The average age of PhD awardees?

I was reading this post that proposes a “family-friendly wage” to enable female postdocs to stay in academia, regardless of whether they want to have kids or not. Which I think is a good idea in general. Maybe not only in “hard” money, but also in on-site facilities that enable child-care for example.

What really got my attention though, was this:

Given that the average age of PhD awardees is 31, women postdocs fall somewhere on the sharply declining portion of the female fertility curve. This is a crucial biological difference between women and men that may partly explain the skew in departures from academic science.

Can someone please fill me in why the average age of PhD awardees should be 31?? For your information on my background, what the “model” student could achieve in the Netherlands:

  • 4-12y: primary school
  • 12-18y: high school
  • 18-21y: bachelor
  • 21-23y: master
  • 23-26/28y: PhD

May not sound like such a big difference, but I guess it really matters. I was 26 when finishing my PhD. My maybe too optimistic idea is to spend a maximum of 5 years as postdoc and then start as junior group leader somewhere. I will be 31 then. And, in my imagination, in the position to continue work and combine this with kids. Maybe I’m dreaming though, as future will tell undoubtedly.

But yes, my question to all of you: what is the main reason why the average age of PhD awardees is 31? Maybe this is something that can/should be changed to increase the chances of women in academia…



  1. I’m not sure that the “average” is meaningful here. These Canadian statistics are probably typical, and show a “fat tail” of older students, who have presumably worked after their bachelor’s and before starting their PhD. That’s what I did (though only briefly).

    1. Valid point. Some of the students get their PhD younger, whereas the older students pull the average age upwards. That could be for various reasons indeed: maybe some of the older awardees took a break for child-care reasons already… This would then make the average age of PhD awardees a less relevant factor when discussing the difficulties around women in science.

      On the other hand, none of my fellow students here in Germany got their PhD before reaching 30. In Germany, it is practically impossible to get there faster. Which is a problem I think. However, they are changing to a bachelor/master system instead of their old “diploma”, which might help.

  2. Hey .. I am so happy that you started blogging much more again ! I kept reading, to answer a question in one of your previous posts !For the age of the PhD, I agree with you, I am more or less in the same “normal” range. But maybe this counts in medical doctors who started their PhD older, and also take waayyyy more time to finish it. And, yes, some people don’t have such a direct Bachelor-master-PhD track I guess.

    1. Nice to see you around again 🙂 I’ve been so busy writing proposals, reviews and other stuff, that I really didn’t have enough energy to write for fun… But now everything seems OK again!

      The point I wanted to make here, I guess, is that I can imagine that it is a problem for women who want children if they finish their PhD at 31. And that it should be possible to get there faster – which is not the standard at the moment in Germany. But yes, as pointed out above, average age is maybe quite meaningless here…

  3. Average PhD age will depend on the system in the awarding country. In the Uk you will typically have a 4 year MSci 1st degree, started at 18 or 19, then a 4 year PhD – most PhD funding lasts for 3 years, with most universities having a hard cutoff on PhD submission at 4 years after the start. Thus most UK PhDs would be ~27-28 years old.

    But we have just the same skew in departures from academia.

  4. Many people take time off before jumping into a graduate program. Some people work at biotechnology companies, some are technicians in academic research labs. Not everyone follows a direct path to their PhD, and some people use this time to hone their research skills and focus in on what field they wish to pursue. The average PhD program length in the US is 5.2 years (this includes the masters). So the earliest possible time to graduate is when someone is 27 if they graduate college when they are 22. (Undergraduate university in the US is 4 years on average)

  5. Well, I studied law in India and to take my first degree of law I did a bachelors first (so i have two bachelors degree, making it a 6 years of undergraduate study) – there is an option to take a 5 years integrated degree too. this is followed by 2 years Masters degree making it 8 years of college education already.

    Another average 1-2 years which we spend in compulsory teaching (sometimes if you have a University scholarship you have to teach for a minimum of 1 year after completion of your degree, a lot of people choose to stick to their teaching jobs after that and take a part-time Ph.D which runs into 6 years). Some other like me, teach for an year and apply for scholarship in foreign countries. I took a 2 years work and apply for scholarship gap between my Masters and start of my Ph.D.

    I am now in my 2nd year, I am 30 and I have just resumed my work after an year long maternity leave. I might have to take another interruption until one of the grandparents can come to support us with the baby (problems of living away from rest of the family). So by the time I fully resume and start again I might be already 31 and by the time I finish I would be 32-33.

    And I think doing a post-doc would be really easy for my by then as my child would already be settled into a school routine. Unless I plan for another child and screw my life 😛

  6. I went to search for a job after graduating with my BSc degree at age 23. I worked for almost 4 years and saved for my MSc during that time. It took me about 3 and 1/2 years to finish MSc. I have spent a year now running consultancy services and trying to prop up several businesses while scouting for Phd funding and Phd studentships on the side.

    I am however hoping to from finish my Phd before or when I am 35 years God willing.

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