I struggled with low self confidence throughout my bachelors, masters and PhD in chemical engineering. After spending two years in Masters and six years in getting a PhD degree, I am lost at what I can do with my life.

Initially, my plan was to be in academia. Though I love doing research, I don't see that as a possibility anymore.

I did not do well in my PhD. I have only two first-author journal publications in ~2.5 impact factor journals. I did not acquire significant skills. I am bad at programming, and I have a 3.7 GPA. I did not learn to drive or learn any foreign language. I did not improve my health or developed a new hobby. I even did not spend time on having a relationship. In short, I have done nothing over the past six years.

My PhD supervisor has given me a postdoc position. And I feel extremely inadequate. I feel that I won't be able to do anything after my postdoc year, and I will just be a burden and disappointment to my parents.

I am an international student living in the US.

I don't know what I should do. What should I do?

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    I think your only issue is one of self esteem. I suggest you find a counsellor and discuss where you are and how you feel. Don't let imposter syndrome lead to depression. Your advisor can give you professional advice, but you should also seek personal advice. The future is brighter than you think.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 7, 2019 at 16:30
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    Is the work fun though?
    – smcs
    Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 9:52
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    Is there anything in your past that is unresolved? I suspect your low self confidence stems from something else and not the PhD itself. For example you mention lack of relationship, so I suspect you have a non-existent sex life. Are you exercising and eating right? All of those things need to be in order for you to be happy doing a PhD. Otherwise all you'll have is a PhD which is empty and meaningless.
    – sashang
    Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 23:45
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    ‘I have only two publications …’ to me, who has a grand total of zero from both the PhD project that fell short of its desired outcome and my first two years of postdoc in which the ‘basically already finished, just this’ project turned out almost impossible, this is quite a violet slap in the face.
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 2:33
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    Seek counselling! The problems you describe have very little to do with academia, but very much with you. This website cannot provide adequate counselling in that regard (although some of the answers of course hit very relevant points). Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 18:21

9 Answers 9


It looks to me like you did not do so badly as you think. Two publications and 3.7 GPA are not so bad. It might depend on the field, it might not be the best ever, but I have seen much worse. If your supervisor offered you a postdoc position after having you for 6 years as a PhD student, it means that they consider your work useful.

You might be suffering from impostor syndrome. Do read the question and the answers in that link and see if you identify.

If you are not sure now, you have plenty of time during your postdoc year to decide whether you want to continue in academia or get a job in industry. The pros and cons of both options have been discussed extensively, as a quick Google search for "industry vs academia" shows. I personally agree with this source.

And, in most cases, the answer to "I have wasted X years of my life because I did not do Y and Z" is "do not look at the past and do Y and Z now". Especially when, as in your case, Y and Z can be done at any stage in your career life, such as learning languages, programming or driving.

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    Also, the field is chemistry, where the PhD is basically required for an entry level position in industry, so that is certainly not a waste of time. Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 13:29
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    @SimonRichter Actually, the field is engineering (chemical engineering) where a BSc is enough for entry level jobs industry.
    – Cell
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 16:52
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    Get a job in industry. The great part is, that at the end of the project/delivery/month, work is done and completed. At least for me, I never considered the results in science 'done'; also pace is probably faster, so you will get getting quite a few achievements under your belt quickly (since you are smart).
    – lalala
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 19:03
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    @Cell Where I've worked, a PhD is automatically hired into a position that it would take ~5 years to get promoted to from entry-level with BSc, and the PhD can offer more job opportunities and security in the right industry. If OP goes into industry, the last six years could be well worth it!
    – Sam
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 19:45
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    @Sam That's nice, but I never said getting a PhD is a bad idea. I was only correcting the previous poster. With that being said, unless you plan on doing novel research, a PhD may make you overqualified for many jobs that can be done by a BASc, or MEng. You also didn't say what your field is.
    – Cell
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 20:20

To be honest, I'm tempted to agree with Buffy. It sounds like the biggest issue you have might actually be the one you identified at the start of your post - low self-confidence. Studying for a PhD, and working in academia in general, has a tendency to have that effect on people - you're far from alone.

If I were you, I'd be tempted to take stock of my overall life situation at this point, perhaps with some input from the people around me, and try to get an objective view of how things really are - they may not actually be as bad as you think.

