This article goes all to all of you who are wishing you’d never enrolled in that degree or taken that major. It’s for anyone who dreams of turning back the clock.
I get the sense of regret you’re feeling. I really do. You’re not the only person who has graduated with a sense of loss, frustration, or shame when you should be feeling pride. You’re not the only one dreading a career you’ve only just started, or watching your savings fritter away as you apply for job after job after job.
I work in a few roles at my university. One is a lecturer who teaches Masters students training themselves for a new career. Another is working as an academic advisor who guides new students fresh out of high school. Somehow, both jobs involve me consoling students who are so worried about their future and their choices that they don’t know how to carry on. I have seen regret — and the fear of regret — from all angles. It’s pervasive.
It’s also sapping your emotional energy dry.
So how do you survive? How do you turn your academic regret into strength and wisdom?
Learn From Your Mistakes
First of all, make sure you appreciate what your mistakes and misunderstandings have taught you. Turn that regret into something constructive. The best way to avoid making the same mistake twice is to really evaluate what went wrong, what you misunderstood, and what you can address in the future.
Some people fundamentally misunderstand the degree they sign up for, or the career it leads to. For example, I have met students who thought that teaching would be their dream job due to a love for children and a passion for education. Upon entering a classroom, they realised it was more like a nightmare. I have met other students who messed up their choices when it came to picking a major. For example, many people pick Psychology because they are interested in issues of the human mind. These same students can become disappointed and feel trapped when they discover how much Maths is involved in the training process. Often, by the time you are faced with the reality of your degree, it’s too late to change your mind.
Other students come to me because their parents have forced them down a career path that doesn’t suit their own goals or interests. When you’re leaving high school, it can be hard to say ‘no’ to a parent who insists you follow on in the family trade. Often, your family will push you down a career path that seems stable and profitable. This is usually done with love, but it can lead to a graduate who lacks enthusiasm for their future. Others feel forced to choose a career like Law or Medicine because they received high marks in school and their family insists they shouldn’t ‘waste’ them.
If any of the above resonates with you, then take the time to note down what went wrong and if it’s something you can approach with more maturity and wisdom in the future.
Perhaps you need to be more proactive about investigating possible life choices. If you’re unsure what a career really involves on a daily basis, then ask. Don’t rely on assumptions. You may also need to make peace with the fact that you changed significantly from age 17 to age 20 and may not want the same things out of life. On this note, an independent person in their 20s should ideally make their own choices and be open with their family about their life goals. It may feel frightening to tell your parents that you disagree with their plans for your life, but it’s certainly better to be honest than to waste years of your life trying to please other people. If following their dreams is hurting you, learn from this pain and make the changes that will direct you towards happiness.
Know There’s Always Another Chance
Society tells us that we should finish secondary education, enroll in tertiary studies, then graduate and move on to a job in our chosen field. Oh, and along the way we should meet the love of our life and be married with a baby on the way by 25. Don’t forget to buy a house, but do make sure you travel the world so you’ve got something to say at dinner parties. And remember that once you hit 30, you’re stuck in your life like a fly in honey. Sound familiar?
This might represent the plan you had for yourself when you were younger, or it might parallel the life your parents lived. But always remember that life goes in directions you can’t control. Millennials live in a different world to that experienced by older generations. You don’t have the same stability, so you shouldn’t berate yourself for deviating from what feels like ‘proper timing’.
Many of my Masters students are gaining a second degree so that they can change their career path and move on to a field that excites them. Some are in their 20s, but many are in their 30s, 40s, or beyond. I think it’s wonderful to have students who have joined my classroom because I teach something that they have a hunger to learn. There’s nothing shameful about being the oldest person in a classroom, or training for a new career that’s the polar opposite of the one you tried and hated. Power to the people who know that life offers them more than one pathway.
Find Peace and Forgive Yourself
Sometimes, a student simply has a bad run of luck. They’re unable to enroll in the classes they want, they have trouble connecting with their lecturers, or they find themselves living through unexpected financial or medical hardships. Unfortunately, things go wrong in life. I have had students who’ve been diagnosed with cancer, been in serious accidents, or suddenly found themselves as a carer for a family member in bad health. Some get pregnant, some get divorced, and some are victims of serious crime. This can cause havoc with carefully-made plans, and can force a person into compromising their career path or academic choices.
If you were simply the victim of bad luck, then you need to be gentle with yourself. You need to forgive yourself for things outside of your control and decide what to do next with the hand that fate has dealt you. This might mean pausing your studies for a while to deal with a crisis or its aftermath. It might mean leaving university and returning when you have more time to dedicate to your own dreams. Allow yourself to grieve for what could have been, then carry on with your responsibilities.
Remember what I said above? There’s always another chance. The university system will always be here, and it will always welcome in people of all ages and life experiences.
Focus on the Good
When you’re feeling bad about a path you’ve taken, it’s normal to see all of your choices and experiences in a bad light. Nevertheless, it’s not a healthy mindset. Be kind to yourself, and remember to conjure up happy memories from your studies instead of always dwelling upon the bad.
At the very least, doing a degree you regret has taught you an important lesson about who you’re not and what you don’t want from your life. Some people take decades to discover these truths about themselves. You’ve got a head start.
Maybe you picked a degree you didn’t like, but don’t forget to focus on the special friendships you made as you battled through it. Or, perhaps your mistakes taught you how to be tenacious, resilient, and brave. Maybe there were one or two glimmers of exciting knowledge amidst a dreary degree? Don’t forget these small gems. They mean something. They have value.
Overall, your goal is to stop the mindset of negativity and blame. Regret is useful when it points you in a new direction and allows you to evaluate what you really value and enjoy. You’re allowed to be sad or frustrated with your life, but don’t be stuck living with regret forever. There’s a way out. You just need to be brave and take it.