I am currently writing my PhD thesis and I was feeling guilty about the things and skills I could have attained during this period but I didn't. I have worked hard towards my research and have simultaneously worked on my hobby of painting and drumming during my PhD. Not that I joined a club or a band, I just studied art books, YouTube videos and practiced in solitude.

A bit information about me. I am not a brilliant student. Being average, I have struggled a lot during my PhD research as compared to my colleagues. This has led to spending a longer time on my research than my colleagues. It will take me a little over 5 years to defend. My colleagues and friends have taken somewhere between 4-5 years for their PhD.

At the moment, my only skillsets are doing research (owing to my PhD), make somewhat okayish paintings, drum somewhat, still love my hobbies and am a bit confident about presenting and public speaking owing to the conferences I have been to.

But, looking back, I feel like I should have invested my free time in meeting new people, learning more about public speaking, should have taken leadership positions and should have invested my time in doing things that would have improved my CV. In short, doing things outside my comfort zone.

How can I cope up with the regret about my failure of doing things that would have helped me academically and in industry? I am 30 years of age (fyi).

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    Half a year longer than the average is meaningless. – henning -- reinstate Monica May 11 '19 at 13:04
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    If you can get through this life without regret then you haven't learned a thing. – candied_orange May 11 '19 at 15:13
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    If you had spent your time meeting people &c, you would now be regretting not spending more time on painting & drumming. – jamesqf May 11 '19 at 16:58
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    "I have worked hard towards my research and have simultaneously worked on my hobby of painting and drumming during my PhD." It looks to me like you should have no regrets. You worked hard, and took the time for your hobbies. I am jealous of you, I should have done the same. – user80722 May 11 '19 at 20:02
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    "I wish I had done more X and less Y" - sound pretty normal. Except then you'd wish you'd done more Y and less X. Despite zillions of self-help books assuring you otherwise, you really can't have it all. You can have some. Sometimes you can have a bunch of one thing but less of others. You can eff up pretty badly and end up with dang-near nothing. And even if you win the lottery and get a zillion freaking dollars from dumb luck you'll probably make an ass of yourself and become the butt of many jokes. What does all this mean? I dunno. Maybe that you should just play the drums and be happy. – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica May 13 '19 at 22:23

13 Answers 13


While sometimes it seems that spending more time working is equivalent to accomplishing more (especially in academia, where there's always that one colleague), this is not true in general. In particular for demanding intellectual work (as required in an academic environment) it is important to take breaks, vacations, and spend time doing other things to refresh ones creativity (see, e.g. Clark & Sousa, How to be a happy academic, or any of the numerous articles online).

I personally like to look at CVs / personal websites of successful academics, and it is quite common that they have some hobby which has nothing to do with their work which they spend much time on, like sports, chess, music, etc. So you don't need to feel guilty at all. It's very common that people struggle during their PhD studies, everyone has to figure out for themselves how to "make it work". If for you that meant spending time in solitude, that's fine.

This has led to spending a longer time on my research than my colleagues. It will take me a little over 5 years to defend. My colleagues and friends have taken somewhere between 4-5 years for their PhD.

So it seems you didn't actually take that much longer. Another reason not to feel guilty.

I should have invested my free time (...) doing things outside my comfort zone.

(...) I am 30 years of age (fyi).

Why not start now? At 30, most of your life still lies ahead of you.

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    It also sounds like you have a surprisingly well-rounded life despite working on a PhD--don't feel guilty for that! You've actually done something impressive: maintaining some semblance of work-life balance while finishing your PhD in a normal amount of time. If anything that says something positive about you, not negative. – bob May 13 '19 at 13:13

This feels like Imposter Syndrome, of course. And I'll guess that you share these feelings with quite a large proportion of other recent graduates and finishing doctoral students.

There are two things going on here. One is that you know more than when you started and, if you have advanced at all, your standards are much higher. Looking back, you doubt that you met your current higher standards. But you were learning all along the way.

