Doing a PhD in your early 20s

This post is by Ben Wilkie who is a (nearly finished!) PhD candidate at Monash University in Melbourne. His research has been focused on Scottish migrants in Australia during the 19th and 20th centuries. He also lectures in Australian Studies at Deakin University in Warrnambool. Ben blogs occasionally at The Scottish Australian and you can find him on Twitter as @historyben.

Ben was kind enough to offer to write this post after a conversation on Twitter after a discussion about average PhD student in Australia. You might be surprised to hear it is around 34 years of age, but the age profile in the sciences is younger and those in the humanities. Ben tells us what it is like to do a PhD in your early 20’s in an area where there are not many younger students – I think you might find it interesting even if you are old enough to be Ben’s mum, like me 🙂 

Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 10.22.04 AMIt is always a bit difficult to tell others what it is like to be yourself, but I can tell you this: I began my PhD in Australian history during 2010 and last week I gave a fairly successful pre-submission seminar.

The next goal: to have completed a PhD while I’m still 25. 

I suppose now is as good a time as any to reflect on what has been in some ways, apparently, an unconventional PhD experience in Australia. I moved from primary school to secondary school to undergraduate to honours to doctorate without a break. That is to say, I have not had an extended rest from study for twenty years. Twenty. Years. (!). I was a 22-year-old when I began my research degree in 2010; the average age at commencement in 2011 was 33. About two-thirds of PhD graduates in Australia are between the ages of 30 and 49.  So, I was relatively young when I started and I’ll still be relatively young when I graduate.

My suspicion is that there are quite a few of us (‘youngens’) out there that started honours or postgraduate degrees as a way of avoiding the job market during and immediately after the Global Financial Crisis. I could’ve found work somewhere, no doubt. But I dared to dream – I wanted to be a historian when I grew up!

Regardless of my direct transition to postgraduate study, in many disciplines in Australia it is now very unusual for students to move directly from an undergraduate course to working on a doctoral degree full-time – only about a quarter of us take this path, and the majority of those beginning PhDs were working in full-time jobs before commencement.My experience is far from normal in Australia, but there are still many research students out there like me. So what’s it like to do a PhD in your early 20s?

There are advantages and disadvantages, spread across the various research and teaching activities most postgraduates are involved in. I can only share my own experiences – perhaps yours was different. Being a young doctoral candidate did not, in any obvious way, have a negative impact on my ability to research. I do think, however, that being younger might have had its practical advantages. As a full-time candidate with a scholarship (and that’s a major factor), no children to take care of, and no career that I had to reluctantly leave behind or cling on to in my spare time, I had all the time and energy in the world to do my research.

I understand that being free to work on your research at any time of day, on any day of the week is probably beyond the realm of imagination for many candidates, but that’s how it has been over the past three years for me. The ability to fit my research into a 9-5 block, five days a week, has also enabled me to lead a mostly normal social life; my research and ‘other’ life never clashed. I went out to pubs on weekends with friends and had the time to play in a band during my time as a candidate. I was even in a long-term relationship, and that worked out just fine (our wedding was in April).

I think the time to commit to the research and the ability to have an active/actual life outside of my studies has been the key to what I would describe as a relatively successful and stress-free candidature. I don’t think this would have been nearly as easy if I had a family, a career, or a home loan to pay off, for example. I also think the addition of a scholarship has been integral. I’m lucky like that, but it’s not completely rosy.

A common complaint among research students is their sense of isolation – not feeling as though they belong to their departments, or not having anyone to speak with, apart from their supervisors, about the ups and downs of a research degree. Younger candidates are not immune, but it is arguable that there is an additional degree of ‘social distance’ between those in their early 20s and the majority of candidates and university academics.I certainly often found myself in the awkward situation of trying to appear interesting to people with whom I have nothing in common outside of academia. “Holidays? Jobs? Houses? Children? Renovations? Grandchildren? Nope, but I did recently get my full driver’s license! Oh, and have you seen this funny picture of a cat on the internet?!”

Appearing to be about the age of most undergraduates, and having about as much life experience, early on I found it uncomfortable attempting to casually mingle during conference lunch-breaks (“Attention: could the parents of one Ben Wilkie please collect him at the main reception desk – he is lost, hungry, and distressed.”). While eating lunch in the department staff room, I could not help but think others suspected I had no business there, and was merely a poverty-stricken undergraduate out to steal cans of International Roast and trays of assorted Arnott’s biscuits.

I don’t think this is about immaturity: the transition from pupil to colleague is very abrupt for those who began their research degree, and their casual teaching career, straight after their undergraduate studies. It takes time to get used to this new environment. Younger research students experience, like everyone else, the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’, and it is really not nice to feel like an outsider who is not only anomalous (due to age) but also fraudulent. 

