Old Prof Vices, Virtues

Tyler on “How bad is age discrimination in academia?”:

I believe it is very bad, although I do not have data.

I started my Ph.D. at the age of 34, and Tyler hired me here at GMU at the age of 40. So by my lights Tyler deserves credit for overcoming the age bias. Tyler doesn’t discuss why this bias might exist, but a Stanford history prof explained his theory to me when I was in my early 30s talking to him about a possible PhD. He said that older students are known for working harder and better, but also for being less pliable: they have more of their own ideas about what is interesting and important.

I think that fits with what I’ve heard from others, and have seen for myself, including in myself. People complain that academia builds too little on “real world” experience, and that disciplines are too insular. And older students help with that. But in fact the incentive for each prof in picking students isn’t to solve the wider problems with academia. It is instead to expand an empire by creating intellectual clones of him or herself. And for that selfish goal, older students are worse. My mentors likely feel this way about me, that I worked hard and did interesting stuff, but I was not a good investment for expanding their legacy.

Interestingly this explanation is somewhat the opposite of the usual excuses for age bias in Silicon Valley. There the usual story is that older people won’t take as many risks, and that they aren’t as creative. But the complaint about older Ph.D.s is exactly that they take too many risks, and that they are too creative. If only they would just do what they are told, and copy their mentors, then their hard work and experience could be more valued.

I find it hard to believe that older workers change their nature this much between tech and academia. Something doesn’t add up here. And for what its worth, I’ve been personally far more impressed by the tech startups I’ve known that are staffed by older folks.

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  • cole

    Possible explanation: Risk preferences follow a normal distribution. Risk preferences among younger people have a larger standard deviation. Academia prefers very low risk people, silicon valley prefers very high risk people. There are more younger candidates that fit the extreme risk profiles of these two ventures.

    This would of course require evidence that the distribution for risk preferences changes with age.

  • arch1

    1) The last 3rd of Lee Smolin’s “The Trouble with Physics” talks a lot about stuff like this, in the academic/physics context.
    2) Can’t it be simply that decision makers believe older people to be more stuck in their ways (thus less likely to follow mentors in the academic context, *and* less likely to spawn hugely profitable ideas in the industrial context)?

  • Phil

    My theory: Young people are more valued in academia because they’re willing to put up with BS. 20-year-olds are used to taking orders from superiors, even crappy ones.

    I once asked an academic friend for a .pdf copy of a certain paper. He said, “sure, I’ll get my grad student to send it to you.” My reaction was: if I were that grad student, I’d be PISSED that this guy thinks I’m his slave, that he’s too lazy to do a two-minute job himself. But I’m 50. When I was 20, it would be, sure, no problem!

    When I was in grad school, I went to pay my tuition, and there as a lineup of maybe 200 people, and a 90 minute wait. As a 26-year-old, I knew this was not the way you treat your customers, and I got mad. As a 19-year-old, I would have put up with it.

    My impression is that it’s much worse being at the bottom of the hierarchy in academia than in the real world. If you want to treat people like crap, you need them young enough to have never been treated properly.

  • Avian

    At my last tech company, I pulled on average about 2 all nighters every three weeks and, and in the worst stretches, pulled 3-5 consecutive ones (I deliberately stopped tracking the exact # of days; I define an all nighter as <= 3 hours of sleep). I'm 24. I've since begun my phd but I am now barely hitting more than 1-2 all nighters per quarter and I notice my ability to pull all nighters declining as I age. So I think the personal sacrifices expected in startup culture are higher than those expected from academia, and while older students may work harder in academia, I do not think it is physically possible or even wise for older employees to match the caffeine fueled insanity that is younger employees in tech. Especially if you want a spouse and children. I am surprised this was not the reason you were given for the discrimination.

  • Ben Salemi

    “But the complaint about older Ph.D.s is exactly that they take too many risks, and that they are too creative”

    This doesn’t actually seem to be the complaint you received though. The complaint was that you were less pliable, meaning that you were less willing to consider the ideas of others, specifically those who are employing you, mentoring you, etc.

