It's my first time posting here, and I have a relatively personal issue that I would like to discuss. I studied electrical engineering in college and was accepted to the integrated BS/MS program at my alma mater later in my senior year. However, due to immense stress over my OCD symptoms(obsessive thoughts) and long-term burn-out, I dropped out of that program after a year without a master's degree.

I spent another year trying to reset and reboot myself (doing part-time jobs, volunteering, reading, spending time with family), and am now a second year master's student in biostatistics under public health (was attracted to public health due to my mental health struggles). I can say that I am in a much better place now than the dark times and I am also working as an engineering intern at a medical device company which gives me a sense of purpose.

However, even after two years, I still haven't fully dropped my baggage of being a "failure" and not good enough. My best friend in college is working on her PhD in engineering and I used to expect myself to do a PhD in engineering as well. Even though now I have a clearer sense of what I truly want, somehow unconsciously I still think there could have been a better version of me -- someone who's stronger and more determined to get through whatever grinds/difficulties and go all the way up to a PhD. Intellectually I know that I might already have or will gain those qualities through my career, but emotionally I still think I somehow have failed and incurred enormous sunk cost and am much less of the best version of me.

Thank you for reading this far and hopefully someone can give me some much-needed advice. Hugs to you if you have been in similar situations.

  • Does this help? academia.stackexchange.com/questions/15457/…
    – Allure
    Nov 22 '20 at 22:26
  • Hopefully you are working with a professional on OCD. Ask them if this is related.
    – Buffy
    Nov 22 '20 at 23:13
  • This isn't substantive enough for an answer, but have you tried writing down and then re-evaluating in writing your "baggage"? You might find more positive perspectives on your academic history. For instance, you say, "I still think there could have been a better version of me - someone who's stronger and more determined ..." But it takes a lot of strength to break away from a program that isn't working for you, and a lot of determination to find something else. Can't you say, "I am glad I was strong and determined enough to pursue another career instead?" Nov 23 '20 at 17:16
  • @Buffy thanks for your reply! Yes I am currently working with a therapist:) Nov 25 '20 at 14:11
  • @TaliesinMerlin thanks so much for the shift in perspective! I was a bit afraid to see what people are posting here and am glad to find some encouraging words! Nov 25 '20 at 14:12

It is not helpful to compare yourself to who you aren't. There is an interesting concept in economics called "opportunity cost", which is essentially the cost of not doing something because, due to limited resources, you chose to do something else instead. In your case, you left your program and focused on yourself rather than your academics. Essentially, you chose to work on your internal issues at the expense of your first masters program. You couldn't do both ,and you had to choose one. No problem with that.

A better question to ask yourself is: "what do I do now?" You clearly have a goal in mind for who you feel you need to be in order to be a) successful and b) an academic. Whether there is overlap between those two or not is debatable, but for now let's assume you want to be both successful and an academic.

You also feel that there are parts of yourself that need work still, and I'm assuming this involves at least academics and personal, internal stuff. You won't be able to fix it all by posting to stack exchange. Instead, I think that there are some low-hanging fruit problems that you can start to tackle.

  1. You compare yourself negatively to the person you want to be. Instead, use that as motivation. So instead of "I can't organize my research project" say "My best self can organize their research projects. They do that by..." and then list the things you feel you should be able to do but aren't doing yet.

  2. You seem to be comparing yourself to your colleague who has taken a different path than you have. Again, motivate, don't discourage yourself. We compare ourselves to others all the time. It is totally fair, and probably true, to say that we'll never be "as good" as everyone we look up to. That doesn't mean that we can't be good at things, and it doesn't mean we can't use those people as examples of how to achieve our own success.

Whether you're starting later or not doesn't matter. I personally remember thinking that I'd be "so old" when I graduated from my undergrad that I wouldn't be able to do any more learning or growth. I have since come to understand that what I was really afraid of was being too inexperienced, not too experienced. I didn't think I had enough time to gain the experience I needed, but I've since realized that a few years here or there to work on things is perfectly acceptable. How many people go back and do PhDs in their fifties or even later? Just because it's not how it's usually done doesn't mean it can't be done.

Finally, you appear to be planning to fail. I think that you are giving yourself an unfair safety net here. It's easy to say that I won't start because I will fail anyway. It's much harder to start and fail.

  • Hi Michael, thanks so much for your insightful and encouraging answer. It's true that there are internal stuff that I need to work on and one thing I am grateful for is that my experiences have led me to realize the importance of working on them instead of escaping from them. Nov 25 '20 at 0:09
  • The "Finally, you appear to be planning to fail" gives me chills. I have to say you are right. I think I was self-sabotaging at the time due to low self worth and I am really regretful of the unhealthy thought patterns and beliefs I held. Thanks again for sharing so much wisdom here with me and it surely will help others who are reading your answers too :) Nov 25 '20 at 0:16
  • Also, it's really nice and encouraging to know that "a few years here or there to work on things is perfectly acceptable"! Nov 25 '20 at 0:18

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