Is there a right age to be a graduate student?

When I was in high school, since I was in a very theoretical program, going to university and earning at least a Bachelor’s degree seemed the only reasonable option. Then, since I wanted to study a bit more, I decided to continue with a two-year Master’s, that in my home country–Italy–is seen as the most natural post-graduate option. Someone told me that “if you stop studying for a while, and then go back to university, you may not find yourself able to study anymore”, and the fear of this happening to me made me decide to do my Master’s right after graduating from my Bachelor’s.

It was by accident, during one of my Master’s courses, that I started considering doing a PhD. I was in my first year, I was taking a course attended mostly by second-year students, and the main discussion topic during the breaks was that one of them had just been accepted for a PhD in the US. The prof was visibly proud of him, and asked the class “Why don’t you all consider doing a PhD?”. “Yeah, why don’t I?”, I wondered. Well, the answer was that I wasn’t considering doing a PhD because I didn’t really know what a PhD was. Indeed, university orientation in Italy–at least in my experience–is focused on Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and little attention is given to the other kinds of degrees. Thankfully, the prof explained to us what a PhD was, promoting its qualities and refuting some misconceptions about it. In those moments I started fantasizing about doing a PhD.

After graduating, I started looking more seriously for information about PhDs, both on university websites and on online forums. Suddenly, the timing question was there again: Should I start a PhD right after the Master’s? Is it acceptable to have a gap between the two? Is there a right age? Are older applicants more likely to be rejected?

I struggled to find answers to these questions, and somehow I decided that it was better not to wait too much. I had a full-time job and I was ok with working for a while before coming back to university, but I feared that if I waited too much, then I would have abandoned my project of doing a PhD.

Now I would like to write down and share with you the words that I wish I had read a few years ago, both before starting the Master’s and before starting the PhD. This advice comes from my limited experience, please feel free to disagree and write it in the comments below! 😉

First: You are never too old to start a Master’s or a PhD (or even a Bachelor’s). Some people do go from high school to PhD with no gaps in between, but this is very far from being a rule. Don’t think that being in your late twenties, or thirties, or even fourties or fifties will make you feel out of place. You probably won’t be the only one. And in any case, you probably won’t be treated differently by your peers or your profs just because of your age.

Second: Coming back to university after a gap, even a long one, might be hard in terms of finding the right concentration you need to study, but it isn’t impossible. Many people do it.

Third: Having a gap in which you get work experience doesn’t hurt at all. It will just make you more confident next time you will look for a job–sooner or later everyone does it.

Fourth: If you are more mature than your fellows, you bring a different perspective. This is very valuable in class and lab discussions.

Of course, I am not stating that younger students who want to start a Master’s or a PhD as early as possible should wait and do it later. Do it now, if you want! 🙂 I would just like to reassure those who, like me, are told that “gaps are frowned upon”, and that “PhDs only make sense if you are still young”: That’s not true! Perhaps (and, I repeat, perhaps) it was true when “PhD” equalled “prospective career in academia” and, according to some, “you’d better be young, or you’ll be old before you get a tenure track position”, but it is not true now that “PhD” and “graduate school” in general can lead to many different careers. If a degree makes sense to you and your plans, then it makes sense, period. 😉


In case you are interested, here you are some statistics about graduate students’ age in Canada:

Click to access trends-vol1-enrolment-june-2011.pdf

Banner photo by @gradlifemcgill Instagrammer @kipunsam.daily // @gradlifemcgill

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