Will I Face Age Discrimination When I Apply to Graduate School?

Jun 24, 2024

Dr. Vicki Johnson, a mid-age white American woman with straight brown hair and a green blouse. She is a graduate school admissions expert. The words, Ask Dr. Johnson are on the left-hand side.

Dear Dr. Johnson,

I believe I am a victim of age discrimination. I was accepted to 6 doctoral programs at age 39. At that time, I did not do faculty outreach and the other steps you recommend. Unfortunately, the time wasn’t right at that time. I have reapplied in the past 3 years and have not been accepted, although I am much more qualified than I was 25 years ago. Is it realistic to try to get into a PhD program in my 60s? Do you have any recommendations as to the best way to present my application so that my age is seen as an asset and will get me accepted to my dream program?

– Experienced

From Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Unlike 25 years ago, anyone, anywhere in the world can learn about PhD programs at schools globally and submit an application online. For this reason, the number of PhD applicants has grown tenfold in the last few decades. With higher competitiveness, expectations have increased.

This is why candidates now must go above and beyond to stand out in the competitive candidate pool, especially when most PhD programs accept on average just 3-7 new students per year.

I advise all PhD applicants to strategically build relationships with faculty through outreach and informational meetings before applying. These conversations help ensure you are proposing a research topic that aligns with the faculty’s interests and funding sources.

I also argue that older applicants have an advantage in the application process! Unlike recent graduates, older applicants often have more experience with managing projects, working independently, and taking constructive criticism, which are important skills for success in a PhD program.

That said, what many older applicants lack in their applications is a clear and compelling reason as to why they are pursuing graduate study at mid or late career. When asked “Why are you applying to graduate school?”, I see many older applicants respond ‘it’s a lifelong dream’ or ‘I love learning’, but these are not compelling reasons to select you over candidates who need a graduate degree for their career goals. Be sure to have a clear post-degree career goal and motivations for that goal.

Also, it is important to emphasize your research experience in the PhD application. This is more important to the selection committee than any other type of experience. While you may have excellent professional experience on your resume, the PhD is designed for aspiring researchers. Submit an appropriate academic CV (which is different from a professional resume) and highlight your research experience throughout.

This is not to say age discrimination does not exist. Just like discrimination based on race, gender, and physical abilities, age discrimination exists in all institutions. But your repeat rejections are much more likely to be from gaps in your application approach than age discrimination.

When you do program research and faculty outreach you will find many programs with PhD students in their 40s, 50s, and 60s (in fact, there were two candidates over the age of 60 in my own PhD program!) So, your age will not hold you back from achieving a graduate degree. You just need to take a modern approach to the application process.

Best of luck!

Dr. Vicki Johnson is the Founder and Director of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient, and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the creator of the Fully Funded Course and Mentorship Program, which helps graduate school applicants enter top graduate schools with funding awards. 

Applying to graduate school? Get your copy of the FREE guide: 5 Must-Know Tips for 2024 U.S. Graduate School Applicants

Do you have a question about graduate school admissions, funding, fellowships or higher education that you would like Dr. Johnson to answer? Submit your anonymous question for the “Ask Dr. Johnson” column here!

© 2024 ProFellow, LLC. All rights reserved.