This was thrown into sharp focus when I began teaching during my second year of candidature. I was still 22 and most of my students were aged between 18 and 21. On one hand, it was easy to relate to most undergraduates, and classes were relaxed, fun, but always constructive. The feedback was good. On the other hand, there is an instinct to retain a semblance of expertise and authority in front of the class. This is made tricky when you know very well the difference between yourself and many other students is probably about one to three years of education, tops. The small age gap also does absolutely nothing to subdue the inner fears we all have that we are imposters and somebody will eventually find us out.

As a younger candidate and a young teacher, I have often felt the need to ‘normalise’ myself in relation to other teachers and seem older than I really am. It’s a silly thing to think, of course, but it is what it is. The impulse to set yourself apart from your students somehow by being ‘serious’, dressing ‘older’, or growing a ‘beard’ does nothing to help you feeling as though you are attempting a master deception. (I write ‘beard’ because I soon discovered that it was not within my repertoire of convincing disguises – but a decent crop of stubble does help along the cynical, tired, and overworked academic-look.)

When I go to submit my thesis in a month or so, I will have achieved something special. Not many people my age are completing or have PhDs, and for all my fears of being an imposter and the occasional sense of isolation I should always remember that I am here because I am qualified, capable, and deserving – just like everyone else doing a research degree. Sometimes it is difficult to be a younger teacher, and I’m sure this occurs in many other workplaces, but at the end of the day I think it is probably important to keep on reminding ourselves that we are not so much abnormal as we are remarkable, and we should be proud of being a little bit unique.

But that’s just me. Any other younger people out there doing a PhD? What has your experience been?

Related posts

Marginalised in PhD land

Should you invite a PhD student to a trivia night?

79 thoughts on “Doing a PhD in your early 20s

  1. Anonymous says:

    Awesome post, Ben, and one that I can really relate to. I’m also 25 and in my second year. I’m lucky enough to have a handful of colleagues roughly my age around me, but having completed my undergrad and Honours in the same department I’m now dong my PhD in, I do sometimes still feel like the undergrad lurking around the departmental corridors (but no free biscuit for us!). Knowing that a lot of staff around me (including my advisors) have read my crappy first year essays is a bit of a mixed blessing – in some ways, they know how far I’ve come, but I also haven’t really been able to get a bit of space from my undergrad self and cultivate a “postgrad identity”, if you know what I mean. I also had one experience (that was written about on this blog, incidentally) presenting a departmental seminar where I really felt I was being talked down to by a staff member, largely because of my age (and perhaps gender). There have been a few quips about lack of life experience and naivety here and there, but I tend to just think that I’m lucky to have the freedom that comes with youth and lack of life responsibilities and try, as it seems you do, to think of it as a boon, not a burden!

  2. Jessica says:

    Thanks Ben! I’m 26 and have been going through the ‘imposter syndrome’ phase this year, balancing the first semester of my candidature with teaching and research assistant responsibilities: I HEAR YOU re. the age gap issue with students, the awkwardness in staff rooms and during conference breaks. It’s a relief and an encouragement to read about your experiences, both personal and professional. Best of luck with the final stage!

  3. Elise says:

    Thank you for your post, it is really good to hear from another young PhD, So far, I haven’t encountered anyone else my age.

    I am just about to finish my second year of my history PhD and have just turned 24. Your points ring true, I have even had the awkwardness of seeing some of my students out at the pub (begin 20 minutes of an undergraduate exclaiming ‘Everyone this is my lecturer!’… and then asking me about the exam)

    I feel like I struggle to be taken seriously sometimes, and definitely change my wardrobe for the office (my supervisor quietly suggested I dress ‘maturely’ for seminars and the like) . I feel awkward teaching mature age students, when I feel like I could be learning from their experiences .

    However, I do have advantages. I have the time to write journal articles, and read scholarship peripheral to my topic because I want to- many of the other PhD’s are too busy juggling work and kids for this. I definitely have an active social life, as well as a long term relationship.

    All up it is amazing and terrifying- everything I gather the PhD should be.

  4. brendanhanger says:

    Great post, Ben,
    When I see those starts about the age of PhD students I always find it strange as in my department (earth science), most PhD students are young (generally mid-late twenties) coming directly from undergrad or masters. Myself I’m 27 and about to submit, after also going continuously from school to undergrad to PhD, only taking longer than you due to double degree straight out of school. I have to agree that it is great to be able to do the research without worrying about family, houses, maintaining a career and simply treat it as a 9-5 job. Changing universities has at least helped make it less of an issue being, along with fact that there are younger students than me around anyway.

    I’m sure if you ask around the science areas being so young is not particularly uncommon, good luck with the final stages.

  5. eviemylona says:

    Thanks for this, Ben, it’s really lovely to hear my feelings resonating through others across the globe! I’m 24 and in my second year, and the imposter syndrome has been with me for a very long time now. In my case, studying in a foreign country has exacerbated these feelings of insecurity, because dealing with a. older b.seemingly sophisticated c. incredibly eloquent people d in the field of social sciences is really hard on one’s sense of personal adequacy, especially when framed in a different language and cultural context. I’m going strong, though, and aspiring to get my degree by the time I’m 25. Best wishes with everything, and thank you, once again!

