AGE – The number of years that a person has lived, or a thing has existed, growing old.

If you’ve ever read a research article, you’ve probably noticed that age is a prevalent thread throughout many scientific papers. Across disciplines, researchers compare their findings with the length of time that their participants or objects have existed.  It’s important to know this information, as it provides the reader with an understanding of the research participants, and whether the findings could be representative of a larger population. 

But even though research articles frequently describe age-related features, other age-related aspects are also important, such as the age of the research paper or the academic journal. Those can be found in the journal bibliometrics, and are often reflected on in review papers. Interestingly, the age of the researcher is never mentioned. Perhaps it’s because it’s simply not relevant to the study.

Or is it?

Recently, I have been thinking about the link between age, postgraduate studies and published research articles. Age is certainly not just something we report on in research articles, but an important variable in an academic career. The number of years that a person has lived has an influence on when you start your academic career, when your first article is published, your research productivity, your international mobility and your network for international research collaboration. In my journey, I was fortunate to continue with my Masters degree immediately after graduating with my four-year undergraduate degree (acknowledging the fact that some challenges had to be overcome in terms of subject-related criteria). However, I took a 2–3-year break between completing my Masters and commencing with my PhD.

Nowadays, there is a bizarre competitiveness where students aspire to graduate ‘youngest’ in their fields. Social media would commonly include posts about students aspiring for, and sometimes inaccurately claiming, this title. As a self-professed nerd, I am in awe when I hear about extremely young students earning their doctorate degrees and I wonder if I could have managed all the responsibilities so early in my career. And without a doubt, when I consider where I am in my research career, I sometimes long for the vigour of those in their early 20s. On the other hand, when I consider those who started this journey later in life, their wisdom seems to offer so much insight that I at times question if it would have been wiser to have waited.

The optimum age for postgraduate study is probably very unique to each student. Since science evolves so quickly, no graduate could possibly claim to be the “youngest” or the “oldest” for very long. When I think back on my decision to pursue my Masters right away but wait to pursue my PhD, I took several factors into account at different ages:

Factors to considerWhat it meantHow it applied to meWhat I decided
Suitability of studying mode

Some programs are offered full-time, part-time, online, as a short program, after hours, course work, and researchI had to consider the availability of study modes within my field of interest, which was also suitable to my lifestyle.Masters – Full time research (no course work).
PhD – Full time
Financial circumstancesThe majority of higher education institutions, as well as the NRF, offer scholarships, financing, and bursaries, but many of these have age limits.Obtaining a postgraduate degree has financial implications. During my undergrad, I was fortunate to receive financial assistance from my parents and from undergraduate bursaries. However, when applying for my Masters Degree, financial aspects became a bigger concern. I’d imagine that older students may have had more time to become financially independent as they’ve been employed, enjoyed family support, or had personal savings to finance their post-graduate studies.Masters – Bursary from institution (and family support).
PhD – Bursary from institution and personal savings.
Personal and family responsibilities.Achieving a healthy work/life balance while pursuing postgraduate studies requires considerable skill.Simply put, due to the fact that I was younger and had fewer family and personal responsibilities during my Masters’, I found it to be easier to balance my available time against my other commitments. The PhD was somewhat more taxing to balance.Putting more effort into creating balance during my PhD.
Theoretical knowledge vs experienceThere is a great deal of debate regarding the importance of theory vs practice.Call me a hypocrite, yet I contend with both sides. After completing my undergraduate degree, I argued that because I was already “in the study mindset” and had a desire for learning, it was the ideal moment to continue my education. I still feel the same way. However, I need to add that my professional experience helped me understand the content and utilize my PhD to its fullest. I suppose both sides have valid points.Masters’ – theoretical knowledge with ongoing practice experience.
PhD – break from academia, more practical experience.

My academic journey has taught me that the relative appeal of scientific careers shifts over time, attracting individuals of all ages, abilities, talents, and motives to academia. Yes, there are numerous occasions when I wish I had begun sooner and had more energy for the fundamentals. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been wiser to wait a little longer and gain more experience that could result in richer publications. I’ve come to realise that age perspectives may vary, but my journey belongs to me. Age is more than simply a research topic; it’s a part of our academic experience, and we cherish every part of it.

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