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Is it a good idea to get a math/stats/theoretical cs phd after 33 in the hope of becoming a professor? I am an electrical engineer who did his phd in EE at a low ranked school. I have been working in industry with a lost soul. I did enjoy my research and published quite a few papers. I have taken courses till Algebraic number theory and audited lectures on etale cohomology. I am thinking of a decent school like UCLA or UC Berkeley to pursue a second doctorate.

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I don't think it a good idea to get a PhD "in the hope of becoming a professor" at any age. The jobs you get post-PhD depend on factors that are completely unknown going in: your research, your teaching, your connections, your own feelings about jobs, the state of the market when you finish. I wouldn't invest the time in the hope of a specific job outcome. I'd recommend it only if you'd still want it in a world where careers didn't exist. This may be overly romantic, but the alternative doesn't seem very practical, either. Since I'm answering a different question, this is a comment. – anon Oct 24 '10 at 0:00
Could you say something about why you think you'd have a shot of getting into UCLA or Berkeley? If you can actually get into one of them you're in a good situation, but if you went to a mid-tier place for your other Ph.d. it seems like a stretch. – Noah Snyder Oct 24 '10 at 1:46
I cannot completely agree with anon and the "it's bad to do a PhD in the hope of becoming a professor" argument. You can't count on it, for sure, but it's even worse to do a PhD without a strong sense of what you would hope to do with it. – Thierry Zell Oct 24 '10 at 2:31
Well, it depends a lot on what "in the hope of becoming a professor" means: if it means "gee, I hope after I'm done with grad school, I can become a professor," that's a reasonable attitude; if it's "Ok, I'm going to grit my teeth and do this grad school thing, but it'll totally be worth it, because when I'm done I'll be a professor," that's probably not so reasonable. – Ben Webster Oct 24 '10 at 3:10

In my opinion, people are not giving the OP enough credit for already having a PhD in a related field. This means s/he has a better grasp of what it means to get a PhD than 99% of the general population, has already shown considerable technical skill, the drive to complete a task which requires years of hard work, and so forth.

So far as I know, by far the most common reason for someone to drop out of a doctoral program in math (or any discipline) is that they just didn't really know what they were getting into: they had no way of properly gauging the scope and amount of work involved.

I am currently involved in graduate admissions at UGA. I have only been doing this for a little while, so my ideas may change, but at the moment if I saw a candidate who had a decent undergraduate background, test scores within the normal range of our successful applicants (e.g., greater than 50% on the math subject GRE) and already had a PhD, I would be tempted to put them towards the top of the list. Thinking it through as a hypothetical admissions decision, my only major concern would be that the candidate's undergraduate background may not be as fresh or relevant as that of our other strong applicants. Thus I would recommend taking a few math classes at the advanced undergraduate level. With good performance on those, I see no reason not to count the candidate's previous experience as an advantage, rather than his/her age as a disadvantage.

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Dear Pete: 1. I think that the OP's concern was more about coming out of graduate school than getting in (if anything, the OP appeared overconfident about getting in!). It may be easier for schools to disregard the age of their students than for employers to disregard the age of their employees (I'm not sure). 2. As for dropping out, quals usually take care of the people who didn't know what they were getting into, but I remember a couple very able (older) classmates leaving because they just couldn't be bothered any more: they could do it, just didn't want to anymore. – Thierry Zell Oct 25 '10 at 0:50
@Thierry: well, he says he wants to get a PhD in the hope of becoming a professor. I think that's the reason that most people get PhDs in math, isn't it? Of course we can't say much about the chance he will get an academic job, other than mentioning the statistical truth that academic jobs are very hard for anyone to get, hard enough that anyone of any age should be prepared for the possibility of not getting one. – Pete L. Clark Oct 25 '10 at 1:08
I know plenty of people who got math PhDs with no intention of getting into academia (not to mention those who have left tenure-track jobs since then). But anyway your answer is not really addressing my original comment, which is that it is a lot easier for you to disregard age since your students will be around for a fixed period of 5 to 7 years, as opposed to someone who is hiring for a tenure-track position and may hope that the hire sticks around for at least 20 years. – Thierry Zell Oct 25 '10 at 1:32
@Thierry: well, I have also been on hiring committees and I have never heard anyone bring up the age of a candidate in any way. I think that, at least in my department, if someone made an objection based on the candidate's age, they would be rebuked by someone else. In summary, I don't think the hiring situation would be different for someone who is 10-15 years older (or perhaps even more): looked at statistically, one's chances of getting a good academic job are small. However, if you're talented and hard-working, maybe you like your chances better than statistics would dictate. – Pete L. Clark Oct 25 '10 at 4:41
I've certainly gotten the sense that "professional age" in terms of years since Ph.D. count for more than biological age. Though I've also heard the claim that putting your birthday on your CV is unethical because it gives younger candidates a leg up (of course, people can pretty easily guess your age based on when you started college; this can be a bit innccurate, though. In my case it gives an estimate which is about 2 years too old). – Ben Webster Oct 25 '10 at 21:36

