Thursday, June 01, 2006

Age and Academia

Over the past few weeks, I have received several emails from people now in econ grad school, or considering econ grad school, who are a bit older than most grad students. The most recent is from an electrical engineer, who wants to return to school to get a PhD in economics and then pursue an academic career. He writes:
My current concern is that another professor mentioned that getting an academic job is very difficult for a new phd who is around 40 (what I would be upon completion). What are your views on this? Do you think this is true, somewhat true, or does it just mean stepping down a tier or two?
There may be some truth to the claim, but if you are passionate about the field and ready to commit the roughly five years that a PhD takes, I would not be deterred by age.

An economist I know named Bronwyn Hall went back to grad school later in life after a career in computer software (admittedly, econometrics software, so it was not completely unrelated). She earned a PhD in economics in her early 40s and now has a distinguished career as a full professor at UC Berkeley.

Of course, stories like this are rare. One reason is that there is a life cycle to creativity, which may make it harder to start a research career at an older age. In addition, few people in middle age want to start leading the life of a grad student. (I know I wouldn't.) But age discrimination, while a real possibility, is not pervasive enough in my view to stop a person from getting a PhD and pursuing an academic career in economics if he or she has the talent, preparation, and drive.

If other econ academics out there have views on this issue, please post in the comments section.