Can I do a PhD at 50?

Karl Witte – 13

At the age of nine, Witte spoke five languages; and amazingly, at the age of 13, this child prodigy earned his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Gießen – another Guinness World Record that still stands today.

Career matters

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. It’s a long road.
    • If you already have a masters, you might get a 2-3 year PhD at some universities (eg in the UK), but never in the US. Allow at least 5 years, rather than 6-8 years, depending on the field of study.
    • Ideally, your program will cover your tuition and living expenses, and you won’t graduate in debt. You can calculate the monetary value of your winnings and it is likely to be significant. Many people are comfortable with this decision (I am), but they make a conscious choice.
  2. Know yourself and recognize your possibilities.
    • Remember that your PhD counterpart is to invest 5-6 years in something else: your current job, a new career, skills outside of the PhD, etc. Some of these opportunities could actually be paid for. They will give you experience, respect and great opportunities. The opportunity cost of a PhD is high in terms of salary and other work. Of course, this applies to all ages. However, your opportunity cost as a more experienced person is likely to be higher.
    • Make sure you understand your career opportunities after your PhD. In some disciplines, such as economics, PhDs are in high demand, and almost all get a well-paying professional or academic job. Political science too, I think. Academic and even professional positions in your field are becoming increasingly rare in the social sciences and some humanities. I once heard that less than a third of the graduates of the best history programs in the world get a university job.
    • If you are not thinking about becoming a professor, think twice about a PhD. Yes, it could promote you in your field. But most jobs I know would require six years worth of intensive experience in many fields, not just a PhD. I don’t know if the promotion is more rewarding. You have to ask it for yourself.
    • Many people complain about the terrible opportunities for many graduate students and the poor treatment of associate professors. This tells me that many people are doing PhDs with the wrong expectations.
  3. Older people will bring many good things to the table.
    • PhD students are not known to be good with people, projects or money. You’ve probably learned a few things about being a professional no matter what you do. It will serve you well and offset some of the inconveniences of old age. Maybe even more than in return. My experience as a management consultant has certainly helped me manage large research projects better and earlier.
    • Once you graduate, faculty hiring committees will probably focus more on what you can do compared to your cohort than how old you are under 35 or 40. You can’t even look at your age or past experience. If you are over 40, then yes, I think you will see discrimination in the job market because of any major career change, regardless of career.
  4. But there are some disadvantages.
    • You may or may not like being around a lot of 25-year-old classmates and your teachers will do the same.
    • If you have no savings or are in debt, you may end up living a much worse lifestyle than you are used to.
    • You’re more likely to have family or financial obligations in retirement, so after you graduate you’ll have less freedom to make high-yield investments that are distant or outstanding. Some jobs, postdocs or fellowships are not suitable for a more complex personal situation. You may be unable or unwilling to work 12 days for the same reasons.
    • Of course, this applies to all career changes later in life, especially in the non-profit or public sector.
  5. Once you are in, remember that promotion is not easy for anyone. It’s a constant source of existential anxiety when you’re in the middle of it. Know that everyone thinks the same way and it’s not a special product of your age or what you brought with you.
  6. As one commenter said, “I am tempted to fight, when you are too young?” Good point. Here is another person expressing the same view. A topic for another day.

The benefits of a doctorate

Do you want to do a doctorate or teach? They are the two main reasons for doing a PhD. A completed PhD makes you an expert in your chosen field, perhaps even across borders!

Apart from the aspects already mentioned, one of the biggest benefits for the elderly is that learning creates new neural connections that improve cognitive abilities, memory function and problem solving abilities. Education is also good for strengthening the mind. Learning in the classroom or online is a social enterprise that breaks isolation and encourages social connection.


You will read a lot. And you will forget almost everything.

Build a system to capture what you have learned.

Doing a doctorate for your career

Suppose you want to do a doctorate to take a career in science or elsewhere. You start a PhD program when you are 25 or even 30 years old, and the average length of a PhD is between six and eight years. This means that you end up between 30 and 37 years old. The standard retirement age for Social Security in the United States is 67, so you have at least 30 years ahead of you, giving you plenty of time for your career. If you look around in science, there are many people over 67 years old.

Chances are you will have a very long career, even if you are 42 and get your doctorate at 50. That’s over 15 years of retirement age. Few people stay in a job for 15 years these days. Make sure you have plenty of opportunities to have a meaningful career.

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