My impression is that the main challenge for a Ph.D. student in mathematics, whether older or younger, is being able to focus enough of one's time and energy towards learning and doing mathematics. If an older student tends to have more difficulty, it is often because an older person has too many other responsibilities and/or interests.

So if you have the financial resources and the flexibility in your life to shove everything else aside and really focus for, say, five years on learning and doing mathematics, then I think you stand a chance. In particular, you should not be holding any job beyond the usual teaching assistantship that most graduate students get.

Beyond that, it is rather important to get into a strong graduate program or, if you attend a lower ranked school, get guidance from one or more professors who are active participants in the research community.

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I know quite a few people who received their first Ph.D. after the age of 30, and some who received their M.D. after the age of 40. Their success hinged on their desire to do the work that comprised their Ph.D. research, or their desire to become medical doctors and perform clinical medical duties. It's not your age that matters as much as your motivation and intention does. However, note that a theoretical Computer Science degree and a Mathematics degree are very different beasts, even if at the base of both lie the same thing in the theory of automata.

And don't even think of lumping Statistics and Mathematics in the same pool -- :) -- without expecting to get some raised eyebrows and arguments. Do you notice that statistical questions on this web site get told to ask the question over at a different website?

You probably need to find your focus first. What do you really want to do: computer science, mathematics, or statistics? Then figure out where you can go to further your specific interests and work with someone else who works in that domain.

What questions are burning in your head? What do you want to figure out and understand better? What is it that you can figure out which no one else could probably do, due to the unique confluence of talents and skills and interests which you possess?

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Hi Sleepless. You have a wonderful point here. Mathematics is very different beast. Even with mathematics Algebraic Geometry and Number Theory after Grothendieck have become notorious in sophistication. I would really enjoy algebraic and computational aspects of number theory and graph theory. If I did in computer science I would have my focus building on from those two fields and their applications in computer science. I mentioned Statistics since there are some wonderful applications of statistics in finance/medicine. Also statistics itself borrows from differential geom/pde/inform theory – user10284 Oct 23 '10 at 22:58

That is a little old, but not outlier-level old. Most students who get PhDs at that age do not become professors, although the reason for that is a little hard to identify. Here are two serious (possible) reasons that come to mind.

1) Maybe it's harder when you're older to deal with the stress of moving several times, possibly to extremely random geographical locations, as you make your way to a permanent job. That takes its toll even on people in their late 20s and early 30s, and it may get harder for older people.

2) You may encounter some agism. I don't know much about agism in mathematics (I think it's not a huge problem but maybe I just haven't seen it). My hunch is that some advisors may prefer younger students because they are more intellectually malleable, but if you shop around you will find an advisor who appreciates your background. At that point, if the advisor is impressed with you, your career will go more smoothly.

Just for some context I'm a postdoc in my late 20s.

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If you're right,Anonymous-I should quit now and don't bother. – The Mathemagician Oct 25 '10 at 5:44

Yes, Berkeley or UCLA would be decent schools, I guess...

Getting into either school is very challenging. But kidding aside, I know some people who started late, got hooked, did their PhD in decent schools, and have been enjoying since then a really good academic career. I'm sure there's also examples of people who did not fare so well, but then again that comes with the territory when you enter a graduate program. But to put your mind at rest, it's definitely feasible.

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To make the subtext clear, in math Berkeley is a top 5 grad school and UCLA is top 10. (I'm trying not to say anything controversial there, but I think both of those ranges should be pretty widely agreed on.) – Noah Snyder Oct 24 '10 at 3:35
Thanks Noah: I didn't know these rankings, and beyond any controversy, you certainly clarify how hard it would be to get into either school. – Thierry Zell Oct 24 '10 at 15:26

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