But the second point is also important. Perhaps your drumming and painting is what kept you sane enough through your studies to do a good job. Perhaps that is what gave you the mental breaks to let your mind work more efficiently along the way. Don't think of it as wasted time. Think of it as necessary relaxation that lets the brain recover.

I know one eminent computer scientist who has been a rock & roll guitarist since approximately forever. It is a necessary thing, not a waste of time and effort.

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    I read the question more as being about finding ways to cope with a sense of a failure to do other things than about struggling with a sense of being exposed as a failure or fraud in doing something. So, is this really a classic case of imposter syndrome? – Jeffrey J Weimer May 11 '19 at 12:32
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    Maybe I was a bit strong. I'm not qualified to make a diagnosis. But the regret part is a feature of it I think. – Buffy May 11 '19 at 12:35

I am not a brilliant student. Being average, I have struggled

Being self-critical is not uncommon. Balance critical self judgements against a comparable list of accomplishments however small.

But, looking back, I feel like I should have ...

Feelings of remorse or regret are not uncommon, especially standing on the threshold of a milestone in life. Anyone with a realization of their own frailty will have them. Allow yourself the dignity to accept your choices as uniquely your own.

How can I cope up with the regret about my failure of doing things that would have helped me academically and in industry?

This has two sides. First, the personal. Here, my immediate advice is to seek professional guidance. I imagine by now that you realize that you would never have gotten through your academic career without the professional advice that you had from your advisor to help you solve some of your more challenging problems. Correspondingly, you might then accept that sometimes you will also need to seek professional advise to solve your personal problems. We can spend forever in a forum discussing counseling methods, but in the end, you have to take this step on your own.

The second side is the professional. Here, my immediate advice is to talk with your advisor and with others that same level who you look up on as leaders. Ask for insights about how you can become better at networking. Ask whether any opportunities are still open to take the steps now that you regret that you did not take sooner (attending conferences with a presentation or becoming active in leadership in a professional organization).

Finally, you should not see this point in time as a door that is closing on a world that you could have had. You should instead learn to see this as a door that is opening on a world that you can make as your own.

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You shouldn't regret decisions devoting time to yourself instead of work. What you should regret is making foolish decisions to do something you hate when you could be doing something you enjoy. Time spent doing what you love is never wasted.

You say that you have spent some of your time on various art hobbies. However, it doesn't sound like you regret the art - even in the context of how you could have done better in your PhD, you don't really say you wish you hadn't done the art stuff. You just regret not having spent more time on work, as opposed to not having spent less time on art. Based on this, I would assume that you made your decision to spend time on art rationally. You surely understood at the time that doing it would in some way occupy time you could have spent on work - but you did anyway because the art seemed like a more valuable and meaningful thing to do. There's nothing wrong here - you should always do whatever is most worth doing; life is too short to waste time on things not worth doing.

Now if you had some sort of compulsive habit where you constantly played drums to the detriment of your work, and even though you realized and understood that the drums were a bad idea, and regretted doing it even as you did it, but still couldn't quit - that would be something to regret, because you'd be making a decision that you know is not in your interests. But that is not your situation.

You might say that at the time it seemed like a good idea to develop these hobbies, but in retrospect it no longer appears so. This, still, is not a cause for regretting the hobby: At best you might conclude that you have developed better judgement and wisdom as to what matters in life. But that comes with experience; it stands to reason that past you lacked the experience, and couldn't be faulted for not making wiser decision, even if the decision were unwise (which I contend they were not, in your case).

Also, it's not a given that you "could have" spent more time on work. People like to ignore morale and pretend you can simply will yourself to do anything at any time. But this is not true - from areas such as management or military organization we know that morale can have tremendous inertia, and can even act as a force in its own right. So if you could not muster the morale to do more work, and instead spent your time on a hobby, there's realistically nothing being lost. Following this logic, to say that "I could have accomplished more if I worked more" is a bit like saying "I could have flown away if I had wings" - it's counterfactual thinking. If anything, the hobby might have helped you do what work you did accomplish, and hence went beyond not detracting from your productivity but contributed to it.

