# Too old?

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I'm 34...am I too old to start down the PhD path toward a career in Biology?

Do the students here see 'older' people like me in their classes?

Teachers, what do you think?

Thanks.

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Absolutely not.

Even if you don't have your BS yet, you will only be approx 42 when you get your PhD.

With life expectancies on the rise, you might have 30 or more good years in the career path of your dreams.

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your never too old, there a guy in my class who's 45 and has worked on oilrigs most of his life, once he gets his degree he wants to design oil rigs.

what can i say, the guy likes his oil rigs.

but for the origional question, go for it. you may end up being the oldest in the class but so what? whats more important, a good career or a little bit of initial akwardness

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Go for it!

Im 42 in May, and last year was in College amongst 16-17 year olds doing A` level Chem as a refresher (the basics can get Rusty!).

a PhD should be no problem either.

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Yup, go for it. When you're too old to learn, you're too old to live IMO (I'd rather be dead than senile). Anyhow, you're actually still quite young. When you're 60-65, you're allowed to audit classes for free (at least in SUNY colleges), so long as the class is not full with paying students. You don't get credit for the course, but you also don't get charged. So don't be too surprised if you see someone twice your age in your class.

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I am 60. 7 years ago, I did a university paper on microbiology. It was fun! I considered continuing to do a Ph.D. The main reason I didn't was financial. Go for it. Age matters not. We have seen people in their 70's getting Ph.D.s.

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One of my friends is a tiny bit older than you she's just started a phd in physics... she's got a family and gets on fine with all of us, she completed her ug degree last year.

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I would be more careful. What are your plans? If you just want a degree, heck why not. But if you really want to pursue a career you should be absolutely clear what your aims are. The degree itself is not worth that much. Also age is of (almost) no issue for getting a PhD. But again, it can limit your possibilities after the PhD, especially if you do not plan carefully. Careers in biology are limited, to a degree, so I can only stress (once more) that you should be clear of your aims and plan accordingly. Do not concentrate too much on the PhD itself because grad school is (despite all the effort you will have to put into it) still the easy bit compared to the rest of your career.

If you just make a PhD and then start looking what career is available, you may maneuver yourself into a very unfavorable situation (this is true for younger PhDs, too, though they have more time to switch).

Points to consider:

- time constraints

- what is the desired career path after the PhD (and how likely are the chances, regardless of age, to score such a position)

- what are alternative career paths?

... and so on.

Edited by CharonY
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I think you should go for it. Do you have a BS/BSc in a life science at the moment?

Assuming you do, doing a PhD will be a great opportunity and a great challenge. I can't imagine that you'll be doing many classes - PhDs here usually involve being in a lab all day, doing a research project. If the PhD is funded (which most are) you can even think of it as a job. My PhD is going to pay the same as if I had just started in a pharmaceutical company.

If you don't have a bachelor's degree, you'll need to consider the financial side a lot more. They can cost a lot of money!

A few years ago I read an advice column; a 50 year old woman wanted to go to college. She asked "am I too old to do this? It's a 4-year course. By the time I graduate I'll be 54!" - and the reply she got was "Well, how old will you be in 4 years if you don't do the course?"

Life is all about new challenges, we have to keep ourselves busy!

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My PhD is going to pay the same as if I had just started in a pharmaceutical company.

That is strange. Most PhD students I heard of get around 20k (and postdocs 30-40). The entry pay in pharmaceutical with a bachelor started around 30 ish (at least those that I heard of) and with a PhD double the amount (or sometimes more). Thing is, if you start now in the industry you will likely to earn more in five years than you would get as a postdoc.

Let me put it that way. If you already got an at least decent paying job, losing it in order to get a PhD is a big risk. So even if you get paid for five years, what then?

A PhD will not guarantee you any job, and despite what some others say, you will be competing with PhDs ten yours your junior. It depends of course a bit what you did in the meantime, whether you can compensate for that or not.

Most PhD students simply only see the degree as ultimate goal, as their lives up to this point tends to be very predetermined and led. I do make a point talking about prospecting PhD students about their goals and why they want to make a PhD. Very few actually think about the important things. That is, what happens afterward.

Most are shocked for instance, to realize that as a high school teacher your life-time earnings are likely to be higher than someone trying for an academic career (given the fact that actually few get a well-paid fully tenured position). Again, it is your choice but in your place I would make it dependent on your current situation and your eventual goal after the PhD. Again, the PhD itself cannot be the goal (although it may be hard to see it that way, for some).

Edited by CharonY
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Charon is correct, though I would not have used the same argument. If a Ph.D. is simply a tool to make money, there are much better ways. However, there are many other reasons for getting a Ph.D. When I considered going back to university for a Ph.D. I realised that my motive would have been the increased status that comes with being called 'doctor'. That was enough for me to back away, since my motive was insufficient.

However, others like the challenge. Some are into learning for its own sake. Some want the academic career in spite of it not being financially lucrative. Examine your motives. If they are good, then go ahead.

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However, others like the challenge. Some are into learning for its own sake.

Roger that.

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My point is: make a reality check. An academic career is very risky even under optimum conditions. And one of the main incentives for going into industry is probably making money. I am not aware that my PhD gives me any kind of status. Well, except when I am dealing with MDs.

Again, if it is only for fun or learning, there are clearly no objection. But the OP clearly asked about the prospects of a career in biology. This is quite different to merely getting a degree.

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One reason there are older students in a PhD program might be because they no longer need to make money, having already done so. For me, it might be a useful and fun diversion when I retire from my present field in about 20 - 30 years.

