An age-old conversation

Recently a former postdoc of mine was offered a nice tenure track faculty position. In talking with her about negotiating startup packages, teaching load, etc. she mentioned an interesting conversation she had with her normally very supportive PhD advisor. Her PhD advisor told her  that she would be happy to write her letters of recommendation for her job applications (and she does write her good ones), but that frankly, at her age it was going to be very unlikely she would ever get an offer.  Of course she did get an offer, and her former advisor’s comment really surprised me, especially since she (the advisor) is someone I respect and has given me good career advice in the past.

My former postdoc had a long break (about 10 years) between college and starting her PhD, doing a series of activities, some related and some unrelated to science. She had a very productive PhD and a very productive postdoc in my lab. She then did a short second postdoc where she got another paper (and one on the way) before applying for jobs. She didn’t take particularly long to finish her PhD and her postdocs. In this case, it seems like evidence of continued productivity is what matters, not actual age. I know at least a couple of other people who started their faculty positions in their 40’s and age was never an issue. I’ve been through several job searches in my department and age has never been discussed.

I wonder how much people here think age is a factor in landing a tenure track job? Has anyone come across this before? For those who have faculty jobs, how old were you when you landed your first faculty job? Does this perception affect women more than men? Discuss!


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17 Responses to An age-old conversation

  1. CoR says:

    I was 33. So right about the ‘expected’ age I guess. That is some serious age-ism on the part of your former post-doc’s former PhD advisor. Good thing she ignored the comment. A grad student told me recently she thought she would never get a tenure track position bc, as an older woman, it will be difficult to be hired anywhere.

  2. i pretty much think i’m too old, which is why I’m not sure what I”m going to do once I get my Phd….

  3. gerty-z says:

    I was also the “expected” age of 33. In our recent search we had a few folks that did not follow the “traditional” path and were a little older. As long as we could figure out what they were doing and there was evidence of continued productivity this was not held against them, FWIW.

  4. Chronological age doesn’t mean jacke shitte as far as I’m concerned, and as far as my own career’s concerned, and as far as every one of the numerous search committees I’ve served on over the years has been concerned.

  5. Dr Becca says:

    It’s funny, when I saw “at her age” I initially thought it would be that she was too young, not too old. I feel like I know lots of faculty who didn’t start their positions until they were 40ish, so nothing seems all that strange about thus person’s situation. Conversely, I’ve seen job talks by folks who can’t have hit 30 yet, and it was quite clear they were nowhere near ready to run their own labs.

    I’m 34, perhaps slightly above average, but I’ve been a post-doc for quite some time now.

  6. namnezia says:

    But based also on CoR and SM comments, that perception IS out there…

  7. I was 38 when I started my TT gig. That was only a few years ago and now I feel like I’m 93.

  8. lost academic says:

    I was told when I started my program a couple years ago very clearly that I would experience that sort of discrimination from hiring committees, and I only started my work 5 years out of my BS (spent 5 years in consulting). I see people my age competing for our faculty positions and I definitely feel a little twinge at times. Do I think the guy who told me that was wrong to say it or just wrong in general? Not really – to say it. Pretending that the bias doesn’t exist somewhere isn’t going to help me. I’m not entirely sure that he wasn’t representing the problem too strongly, but I’d rather know that that might be a problem than get blindsided.

  9. Zen Faulkes says:

    I was 35 when I started as an assistant professor.

  10. B says:

    I was 29. I think there must be a field dependence here as I really could have started even younger. I post-doc-ed for 3 years.

  11. Ewan says:

    37, after 7 years of postdoc/advanced postdoc. And then 38 when I moved to actually head my own lab. [In neuroscience, like Becca; I think that her 34 is pretty young!]

    Echo others who think it’s a non-issue.

  12. Namnezia says:

    I was actually 33 – 5 years PhD, 5 Postdoc and 1 year-off after college, but I think that’s young too relative to my colleagues.

  13. anon says:

    I was 37 and was never able to land an NIH R01, and lost the position for fiscal reasons (I was never reviewed for tenure). The average age at getting a first R01 hovers somewhere around age 42 and is climbing. If the average age of starting a jr faculty position is in the lower 30’s, what does this mean for the pipeline if only a fraction of this group is able to get substantial funding?

  14. Q says:

    Oh jesus, as if the whole thing isn’t stressful enough, now I have to worry about them caring how old I am? Seriously? Why the hell do I want this job, can someone please remind me?

  15. J says:

    I would guess that worrying about the age of a TT Prof is a pernicious holdover from the era of defined benefit pensions. During this time, and going forward in some places, departments might have to calculate the likely ongoing costs of hiring someone who pays into the scheme ten years late but reaps the same benefits.

  16. In my engineering field, most people who start asst prof positions are 29 or 30. I am getting old, haha. Age is just a number, bitches!

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