31

I had clinical depression. Because of that, I lost 5 years of my life.

To put things in perspective - I am starting as a Ph.D. student this year, but my undergraduate classmates have already completed Ph.D. plus one postdoc.

If I want to become an academician, how can I recover this lost time?

Is increasing the impact factor a way forward? What else can I do?

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  • 100
    Consider yourself in the same group as others starting their PhD this year, regardless of their age. In my experience, trying to "speed up" your career is not a good idea.
    – GEdgar
    Jun 25 at 15:08
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    In Australia, we evaluate researchers with respect to their opportunities. This means if you obtained your PhD degree in your 80s, you are on the same level as a newly minted 20+ year old!
    – VitaminE
    Jun 26 at 22:18
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    "my undergraduate classmates have already completed PhD plus one postdoc" probably, but I will bet that most of them have done something else. Jun 27 at 7:49
  • 2
    As far as I can see, people of different ages and backgrounds join PhDs. Your cohort will not be a homogeneous lot Jun 27 at 7:50
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    On a personal note: you didn't lose 5 years. It took 5 years to overcome a difficult condition many others don't have to face. It happened, it gave you a lot of experience (even if it may seem hard right now to find positive ones), and ultimately it made you who you are right now.
    – Neinstein
    Jun 27 at 11:58

6 Answers 6

59

You seem to have the assumption that as an academic, you will be evaluated based on your scientific contributions put in perspective with your age, i.e., from birth. This is in many ways inaccurate.

For example, countries and their education systems vary greatly in when people typically start a PhD and how much time they take to complete it. What you may feel is a late time to start a PhD might be considered a very usual time in a country where it is common that some people work in industry for a few years before deciding to start a PhD, or waste years applying for a grant before starting their PhD. Academia varies a lot, so the "norm" is not as clear a concept as you'd think. In my small experience as a young academic, just in my discipline, I've both met people that were 5 years younger than I was when they completed their PhD, and people that were 3 years older.

Apart from the 40 years old age cap for Fields medalists, the only age limits I am aware of (from my small corner of academia) tend to be time limits "from PhD". For example, some grants can only be awarded to people that received their PhD in the last 4 years. Since your five year career gap did not occur after you received your PhD, none of those apply to you. Also, at least some of those grants actually are designed to take into account career gaps, like time taken off of your career for medical reason and maternity/paternity leave, which can sometimes be subtracted from the 4 years time limits.

This will also be true of your scientific contributions. They will mostly be judged not based on your age, but your 'age since PhD'.

So, as someone said in the comments, do not think in terms of age: you are part of the cohort of people starting a PhD this year. Then, general advice on how to succeed in academia applies. In particular, as many PhD students experience some amount of psychological distress during their PhD, keep your mental health a priority, and reach out if the conditions of a successful PhD are not there (this website contains quite a few stories of people that changed advisor or subject).

37

You can't recover the lost time. It is gone forever. But it doesn't restrict your future. Do what any beginning doctoral student needs to do. Pay attention, work hard, take a lot of notes, talk to a lot of people, especially professors.

Find a good advisor who can give good and timely advice. Work with them to find a good problem to attack. Onward.

Looking back isn't going to get you anywhere.

And if there are lingering effects from the depression, keep in touch with a professional so that it doesn't become an issue again.


Edited to add: When it comes time to evaluate your tenure application you will, perhaps, be a bit older than the average candidate. But you will be judged by people older still and the most influential might be very much older for which your age at that time is completely irrelevant. You will be judged on what you have accomplished, not your age.

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    Actually, there does exist a negative bias against people who are older than the average candidate. Worse, the statistics bear out this bias. I spent 20 years giving the "a tad too mature" candidate the benefit of the doubt, and got burned time and time again. In the end I gave in to conventional wisdom: "if they are X age and still have not achieved Y, there is probably something wrong with them." Crucify me for saying this, but the prejudice exists and often proves justified.
    – Deipatrous
    Jun 27 at 8:37
  • @Deipatrous stereotypes are often statistical inference (at the same time, laws and rules are just the concretization of social conventions and therefore ... you cannot fight racism or discrimination by law, but you must fight against racism and discrimination even when there are laws in place)
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 27 at 13:34
  • @Deipatrous, I doubt that age alone is a factor for reasonable people. Time since earning the degree might be relevant. That implies low productivity, whereas age alone does not.
    – Buffy
    Jun 27 at 13:37
  • Lots of overseas students are a few years older than native students. Native students with master's degrees are at least 2 years older. Some students take a 1 year English proficiency course before postgrad as well. But all things being the same, professors wanting a hard-working and interested student may not look beyond that. Professors may even prefer a little maturity.
    – Trunk
    Jun 29 at 17:50
12

Obviously in the immediate term you cannot "make up lost time". All we can do is make the remaining time as good as possible.

On the positive side, you will have far greater self-awareness now. You'll know how your mind works and how not to over-strain it. These are important things over the duration of a doctoral programme.

You will also be aware of the need to balance life and work - however well work may be going or however frustrating it becomes.

What you have learned about life and yourself will be very useful over the next years. Apply it wisely and ignore the follies of your professional contemporaries but experiential juniors. It might be good to link up with some mature doctoral students in your department or around the campus generally (regardless of country of origin) as we all have an emotional connection with our own age group.

Focus on quality of work, not speed or quantity. Try to give a little back to the system you work in, time permitting - and in an even-handed way - to those around you.

