Thoughts on age in science…

I saw a twitter discussion last year from a young Professor in the USA who was saying something along the lines of “why do people not realise I am a Professor?”  I think she was about 30 years old.   She commented that she was tired of hearing people, mostly men, say to her, “You don’t look like a Professor” or you “Look too young to be a Professor”.   This was a thread about discrimination in the University workplace against non-white middle-aged males.   Reading about her concerns reminded me of my own experiences as a young group leader.

When I was 17 I really did not know what to do.  I was privileged to have the opportunity to go to University, but did not know what subject, or even what University was all about since no one in my family had ever had that experience.   In the end, I went to study mechanical engineering, after a year switched to biochemistry and then finally began to enjoy myself when I started a Ph.D. in computational biology.  Thanks to excellent mentoring and a fair bit of luck, 5 years later at the very young age of 28 I was awarded a Fellowship that allowed me to start my own independent research.  A year later, I was sole supervisor to a bright new Ph.D. student…  Oh, I also taught undergraduate students a bit too.

So, I was very young to be a group leader.   This was unusual then and still is today, but I was certainly not unique in gaining independence at a young age.    One consequence though, was that until I was about 36 or so, I was frequently mistaken for a Ph.D. student or post-doc.  I lost count of the number of times people asked me “Who do you work with?” or “Whose group are you in?” and I had to explain patiently that I had my own group.   This was particularly true when I travelled to give talks outside the UK where it was even more unusual for someone of 30 to be running a group.  I remember visiting the NIH at Bethesda when I was about 31 and having a 1:1 discussion with a postdoc.  I mentioned that my Ph.D. student was working on something – he looked at me amazed and said: “You have a Ph.D. student???!”.  On that same trip, I had various senior staff saying: “So, you are here looking for a postdoc position then?”.   On another similar occasion, I was visiting a University in Australia.  I’d given a talk and afterwards was doing the rounds of scientists, people thought I would be interesting to meet or vice versa.   When I met one person he said something along the lines of: “Sigh… you are another one looking for a job here then?”.  I got the impression he thought I was the latest in a long line of job hunters he had been asked to talk to.

At the University I worked in at the time, I was made a member of Congregation, which is the governing body of the University.  Not such a big deal, this group had all the academic staff in it but I had had to be nominated since my salary was externally funded.  I recall getting a letter about new ID cards being issued and being instructed to go to a particular office to get it done.  I turned up at this office in an ancient building and told the lady at the desk why I was there.  She rather brusquely told me I was in the wrong place and should go to the Student help centre!  I was a bit put out by this, but showed her the letter I had that explained I should go to this office!  She glanced at it and said: “Oh!  You are a member of Congregation, so sorry Sir…”   I think that is the one and only time I have had someone in the UK call me “Sir”.

So, it was a pretty common experience for me to be mistaken as a student or postdoc even after several years as an independent scientist, what would be called a “Professor” in some countries.  I don’t recall being offended by it, though the guy in Australia did irk me a little with his attitude, he softened once I explained I had a job and was just interested in his research.    I don’t think I was discriminated against on age.  I did see other kinds of discrimination based on where I went to school, but by and large I worked in those early years in an institution that judged people by what they could do rather than what they looked like or how they behaved.

I know as a white male, I have not had to deal with the biases (unconscious or otherwise) that other genders or races have to deal with in many institutions.    Despite this, I have noticed a difference in attitude to me and what I say as I have got older, especially  now I am a grey, bald, Professor (in the British sense) and so fit the appearance stereotype.


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