Consider another ridiculous hypothetical: You spend 8 hours every day lying in bed doing nothing. What if you just stopped sleeping - you would have 50% more time every day in which you could be productive! But the problem is clear: If you could even endure sleep deprivation for any amount of time, your productivity would quickly drop to a tenth or less. So your net output would become not 150%, but 15% of what it was before. It is a very similar situation with hobbies: Although unlike sleep, being deprived of hobbies doesn't kill you, the mind needs rest. Most people cannot simply work without any respite for months on end. Forcefully preventing them from hobbies usually results in productivity tanking.

But also, I think it's worth recognizing that regret or no, you don't have a time machine. You cannot go back to that time and play drums less and research more. You won't be doing another PhD. You might give advice to other young PhD students - but their personality will be different from yours, and it will come down to the basic principle of making rational decisions in line with your goals for your future. So I would look more towards how I can do my best today and tomorrow, rather than how I could have done better yesterday.

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    I don't agree that learning to do stuff which you hate is wasted. It is a very valuable skill that very few people are able to do without giving up. Practicing this can increase your learning speed and resilience a lot. – mathreadler May 12 '19 at 9:31
  • @mathreadler I explained my reasoning in the answer, and I invite all readers to decide for themselves whether they would rather do things they hate or do things they love. – Trusly May 12 '19 at 17:56

My PhD studies were fantastic times. Great people to be around, great parties, met girlfriends, met my wife, saw a lot of movies, did I mention parties?, and did all sorts of crazy things.

And also did some research.

Many years later I fondly remember this time, my PhD in hand (not really useful in industry, beside having a cool CV). Some of the best years of my life.

I will never get the Nobel Prize. I will never be chief advisor to the president when it comes to matters of national science. I will never be on TV as the go-to guy when it comes to explaining science. And I will never have groundbreaking discoveries which will have my name on them.

But, man, how I loved these years. Now that I think it off, I should have learned playing drums (seriously). In a band.

Please seize the day and stop worrying about insignificant things. In 20 years (not on your deathbed, just in 20 years) you will be telling your kids what a cool time it was. Also, be able to say then "did I mention that I was on a rock band?"

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  • This is probably the best answer in all of Stack Exchange!! So true. Life is not about working and getting into the best schools!!!! – user111388 Aug 1 '19 at 17:35

This is a classic issue experienced by many. As an enrolled student (whether undergraduate or postgraduate) at any half-decent institution, there are so many opportunities open to you, and nobody could possibly do everything that might be locupletative. Then, you graduate and those opportunities are much harder to find (and cost a lot more money!). In various student-feedback surveys, I have commented that it would be good if more of the opportunities offered by Higher Education institutions could be made available not just to current students, but also to recent alumni, since it is the years just after graduating when you might have the time and motivation to really get a lot out of the opportunities you did not have time to do as a student (obviously, a lot depends on the nature and extent of any professional and personal commitments).

As for a solution, all I can say is, "learning is for life, so be creative in making opportunities for yourself". It is usually possible to achieve something worthwhile even if you do not have much time and/or money, provided that you are patient and open-minded.

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But, looking back, I feel like I should have invested my free time in meeting new people, learning more about public speaking, should have taken leadership positions...

First - maybe that's true. I mean, I kind of feel the same way about my own PhD. Not about public speaking maybe, but I certainly could have done a whole lot more to make connections and make a path for myself into the field I was in. I kind of regret not having done that. I'm not going to tell you that you made the exactly correct choices and had the perfect priorities in hindsight; maybe you could have arranged your life better, maybe not. At any rate, it's not clear from your description that you should have sacrificed your passions during those years to better "get ahead".