  6. Nikita Malik says:

    I’ll complete my PhD when I’m 26! Feel much the same way but luckily the UK system is shorter and allows you to work for two or three years in the non-academic world

  7. Bored Postdoc says:

    I was similar to the author of this post. Studied for 20+ years straight. Went from primary school to high school to undergrad, honours and then a PhD. And then submitted my PhD on a Friday afternoon and started a postdoc 9am Monday morning.


    And just over 5 years later, burnout has hit. To an absolute extreme level. It’s not only affected my mental health this year to the point where I have seriously contemplated life (or lack thereof). But it has also seriously affected my physical health to a dangerous degree.

    While there’s certainly reasons for not taking a break after undergrad (funding situations etc.), I just want people to be aware that there can be unanticipated consequences if you push yourself too far.

    • Kristina says:

      This. I think that every undergraduate should be aware that, not only is it okay, but it likely highly advisable for them to take at least a year off before going on to graduate school.

      This is what I did. That gap year really helped me reflect on my academic experiences so far and decide if I wanted to continue with academic work. When you jump straight from undergrad to grad school, you’re probably so busy finishing up your senior year work and applying that you don’t have time to stop and actually think about if you want to go grad school.

      And I definitely think it helps prevent burning out. During my gap year, I was working but also had plenty of time to develop some of my hobbies and have a good, supportive social life. I realized how important it was to me that I have a well-rounded life and not be focused on my research 100% of the time. If I had skipped my gap year, I might have unintentionally ended up as a sacrificial lamb on the altar of science.

      • Ben Wilkie says:

        I think this is really good advice. My sense is that the decision to take a year off (whether it is between high school and university, or between undergraduate and postgraduate studies) needs to be made at the individual level. There’s some recent research on ‘the gap year’ among Australian students transitioning between high school and university – for some, a year off can be beneficial. For others, not so much. Balancing study and life has not been an issue for me and I am quite happy where I am. I am also the type of person who works well when I have momentum, but can have a lot of trouble getting motivated and inspired when I’ve had too much downtime; a year off could have been the end of my academic career. Others will have a very different experience, of course. In any case, I think we should definitely all take time to make sure we are in control, and to consider whether some time out will be beneficial.

  8. lenti says:

    It’s good to hear from another youngen, I was starting to think I was the only one. At 23, I’m at least 10 years younger than the next youngest in my research centre, which isn’t helped by the fact I look even younger than I am. Getting asked for ID at the conference bar does not help other people take you seriously.
    Working in population health, many of my colleagues work focuses on youth and young people, which can be interesting at times. I’m lucky in that my supervisors seem to value my input when it comes to interpreting my generations motivations (especially when it comes to embracing technology), there have definitely been times that I felt people doubted my abilities based on my age. I attended a presentation early this year where the presenter made a comment about young people refusing responsibility and that the “head in iPhone” generation would never stick at anything long enough to succeed. She was shocked to discover a member of that generation was old enough to be not only in the audience, but employed to do the same job as her.
    While there are definitely some pro’s to doing a PhD young (such as the work life balance – full respect to those of you doing this with kids, I barely take care of myself and my dog! ), in my experience at least, it’s balanced by the need to prove yourself better than the low expectations people form based on your age.

  9. Lauren says:

    Thanks for sharing your story Ben. I’m in an extremely similar situation – having studied straight through like yourself, I’m also looking to submit in the next few months, before I hit 26. I could relate to the ‘imposter’ type syndrome, especially I found this to occur in trying to be part of the research culture, when I felt I might as well have my hair in pigtails with a big bow on the side – I couldn’t have felt any more out of place.
    I also found that I was looked over for positions because I was ‘too young’ – but I’d rather be too young and have a doctorate than be struggling to complete it with financial and career worries hanging over my head.
    Best of luck – full steam ahead!!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Great article! I am just about to do my mid-candidature review and I’m 23. I am by far the youngest in my group, however most of the postdocs I work with also did their PhDs around my age as well. I have found that they are understanding and we do have a lot in common! When I started I did feel really insecure and that I didn’t belong but I have been lucky enough that I work in a respectful lab where age doesn’t matter!

  11. Tom_DAT says:

    Excellent piece. I am also 26 and I graduate in January next year. Thankfully there were a few other students from my undergraduate years who also went on straight to start a PhD at the same university so I did’t feel much like an imposter because there was a group of others just like me. I think that helped me settle in. However the weirdest thing was having to address my previous lecturers on a first name basis and going out for meals/drinks together.

  12. Thesis Whisperer says:

    Academia has extreme ‘age heaping’ – maybe people don’t want to (or can’t afford to) retire. last I looked, 50% were over 50. Even though I am 43, I am often the youngest person at the table in committee meetings. I have often felt that older academics don’t take me seriously and was actually relieved when I got to 40. I get my hairdresser to leave in the grey a little, just to be sure they get the ‘signal’ 🙂

  13. Catrin says:

    A lovely blog, I too completed before 25. I found that being a young lecturer has been a great benefit, but people do expect you to be older, both those that you talk to within and outside academia. Some very surprised looks sometimes, even followed up with a comment on age. I am sure I will get older at some point though, so enjoying it while I can 😉 It is what you know that matters.