For example, here are some plus points:

  • You finished a PhD. That's already a huge deal - lots of people don't even start a PhD, and of those who do, a proportion never finish. Of those who finish, lots of people feel like they didn't change the world with their PhD, and that's fine - most people don't, and that's not required. You've got the rest of your life to worry about that, if you want to, and it's not required even then. It's ok to just live and be happy sometimes.

  • You've got a postdoc position lined up, if you want to stay in academia. Your supervisor wants you to stay, which means you probably did something right during your PhD. Maybe your PhD didn't actually go as badly as you think.

  • If you've just finished your PhD, it's quite likely (in the absence of other evidence to the contrary, which I don't have) that you're still relatively young. That means you've got time on your side - there's still a whole lot of life ahead of you in which to do all the things you want to do (learning to drive, learning a foreign language, improving your health, developing your hobbies, having a relationship, ...). It sounds like you're unhappy that you haven't been doing those things, which means you'd probably be happier if you started doing them. Pick one and go start on it right now - hopefully you'll feel better (it's generally worked for me, when I've been feeling down). Starting on one of them sounds like much more fun than carrying on feeling fed up about not doing them, at any rate.

Best of luck!

p.s. For what it's worth, the fact that you've got a list of things you wish you'd been doing, and are unhappy that you haven't been doing them, is a good sign - there's an easy fix for that, which is go do some of them. That's much better than not having a list of things, and sitting there having existential angst and wondering whether life is pointless :)

  • The postdoc is with my PhD advisor. I don't think that's an achievement. Probably my advisor felt pity on me and gave me the position. Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 0:57
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    @AbhikTandon: Bear in mind that your advisor has something to lose from keeping you if you're truly not delivering (there's an opportunity cost - they could look for someone better). If they're keeping you, it's safe to assume you're at least above bar. Some advisors are kind, but few are so kind that they'll use their scarce funding to renew someone who has no possibility of being useful to them in any way. Advisors who pity you buy you a beer, gently tell you the truth, and help you find a job elsewhere; they don't generally commit £30k or more just to cheer you up. Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 1:45
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    @AbhikTandon Do consider that a PostDoc position often involves mentoring or teaching junior students, grading work, running tutorials, et cetera. Given that your PhD advisor is judged and graded not just on their research, but also on their teaching methods/standards, it's a role they quite literally cannot afford to give out of pity. You not being "up to standard" would put their job on the line! (That said, finding a hobby - preferably something more physically active than mentally, such as a martial art, to contrast with work - for a couple of evenings a week is a good idea.) Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 8:41

You have:

  • the highest possible academic degree that one can achieve
  • a job in the field
  • a life in a developed country

You're faring really well.

This is not to say that what you're feeling isn't real. It is real, and there is a problem. It's just that the problem is not what you have, but who you are. What you have is a highly successful life, at the same time, you are depressed and miserable.

You don't need more things, you have it all. No Nature publication will take you out of your dark place. You need to learn to enjoy life and accept yourself.

I know the last sentence is useless in itself, because it only tells you what you need, but not how to do it. Unfortunately, that's about as far as a stranger on the internet can get you. Speak to friends, speak to a psychologist, speak to anyone willing to listen, speak to yourself and try to figure out where does this need for accomplishments comes from, so you can move on.

  • Technically I believe a DSc is a higher academic degree - but that usually comes at the end of a distinguished academic degree. Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 16:06
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    @MartinBonnersupportsMonica DSc is not universally higher than PhD. In some countries DSc is just what a PhD in biology/physics is called, while in other countries DSc is just honorary, while other countries don't use PhD at all and have only DSc, which are seen as the equivalent of PhD, in countries that have PhD.
    – Andrei
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 17:51

You need to talk to someone – be that a counsellor (as @Buffy has suggested in the comments), a family member, a friend, or even (depending on your relationship) your supervisor. It does sound like a good part (if not most!) of the problem you describe may stem from impostor syndrome, and if that's the case, then it will be crucial to have others as a sounding board, to help put things into perspective. I have never known anyone in academia who didn't struggle at some point, somehow. Academia is tough, research is hard and failures are inevitable.

