A PhD Crisis “If I’m supposed to learn more during a PhD, why does it feel like I know less?”
Updated: Nov 17
Some years ago I met two PhD students who’d recently very successfully completed Masters degrees and had been selected to go on to do a PhD. These two young men were full of enthusiasm and confidence about what they knew, the value of their methods and what they were going to achieve. Now I quite liked these vivid characters but others had different words for them - arrogant, brash, annoying, even bullying, as they sought to demonstrate how knowledgeable they were. Perhaps you know students like this.
Well time passed and these fellows progressed through their PhDs, but instead of becoming more confident and trumpeting louder about what they knew, they became quieter, more humble, and I’m sorry to say, a bit depressed. This pair stick out in mind as they were ‘characters’, but I’ve worked with many doctoral students who experience similar crises during their PhDs. They use phrases like;
“If I’m supposed to learn more during a PhD, why does it feel like I know nothing?”
“My supervisors keeps saying there’s more work to do”
And one that comes from my own time as a doctoral student,
“I know an awful lot about nothing!”
Do not despair, this is simply not true. It’s a trick of perspective. Let me explain.
Fig 1 Your knowledge Now
Today I was working with a group of new PhD students and we were talking about the skills and knowledge that they will develop during a PhD, as well as the purpose of a PhD, which is to make original contributions to knowledge. The thing about knowledge is that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. Your previous state of being unaware of what you didn’t know (Fig 1) is shifted to a state of being aware of a whole cloud of things that you now know that you don’t know (Fig2). This can be depressing; like scaling a set of difficult hills only to reveal the massive mountain range that lies beyond; a universe that just keeps expanding, with the edge always out of reach. But before you sigh and get discouraged, here’s the trick of perspective that I spoke of. You are comparing yourself to the massive mountain or receding edge as a tiny insignificant thing.
Fig 2. Your knowledge in The Future
You are forgetting that it is your very growth and development that has allowed you to realise your deficiencies.
Remember, the edge of the universe might have grown further away or the new mountain range might block your path, but you too have grown, achieved and accomplished. You must remember to balance any sense of deficiency with your proficiency; your talents, your growth, the things that you now know you that don’t know the answer to, where previously you didn't even know that you didn't know! In order for your research to stay ‘cutting edge’, the edge has to move. In order for you to keep up with the edge, you must grow. And you will, but you will need to look back at your Now of yesterday in order to notice the difference. Look at the mountains you've just climbed as well as the range ahead.