  14. Ashley - GC, Australia says:

    Great post Ben! And kudos to all of you who are on the verge of submitting in your early/late twenties – awesome work! I noted what ‘Bored Postdoc’ said and thought I’d chime in… I’m 27 and been has gone is the first year and all going well, will finish when I’m 28, which I’ll be super happy with. I didn’t start till late as I was an amateur athlete and had other dreams and aspirations, but also wanted the experience in the ‘working world’ – so after having ‘retired’ due to one too many injuries, and having actually risen up to, and headed a few organisations, from ops manager through to director (meanwhile doing my masters), I opted to sacrifice the career to pursue the next ‘stage’ if you like – like I’m sure many of us are doing….If anything, I’d recommend anyone who hasn’t taken a study break…do take one (heck, i spent a few of my past summers touring through Europe…work related) and spend the time inbetween researching, ‘procrastinating’ to ensure I keep that balance!
    Best of luck to everyone, young or old, but it’s refreshing to have others out there on the same journey!

  15. Daz says:

    Great post there Ben.

    Much the same story for me really. I handed my PhD in two months after my 26th birthday. I started school at the age of 3. I was pretty burnt out by the time it was over – and to my stupidity I started straightaway on writing my book. In fact, it’s only now about 2 years distant from the thing that I feel strong enough to contemplate even diving into a new research project.

    I think that took its toll on the people I grew distant from and the shifting nature of the groups of people that I actually knew well enough to call friends after living a life of what seemed to be everlasting studentdom! In my current post I definitely feel much closer to the doctoral students than I do to any of the lecturers, there’s enough of an age gap between us to make it awkward. Plus those doctoral habits die hard.

    The trouble is that if I hadn’t gone straight through the combination of factors would have probably meant that I’d not be where I am today. But I really wish I’d been able to take a break and travel somewhere and wind down. … Or find a job nearer home.

  16. postgradpanda says:

    As I read your post, Ben, there was a sense of looking at a slightly wobbly mirror image of myself. I’m on the other end of the bell curve – I started my research degree last year at the age of 52 (which also has a nice symmetry to yours!)
    Many of your current life experiences echo mine, in that I have no dependent kids living at home, I enjoy pubs and live music, manage to do the whole work-life balance thing very happily…but all that’s because I’ve spent the last 30 years in the kids/mortgage/paid-employment phase and how now emerged into what feels uncannily like my 20s again – albeit more financially stable than I was back then!
    One thing that I would add to your reflections is that the academic discipline a student is in might be relevant to the optimum time in the life cycle to start on postgrad research. As a social work PhD candidate, I’m convinced that the past 30 years (which did include a second undergraduate degree, I must admit) are a great resource for me to draw on, and help me to milk the most I can from my readings and the data I will (hopefully!) soon start to collect. I suspect this is more relevant in research areas that have a strong link with what are often called ‘vocational’ disciplines. Less relevant, perhaps, for the further study of history and other such endeavours.
    I am studying part-time, which is a whole other topic for a blog post. My study life and my paid-employment life complement each other; in fact, what I learn from each is directly applicable to my effectiveness in the other.
    One observation in contrast to your experiences of being ‘young’ in the classroom and in meetings – I have only really been conscious of my age when it is time for student elections on campus. In two years, no one has EVER flagged me down with electoral campaign material. I guess they assume I’m ‘staff’…

  17. johhowes87 says:

    Reblogged this on The Confusion Matrix and commented:
    So it’s been a while… This seems to be a common theme but rest assured, when I find time to breathe in amongst getting a paper ready for publication and an oral presentation for a conference next month, I will upload something more substantial…
    In the meantime, please enjoy this post by Ben Wilkie from The Thesis Whisperer.
    This is brilliant.

  18. Bronwyn Milkins says:

    Thank you so much for your post Ben, it is exactly what I needed. I started my PhD this year in February at 21 and did not realise the intense emotional roller-coaster I was in for. This year so far has definitely been more emotional than academic for me: I felt isolated for several months, cried, had ‘imposter’ syndrome, felt inadequate, and so on. I think, though, if you start your PhD early then you are likely to be the person that enjoys challenges. All of these events were extremely hard for me at the time but I learned quickly: ask for help when you need it or you will cry and breakdown, introduce yourself to other students/researchers, have your own hobbies and interests, take care of yourself, EXERCISE(!), SLEEP(!). It’s with this self-awareness that I am beginning (and I saw this tentatively!) to find my feet.

    This is the main difference that I have found between myself (as a younger PhD student) and the older students: I feel as though the older students have had time to solidify their identities, become stable in their lives, and have more refined coping and emotional skills than myself (in other words, “sort their shit out”). I came from an outer-metropolitan area to the city for my PhD (first time ever in the city!), my parents live in a different state and I am financially independent, and managing romantic relationships.