You mention you love doing research. Considering that you have also successfully turned that research into publications, it rather sounds like you do have what it takes to succeed. (Again, to put things into perspective, in my field it is normal for PhD students to graduate with 0–1 publications, and the impact factor of what's considered the leading journal is about 2.3. Different fields are different, yes. But you have definitely not failed.)

The other things you mention seem more minor to me. You say you are bad at programming. But you can always improve – programming, if anything, is one of those things where practice makes perfect. You mention you have neglected your health, hobbies and interpersonal relationships. But this is not uncommon: these things happen to many people who pursue a PhD, in various ways, and it is not too late to do something about them now. You say you have done nothing over the past 6 years. This cannot be literally true (you have earned a PhD, an enormous undertaking), but even if it were, the thing to do now would be to start doing those things you have neglected in the past.

But please do consider talking to someone. Having to verbalize your own thoughts and feelings is an excellent way of beginning to understand your thoughts and feelings, and of starting to see a solution.


Get your frame of reference right.

Achieving a PhD puts you in the 5% highest educated part of the population. That's quite significant. But you're comparing yourself to the smartest people in your direct environment - an environment set up try to get together all the smartest people.

If you don't manage to be in the top 1%, surely being in the top 5% is still something to feel pretty happy with?


They are marathon runners on arrival.


Do they look well? Can you imagine, how bad feeling could it be, being there, after 42km of running?

But believe me: it is uncomparably better to be there, than for us, watching them on the youtube.

Don't do any irrecoverable mistake now! Wait, at least some months, more ideally some years! Take some longer leave, if you can (probably you can), and do nothing! Only think.

For example, now you can learn to drive. Ask anybody having a driving license, but no Phd, would they switch to the other.


I know what it's like to feel like you "haven't been living" for years. Six years of my life disappeared by my being extremely sick.

I have 5 years of unemployment in my résumé, an unfinished PhD, a tiny professional network, and ongoing health problems which make many things impossible. But I'm living again.

Some people have been in prison for 10 years. Some have escaped war-torn countries. Some have recovered from drugs or alcoholism. It's very hard when you suddenly awaken from a world of constraints into a world of choices, seemingly at a huge disadvantage from others within it. (I am not saying you've got it easier than they do. I'm saying you have this in common.)

Some of them go on to do amazing things. They have a moment that will define their life, and they work and work and work and work to a level that others can't imagine, and do something great for the benefit of their fellow man.

Others are just happy to be alive, happy to have gotten away from a bad place. Nothing wrong with that.

The most important thing in life is not success or respect or glory. It is to make choices that keep you out of misery. Anything more is a bonus.

But asking the question you're asking proves you are ready to change your life.

Maybe you could go to your home country or a country in poverty, where your skills and knowledge could make a bigger difference. Remember you don't need to use your degree at all; you could enter a completely different field. It's better to do it by choice than by necessity. Doing a variety of menial jobs of different sorts can be really enriching, since you see life from so many angles.

Doing a PhD doesn't just teach you about your topic; it teaches you about being thorough, exploring the state of the art, problem-solving, organisational skills, and so on. These make you very valuable if you use them well.

I know what I want to create. And I know what's stopping me is not my 6 missing years; it's my unwillingness to confront my weaknesses (like networking and time management.) Now I'm confronting these things, and I'm surprised at my success.

Go get 'em.


Two first-authored papers is not bad, I seen a lot of people getting phd for way less and still being full of themselves. You are doing good.


You don't think you did well during your PhD, but you stuck with it anyways. That sounds like a lot of PhD students. But, it also sounds like students that stuck with something, b/c their parents were back-seat driving their futures.

As others have said, your self-esteem issues stem from something. Something makes you feel inadequate all the time, and makes you compare yourself to others all the time.

Usually, that starts from overbearing parents constantly comparing you to other kids, chastising you for not being as good as some top-tier, stellar performer in your same grade or field, etc.

My dad did that to me my whole life. I was expected to get good grades. When I got them, I didn't get a "good job!" or anything. But, if I got bad grades, I got punished. As I got older, my dad would constantly compare me and my siblings against each other and to other kids his coworkers had. "So-n-so's kid is doing XYZ." (to insinuate it's better then what I was planning on doing, or was doing).

