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Thread: Advice for Older Applicants

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    Advice for Older Applicants

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    As the 2010 cycle draws into its final phases, I thought a thread for future older applicants might be helpful. These are compiled principally from conversations I've had with adcoms at Top 15 programs, but also from previous TM threads and general internet research. A few I learned the hard way! Since this is extremely long, it might make a better bookmark. Also, at the bottom, there are some links to great TM threads on similar subjects.

    First off, how old is an "older applicant?" Although the data are a bit aged themselves, the median age at which individuals received PhDs in the Siegfried and Stock sample was 32 (http://www.aeaweb.org/articles/free/13030135.pdf). Subtract 5-6 years, and you get a starting age of 26-27 back in the 90s. In 2007, the TM pollsters produced this interesting sample (http://www.urch.com/forums/phd-econo...ll-you-be.html) which seems to indicate that the starting age has decreased somewhat or that younger people hang out on the TM forum in general (or both).

    As a former English major (you could probably read this thread as "Advice for non-economics majors" too), I'm going to present this from an "audience analysis" standpoint. Specifically, your audience consists of professors who sit on the admissions committee. While each program approaches this somewhat differently (some have a regional reader for international applicants, some delegate initial screening to young professors, some prefer to divide the load more evenly, etc.), there are some common things that will likely be in the mind of almost any committee member. I should also say: committee members know that it's illegal to discriminate based on age alone...so they won't. However--in many ways--older applicants represent a number of risks that make them less attractive than a comparable younger candidate. The good news is that if you address these risk factors appropriately, you become a much more serious contender.

    1) Adcom comment #1: "Most older applicants I've evaluated have no idea why they want to do a PhD, and they don't understand what a research degree really entails." Frankly, many people in the work force haven't had a lot of interaction with the academic world (the research community), and it might be hard for a committee member to discern whether you know what you're getting into.

    2) Adcom comment #2: "I never really know exactly why an older applicant is applying." There are lots of things that might spring into a committee member's mind here: Were you fired? Are you applying because you couldn't find work?

    3) Team3 comment #1: Departments grants PhDs to satisfy several different job markets: academia, government, business, non-profit, etc. This is important for older folks, since we've generally had more opportunity to be exposed to non-academic sectors, and the committee will want to know where you see yourself. You need to understand that many times, there is a de facto hierarchy here (whether or not it's equitable or appropriate is another matter). Generally, tenure-track academic positions are the most sought after. Regardless, when your application is read, it will almost certainly be read by a professor in an academic position. Recall that rankings are important to a department because they help determine the quality of students they'll be able to attract, the quality of the faculty they might be able to hire, which in turn tend to contribute to research productivity, grants, and funding of all stripes. Highly regarded programs (which tend to be research universities at the top end of the rankings) have an incentive to admit students who will be able to contribute productively to this reality. I'm not saying (at all) that you should misrepresent a fabricated research dream, simply that it is here that you really need to do some soul searching. Some programs are better suited to turning out research academics, some focus more heavily on teaching, some have a significant interest in producing competent PhDs for the government sector, and so on. My point is this: the process of thoroughly determining where you eventually want to end up and targeting your applications to compatible programs will help to assuage adcom concerns #1 and #2.

    4) Adcom Comment #3: "Older applicants tend to be weaker in their academic skill sets." This commentary probably has a timeframe attached to it. If you've only been in the workforce a couple of years, this is a fairly common situation, and you likely still possess a certain amount of active knowledge. Here, a recent, strong GRE might be enough to mollify any concerns an adcom might have. If you've been out of school more than a couple years, not only do you face potentially stale academic knowledge, but it might be hard for an adcom to compare to you to this year's younger cohort. For example, my bachelors clearly shows how well I did in college in the 1990s, but really doesn't convey any information about how prepared I might be COMPARED to this year's graduates. You can alleviate this problem by enrolling in some coursework that will both freshen your knowledge and give committee members a basis for comparison. How much coursework...my small sample consensus (so take it for what it's worth) is that a single semester might not be enough.

    5) Adcom comment #4: "Older applicants are less willing to lead the life of a graduate student." There is a lot of truth in this one. We settle down with significant others, we take out mortgages, we raise children (who are pretty time-consuming), we might get used to a certain production routine at work, or we might even have gotten used to being the boss. And all of these things take time away from studying graduate texts and journal articles feverishly. Realistically, you want to show (and mean it) that you have thought about how to address these things. Another option is to seek out one of the many quality part-time programs out there.

    6) Adcom comment #5: "Older applicants have fewer years of research productivity left." There is really no arguing this one unless you come from a line of centenarians. The older you are, the closer you are to the ultimate upper bound. That said, you do have many productive years left, and an energetic, engaged mind is useful at any age. See this interesting article from Dr. Galenson on the subject: Creative Careers: The Life Cycles of Nobel Laureates in Economics.