    I don’t find it a problem at all to connect with people of different ages and I love it! I went to an international conference in July in Peru where I presented on my research and I felt confident, respected, and able to talk to researchers who had 20+ years of experience on me, easily! It’s so eye-opening and I feel so privileged to be in a position where I have access to all these inquiring minds and wonderful people.

    Bet of luck in submitting your thesis and thank you again for the article, Ben!


  19. Tim Crawford says:

    Thank you Ben for an excellent article. Every single paragraph and point in here I completely relate and agree to; down to the age brackets and being in a band throughout the process! (Except for the point that I’m still in the active research stage of my thesis…guess that’s science for you). I was told a few years ago during a summer studentship (pre-honours) by one brilliant-but-possibly-on-the-verge-of-becoming-cynical young postdoc to “take a break between undergrad and your Ph.D”. Starting to wish I’d listened now, as I’m really not sure there are many more options available than continuing to work -this- hard throughout what’s left of my youth as a postdoc. But again, the job market was terrible after my fourth year.

    Good luck with the thesis!

  20. Stacey Melia (@staceymelia) says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’m 21 and started my research degree, and teaching undergraduates last week. I am doing my research quite a distance from the university so I don’t really have the chance to talk to many other phd students or staff members which I suppose will either be a blessing or a curse!

    I do agree that teaching people that are very similar in age to you is a challenge – half of my class are in their mid 40’s! I do feel like I’m going to have to constantly reassure myself that I deserve to be there, and that I am qualified.

    Thank you again for reassuring me that I am not the only one!

  21. Adam Crymble says:

    The thing that I find peculiar here is that your system allows this. Not as in, permits it, but makes it possible. I grew up in Canada and like you spent 20 years in education without a break. But that only got me to the end of a masters degree. By the time you’re 22 in the Canadian system you’re still going to be an undergraduate. I think that raises some questions. Either the Canadian system is too slow (quite possible), or the one you’re in is propelling you through education too fast, or even cutting corners. I don’t begrudge you your success. I do wonder though what the difference is between what you’ve learned or can do, and those 34 year olds. I’m sure you’ll get people on your hiring committees wondering the same thing, so even though it may not seem fair, you might need to have a response to those concerns.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      In Australia an undergrad degree is 3 years, honours 3 months. You can start at 17 in our system. Ben’s timeline is easily possible without cutting corners. I do think you are right that hiring committees might be biased

      • faircite says:

        That’s a fair point, and as long as you stay in the Australian system I’m sure there’s no issues. I think you’d find a lot of raised eyebrows if you tried to take those qualifications to another country though. Having spent 5 years as an undergraduate, which I started at the age of 19 immediately following high school, I admit I’d have preconceived ideas about how much more I learned than someone spending 3 years and starting at 17. That might work against you in another system, fair or not.

        • Anonymous says:

          As per what’s been said above, specifically with the duration of degrees – as an Aussie, an honors program goes for 12mths – sometimes you can squeeze it in 6mths but it depends on your prior course work etc and experience – I’ve heard 3 months in cases where the person has basically a HDR degree and needs to do a qualifying program…otherwise I almost wish I knew about it! That said, at 27, taking a break for pretty much 2yrs after after graduating at 17, then eventually onto the masters – I took about a 12mth break before starting my PhD, whilst perhaps I’m biased, I look at a lot of stressed and warn out students, or more importantly, ones without ‘life’ experience, and I wouldn’t change a thing. But unno what, I think really highly of all of you following your PhD dream, no matter how young (or mature), as I think if you’re passionate enough about what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter how early (or late) you start!

      • Ros says:

        I think the issue of specialisation across different educational systems also comes into play here. If you do, say, a liberal arts undergraduate degree in the US, then you need to do a more specialised Masters degree before you can possibly be ready to think about PhD work. But if you’re in the UK (and I think Australia is similar), your undergraduate degree may already be pretty specialised. So here you can go straight to an MPhil, which after a year can be converted into a DPhil. You may have missed out some breadth earlier in your education (we specialise more at 16, even), but you’re expected to fill in whatever you need along the way to get to the same end point. It’s the same with the PhD program itself – in the US they tend to require a lot more taught courses with a broader base, whereas in countries where it’s wholly a research degree, it will focus on the specialist area more rapidly.

    • Ros says:

      Oddly, I have entirely the opposite reaction. I tend to assume that someone with a particularly early doctorate must be exceptionally brilliant. I’m in the UK and I was just past my 20th birthday when I finished my undergraduate degree. If I’d gone on to do a PhD immediately I would have expected to finish at 23. Mid-20’s strikes me as pretty normal for someone who is gone directly through the academic system. I’d be looking at the 34 year old and wondering why it took them so long to get there. In fact, I was 32 when I started doctoral work and spent quite a lot of time jealously looking at people who are my contemporaries who were already much further along in their career.