In the long term the quality of our remaining life is what determines if our "lost" periods were truly lost or not.

It is very important to get rid of this "catch-up" mindset prior to starting a PhD. If you find it hard to shake off, especially even after some sessions with a therapist, I think it would be wiser not to go into the programme just yet. Maybe a 9-5 RA job for a while or something outside academia.

I say this because there will be younger researchers rushing around and maybe trying to generate a competitive dynamic to assuage their own doubts and anxieties. Sadly, there are always some faculty who cultivate competition between postgrads. You don't want to be part of this madness.

So you need to be clear and strongly firm - on bad days as well as good - on your quality of work and life mindset before taking on any serious research programme commitment. Please discuss all this with your therapist.

Also look your would-be supervisor in the eye as you tell him/her that work - however interesting and rewarding, however important success is for the department's appearance in the eyes of research grant givers - is not all there is to your life. In the situation you are in, a down-to-earth supervisor with an "ordinary" project would be far wiser than a pushy supervisor with an "exciting/topical/heavily-funded" project: you'll have more time for TA work, colleague engagement and learning by doing - all things that are vital for your development and self-confidence.

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    Some of these lessons will be particularly useful when OP gets to the point of managing/supervising others, whether in academia or elsewhere. People who've experienced mental illness themselves often make for compassionate, supportive bosses. Jun 27 at 5:42
  • @GB Oh yes. Absolutely. A calm balanced perspective won't do any harm to their own research career either - particularly when trying to salvage something of value form the "wreckage of experiments".
    – Trunk
    Jun 29 at 10:47
10

Here are my advises that could be helpful for you:

  • Don't look back, don't overthink about these things. You are lucky and strong ... at least to start your PhD research.
  • Focus on the next step. A PhD study is a big project and you will need to prepare for that and devote your time, money and energy. Keep in mind that you have to be very hard-worker and patient, otherwise you'll learn that along the way :-)
  • Don't take the example of your classmates that finished their PhD as a bad example, instead you should make that as a motivation (if they had done that, I also can do). And don't think it's easy path, you should ask your classmates about their sacrifices ... {Successful PhD study ---> costs a lot of blood, sweat and tears}, but at the end you'll be proud.
  • Yourself is your first enemy. If you listen to your demotivating thoughts, you will never do anything in this life.
  • and finally, don't look for the perfectionism in your research ... do it first then make it perfect

I wish a good luck to you "our future Dr."

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    I don't think a bullet list is quite what OP needs now either.
    – Trunk
    Jun 26 at 16:51
2

Publishing high-impact papers may expedite your rise up the academic ladder (then again, it may not, since we live in a strange world and heads of department hold inordinate amounts of unchecked power*); all else being equal, one does better as one's papers are higher-impact. So in that sense, yes, good idea.

What is strange is that you should think that "high impact" is the answer to "making up for lost time" - as if you would not consider high impact as a priority or a smart thing to aim for if you had remained "on schedule" and not lost so much time.

From a strictly logical point of view, your question "is high impact the remedy for lost time?" is on a par with "is doubling my IQ the remedy for lost time?" In both cases the tentative answer is something like: yeah, it probably cannot hurt, but it seems odd to think that this might be the answer to that.

The time people spend post-docking is highly variable, and even among roughly equal quality people in the same field one can get tenure years earlier than the other. So if luck runs your way, you could easily make up the lost time during the post-doc phase. The best you can do in any case is just, merely, your best.

There is one respect in which "high impact" as an aim or priority can be counter-productive. This happens when academics "safe up" results and findings in hopes of all their loose ends somehow aggregating into a Nature/Science/PNAS paper, rather than being published bit by bit in the decent journals on the tiers below. It is unusual and probably counterproductive for a PhD student to develop this particular neurosis, but I thought I should warn you anyway.

*) Yes, you may find yourself out on your ear after publishing in Nature and PNAS, just because your HoD felt belittled.

-11

Work harder. Put in more hours, e.g. by working on Saturday (or every alternate Saturday). It's the only thing you can do that's within your control ("get lucky" is not actionable).

Just be careful not to burn out, and to avoid a relapse of the depression.

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    something wrong with this 'Consider yourself in the same group as others starting their PhD this year' ?
    – BCLC
    Jun 26 at 14:34
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    I downvoted this. This is bad advice for someone who went through depression, and implies that there is something to recover. No, there isn't. Most will consider academic life to start with a PhD. Time before that doesn't matter.
    – Szabolcs
    Jun 26 at 16:42
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    @Allure Want to send OP back into big D ? There's only so much quality work you can get out of people in a week. Robbing them of their recreational time is a pact with the devil.
    – Trunk
    Jun 26 at 16:49
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    @Trunk I don't see a better option. There's nothing else that's actionable. (I certainly don't see anything in any of the other answers.) Could it lead back to depression, it could, but you can't always get what you want. There was actually a comment (now deleted) by the OP saying they love research, so it might not happen either.
    – Allure
    Jun 26 at 23:36
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    @Allure You could have questioned the intention behind OP's desire to make up lost time, questioned the realisticness of this idea. That's what most other answers did. And that's why most other answers offered nothing towards the OP's literal question. We can drive cars Peterson-style and the worst that happens is losing a race from mechanical failure. But no human being should drive themselves in that fashion at work. University stores carry no spares for broken hearts and spirits.
    – Trunk
    Jun 29 at 10:41

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