Does Age Matter?

When I wrote one of my first blogs on does gender matter I intended it to be a reflexive piece on my own journey through academia so far. I was overwhelmed by the support I received from fellow academics from a huge array of disciplines, clearly highlighting that gender does indeed matter. It got me thinking about other characteristics that may help or hinder academic progression and age is one that rears its ugly head repeatedly.

age

As an undergraduate I was surprised when one of my Professors suggested I applied for a PhD scholarship, to me PhDs were for those who had ‘served their time’ in academia and earned the right to be awarded a doctorate. I mean I had (naively) assumed a PhD was a collection of works brought together to produce a remarkable thesis. I was a mere 25 year old undergraduate still learning the discipline and figuring out how I could  use the skills and knowledge I had gained during my degree. I was extremely fortunate to have been successful in my application, and whilst I was delighted to be given such an amazing opportunity, I felt an immense sense of guilt at the same time. In the department in which I studied I was taught by some inspiring tutors, much older and much wiser than myself and I found out very quickly that two of these tutors had applied for the same scholarship for two years running and had not been successful, and there was me, literally handed a PhD scholarship on a plate without any years of experience to warrant it. Ok so I wasn’t the only ‘young’ student to gain a PhD scholarship and nowadays, more than ever, I see more and more young students undertaking such challenging pathways.My only thought at the time was my research idea must have been stronger (which was very doubtful given my inexperience) or I performed better at the scholarship interview, either way on this occasion it seemed age didn’t matter, but that was to change.

We don’t use the term ‘young academics’, we use the term ‘early career academics’ to group together those PhD and Postdocs who are still in the early stages of their academic journey, mainly because not everyone is young in age and academia is supposed to be about experience and not age. However, in my experience, age does indeed have an impact on academic progression and whilst thinking about this post I realised that there is one thing that young academics have to work harder for, despite experience, and that is respect. Respect comes from years worth of highly recognised teaching, research and writing, something that isn’t expected to be a possession of the young academic. It is something I noticed when I was in Germany a couple of months ago at the ESC conference, PhD students and Postdocs who were older (i.e. not in their 20s or early 30s) were approached much more by other academics, they were offered invitations to join peers for drinks and dinner, they were engaged in thought provoking debates and had their contact cards gratefully received by many. Being ‘youthful’ in academia is a disadvantage. I have always been told I look young for my age (well having a child has probably added a few lines and grey hairs over the last few years), I certainly don’t look like an ‘established’ academic and I have lost count the number of times I have been asked what year of my PhD I’m in, despite having been awarded my doctorate many years ago.

I’ve got used to being ignored, talked over and discounted at conferences and seminars, it doesn’t even really bother me that much these days. I am confident in the work that I am doing and am enjoying it. If other people don’t want to engage in my work or take my research seriously then I say that’s their loss. I continually stand up for young academics, organising events with them, networking with them and offering them support and encouragement – I know how it feels to be dismissed on the basis of age and I try my best to ensure I treat people the way I want to be treated, no matter what their age. I find younger academics an inspiration, they have a contemporary view of our social world, they offer new perspectives on our criminal justice system and, importantly, they are full of enthusiasm. But for many senior academics they don’t see this – they see inexperience, and naivety. Young academics are the most eager to please and impress, but this also leaves them much more open to manipulation and being a pawn in the criminological ego game.  Now, getting back to where I was, yes networking can be difficult when you are considered young, but there’s something worse than this, that is detrimental to your career, that is, being dismissed in your actual job role.

Whilst I may not have an impressive publication record I have accomplished a lot for my years in relation to my teaching, networking, external partnerships and research grants. I have over the years lectured in various universities and witnessed a lot of incredibly impressive as  well as diabolical teaching and management practices. The job I have now should offer me fantastic potential to progress but I find myself being overshadowed by older (yet less experienced) academics. I hear all too often “you have your whole career ahead of you” or “you’re not at that age yet“, such patronising comments are hard to swallow. My age should have nothing to do with it, my experience and what I have to offer should speak for itself, but instead I see colleagues 10 years chronologically older but 5 years academically younger receiving far more support, encouragement and opportunities from my head of department and professors. Not only that but it is the older voices that are listened to because somehow their life experience makes their opinions more valid, whereas in actual fact much of what they say is based on personal opinion not academic experience.

I know that there are some Criminologists out there who progressed very quickly in academia despite of their youth, making professor before the age of 40 and and the such. I take my hat off to them. I also know that not all young academics share the same experiences as me, particularly if you are a young male, and have seen the academic progression doors rotate for them. But this is not my experience, as a young (female) academic I have experienced closed doors down many corridors, not because of any lack of knowledge or skills, but because I was young. When I have asked to take on roles, attend training or seek funding for career progression, I have been advised ‘oh you don’t need to be doing that just now, there’s plenty of time for you“. Colleagues and I have discussed these issues and some suggest that it stems from jealousy, or at the very least senior academics feeling threatened by the potential of younger academics, other suggest it is purely based on the assumption ‘older knows better’ – I haven’t quite figured it out yet (if you have any ideas please comment), but what I have come to realise is that age does matter.

So in my experience my gender and youth have both been stumbling blocks for academic progression – I would love to hear from people who have experienced their own barricades based on personal characteristics; is there an ideal type academic? Well it’s certainly not a young ambitious women.

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2 thoughts on “Does Age Matter?

  1. An older entrant to academic life I’ve never gained a full time post – early on this was useful for childcare – but did gain a permanent position. I’ve experienced both positives and negatives some associated with age but also intermixed with my ethnicity and gender and even experience.
    As an older white man who’d worked in the Home Office (in admin and policy!) at the time of Tim Newburn, Ben Bowling and Marian Fitzgerald who took his Masters part-time (HO funding!) I’m well connected and continue to serve on the BSC’s Exec. Even published recognized work despite no pressure to do so (a teaching orientated Uni). Yet only made Senior Lecturer and all attempts to escape all failed. I believe those failures might be age-related.
    So with my contacts and presence I tend to get treated like a prof yet now semi-retired I’m part of the gig economy as an hourly paid lecturer.

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  2. Thank you for sharing! Really interesting to hear your experience and some if it helps to confirm aspects of my own experiences. Certainly agree that it isn’t age alone, but a combination of characteristics (in my case age and gender) that can work against you in academia. Despite these age issues, it is something entirely overlooked in Universities I’ve worked in. If you ever want to write a guest post for this blog please let me know – I’m sure someone of your experience could write a very insightfull piece on working as a Criminologist in academia!

    Blogging Crim.

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