Second - the environment is sometimes also to "blame". Did your department help create opportunities for PhD candidates to meet and interact with academics from elsewhere? Did your adviser introduce you to people and groups, and encouraged you to foster such relations? Did the department/your advisor present opportunities for you to speak in public, or made it easier for you to gain confidence in doing so? Does your department make an effort to place young researchers, especially Ph.D. candidates, in leadership positions (if only of limited scope or with supervision)? I would guess the answer is "not so much" or "not really". So it may not be their fault, but it's partially their responsibility.

and should have invested my time in doing things that would have improved my CV. In short, doing things outside my comfort zone.

It's not the CV that matters, it's how you will live your life. This is easier said than done, but - we need to strike a balance between doing things we like and are passionate about and doing things we need, or have to, or can't avoid. Ideally these overlap so much that we don't feel we're making any significant sacrifice - but for most people, that's not the case.

How can I cope up with the regret about my failure of doing things that would have helped me academically and in industry?

  1. Don't try to psychologically deny or repudiate your past self and past choices.
  2. Going into the future, try consciously planning how to divide your time between different activities so that you can "psychologically defend" your decision to your future self; and so that you don't deny yourself your desires and wishes on one hand, and don't ignore what "needs to be done" on the other hand.
  3. Be around people who will support items (1.) and (2.) and who can make you feel better about yourself, or inspire you to do things which make you feel better. Those could be friends, family members, colleagues and/or a psycho-therapist.
  4. Engage in some ongoing physical activity, i.e. don't be stuck in your room/house/office all day. That helps both your physical and mental well-being.
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When people tell me I shouldn't regret something, it never made sense; how could I decide not to regret?

What I've found useful to to classify events as 'over' and 'next'. When I feel myself struggling with a problem, I ask myself: is this event in the past? What's done is done. It's a reminder to fight battles in the present, rather than repeatedly revisiting battles over things that already occurred. We can accept them without approving of them.

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There is no shame in pursuing your own dreams instead of being an obedient lapdog.

It is more like you should feel like a useful tool / lapdog for someone else if you don't dare to follow your own instincts, visions and dreams and just take all the opportunities which show up in front of your nose.

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Your PhD studies (at least, in physics) are used to train you as a person capable of doing independent research.
If your PhD work is deemed good enough to get the degree, that also means that you acquired the skills needed to complete it. More than the skills that you learned from it, it is more important that you learn the attitude of a PhD, i.e., figure out how to make things work, don't wait for people to give you the info you need but get it yourself, take informed decisions, accept your limitations and seek out help when needed. Oh, and learn to say "I don't know" instead of inventing a stupid answer (I learned this skill during my bachelor studies and served me well during my doctoral defense. I was told later that this impressed one of the members of the committee more than any other answer).

So, ask yourself the question: would you be able to make a study similar to your PhD thesis, without a supervisor? If the answer is yes, you are ready to have Dr. in front of your name and shouldn't have regrets. That being said, by now you should have realized that having a PhD doesn't make you a superhuman or super smart. It just made you more capable than when you started :-)

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Frankly, as a line manager in a large IT company, I meet many freshly finished students applying for job positions. I don't even look for what they can or cannot do. I fully expect them not to have any particular knowledge that would directly help them in the job (except for a general inclination towards IT, which is broad enough that even that is not a given). The degree tells me that they had the grit to get through, and the individual marks give me a somewhat more detailled picture (and maybe highlights points which I should dig at in an interview).

There are exceptions, of course, but without fail they are an exception not because they paid more attention at the uni, but because they were "geeks" even before joining the formal education system - i.e., they hacked at computers from young ages and are mostly self-taught; uni simply gave them a bit more theoretical background on top of that. I myself was in that category, and absolutely everything I brought to my job was my own, nothing from the uni (except the degree).

I heard the same from, for example, engineering people - if a brand new engineer gets his first job, nobody expects him to engineer some critical part, building or bridge without intense coaching and review from experienced people. The real learning starts when they leave uni, not when they begin it.

