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Is being young a detriment?


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For some background, I'm a senior undergrad student looking to apply to graduate programs (Both domestic and international) soon. I'm also 20 (went in college at 17, graduating a year early) and I'm struggling with the fear that I may not get into some programs due to my age? I know it's an unrealistic thought, but it can be a little uncomfortable looking at graduate schools to go and finding out everyone is at least 5+ years my senior. I have no problems interacting with people older than me, I just worry that I'll be seen as being too young for graduate school, especially with some professors here recommending students take time off from undergrad and grad.

Anyone here with any advice or discussion to add? I'm a little new to the site, so let me know if my thread should be moved or is a bit of a time waster.

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Hi there, I am also only 20 years old. I'm an undergrad senior graduating a year early and am currently in the middle of my application season. I feel that professors tell students to take time off because either the student is not focused enough on his/her academic goals or the student needs to work more on his prerequisites (languages, tests, grades). How do your own professors react to you telling them about your gradschool plans? Do you already have programs in mind? 

As to what grad programs think about younger students, if your application is is a strong one, they will definitely take you seriously as a young but ambitious applicant. I made a good impression on my interviews and no questions were ever asked about my age. My own professors had much respect for my motivation to apply.

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Another 20 year old here! I'm also a senior in undergrad (4th-year, started at 17) and in the middle of my app season as well. Thus far, age doesn't seem to have been a big factor for me, at least as far as I can tell. In fact, no one that I've been in contact with has asked about my age (although I'm not sure if this will change when I actually start going on interviews). 

I was also relatively concerned about being so young in a PhD program and voiced this to a current graduate student in one of the programs that I applied to, and they let me know that age isn't necessarily a factor after you get in, since ages of grad students can range (in that program, they said that they're one of the "older" students at age 30). Also, I'm not sure which field you're in, but if it's common in your field for people to apply to grad school straight out of undergrad (it is in mine), then you may not be looking at that much of an age difference to begin with. I agree with what @pushkin_the_cat said, and I think it's mostly about how you carry yourself. If you portray yourself as mature and up to the challenge, then you shouldn't have too much of a problem!

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Okay I'd like to chime in and echo what @nanita said that numerial age is irrelevant. Maturity and self-confidence, however, do tend to come with age. Many 20 year olds lack the life experience and self-awareness and comfortableness in their own skin to hack academia politics, and I know this was a concern raised to me when I was applying (I'm 24...a veritable oldie). That's not to say YOU are like that, but it is a common perception for younger students. Equally, without life experience (life, death, ups, downs, struggle and hardship - again this may all apply to you) do you really know what you want out of life and out of research?

I would say that these are questions that faculty may ask when reading your application. They may be brought up in interviews, but how you handle yourself and can justify your interest in further study (beyond the cliche delaying the "real" world) will speak reams. 

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No, numerical age does matter. The basic concern is that a PhD is (more or less) for people who are entirely committed to that subject for their entire life, and how do you actually know that such a thing is true for you if you've never done anything else? How could you? You haven't had time. Even a 4-year BA means you've only been studying the subject in question at a high level for two years at most. A grad student is an investment, and committees need to be sure of your staying power.

This may seem unfair, but it's unfair in the same way that any other generalization is unfair when applied to individuals. 

So yes, age, real and perceived, does matter, and being young may count against you. It's never going to sink your application by itself, though.

Edited by telkanuru
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Taking a bit of time off between undergrad and a PhD program really benefitted me. I got some useful work & life experience in the process - lived in some new places, tried out a job in my intended field of study. I'd wholeheartedly recommend taking a year or two off, if solely for getting new experiences and making cool memories. 

I wouldn't say that being young was a detriment...but being older was definitely an advantage.

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In my personal situation, age did matter. I'm a 21 year old senior in undergrad (will be 21 when I graduate) and I applied for PhD programs in a field where the average age as 28-31. I got an e-mail from a program I had applied to saying I had unanimously passed through the committee, but they were having a hard time finding a mentor for me because they thought I was young. That was it. They said I had the research experiences, the grades, the rec letters was appropriately specific in my future goals, but they were hesitant, so they asked if I would consider doing their master's program. I said I would only if it was funded and I could transfer/waive 3/4 of their classes because I had taken them already (not an exaggeration my undergrad institution is very generous with letting undergrads take grad classes) and I felt okay making such a request because I had already been admitted to another PhD program, so I knew I had other options if they said no. Interestingly, after realizing that a Master's degree really wouldn't change the strength of my application (it is a non-research based master's program) they decided to admit me to the PhD program and they found me an advisor who was willing to take the "risk."