      • Adam Crymble says:

        Ros, I’m now in the UK and I can see why you’d make that assumption because the UK system (and presumably the Aussie based on the degree-length) focuses on specialisation rather than breadth. So the 25 year old might be brilliant at what they know, but the 34 year old from the North American system probably had exposure to far more diverse disciplines. It all comes down to the fact that a PhD in one country is not the same as a PhD in another. Those of us who move around notice that more than those who stay in their home system.

    • Ben Wilkie says:

      These are some interesting concerns, though I would have serious reservations about answering to any selection committee that was more interested in the time between the start of my BA and the end of my PhD (and the age at which all of this occurred) than my actual, concrete achievements in research, teaching, and administration.

      • Émilie says:

        I got my PhD, and my tenure-track job, at 30 years old. I graduated through the Canadian system so high school until grade 11, 2 years of cegep (specific to Quebec), 3 years BA (very specialized: classical studies), 1 year in a first master which I dropped and then 2 years for the one I actually finished, and 6 years for the PhD. That’s all pretty standard duration in Canada. When it came to applying for jobs in North America generally, people were floored by how “young” I was to graduate and colleagues at my current job have commented on it. Given the system here, it is the stuff of actual geniuses to finish in their early 20s.

  22. Jeanne de Montbaston says:

    For me, this was such an interesting post. By chance, many of my friends are older than I am, or are already employed. I have always felt very young and/or junior, to be doing a PhD in my late 20s (I began at 24). I had always felt trapped between the normal-age PhDs who were younger, and the mature students. It is nice to read that there are stresses at any age!

    Best of luck with your work!

    • Anon says:

      This is exactly how I feel now, Jeanne. I’ve started my PhD at 28 and everyone else is either 22 and living at home, or they’re a fair bit older, with teenage kids etc. It’s not something that I usually notice, but now and then I feel weirdly stuck in the middle and wish for a crowd of fellow students my age!

      • Ashley says:

        I’m with you! As far as there being a middle gap, I think we sit right in it (I’m 27 at half way’ish) & everyone is either a lot more ‘mature’ or a little less in respect to life experiences and so forth. I think I found this to be a very comforting thread, yay for us that are int he middle range – no in our thirties, but on the berge of leaving our twenties 🙂

  23. Green says:

    Hey, thanks for the interesting post, which I could (partly) relate to.
    I am in my first year of PhD studies, being 25 years old, though with a two year old child, so no 9-5 for me 😉
    But yes, feels unreal being relatively young and doing a research degree…isn’t it something people do, when they are grown up?

  24. scientistinaskirt says:

    I’m in sciences and all the PhD students are under 30 in my department. With the exception of the one ‘real grownup’ part time student. Even though it’s totally normal here, I have had some of the imposter syndrome and problems with the shift in work style (as in I decide what I’m doing and my supervisors advise me, rather than me waiting for them to tell me what to do) Having spent some time in the ‘real world’ might have helped!

  25. another young postgrad says:

    I had a similar experience while teaching this semester when I was made painfully aware that I am only a year or two older than most people in the class. It doesn’t help that I look even younger than I actually am. It actually began much earlier than postgrad research for me. When I was in honours I had one of the other students question me about my age making it very clear she thought I was too young to be there. I spoke to my supervisor about this issue of not appearing “authoritative” in class because of my age and she gave me some really good advice which may or may not suit everyone; It’s not about being an authority figure when teaching at university, but simply about being the most prepared person in the room. Everyone in the class should have something to contribute and you are there to facilitate this discussion and make sure everyone is on the right track, so to speak. This advice put me at ease a bit. I hope it helps someone else!

  26. Emma says:

    I’m 26, I completed my PhD viva in January 2013 when I was 25. Like Ben states there are definite advantages & disadvantages to being a PhD-er at a relatively young age. Unfortunately I am now suffering from an extreme lack of ‘proper’ work experience in my cv – as seriously as I took my research degree & despite the teaching experience I did throughout – some (I’m hoping for my sake not all) just see it as another 3 years of uni. I have been seriously looking for a job (any job!) for a year & have had zero luck. Regardless I am extremely proud of my PhD and don’t regret it for one minute – It may be that I would never have gotten the time/opportunity/funding to do it in the future!

  27. Ab says:

    The imposter thing hangs with you, I know professors who still have it. I’m not sure what you’re feeling is that different to many of my friends who are advanced but in other disciplines. I didn’t have a break between UG and phd, and now am full time academic, did clinical work too PT. I’m not really sure what young people want, and why with their supposedly superior networking skills they can access it betyr, if you want instant credibility well that’s an issue in lots of places. To me it is about matur Ty, and when I got to 40 I thought, bloody hell I a c40 not a young kid. So I started acting my age. Noon kept me there not acting my agar except me. Sometimes I think people over agonises the phd (my tok 8 years, horrible supervisory relationship where the snpeividors got stood down and I fin bed doing the last two years by myself…so it’s not like I don’t get it caf be terrible). But seriously, its a job or iota further eduction. Lots of People are out there doing i and dealing with similar thing in their own way in their own fields. We’re not that special.