    7) Team3 comment #2: GPAs might be higher now than when you went to school. In fact, it might scare you when you read the profiles on this site. If you went to school a long time ago, they might be significantly higher. This thread is an interesting discussion on the subject: http://www.urch.com/forums/phd-econo...inflation.html. Here is an example from my graduating bachelor's cohort in 1997...a 3.1 meant you were in the top 1/3 of the class, a 3.6 put you in the top 10%, while the top couple grads had 3.8s. Adcoms are pretty familiar with this, so you don't need to really discuss it at length or get involved in the fray about whether it was harder when you went to school or whether people are smarter now.

    8) Team3 comment #3: Application strategy. There is wonderful advice related to applying to a broad range of schools on this forum (a few dream schools, a larger number of more likely schools, and a couple safeties), and by and large it seems to be a good idea. However, it is generally implemented almost strictly based on program rankings. While you don't want to disregard a program's standing (since many methodologies do take into account things that are important to applicants), there are probably a couple of other factors you should consider in your application strategy. As an older candidate, you are automatically a risky person until proven otherwise. Consider applying to departments that are known for or can afford to take on that risk. Sometimes larger programs, or those with higher attrition rates, are more willing to take a chance on a risky candidate than smaller programs that might have more riding on each individual. Also, some programs are amenable to candidates with assorted backgrounds, so it might pay to seek them out.

    9) Team3 comment #4: External funding. If you have an external source, a department's risk ceases to be financial and is rather the opportunity cost of the slot that you'll occupy compared to the adjacent marginal candidate. This is always a factor, but even more so for departments with smaller endowment access and almost across the board when times are tough.

    10) Team3 comment #5: The average SOP is probably somewhere around 1500 words (school dependent). As an older person, adcoms have said they are inclined to read these in more detail--likely because you might actually have a lot to explain here. Thus it is probably safe to say that this section is a bit more important if you are older. I spent about 1/3 of it discussing my research interests, about 1/3 thoroughly explaining why I decided to change careers, and 1/3 highlighting things about my candidacy that I felt were important for the committee to understand. Econphd.net makes the important observation that you shouldn't spend much time discussing the intricacies of a past career, the sales awards you got, the personnel decisions you made, etc., and this seems like a good idea. While past careers might be relevant to why you decided to pursue economics in the first place, there are few of them that actually equip you with seamlessly useful skills for graduate economics. Many have said that older applicant SOPs tend to overemphasize these careers (the old adage to toot your horn) and as a result tend to sound somewhat disconnected from the reality of what a PhD entails.

    11) Team3 comment #6: Your CV. Yes, the resume is called a CV in the academic world. Strongly consider reformatting yours by looking at a sampling of CVs that faculty post on their personal pages. The first thing you'll notice is that they list all of their publications and can be 10 pages long. I don't think that's an open invitation to submit a 10 page CV full of business experience. Rather keep the professional experiences to what you normally would, kick them to the end of the CV, and spend more time on education and publications up front.

    12) Team3 comment #7. Letters of Recommendation. LORs from tenured professors carry the most weight for the simple reason that you are applying for a research degree, and they want to hear from insiders who can actually evaluate how you will perform in their discipline. The further removed you are from school, the harder this might be. But you really only want LORs from people who know you well enough to give the committee meaningful information. Here is a rule of thumb about people who might be willing to write on your behalf: you took a professor's semester-long class and did well, you spent a full semester as an RA, you spent a full semester as a TA, etc. Students who will be applying alongside you will potentially have known professors for several semesters, and it's not unusual to see folks on this forum who have had years of RA experience with a single researcher. Also, many economists, understandably, are preoccupied with statistics and not willing to write a letter for someone who shows up in their class in the Fall term and expects (based on deadlines) a letter prior to the end of the semester. The reason for this is that a letter is an endorsement, and your writers also have something riding on this--their word. As such, I've known professors who want to back up their endorsement with gobs of statistics about your performance in relation to other students. These are wonderfully descriptive letters, so you want to let them get to a position where this magic is possible. Equally, a letter isn't just a transferrable endorsement, it is also a statement about how the writer thinks you would do at the program to which you are applying. Thus, some writers won't recommend you to schools that they feel are poor matches; I had one who endorsed partially based on course grade with major school distinctions between an A and an A+. Since the field keeps getting stronger and stronger, the fact that you were your professor's strongest student 5 years ago probably means that s/he has had stronger students since. All things equal, you want recent letters, which supports the idea of going back to school to knock out some advanced courses (this idea was hard for me to come to terms with initially). Also, letters from graduate students are much, much less helpful, since they're typically just starting the research part of their careers. Finally, I think that if a program allows 3 letters, you should ideally get 3 recent letters from professors and then append a 4th from your old boss if you've been in the work force a while. What you generally don't want is a bunch of letters from previous employers and colleagues and an old one from your undergrad TA 8 years ago. Give them a chance to back out too...it's been said on the forum that a mediocre letter hurts most.