All of this is to say, I think it largely depends on your field. Some fields it's pretty common to go straight from undergrad, and age is a non-issue. Mine, it is pretty uncommon, so I tried to compensate for my age by taking as many grad classes as I could and getting heavily involved in research. If you're in a field like mine where it's not super common for people to go right through, just know that most of the applicant pool might be people people with many years of experience. I I think it helped me out that my mentor also went the uncommon route and went right through so I had someone who knew the process themselves to consult with.  have the mindset that the probability of getting accepted if you don't apply is 0, and it's most likely nonzero if you do. If you think you are qualified, apply. I was worried about my age and I've been accepted to my dream program.

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I echo telkanuru's comments. Being young puts you at a disadvantage in the short term, and an advantage in the long-run. Given the structure of most undergrad programs, you've only taken advanced classes for a very short time. In the humanities time is a very precious commodity because there's so much reading involved, along with archival research and language acquisition if your project requires it. As an undergrad (and I myself went to grad school straight out of undergrad) you might show the potential but haven't had the time to read widely enough (I'm speaking from my own experience in literature). I entered at 23 and most students were around 28 to 35. Some had done multiple masters degrees before beginning the PhD program, spoke and read a range of languages fluently, had multiple publications, etc. I came in baby-faced thinking I was hot stuff because I had graduated summa and done a Fulbright in a gap year, only to start freaking out the first week of classes. For the first semester or two I was just playing catch-up, trying to be able to follow all the name and theory-dropping in seminars and at talks. For a while I felt like I was just groping around in the dark and wasn't really taking full advantage of everything my department was offering me because I was just trying to cover the basics. I had been the golden child of my undergrad department (a well-respected SLAC) and got into 2 of the top-3 programs in my field, so I felt very, very qualified going in. Looking back, I know it wasn't a matter of potential or effort or talent but simply the fact that I hadn't been alive long enough to read everything my peers had. You get a point where it's just impossible, all you need is the time to read, to sit in the archives. There's good reason that, on average, it takes humanities students significantly longer to complete their degrees. So for those who are considering jumping into a humanities PhD right out of undergrad: be forewarned! The good news is that this is something that you can make up with just time and dedication (and a little guidance in constructing your reading lists so that you use your time more efficiently).

 

However I'll end by saying that I see a few advantages (not insignificant) to starting young. In the long-run (assuming you maintain effort and productivity) you'll likely have a longer and more productive career than someone who starts in their mid-30s. If all goes well, you'll get tenure earlier in life as well (which is important if you want to have a family as it's extremely difficult to do that before tenure). Your body is also younger which, believe it or not, is an advantage. Grad school is hard on your body, all that sitting and reading (10+ hours a day) can cause some serious issues. I know a few older grad students who suffer from back problems, which becomes a problem when we have to hunker down with 3000 pages of reading a week. Another once said that he wished he had started at a younger age because he claims not to have the same reading endurance as he once did. 

Edited by Bleep_Bloop
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OP-also a young current senior undergrad in the middle of applying to PhD programs. So far I've gotten 5 interviews out of 7 applications. Haven't heard back about acceptances/rejections yet as I'm still interviewing. 

Some people have recommended time off to me when I told them my plans, but they also had different life trajectories than me. Not saying that someone with my background wouldn't benefit from time off, but when your parents are well-off and have MDs/PhDs/JDs then you can afford for them to support you while you ~discover yourself~. All the reasons people told me they benefitted from time off (self-discovery, getting a job because they never worked a day in their life, being independent, etc) are all things I don't need time off for because I've already experienced it. Life comes at many people fast, and by the time they're 20/21 they have more maturity and have had more life experience than people twice their age even. Age does tend to correlate with maturity and experience, but it's not 1:1. 

The only reason I'm worried about being young and in graduate school is with regard to colleagues in my program/cohort. Now that I'm 21 I don't have to turn down outings at bars because I'm finally old enough to even walk in the establishment, even though I don't drink. Being young, specifically under 21 put a damper on my relationships with coworkers (early-mid 20-somethings). I'm worried that they'll see me as too young to hang out with or form relationships with, even though many students early in their PhD are only 2-3 years older than me. But that's a (I would say frivolous) personal insecurity, not something that reflects my actual maturity or capabilities. 

 

tl;dr Listen to yourself and do what's best for you. Just make sure that the voices you're listening to are actually yours and are true/accurate. Good luck!

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Eh, everybody thinks they're hot stuff going in. It's the kind of naïveté that doesn't arise from age, because no amount years will give you experience with professional academia. 

