What age is too old for research advisor/professor?
No. It is a bad idea to make assumptions about a person’s productivity and level of creativity, in the context of academic research, based on their age. This seems to me like an example of using the “fast” (aka System 1), heuristic-based type of thinking described in Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, to form judgments, instead of the more deliberative, slow, “System 2” mode of thinking. Kahneman describes many examples of this type of fallacious reasoning and the ways in which it can lead us astray in decision-making situations.
Each professor is an individual. Some make better advisors than others, but you’d have to estimate how good they are based on actual details about their personality, recent and less recent track record of success in research and in mentoring, and other relevant factors. Age can only be relevant insofar as it relates to someone’s physical health or an imminent retirement. Many academics in their 70s still produce excellent research and successful PhD students.
Don’t make assumptions, and don’t use heuristics in making important decisions like choosing a PhD advisor.
I'm quite a lot closer to 80 than to 70, but if you made a proposal to me that was in my lane, or accepted a suggestion that I made for a research project, I'd serve you pretty well. I have a lot of experience and with that, a lot of ideas.
However, I'm retired, so that would be a potential obstacle and we would need to get the university to make a decision. But even if I were not quite yet retired, that would be an issue. I also enjoy the fact that I currently have very little professional responsibility and can pretty much do as I please. Some of those things are actually fairly "academic" though.
I'd be useless to you outside my lane, of course, but that was probably always true, though I was able to give some guidance to people with quite different research directions. Not as advisor, but as a committee member.
Some of us old folk still have a functioning brain. Some of us still have an interest in field, even if we don't publish, ourselves, anymore. But it is an individual thing, and not one to make generalizations about.
It might be worse to have an advisor who was so young and active that they had no time to give you when you need it. Every case is different.
There are a lot of things that go in to making a good advisor. One of them is the attitude that you are an important person and that they will do what they can to extend your education and advance your career. That probably isn't age related, but it might be.
So long as an academic is not suffering from cognitive decline in old age (and I speak here of serious cognitive decline; e.g., dementia, alzheimers, etc.), I wouldn't think there is any reason why they would lack ideas for research. In fact, you would probably find that the opposite is the case --- by the time they are at the end of their career they have probably stocked up so many research ideas over the years that they have more paper ideas than they could possibly complete, giving their students plenty of possible topics they could take on as papers. I speak here as someone in my early forties, and I already find that the rate at which new ideas come to me is faster than the rate at which I can turn them into publishable papers. Consequently, I already have many many half-written papers and jotted down ideas, and I'm not confident I'll ever finish all of the ideas I've started.
It is possible that there might be some drawbacks to having an elderly professor as a supervisor, but I wouldn't think this would be one of them. An older professor will also have some advantages in terms of breadth of knowledge and experience, and I can certainly think of a number of professors in my own field who are now in their seventies who are absolute giants in the field; any research students would be lucky to have them as supervisors.
Finally, you should also bear in mind that research supervision usually involves a "panel" of multiple supervisors, and while one is usually the primary supervisor, there is also support from others. It is not unusual to have a mix of supervisors with different levels of age and experience (and academic level) and this will usually help ameliorate any disadvantages of younger or older advisors.
If an academic is in their seventies (or whatever advanced age is "too old") and feels that they can no longer do a good job supervising a research student, most likely they will just self-select out of the supervisory pool and only take on a supporting role on the panel, if that. Others will self-select out of supervision roles completely because they are close to retirement and they don't want to take on a multi-year commitment of seeing a research student through grad-school; they have earned the rest after all.
Actually there might be significant advantages to working with an older professor. Consider that an older professor is more likely to be well-known and respected in the field. Reputation is a very important currency in academia. Your advisor's reputation could open doors for you. E.g.
- You want a job after you graduate? A letter of recommendation from a very well-known professor will carry much more weight than a letter from a new professor that no one has ever heard of.
- You need access to some specialized equipment? A well-know professor probably has friends at other universities or national labs that would let you borrow it.
- You need funding to complete some portion of your research? An older professor probably has many contacts at various funding agencies from over the years. A few phone calls might get your research funded. A new professor just getting started won't have as many contacts.
- You want to get your work published in a top tier conference or journal? An experienced professor knows what it takes to make that happen, whereas a younger one may not.
As the other answers point out, this will be dependent on the individual. Just because a professor is old, doesn't necessary mean they are well-known. Evaluate each specific potential advisor.
I for one can understand your concern. BUT it also depends on your field, no?
In computer science I would trust an 80 year old professor who hasnt been working in the industry for 40 years less, than a professor who is 50 and still had some experience with rather modern technologies.
On the other Hand I believe a 80 year old professor of biology, psychology or medicine to be just as fit as the 50 year old professor. That is because usually professors still work in that field.
In the end it always depends on the person honestly. Had professors talking about how great they were in the 70s and are completely disconnected from the modern breakthroughs in that field, but had also professors in their 50s telling about how they worked in a really really big company just recently and worked with all new advancements but were just bad at teaching and I felt like they didnt even understand the new advancements.