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That is strange. Most PhD students I heard of get around 20k (and postdocs 30-40). The entry pay in pharmaceutical with a bachelor started around 30 ish (at least those that I heard of) and with a PhD double the amount (or sometimes more). Thing is, if you start now in the industry you will likely to earn more in five years than you would get as a postdoc.

Here in the U.K. a science PhD will pay between 15k and 25k. The 15k stipends are usually given by the universities themselves, or the Medical Research Councils. The higher-end pays are from charities like the Wellcome Trust and the British Heart Foundation.

It works out to be effectively worth more than a salary of the same number, since the stipend is wholly tax free - and postgraduate students are exempt from paying council tax, too. So a 15k stipend is comparitively similar to a 20k job salary.

When I was applying for a PhD studentship funded by an Alzheimer's Trust, I was surprised at how much they invest into just one PhD. For the whole three years, it was over 90k. This included tuition fees, stipend, travel expenses and materials expenses.

From researching pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Novartis, it appeared as though the starting salary was 18-20k. Of course, this has an advantage over a PhD stipend, namely bonuses and salary growth.

I agree completely with your points about financial security. There was a fantastic article I read in a newspaper the other week about how a PhD is really not a good way to 'get rich'. In fact, I'd say that science as a whole (whatever qualification) is overall not a great financial path. I'd much rather call it a 'labour of love' for the subject itself. But if someone has the financial stability, a PhD could be great for learning more and being challenged more.

In my own case, I think a PhD is a great idea because a lot of the careers I'm looking at require one. I either want to be a research fellow/lecturer at a university or go into clinical sciences in the health sector. While the former is more risky and the pay is a scandal (as Charon said), it's what would make me the most happy. I'm in love with the idea of being a university lecturer and having my own lab to do research.

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I'm in love with the idea of being a university lecturer and having my own lab to do research.

I can agree with that. That is why I am trying my hands on an academic career. I only have personal experience with the system in the US and Germany, though. But in both the chances of getting a tenure or an otherwise not time-limited position in academia are relatively slim. The reason is simply that there are far, far more graduates than position openings. As such putting all your life on that is fairly risky. I think everyone who was a while in the academia will come to know to quite a fair amount of end thirties to mid-forties associate/assistant/junior professors, whose time is running out to get a tenure and are struggling to find a new job. It is especially hard if you have got a family by then (which is something you often do not think about when you enter grad-school, but which can be an enormous problem afterward). And yes, I know of at least one who makes a living as a taxi driver (his wife has a stable position as high school-teacher, though).

Mind you, I do not really want to discourage anyone from making a PhD (heck, I am dependent on cheap labor as anyone else), but one should be aware of the risks, not only the immediate financial ones, but also the reality that the majority will not be able to secure a science position in academia (which is mostly dependent on factors that one cannot easily control). Ideally one should plan the career so that there is also the possibility to score a different job, if one should not succeed.

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However, others like the challenge. Some are into learning for its own sake.

I call that....mental masturbation.

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Thanks for all these great answers....

A lot of food for thought.

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You should go for it but remember, in terms of job openings, bio is somewhat narrow. At my school, bio majors have a hard time finding internships and such but if you really like bio, go for it for sure.

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Yeah, I think the hardest part may be financial.

But you don't go into Biology for the money....or so I've been told.

And I'm not.

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The thing is, at some point it is about money. Not about getting rich, as some may think, but rather to be able to continue the work one wants to do. For instance, if the goal is getting an academic appointment, the problem is to get a faculty position and eventually tenure. The overall chances are low, even under optimum conditions and the older you get the lower the chances become.

Industrial positions may be more viable, if you had already some job experience of some kind. But even there age can be a factor. Again, one has to consider that there is always a realistic chance to be jobless around mid-forty if you try for academia and do not manage to obtain a faculty position by then. It is likely also to be true for industrial positions up to some point.

Again, I am not talking about getting rich. I am talking about making a living. You may be interested and hard-working as can be, but if you got no job, a PhD is worth zilch.

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I was actually thinking of getting into biotechnology for, among other things, the money. My thought is that biotechnology is on the verge of making a huge breakthrough, kind of like computers before solid state electronics. The big breakthrough is, I'm thinking, the ability to model proteins easily (both folding and function). At that point, what biotechnology could accomplish is limited only by your imagination and the laws of physics.

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Problem is that the biotechnology job market is not precisely flooding with jobs. The buzzwords sound good, but in all reality there are not that many jobs around. Even if there was a breakthrough (which will in all likelihood done in an academic basic research institute), chances are that one or two companies acquire the patent or at least production rights and roughly 10 PhDs will get a job in that company (and a larger number of technicians). If it wasn't just fantasy at this point. I will just refer to the biotech boom in the 90s were around 80% of all start ups failed.

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I don't think that patents will be a problem. You can't patent the laws of physics. We already have some models for folding proteins, and what we are missing are either better models or faster computers. After the modeling problem is solved, we still need to find useful new proteins, and then code them into DNA and insert them into the appropriate species. The latter two steps we already do, but will require biotechnology training. As for finding/designing proteins, you just need the ability to model proteins.

Check out folding@home

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I am not sure what you envision in detail, because just being able to predict folding, even accurately itself does not necessarily yield meaningful information, much less the creation of a product that can be commercialized. It can at best lead to the formulation of something specific useful properties. But once it is at that stage (whatever it is) I can guarantee that either the process or the product itself will be patented. But again, you do not really need a lot of people to do that.

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