I know a number of people who entered top PhD programs in a variety of fields at ages 20-22 (aka straight out of UG). It's not that uncommon, especially at top UGs, and age 20 doesn't strike me as particularly young. The American education system is organized in a way such that it makes it impossible to assume a priori that everyone is at the same education level going into certain milestones. Many people come into college with 1-2 years of college already done through APs, placement tests, or university credits taken in high school. Your age will be a factor (as will everything else in your file), but I seriously doubt that you would be denied because of your age - rather, because of factors running concurrently with your age, such as not having done enough reading or language preparation, or enough research, having an unfocused SOP, and so on. If you were an immature hack in college, it helps to put a few years between that and the new you. If none of those are true for you, to your knowledge (which, of course, if you are an immature hack, would be imperfect), then you should be fine. Plus, as has already been mentioned, some fields are notorious for regarding younger applicants as more talented - and if you ask me, their number isn't limited to math and physics.

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13 hours ago, artsy16 said:

Not saying that someone with my background wouldn't benefit from time off, but when your parents are well-off and have MDs/PhDs/JDs then you can afford for them to support you while you ~discover yourself~. All the reasons people told me they benefitted from time off (self-discovery, getting a job because they never worked a day in their life, being independent, etc) are all things I don't need time off for because I've already experienced it. 

You can be emotionally mature and still lack experience; as independent as you might be and as accomplished as you may feel, you're still young and haven't had time to do a whole lot. There's nothing wrong with that, it's normal. Gaining experience is the point of taking time off, not ~discovering yourself~. Also, it's silly (and smug) to suggest that you need doctors or lawyers as parents to support you in taking time off. Not everyone who takes time off between undergrad and grad school is living off a trust fund. No one is suggesting you drop off the grid and travel the world or get your parents to pay your rent in Brooklyn while you "find yourself." The point is to get a job (or fellowship) for a few years and keep thinking about your academic interests. Read as much as possible, write a lot on your own, explore similar topics, and encounter new ways of approaching your academic interests. It will pay off manyfold and you will likely be a better scholar for it. 

Edited by Bleep_Bloop
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3 hours ago, Bleep_Bloop said:

You can be emotionally mature and still lack experience; as independent as you might be and as accomplished as you may feel, you're still young and haven't had time to do a whole lot. There's nothing wrong with that, it's normal. Gaining experience is the point of taking time off, not ~discovering yourself~. Also, it's silly (and smug) to suggest that you need doctors or lawyers as parents to support you in taking time off. Not everyone who takes time off between undergrad and grad school is living off a trust fund. No one is suggesting you drop off the grid and travel the world or get your parents to pay your rent in Brooklyn while you "find yourself." The point is to get a job (or fellowship) for a few years and keep thinking about your academic interests. Read as much as possible, write a lot on your own, explore similar topics, and encounter new ways of approaching your academic interests. It will pay off manyfold and you will likely be a better scholar for it. 

You definitely misconstrued what I said. The only silliness or smugness is coming from you. 

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21 minutes ago, telkanuru said:

No they didn't. If that's not the gist of what you meant to say, you need to work on how you articulate your argument. 

Or you could try not assuming one person sharing their experiences is saying it applies to every single person 100% of the time. 

I'm not commenting on this thread anymore because it's distracting from the OP's post. Feel free to keep going but do not tag me in. 

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11 hours ago, Bleep_Bloop said:

You can be emotionally mature and still lack experience; as independent as you might be and as accomplished as you may feel, you're still young and haven't had time to do a whole lot. There's nothing wrong with that, it's normal. Gaining experience is the point of taking time off, not ~discovering yourself~. Also, it's silly (and smug) to suggest that you need doctors or lawyers as parents to support you in taking time off. Not everyone who takes time off between undergrad and grad school is living off a trust fund. No one is suggesting you drop off the grid and travel the world or get your parents to pay your rent in Brooklyn while you "find yourself." The point is to get a job (or fellowship) for a few years and keep thinking about your academic interests. Read as much as possible, write a lot on your own, explore similar topics, and encounter new ways of approaching your academic interests. It will pay off manyfold and you will likely be a better scholar for it. 

In addition to the people that think gap years are just "time off," I think some other people still see gap years as a mark of an unprepared student; that is, they think that if a student is "ready" for grad school (i.e. has a strong enough record with enough experience and motivation to get into a program), then they don't need a gap year. I would agree that strong applicants don't "need" to take a gap year if the goal is just to get accepted somewhere, but I would also say that strong students in particular can easily benefit from one (speaking from my experience in my field since of course I can't speak for them all).

I took a year after undergrad not because I felt emotionally unprepared or unsure about whether to attend graduate school. I also wasn't trying to make up for a weak undergrad record or lack of independent research experience. I would even say my motivation was more the opposite: I had developed my research interests to the point where I knew what sort of additional internships/jobs I should pursue to gain more specialized experience in my area of interest, in order to ease the transition into graduate work and make myself more competitive for programs and fellowships. One of my professors was surprised that I decided not to apply to grad school my senior year, presumably under the notion that I didn't "need" more experience.

