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Improper Interview Question?

Janet Mertz Mertz at oncology.wisc.edu
Fri Jan 25 06:18:07 EST 2002

At 10:11 AM 1/24/2002 +0000, Theora Jones wrote:
>Hello everybody!  I'd appreciate some perspectives on something that
>just happened.
>My partner just returned from an interview for graduate school (a
>Ph.D. program in biochemistry).  During the interview, one of the
>interviewers said "You're going to be 42 when you graduate... what
>will you do with a Ph.D. at that age?" She graciously replied that
>since she was going to be 42 anyway, she might as well be doing work
>that she loved.

Sounds like a great comeback to me. It is illegal to discriminate on the 
basis of age for admission to grad school as well as for jobs. Most 
interviewers are smart enough to know this and not say anything, whether 
they plan to discriminate or not. You are correct that most older students 
are better bets for succeed in grad school because they are more mature 
than the typical 22-year-old directly out of K-16 years of schooling who 
has never experienced the real world. The interviewer was probably trying 
to say, not that he doesn't think your partner will make a great grad 
student, but rather that she may have more difficulty than usual finding a 
good job afterward because of the reality of age discrimination that exists 
even though it is illegal.

On a positive note: a few years ago, my department accepted a student in 
his early 40s. Given his maturity and prior experiences, he was able to 
accomplish a terrific Ph.D. thesis (including publications in "Nature") 
within a reasonable time frame and go on directly to a tenure-track faculty 

Janet Mertz, Professor

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