I completed my PhD in mechanical engineering last year. It took me 5.5 years to complete it. I already held a master's degree previously albeit in a different research area. The main reason was my inability to understand the topic, develop ideas and carry out focused work during the first 2 years of PhD.

I got disinterested in my topic/research area early on in my PhD. This was mainly because I had to self learn many advanced topics which were not taught in my university. That made me less sure about my knowledge.

However, post 3rd year, I worked hard, got interested in the topic and published 2 papers in decent journals.

In addition, I did very few TAs during my PhD because I was unfocused during my first few years and couldn't invest time in any other activities.

Now, I am pursuing a postdoc with my PhD supervisor on a different approach to my PhD project which is interesting and will help me secure better positions later. I plan to use this time to publish 4-5 papers.

Will the ghost of my past bad decisions made during PhD haunt me and affect my future even if I do a focused and productive job in my postdoc?

  • 9
    Your "bad decisions" sound like the typical progress of many PhD students I know -- including myself. Mar 5, 2020 at 11:55
  • 1
    How long it takes to complete PhD varies from country to country as well. 5.5 years sounds normal for an American program, if it includes the typical two years of masters-level work.
    – user108403
    Mar 5, 2020 at 12:52
  • @artificial_moonlet Canadian PhD. I already had a master's degree albeit focused in a different research area.
    – user120180
    Mar 5, 2020 at 12:59
  • 5
    Something to keep in mind: doing an extended postdoc with your PhD supervisor is not a great way to indicate a fresh start that will help you in external evaluations. Mar 5, 2020 at 15:37

3 Answers 3


First of all, congratulations for your achievements!

I did not a complete a PhD, not to mention a postdoc, but I had my own bad experiences during my academic and professional career.

From reading your question, it seems you have all conditions to succeed in this new stage of your life/career. Obviously, you had your low moments a few years ago, but you saw with your own eyes they can be overcome. I believe this could give you the extra confidence when facing obstacles later that you can spot them and know how to resolve them by yourself or with help from others.

Regarding obtaining future positions/jobs, I am confident PIs, universities and generally employers do no look that far in the past, but rather focus on the performance of people in recent years. In consequence, I believe you should keep a positive attitude and when the ghosts from the past appear realise they can be again defeated.


It's not a digital thing. Not "absolutely, no hope for you...just give up". Not, nobody cares either. But you have to do good work moving forward. Every day is a new day. If you continue being slack, then you will reap the results of that. If you buckle down, then good things will happen.


What "ghost of your past"? This sounds like a totally normal experience. People who are at their best all the time are the exception (if they anywhere exist at all). Working through personal or professional lows is part of the job. You succeeded at that.

As a more general answer:

  1. For job applications the more recent achievements typically by far outweigh anything that happened a long time ago.
  2. So if for someone something in your PhD time is a negative sign, that will cease to have influence and be outweighed by your following endeavours - for better or worse.
  3. There are always exceptions: Someone might highly value the time in which you did your PhD, the number of your papers per year or your math grade in the kindergarten (what you did not get a grade there? sorted out!). Some people have a particular - sometimes weird - focus, but overall 1. and 2. apply.

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