It was definitely worth it: I started my program with plenty of fellowship funding, which gave me more freedom and time to plan my dissertation research, and I was able to get started on this research right away because I already had the specific suite of skills used in the types of projects I wanted to do. So I would recommend additional work experience to anyone in my field. If you're worried about being too young, then taking this extra time should help assuage those worries and make you more confident. And if you're a strong student with previous research experience, then all the better: you'll have an easier time getting the more competitive (and better-paying) positions. One exception to this recommendation would be students who went through their undergrad program with a laser focus on their research interests and want to continue in that vein of research in grad school. The other exception would be students who are not comfortable with the idea of taking time off from being a student and then having to return to that setting.  

Edit: I forgot to mention another benefit of taking time after undergrad: by the time you apply to grad programs, you will have completed your thesis/senior project and will be able to list any resulting presentations and publications as more than just "in prep" or even "in review." 

Edited by Pitangus
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I felt that applying as an undergraduate would be to my detriment. I could have done it, but I'm very glad I took two years "off." It helped mature me as a person, and it also helped me create a more mature graduate application than I could otherwise have managed.

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I didn't read the whole thread in depth. I finished my UG degree at 21. I did not take time off, at all. I finished my M.Agr in December, and I'm presently 23. In some respects, I am glad I did not take time off. I've continued my research, built a firm foundation for further study. I had good funding, and it was a great experience. In the course of my M.Agr I've figured out more concretely who I am as a scholar, and I deeply value that fact. I wouldn't change it. 

That said, I bumped around when I got started, mostly because I had it in my head that grad school meant I was going to have all the things figured out insofar as my goals. I don't and I never will but I had weird ideas in my head about graduate school = having it all figured out in terms of professional goals. They evolve. I felt so young, not age wise, but in that I didn't have it all figured out and was dealing with other life changes at the time. I felt like I was too old to not know what I wanted to do. There was this pressure in grad school to do that, and I totally get it, but it was challenging because I was so enthused about so many things. I ultimately learned that that facet of myself is good, so long as I can frame it in the context of what I'm doing. Over the course of my master's degree, because of my research, I did figure it out and am very secure in my next steps. 

However, I ultimately would do it all over again. I was the youngest in my cohort by far, but it doesn't matter. We all brought things to the table, and it wasn't something I focused upon. I did not dwell upon it anymore than I dwelled upon someone else's age. So, nobody cares how old you are. Nobody cares, and if they make light of it, it's likely only because they're making conversation. Change the subject if it makes you uneasy.

I was in classes at a younger than average age, though I officially started college at 18. Guess how many people knew how old I was when I was in classes in my early teens? One fellow student, because they saw my mom picking me up. For some younger than average people, talking about age is something they're comfortable doing. I never saw it as relevant in the classroom.  When/If it becomes an issue for you, treat it as fact. Don't puff yourself up, and don't apologize. It is what it is, but you may find that you are not as outside of the age range as you feel you are right now, depending on your area of study. 

For me, having my master's already means that I have the time to do what I want, now. I can spend time applying for fellowships that maybe aren't long term, because, hey, I can still earn my PhD theoretically by 30. (When I was a kid, I said I was going to be done with school at 30. I don't know why. Anytime I bring up plans now, my mother will say, "Heaven forbid, you might not be done by 30!" And then she laughs, because I guess I thought 30 was old). 

I was not ready for the commitment of a PhD when I was 20. But I knew what I loved, and what I wanted to explore, and what I needed to know to move forward. So I was very ready for a master's degree. Now, I'm at the point that I can build upon that and move forward to a PhD, so I'm glad I made the choices I did. 

Edited by Demeter
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  • 2 weeks later...

So, it looks like quite a few good points have already been made here, but I'll add my two cents.

I was in your shoes last year, whilst applying to grad programs, and I was asking essentially the same question. I'm not sure about your field, but especially in Archaeology, work and life experience are absolutely a factor in the application review process. I ended up being accepted into an MA-to-PhD program, after applying to several PhD and MA programs across the country. My best advice would be to focus your efforts on the MA level, or possibly on schools that have a combined MA/PhD track. That way, you are competing mostly with other "fresh undergrads", as opposed to people who may have been working in your field for 10-15 years.

One other thing. If you can, try to contact some of the grad students at the schools you are interested in, see what kind of experience they had coming in, and try to judge how well you would fit with the demographic. Other than that, understand that fair or not, you will be judged more critically because of your age, and you will need to present yourself and your research interests all the more confidently to balance against that.

Best of luck with your studies!

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