Even when I was an adult, my dad was trying to back-seat drive my career with "advice" that wasn't so much him trying to do what was best for me, but what was best for my career. He never took me, as a person, into consideration when giving advice.

What I realized over time (chatting with my dad extensively) was that he made decisions in his career... he gave up moving up the ladder or managerial positions, because he decided to start a family. He took a back-seat position at his job where he kept his head down and kept his mouth shut so he could keep earning an income and not rock the boat while supporting his family. He made one major career shift up the ladder to get more money, and in retrospect it was an awful decision that uprooted the family and set in motion events that pretty much tore the family apart.

What I realized as I got older was that he was trying to coach me to have the career he wished he could have; he was trying to guide his dream job vicariously through me.

He would push it in ways by either telling me exactly things he thought I should do, or package it as "I was chatting with kids at the gym and giving them advice, and this one kids doing XYZ" (again, to insinuate this "one kid" was doing something better then I was).

I got sick of it.

So, I stopped chatting with him about work, school, etc. When he'd ask or press, I simply told him that I was only going to speak with him like a member of the family, not someone I was seeking career counseling from.

I eventually had a blow-up with him, because I was tired of him trying to back-seat drive my life while I was watching his life implode around him with issues he wasn't staying on top of during a situation that basically forced me to take control of his responsibilities when he ended up in the hospital.

What I learned was ... just ignore him.

In 20 years time, my dad won't be around any more. But, god-willing.. I will.

In 20 years time, will I be happy if I had followed my dad's advice and done this and that? No. I'd be miserable, because he was pushing me to go in directions that were making me miserable.

So, why bother listening to him? Why bother trying to please him?

In 20 years time I can follow his advice and be miserable while he's dead, or I can ignore it and be happy while he's also dead.

Ultimately, I have to figure out what makes me happy, though.

But, when you have someone constantly telling you that you're not doing good enough, you need to do better, you're not doing as well as so-n-so over there, you should be heading in a certain direction, you need to do it all before a certain BS time limit... you know what, you eventually turn into a hot mess that thinks very little of yourself b/c you constantly have a devil on your shoulder that never thinks what you're doing is good enough.

Tell that person (or those people) to go screw off.

Since you're international.. and you're in a STEM field.. and you went through a PhD even though it sounds like you didn't really want to .. I'm going to assume you're Indian.

You need to have a moment of clarity where you decide to be your own person and stop having your family tell you what you need to do and where you need to go in life.

That can be hard if your family is paying the bills.

But, I may be making assumptions, but your story sounds almost identical to a ton of other folks I rubbed elbows with in college... all of them Indian. They were taking STEM when really they wanted to do liberal arts or whatever they were passionate about. Their family pushed them into an "lucrative career", b/c it's all about the money and status with them.

I had a couple of Indian folks tell me they had a massive weight lifted off their shoulders when they told their family to stuff themselves. They were dating people locally, and one was wanting to marry the girl he was dating. One guy dropped his STEM and went into art which is what he really wanted to do (and he was an AMAZING artist).

Ultimately, you have to figure out what makes you happy, and stop listening to folks constantly running you down and telling you you're not good enough.

I rented a room from a gay couple, and one of the guys had a degree in aeronautic engineering. You know what he did for a living? He was the director of a high school band. His parents pushed him to do engineering, b/c he was in the closet and just kept his nose down and did what they said. When he finally got older, he got tired of them, and came out of the closet and pursued what really made him happy: music.

People have to have that moment.

So, you're asking how you'll survive over here? I think you really need to ask yourself what will make you happy. And, you need to start ignoring folks that are running you down.

With a PhD in Chemistry, you don't have to be a great programmer. There are companies that will hire you to figure out some chemistry, and team you up with Comp Sci or Info Sys folks that will do all the coding and stuff for reports, data science, etc.

If you don't like what you have a PhD in, then go figure out what you do like. Maybe you like working on motorcycles or scuba diving or whatever.. find a way to make a career out of it.

It's better to live a modest life that makes you happy, even at the expense of others, then to be rich and f'ing miserable b/c you decided to make everyone else happy.. usually folks that won't be alive in 20 years time.. which just leaves you miserable while they're dead.

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