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.


Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different?

C.S. Lewis

There is no denying that life is busy. In the constant rat race, I often find little time to be mindful since my mind is just… so full. There is a plethora of responsibilities to balance, and I routinely find myself in a repeating loop of getting up, getting ready, going to work, managing the day, coming home, catching up on work, and getting ready for bed. I have to actively focus on integrating mindful activities into this cycle, to be acutely aware of what I’m sensing and feeling in the moment.  If not, I’ll undoubtedly become trapped in this vortex of monotony and never-ending planning, problem-solving, daydreaming, and negative thinking patterns.

However, even with the inclusion of mindfulness practices, the days still seem to pass by far too quickly. I often find myself working nonstop without realizing, or without being able to see the results of my efforts. One of the difficulties in academia, and particularly in research, is that some processes are just beyond our control, and results can take a lot longer than initially anticipated. But when I step back and review the past few months, I see a great deal more than cycles. When I broaden my perspective, I can see how many things have changed. If I delve deeper, I can also say that five years ago, I could only have imagined being where I am now.

“Just remember, 5 years ago, you dreamed about where you are now”

Perhaps the issue is not about cycles, but that I have neglected to acknowledge and celebrate my successes.  When I accomplish a goal or reach a milestone, I immediately begin pursuing the next one. I cannot remember the last time that I managed to break the cycle and set aside some time to acknowledge and appreciate my accomplishments. Can you?

Celebrating success feels wonderful in the here and now, but it also has long-term psychological and psychological effects. Such celebrations not only increase our self-confidence but also release endorphins into our brains, reinforcing emotions of success and increasing the likelihood that we will continue to experience success in the future. It is therefore not a fruitless endeavour to get more attention, but rather a cornerstone of encouraging continuous growth.

I started my celebrations by reviewing my current situation and reflecting on what a typical research week entails. I’ve also been journaling, going for walks with Bella and Doc, and thinking back on the previous six months. During these activities, I’ve considered the aspects of my journey that I’ve cherished, the capabilities I’ve developed, and the difficulties I overcome to get here. I must admit that these reflections have indeed left me more motivated and confident. I also realized that it’s time to celebrate all the recent changes, as progress and success depend on change. I’ll start to celebrate my current successes and use it as fuel for future successes. 

You should do the same.