    This is actually roughly the same complaint as tech feeling that an older worker is “set in their ways.”

    I’m not making a judgement of the validity of the complaint, just trying to reconcile what you wanted to reconcile.

    • It is the complaint about older PhD, projected onto the dimensions where complains are made about older tech workers.

      • Ben Salemi

        I’m not sure if you are agreeing or disagreeing with my analysis, but yes, I think it is accurate to say that if you take the actual complaint and map it onto “traits that tech says they find valuable” and “traits that academics say the find valuable” then you get something that could, on first blush, seem to be diametrically opposed complaints.

        But I think that is a poor reading of the complaints, as opposed to being something that actually doesn’t add up.

        For what it’s worth, I am in a company that was a startup for many years and was recently acquired, and I would agree that age was not particularly a barrier to successful production at our company.

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  • Robert Koslover

    The natural order of things, despite the many exceptions, is that older people generally both rule over, and teach, younger people. Perhaps would-be PhD advisors simply feel more comfortable acting as bosses and/or teachers to people who are younger than themselves. It is likewise the natural order of things to want/prefer your boss/teacher to be older than you.

    • Lord

      The last thing the boss wants to be told is it won’t work or can’t be done on budget or schedule, a hazard of hiring the experienced. And when you can’t measure output, the fallback is measuring input so the inexperienced look much more impressive. Look at all those hours! The dedication!

  • efalken

    The young have nothing to say, and the old say the same thing over and over…

    I think the key is to spend at least half your day being useful to others rather directly, because you can’t be creative all day anyway, and most new ideas are just bad.

  • ZKrom

    Robin, the reason your story isn’t reconciling with the
    tech-narrative is that espousers of that narrative are using older workers’
    risk-aversion as a cop-out. Outside of VC evaluating founders, risk-taking isn’t
    a particularly desired characteristic in the tech workforce. More important is
    a willingness to grind out output (see Avain re: all-nighters.)

    The essence of most “age discrimination” is that older
    workers are less productive than younger counterparts with respect to directing
    their output toward the hiring manager’s goals. In your academic case, the
    alignment of goals is more a factor whereas within tech, the absolute volume of
    output is a factor.

    Framed this way, an applicant having an age well over the
    median for a given position is rationally seen as a negative signal.

  • But in fact the incentive for each prof in picking students isn’t to solve the wider problems with academia. It is instead to expand an empire by create intellectual clones of him or herself.

    Is that really the model? [Was Aristotle Plato’s clone?]

    If the quoted is true, I have trouble seeing how an idealist like Bryan Caplan can tolerate the academic environment, which is then dishonest at its foundation. [Seeking to look supported by other experts by means of demands for blind imitation is fundamentally dishonest in an endeavor that’s supposed to be intellectual.]

    • midnightmodernity

      Aristotle was not Plato’s clone.

  • Francis Barton

    When I first started working in Silicon Valley as a programmer back in 1989, I could be excited to work on almost any project just because I was happy to learn programming techniques and programming languages. It didn’t matter if the content of the project was boring. Now, I have to sincerely enjoy the content of the project in order to really give it my all. Call it perspective or whatever, but if I was a small startup and needed people to work on something that was boring but potentially lucrative (e.g. Groupon or WhatsApp) I’d be skeptical of hiring someone older. On the plus side, there are more than enough programming jobs at the Microsofts of the world to keep people like me employed.

  • Toby

    Robin, isn’t this about a specific subset of older workers? I would also be more impressed by tech start ups staffed by older folks simply because they probably had to give up more to get started. Same thing goes for older students: these are people, like yourself, who had to give up what otherwise could have been a successful career elsewhere.

    I think that if you could find the data, then once you control for what had to be given up the effect of age will drop on what you find to be different between younger and older workers/students.

  • I think the cloning imperative is a new development (last 20 or 30 years).

    Am I wrong?

  • KKRS

    Older people who are trying to make it in academia are probably more idealistic than the older people who are trying to make it in a startup. That might explain the risk taking difference between the two.