  28. DJP says:

    I’m so glad to read this blog post! I did the same route (undergrad > grad school) and would get very irritated at the comments of how “young” I was. More than anything, they came from students who were a.) insecure and b.) people who thought they were the best thing that ever happened to this department, but actually had nothing to show for it (via conferences, papers, etc). In my opinion, if anything, deciding what I wanted to do at a young age is actually admirable since I can achieve my goal before I am married to my long-term partner and I have a family with him.

    Thanks so much for this!

  29. stephaniesteels says:

    Great article Ben! At 29, I was the youngest person in my department (Public Health) to complete my PhD (in the U.K, most are in their early 30s to late 40s). Your comments about the department staffroom made me laugh – I remember having staff coming up to me and asking if I was a lost undergraduate student! Also, I’m glad to hear of someone else who kept ‘regular’ hours during their study – I used to work 8:00am-4:30pm and have my weekends off. I used to feel so guilty about it, but I think it kept me mostly sane during my 3 year PhD.

  30. GraecoMuse says:

    I was 21 when I started my PhD in 2010 and 24 now and submitting next month. It has certainly been interesting. Mostly good for me. I scare students by sitting outside my lectures first week and interacting and hearing how they have failed to do homework before walking to the front of classroom to teach and seeing their mouths drop hehe.

  31. Anon says:

    Great post. Though it’s not common in Australia, pretty much all candidates in the UK are in their early 20s. Most I know are 23, 24, 25 – and are finished and looking for post docs by 27. The ‘late starters’ are often graduates from overseas who went through extended Masters programs elsewhere. At 32 I’m seen as ancient! So, it’s all relative.

  32. liannleow says:

    When you’re doing a post-doc in North America where everyone does masters before beginning, people think you’re the masters student. Esp when you are little and asian. Students will also underestimate your ability. But that’s ok! 🙂 I like exceeding those expectations.

  33. l says:

    In many post-doc grant applications, you have to be below 35 to qualify. This “age-ism” is evident in the Australian system, but has the benefit of reducing the “headstart” for those who’ve spent too many years in the system as students.

  34. Anonymous says:

    Interestingly, I am studying history in the UK and have the opposite problem – I started my PhD at 25 (having taken two years out of academia) and found myself the second oldest student in my department’s intake. It seems to be quite rare here to take any breaks in studying, and I find it quite stressful being older than everybody else – I worry that people will see the years off as a lack of commitment or that it will disadvantage me in establishing myself after I finish, and socially it can be tricky being a few years older than most people I meet. It’s nice to know this isn’t the same everywhere.

  35. Maria says:

    Great article Ben! I’m 24 and past the mid way point in my thesis. Some of your experiences really resonated with me – even though I have great supervisors it took me a while to feel at ease bantering or having more casual conversation with them, and my first conferences were a nightmare of impostor syndrome fuelled social anxiety. It’s so hard to think that an established, middle aged academic would have any interest in talking to a young PhD candidate in their early twenties. On the other hand, the advantages that you highlight are certainly considerable. My candidature has been relatively stress free and I credit this with being able to devote as much time as I want to work during the week and having weekends and evenings free to carry out a normal social life. I can live with friends near campus and, coming straight from undergrad, and used to the student lifestyle – which my scholarship thankfully supports.

    I wonder what benefits or drawbacks the early 20s PhD will have when searching for an academic job. Good luck with your submission!

  36. Karina says:

    This is such a fantastic post. You hit the nail on the head with every point. I was 22 when I started and I’m only a year in! So glad I’m not the only one who feels this way!

  37. Sally says:

    Well done. I am 22 and in my second year – no that’s not a typo. Imposter syndrome has been particularly difficult for me and I had to change supervisors because my research was being directed down a different path which I didn’t sign up for. You’re right, they would have kicked us out long ago if we didn’t belong, so I guess we just have to believe in ourselves and ignore the voices in our heads that tell us we’re out of our depth. Great segment, Ben.

  38. Divan Burger says:

    Don’t sell yourself short. Obtaining a PhD at the age of 25 is remarkable!!! I wish I rather pursued an academic career and carried on with my PhD studies right away. I took a 3 year break after my Master’s thesis (before I started with my PhD research in Mathematical Statistics). I’m planning to submit my thesis at the end of 2014, at the age of 29 (this would result in a total of 2 years of research, however, I am sacrificing most my energy and free time, and also taking into account that I often work long hours inbetween as I’m working in a corporate environment). After 1 year’s research, I’m already standing at more than 200 pages (and glad to say that all of it are constructive material). I can submit earlier if I want to, but I’ll rather get it perfect instead of forfeiting my chances of passing. I am just thankful for having the opportunity to commence with a PhD project! I would have preferred to get it done WAY sooner, though. Hence that I’m quite jealous of you. Anyways… Congratulations!!!

  39. Jonathan says:

    I think that I’m a little late to the party here but, I thought that I’d leave a comment saying that I found this entry to be familiar to what I’m experiencing and thank you for writing it. I believe that I’m in a very similar situation to the author’s experiences except being a year older (23), as I squeezed an MSc in between my undergrad and beginning my PhD.

