Two weeks after I finished graduate school, my father-in-law introduced me to a friend by saying “I want you to meet my son-in-law. He just became a doctor.”
While I forced a grin and politely accepted the ensuing congratulations, I instead wanted to clarify that I just received a PhD, and that I was not a physician. Immediately, after meeting his friend, I asked my father-in-law not to introduce me as a doctor in the future. This encounter also conjured up a memory of explaining to my grandmother that I was not studying to become a medical doctor.
After thinking carefully about my feelings that resulted from my father-in-law’s introduction, I realized that my request about being introduced as a doctor originated not from a desire to avoid confusion, but rather from a subconscious regret that I held for deciding to pursue a PhD.
Even though I published several papers, received an award for my thesis, and landed a postdoc at the NIH, I was ashamed! If you caught me on the wrong night, you might hear me mutter the anonymous quote “If you are smart enough to get a PhD, you are smart enough not to get one.”
Less than two percent of the population has a PhD, and yet, I had no sense of pride. I now believe that I felt this way for two reasons. First, I measured my professional accomplishments against my friends and colleagues who did not pursue a PhD. These people were starting to hit their stride professionally. They were receiving promotions, buying homes, and contributing to 401Ks.
Second, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be starting a postdoc. While I was honored by my selection into a prestigious lab, I was still worried about my career prospects after my training.
Unfortunately, this regret shattered my confidence and sense of self. I also believe that it negatively affected my work in the lab. On occasion, my ability to troubleshoot experiments and think deeply about my project was clouded by this regret.
Now that I am in a fulfilling career, I no longer regret my decision to pursue a PhD. I recognize that my degree and postdoc training are vital to my current success. However, when I reflect on graduate school and my postodoc, I wish that I attempted to address these emotions earlier in my career. I believe that dealing with this regret sooner would have increased my productivity in the lab.
If you find yourself regretting your PhD, I suggest the following coping strategies:
1. When people ask what you do for a living, don’t tell them that you are a graduate student or a postdoc. Tell them that you are a scientist. Your hard work conducting primary research has earned you that right. It will also give you an opportunity to communicate your research to non-scientists, a skill that all PhDs should master. I guarantee that most people will be impressed.
2. Do not compare your accomplishments to your non-scientist peers. Yes, your friends are likely earning more money and have more superficial possessions. But believe me, your PhD will open doors that are not available to your non-scientist friends. People with PhDs in science are working in virtually every industry. I am not aware of other degrees that provide the same variety of career choices.
3. Remind yourself that having a PhD is a privilege, and not a right. You are paid to go to school! Having a PhD also has priceless advantages. PhDs have opportunities to interact with the most brilliant people in the world, discover something innovative and novel, and constantly challenge themselves intellectually. Take full advantage of these opportunities.
4. Finally, understand that you are not alone. While it is possible that I am the only other person who struggled with my decision to get a PhD, many of your classmates and lab mates likely share these feelings.
These might not be perfect solutions to help you through the most challenging days of graduate school and/or your postdoc. However, it is important to recognize PhD regret, and to seek help in dealing with these emotions. Regretting your PhD can have adverse consequences not only on your science, but also on the rest of your career.