This is not to say that university level education is superfluous, far from it. I absolutely had many cases where some task was quite easy for me (compared to colleagues without an IT education) because of the broad background knowledge I received at my university. But the assumption that just because you have your degree makes people expect you to be "complete" would be far-fetched at least in my particular area. Which may or may not be true for all other fieleds.

So: enjoy the end of your PhD, and then just move on. Regret never helps anybody. I'd say many if not most people feel like you do. Also, expect this to continue forever... it is more a part of your character than "reality". The sooner you recognize and reconcile with that, the better.

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As they say, no one ever says "I wish I'd spent more time in the office" on their deathbed. Instead, they say "I wish I'd spent more time with my family/hobbies/traveling/etc." Do these people also wish they'd earned more and learned more? Quite possibly, but does that really matter? IDK.

My answer really starts here, though:

But, looking back, I feel like I should have invested my free time in meeting new people, learning more about public speaking, should have taken leadership positions and should have invested my time in doing things that would have improved my CV. In short, doing things outside my comfort zone.

What's preventing you from continuing to learn on your own? There are plenty of places to learn things online or IRL. There are even places online as resources for IRL learning. One of them is MeetUp.com, where you can get together with people with your own interests and do that interest. This includes computer sciences, talking over coffee, book clubs, electronics, aviation, public speaking, dog walking, whatever. Your local public library might have information on local clubs, too. Some of them might even meet at the library.

You specifically mention public speaking, so find a local Toast Masters club. Maybe find a club that's into your hobbies and make presentations to the club about the hobby. Use the skills you currently have to build up or reinforce the skills you don't have.

Better yet, find a local non-profit and become a Board member. This will help with all kinds of things on your regret list: public speaking, leadership activities, meeting people, improving your CV, and much more. From grant writing to budgeting, running committees to debate, conflict resolution to managing project, being a Board member will teach likely you how to do a little bit of everything and tax what you think you're already learned.

Your real question was "How can I cope up with the regret about my failure of doing things that would have helped me academically and in industry?" Well, do the things now that you didn't do before. Then your regret will be severely undermined due to you actively doing what you regret not doing. It's hard to regret doing something 10 years ago when you did it 2 years ago. It might not fix your feelings immediately, but it will help in the future.

As another Answer mentioned, the hobbies you do during your PhD probably kept you from burnout and likely allowed you to stay sane to complete your degree. This is very good and not to be regretted. If you had "done all the things" while in your degree plan without time to relax and enjoy yourself, you might very well have quit and then you'd have a major regret. I'm not saying this hypothetical situation reduces your current regret, but take some solace in the fact that you don't regret not having finished the degree. Sometimes seeing a worse side of things can make your current burden feel a little lighter.

"But did you die? No? Well there's that." That might be a little harsh, but sometimes you have to be happy you're still "on the right side of the grass." :-)

Good luck, happy trails, and hopefully you found something useful in all the myriad of answers here!

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Keep it simple

Regret and shame are strong words. These feelings should be reserved for grave circumstances. For instance, betraying a loyal friend. (This is not a criticism of the way you feel—it is just a perspective that I believe is wise to adopt. So try to assume this perspective and you may find that the feelings evaporate.)

We make mistakes all the time. Repeating a mistake that you aren't aware of is nothing to be ashamed of, nor regret. Becoming aware is fantastic; you have an opportunity to learn and change. But you don't need to "fix" everything about yourself. If you know anyone who is perfect, you don't know them very well. But I'm sure you know some people who are wonderful, without being anywhere near perfect. So just because there's something about you that could be improved, it doesn't necessarily mean that changing it should be your priority.

Moreover (as many have already said) the way you have spent the last few years may not be a mistake at all. In any case, embrace it, and embrace the future. Make the best choices you can, but don't expect unreasonable things of yourself.

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