Also had really great and up-to-date professors that were about to retire and it actually was sad when they retired as I would have loved to learn more from them.
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JobHunter69 6 months
I feel like I wouldn't want to work with >70 years old professors because they're too old and have less chance of coming up with new ideas. is this a reasonable concern?
A rural reader over 1 yearNo …………………………..
A rural reader over 1 yearIf a person has seen the world, all its beauty and many of its warts, and is willing to share his or her opinions, that’s a person I want to have a beer with. Now the fact is—you never really know how deep another person’s experience runs, but that’s where you roll the dice. 🙂
Mandrill over 1 yearI would say 75. After that most people will decline even those with very active minds. But experience may vary.
cheersmate over 1 year@Mandrill Maybe, but the key here is "most people". Professors are not "most people". It is well-known that keeping body and mind occupied slows down the inevitable decline of both, and professors often are very active until a very high age. I have often discovered academics who wrote their most significant books after retirement, sometimes age 80+.
Captain Emacs over 1 yearOne thing to consider: if you plan for a PhD under their supervision, keep in mind their health may be more fragile; you should have a Plan B for what happens if they are not able to continue supervising you.
penelope over 1 yearI had a friend who graduated as a last PhD student of a professor emeritus. While the professor had some health issues towards the end of my friends PhD, I heard my friend describe his supervisor as "A mind of a 20-something trapped in the body of an 80+ year old. I could barely keep up with him". Besides, there's this: phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=2031 :)
Captain Emacs over 1 yearSeconded. Some profs dry out on receiving tenure. If they are still active after that, you are probably fine (just kidding). The Fields Medal for math has famously limited its recipients to the age of 40 or below - when Andrew Wiles proved Fermat at the age of 47, this was a major embarrassment for them because they could not easily award him the medal and had to find a way to substitute for it. In short, "don't make assumptions". +1
Kimball over 1 year@CaptainEmacs Why was it a major embarrassment? I've never heard this.
Kimball over 1 yearIt is possible that there might be some drawbacks to having an elderly professor as a supervisor - Yes, such as a greater chance of health issues and not being able available to provide secondary support for you down the line (e.g., getting you conference invitations, advice after you graduate, etc).
Jon Custer over 1 year@Kimball - you would be surprised just how many retired academics (and industry folk) are closely associated with conferences, national-level review committees, and so forth. They are highly valued because of their experience and insight into the whole field.
Dan Romik over 1 year@Kimball wouldn’t you be embarrassed if you were in charge of a prize claiming to be the highest honor in mathematics but found yourself unable to award the prize to the mathematician who solved the most famous open problem of the last century (or two), due to an outdated and blatantly discriminatory technicality in the prize rules? I know I would be…
Kimball over 1 year@DanRomik Not if I believed the purpose was to recognize younger mathematicians, rather than honoring the best results or body of work.
Captain Emacs over 1 year@Kimball If you want to develop younger researchers, there are channels for that. But if you are the top prize in your field, limiting it to young researchers only becomes discriminatory. If you had started out as a prize for developing young researchers and turn into the top prize because most top results are achieved by these, and you are unfortunate enough to miss out on a major breakthrough of an older researcher, your prize sends out a message of prejudice and stereotype instead of an encouraging one. The IMU felt embarrassed enough to create a special prize for Wiles.
Mandrill over 1 yearWow, I read most of your answers and for some reason I assumed you were on your mid-thirties...
Buffy over 1 year@Mandrill, My kids are in their fifties.
Dan Romik over 1 year@Kimball if the people behind the Fields Medal want to market it in such a way, that is their right. However, they shouldn’t then be surprised when other prizes such as the Abel Prize become equally or more highly regarded by many than the Fields Medal, or even worse, when a situation emerges in which no single mathematics prize can hope to match the Nobel Prize in its cachet and public recognition as a canonical, ultimate honor. This confusing state of affairs is the legacy of the Fields’ age limit.
Wolfgang Bangerth over 1 yearFascinating -- I would have assumed you to be in your late 40s or 50s. Also fun to learn something about the personal details of a long-time contributor on this forum :-)
Captain Emacs over 1 year@DanRomik Excellently put. James Gleick's book on Feynman has a very crisp explanation of the issue, I paraphrase: a prize builds up reputation by excellent recipients no less than recipients, esp. excellent ones, get reputation by it; one of the reasons why the Nobel is so successful - not only was it early, but it gave, from the beginning, the prize quite consistently to outstanding contributions with only few blunders. It is in the interest of a prize as a signal of excellence to avoid false positives as well as false negatives. Fields messed up in that respect.
Mark Meckes over 1 year@CaptainEmacs: For what it's worth, it wasn't John Charles Fields himself who messed this up, see nature.com/articles/d41586-018-00513-8
Captain Emacs over 1 year@MarkMeckes Interesting find. To clarify, I intended "Fields" to denote the institution, not the person themselves.