they had been doing in the meantime. We now get a number of older entering grad students (5+ years after college)--I do not think we'd worry about that at all. Long graduate careers or long postdocs are OK IF balanced by continuous productivity. However, long unproductive stretches would definitely be a negative. One of our just promoted assoc. professors is probably 5-8 years older than the rest, due to staring grad school later than most.

I have two friends who will be looking for TT jobs after 8-10 year stretches as productive research asst. professors. I'll be interested to see how they do.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

I'm not a prof yet. In fact, I'm still working on my PhD. However, I've taken a non-traditional route through physics, and even a couple years off to raise our kid. So, by the time I get my PhD, I'll be in the upper half of my 30s; if I'm lucky into to get a tenure-track position, I'll be well into my 40s.

Anonymous said...

I don't have a permanent or tenure track position, and at age 46 am pretty worried about this. I have a non traditional path (long stint looking after kids) and PhD within the last 5 years. I feel pretty sure there is discrimination out there. I don't disclose my age on job aps but its pretty obvious from the date of my first degree roughly how old I am.

Anonymous said...

At Texas state universities, TT is not forever; it's up for renewal every 6 years (or so). I'm a post-doc in my nth career, being mentored by senior faculty. So I believe that TT is a possibility as long as I am productive and don't seem like I'll get dementia before renewal time.