    13) Team3 comment #8: Quantitative background. Lots of good threads on this one if your search the forum, and obviously economics has become more quantitative than it was 15 years ago. This forum tends to suggest undergraduate real analysis and calculus based statistics as minimum prerequisites for some of the extremely competitive programs. That said, you can find great programs that don't have these requirements if you look a bit. The typical US sequence for math looks roughly like this: single-variable differential calculus (Calc I), single-variable integral calculus (Calc II), multi-variable calculus (Calc III), introduction to mathematical thinking (might have different names, but this is a bridge course that teaches you proof-writing fundamentals that you'll need for analysis...many strong students skip it entirely), and finally undergraduate real analysis (alternately called Advanced Calculus in some schools). So when people talk about real analysis on this forum, they generally mean the undergraduate course that is the prerequisite for most graduate level math classes. As the field becomes more and more competitive, students have also started taking a second semester of undergrad real analysis, and even graduate work in measure theory or topology. From the perspective of statistics, most US universities usually have a 2-semester sequence in algebra based statistics which they offer at the lower level, a 2-semester sequence in applied statistics (sometimes under the name "for scientists and engineers"), and a 2-semester sequence in probability theory and calculus-based statistics. This latter sequence is almost always taught from the math or statistics department (rather than an econ department, etc.), and this is the one that tends to be most useful for preparation for PhD classes in econometrics (you don't have to take the lower level sequences first...usually just calculus and linear algebra)...which brings me to this: you'll probably want a least a semester of linear algebra (the introductory class is fine, but again many students take a proof-based undergraduate one).

    14) Team3 comment #9: GRE. If you are really old, know this: people actually study for the GRE now--for weeks on end. And studying can bring up your scores by 100s of points. The GRE reformatted itself and now consists of a math section, a verbal section, and a writing sample. The quantitative (math) section is most important, and 800s are definitely the norm at top programs, although there are many good programs that are less quantitatively focused that accept lower quant scores. The verbal section is often derided here on the forum, but the adcoms I've spoken with do consider it, and some programs consider it significantly as a measure of overall intelligence. If you are an international student, I've heard the verbal and writing sections are even more important as a measure of how well you'll be able to integrate into the program.

    15) Interesting threads related to age and PhD applications:
    Greg Mankiw's Blog: Age and Academia
    http://www.urch.com/forums/graduate-...o-old-phd.html
    http://www.urch.com/forums/phd-econo...y-chances.html
    http://www.urch.com/forums/phd-econo...ut-number.html

    Hope this helps. Everyone: please feel free to contribute/correct this...we old fogeys need all the help you can muster. If I had put this in an "age-friendly" font, it would have been 40 pages long...
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    Extremely deep and useful analysis. I think it should be a sticky thread!
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    Thanks. Interesting information; being 29 myself, this would have been a nice thread to develop more fully 6 months ago . I hope those applying for 2011 matriculation can take advantage of it.

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    i don't know why but i now feel depressed after reading all these. they are definitely true and helpful but i was already worried about my age (29 at the beginning of the program) and now i had to face it once more (and more seriously indeed)...
    Last edited by confusedgrad; 03-22-2010 at 08:08 PM. Reason: spelling...
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    Has this been placed in the FAQ sticky thread yet? I suggest it be added there.
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    Everyone,

    Thanks for your comments; please feel free to keep them coming. I've linked this to the sticky FAQ thread.
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    really good compilation, I just wanted to suggest you to add some considerations (I'm almost sure there's none) about cultural differences. In some countries it is almost impossible for people to apply earlier because of the education system, grants and scholarships requirements (in my country you have to spend at least two years working for the governement in order to get a grant), etc

    these elements must be considered in order to measure correctly this gap you mentioned in which someone isn't connected to academia, maybe you are 26 but it's been only one or two years since you left college and not eight or nine just because your education system works in a different way
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    Good Summary

    Team3 nice post. Someone posted a link to it in the Business Ph.D. forum where we have a similar thread starting.

    I have to smile at those of you worrying at the age of 29. I am currently 41 and will start my Ph.D. studies in management at the age of 42.

    As we like to say age is just a number, and sometimes it is fun being an outlier.

    Team3, do you mind me asking, how old are you?

    Haread

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    Haread,

    35 this summer and very glad to see that I'm not the upper bound...then again, my grandmother finished graduate school in her 80s!

    We'd be happy for anything that the business forum might be able to add, so please feel free to chime in or to link your thread to this one. bobofett had suggested the addition of some cultural differences that hinge on age in the application process, but I'm not familiar enough to comment.

    Also, I'm guessing that business departments may have a bit more experience with older applicants, so my tone was geared principally to economics departments. That said, the parallels are likely closer than in most other disciplines.
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    I am just guessing here, the age factor is likely to be more significant in economics departments than business schools.

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