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In 2015, I enrolled in an MSc in Computer Security program with the aim of getting a Ph.D. However, I dropped out of that program as I didn't like it. Then I enrolled in a MSc Machine Learning program in 2016 but again dropped out of that program because it was too hard for me, apparently because my proficiency in statistics was not sufficient. So, my Ph.D. dream was shattered by the end of 2016.

After much struggle, I was able to draw the attention of a research professor in bioinformatics because: (1) even though I dropped out of two programs, I did a lot of self-study out of curiosity and sheer interest; and (2) I have outstanding computer programming skills from my Bachelor's years.

This research professor has offered me two scholarships: one is from the National Science Council and another from the faculty; we published two papers; and finally, I have been accepted for a Ph.D. position this year. Therefore, everything is looking great for me.

I was even able to forget my previous two failures in the form of dropouts. This memory is giving me no pain anymore.

However, I have become old. My age is 41 years and 7 months. To put things in perspective, my classmates have already become professors.

Also, I am unemployed and surviving on scholarship money. Although my professor has taken me on many research projects, they are not a steady source of income; they are like bursts of money. My wife and only child are being taken care of by my parents. I have also been suffering from depression.

At this age and reality, a PhD does not seem to be a success anymore, although it has been my lifelong dream to have a PhD.

What should I do about this?

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    Have you consulted a mental health professional with this issue? Mar 20 at 8:00
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    Probably you need to self-reflect on the main reasons why you failed before. If you have already published two papers, then that suggests to me you are ready. In many research areas, there are many pathways to make contributions. For example, in my discipline, one either does theoretical or system research. Lastly, one of the main skills you need to learn is how to learn. As a researcher, we are faced with unknowns all the time, and there is a constant need to learn a new tool, be it statistics or a new programming language.
    – VitaminE
    Mar 20 at 8:46
  • I think talking with a therapist is likely to be the most helpful thing for you here
    – Joe
    Mar 20 at 18:07

4 Answers 4

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When I saw the title of your question, I was expecting someone much older. Forty-one is not especially old for a PhD candidate, and if you can complete your degree in the standard time you will not be especially old for a PhD graduate. You can find data on US PhD graduates in the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), including the median time to completion across different fields. Although the most recent SED Report does not report the average age of PhD graduates, it does report the median completion times, and fortunately programs in computing tend to take less time than in other fields.

It appears from your question that your disappointment stems from an idea that holding a PhD at a reasonably young age makes a person a success, and failure to have achieved this by that time renders you unsuccessful. It also appears that you are allowing comparisons to other younger graduates to get you down, which again suggests an unhealthy preoccupation with questioning your status relative to others. I don't think that's a particularly fruitful way to look at a PhD candidature. Rather than looking at it through the lens of status (or whatever that is) I recommend you look at it in practical terms. Completion of a PhD in a computing field will give you solid research skills in that field, sufficient to do independent research as a scholar in the field. Assuming you can graduate by, say, forty-five, you will have over two decades of professional life (maybe even three) to apply the benefits of that training.

As to the practical problem of supporting a wife and child with only small bursts of money, that is a problem, but it is temporary, and it doesn't sound like such a terrible circumstance to me. The big upside of the circumstance you describe is that it allows quality time between your child and his/her grandparents; you might look back on that later and be glad that your child/parents had that time. In any case, the earnings of PhD graduates in computing fields are quite good, so you should expect to have a reasonable salary bump once you graduate your PhD and move into the profession. At that time you should be able to financially support your wife and child without parental assistance, and you'll have plenty of time to repay everyone involved for the support they're giving now.

What should I do about this?

So long as you're still interested in research, I recommend you forget about all the downsides and focus on making the most of your PhD program and graduating successfully. Put aside concerns about your age, status, money, etc., and be glad that you have a supportive family who can enjoy each other's company while you work to complete your program. This can be a great time in your life if you let yourself enjoy the intellectual challenge you're presently undertaking, enjoy the benefits of the closeness of your extended family, and appreciate the time that is granted to you to do this. Enjoy your research work and your family and put your concerns about money, etc., on hold. Most importantly, ignore issues of "status" and just focus on your own self-development, at whatever pace that is achievable.

It's not clear from your post whether your depression is a response to dwelling on adverse circumstances (and vastly overestimating them) or if it is something more serious. Whatever you do, don't allow these kinds of circumstances to push you into depression, leading to an adverse impact on your work progress and family life. Depression often begets failure, which begets further depression. Contrarily, cheerfulness and stoicism often beget success, which begets further cheerfulness. As a first step, I would suggest you try looking at your circumstances in a more objective manner and examine all the success you have had and all the great things you've achieved (and read some Epictetus to put your problems into perspective) and see if this alleviates your depression.

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It looks like you have the curiosity and enthusiasm to start ambitious projects, but you also tend to get easily bored or discouraged. It would probably be good for you to understand why this happens and how to be more persistent in your efforts. This is quite important if you start a PhD: it's a long and challenging process, so practically everybody doing a PhD faces obstacles and discouragement at times.

I don't know you so I don't know if this is your case, but I observed that perfectionism is a common cause of giving up in academia: people who are perfectionist have great hopes about what they want to achieve and how they imagine it, then they face the mundane difficulties and the imperfect nature of the research process and get deeply disappointed, sometimes to the point of dropping their goal. In case you feel familiar with this, it's important to manage your expectations and accept that nobody is perfect. Don't hesitate to seek professional psychological advice, it can help you achieve your goals.

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Actually, though it might seem odd to you, I'd suggest that the best solution is to celebrate your current success and just let the past be the past.

There is nothing wrong with leaving a program that you learn you dislike. You want to organize your life so that it is pleasant overall.

There is nothing wrong with leaving a program that you find, too late, that you are unprepared for and don't want to live in eternal catch-up mode.

You have found a successful and enjoyable path. Yay. Exploit that.

Lots of people have "stumbles" in their past. Not everyone successfully moves past them as you seem to have done. You are both lucky and persistent, not being defeated by setbacks.

There are, however, some hints of imposter syndrome in your post. You might explore that, and you might want to talk to a professional about it.

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I can give you some points that could be helpful:

  1. Don't look back and think about the past, especially overthinking about the two past failures, actually they are the stepping stones towards the success. I heard about many people that didn't know what to do in this life, and they tried many things to find their passions, and hit many walls but they didn't stopped, they continued until the problem was resolved.

  2. The science study and research does not have age limit. I saw one time at the university, an aged man that got a medical diploma studying computer science with young students, and guess what ! he finished and got his CS diploma. So, if someone could make a balance between all his duties, he can manage well his life.

  3. The most important point is to believe in your capabilities and understand what you want/like to do.

  4. When it comes to financial side, I think that you could find many opportunities for part-time jobs since you are in computer science field (e.g, consulting, freelancing, etc)

Finally, I see your experience as an inspiring example, so good luck

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