  40. Ahmed says:

    Thanks for Sharing!
    I recently started my PhD journey. Being 23, I can relate to many of things you mentioned. Although sometimes I doubt my own ability, I know that this will fade away as my confidence grows, I guess this can only come from hard work and perseverance .

  41. Ivonne says:

    Thank you very much for your post.
    I live in Peru and the education system here is very different. I won a scholarship to study PhD at 21 but I was put as a condition to be academic assistant for two years because they think i am very young. I have heard comments that I am still a baby and should work in a company for a few more years. I feel uncomfortable because the people I work with take me 8 (lowest) to 20 years and do not take me seriously. Had reached a level where I thought they are right, I am young. But reading the post I realized that I should not get carried away by others and follow my goals.

  42. lunalovebooks says:

    Reblogged this on Tea and Narrative Empathy and commented:
    Ah, the dreaded imposter syndrome. I know it well. I still can’t believe how much younger I am than the ‘average’ PhD candidate in Australia…. I like the idea of thinking of myself as ‘remarkable’ rather than ‘abnormal’ though 😉

  43. Charlotte says:

    Nice blog post, glad to see I’m not the only one out there. I have just completed my PhD in marine biology at the age of 24. I didn’t do a masters and was lucky to complete my PhD in something that I loved – I completely understand your reservations about the teaching (a lot of my masters and mature undergraduate students were older than me!)
    It’s great as I can now afford to take some ‘time out’ before I begin my first postdoc in about 6 months 🙂

  44. Klara says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article! Thank you for candidly sharing your experiences! It is a relief and comfort to know that others out there *survive* PhD’s at a young age and in a world of older, more experienced peers.

    I am 22 (just finishing undergrad now) and am starting an accelerated (3 year) PhD this fall as a part of the combined MD-PhD program I am enrolled in. I will starting medical when I am 25. I am absolutely terrified but am striving to embrace the experience and this time in my life. It won’t be easy, but it is nice to know that it is possible!

    All the best to you in your future endeavours!

  45. Helena says:

    Brilliant article, it feels like I wrote it myself it’s so accurate 🙂 I am 23 and nearly finished my PhD, it has been an absolute rollarcoster of emotion and I can totally relate to the “imposter syndrome” feeling. I have one question though in relation to your friends who did not do research after undergrad, did you experience a lot of jealousy and nearly begrudging from them? I have experienced a lot of this from friends who I went to college with and equally older phd colleagues, it’s not very pleasant.

  46. mattmoorebioinf says:

    Great article, this was useful to hear! I had no idea the average age was 30something, I suspect it’s lower here in the UK because our PhDs are 3-4 years out of a 3 year undergraduate very often.

    I’m fairly young doing my PhD but have always felt younger too because my birthday is August, I’m very nearly in the year below. Which means I will have a degree, masters and (hopefully) PhD at 25.

    I’ve certainly been waiting to find out that I’m secretly a moron. I teach first year undergraduate biology students maths and that’s usually fine, but then when one of the lead demonstrators listens in I become anxious and make silly mistakes because I’m so worried they’ll catch me out and I don’t really know any maths, even though I do know the maths :/

    I do hope that at 25, with the intention of going straight to postdoc, my age doesn’t cause people to take me less seriously or view me as a student still!

  47. Dharmil Asawla says:

    Great post! I just stumbled on this article actually finding out at what age should one apply for a Phd and oh my. I am going to graduate soon after completing a bachelor’s degree in robotics and artificial intelligence, turning a pure 22 ( i graduate on my birthday 😀 ) and want to pursue a phd straight after.
    This post helped me find the motive to do so . Thank you so much.!
    Like everyone else, I hope people still don’t take me as a student.
    Take care.

  48. Ken says:

    Thanks for writing this article Ben! It was a great read and certainly relevant to my situation. I’m a 21 year old PhD student and similar to you I went straight from high school to undergrad, to honours and finally to PhD.

    I feel that I’m still adjusting to being a PhD student. All of the people in my office are in their late 20’s – early 30’s and some are married with kids. I have also grappled with Imposter syndrome, but I’m lucky to have a very supportive and understanding doctoral supervisor.

    Great to know that I’m not alone in my experience. 🙂

    Thanks again.

  49. Rachel says:

    I just finished mine this week at 28. I spent two years writing the thesis because I just couldn’t accept it was good enough because I had started the lab work 22.. Imposter syndrome big time!! I felt like a fraud the whole time and only accepted what I had done have way through my viva. Not sure if I would have started it so young if I had the choice again, but it’s all over now!!

  50. Ananthu.padmakumar says:

    I am a plus two student I want to do PhD and introdus my new theory’s about. Energy inside and out did earth

  51. Anonymous says:

    I started my History PhD aged 21. I went straight from undergraduate degree into the PhD, The sense of imposter syndrome was crippling for me. I quit aged 23.

Leave a Reply