I'm having a crisis of confidence: I'm a 3rd year PhD focusing on cancer genetics. Whilst I am undoubtedly developing a deep and broad understanding of genetics, bioinformatics, somatic evolution...all that good stuff; I'm also finding that my understanding of basics is all but disappearing.

I don't use or "need" (practically speaking) a working knowledge of biochemistry or molecular biology to answer my research questions. Whilst during my undergrad I could describe cellular processes like translation, splicing, various cell signalling cascades in detail, I can barely summon the basics anymore. Since genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology are so intimately related, I feel like drilling deep into one at the expense of the others is bad.

Is this something that other people experience? How do you find time to refresh the knowledge of areas that you 'should' know, even if you have no use for them anymore in your research?

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    Why do you thınk you should know them?
    – padawan
    Dec 10, 2017 at 11:54
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    How long would it take you to relearn a topic if, for example, you were assigned to teach a course on it? Dec 10, 2017 at 12:04
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    Maybe it's about time that you started teaching the undergraduate courses, or serving as a TA. What you experienced is also true in other fields, and teaching is how it comes back to you.
    – workerjoe
    Dec 10, 2017 at 20:41
  • @Joe, I think you're right, if I were teaching it then I would be constantly refreshing it. My issue is that in the UK PhD students are not allowed to teach undergrads, we are paid to study and the point of this is so we don't have any other jobs/responsibilities and can focus on research, as here a PhD must be completed within 4 years. I would probably take a week or so to remind myself of everything, maybe I should just start doing this over holidays. Dec 10, 2017 at 22:59

1 Answer 1


Is this something that other people experience?

Yes, this is completely normal. Our memories get hazier over time, particularly if we don't make use of them. It is nothing to be worried about. We can't keep everything fresh in our minds at all times - as you learn new things, older topics get pushed to the sidelines and we may lose some of the detail.

However, memory is a complicated phenomenon, and just because you are having trouble accessing a memory doesn't mean that it's been completely overwritten. As @PatricianShanahan hints in a comment, I suspect you would find that if you had to re-learn some of these topics, it would come back to you surprisingly quickly. Partly because the memories are still hidden away somewhere, and partly because you will have been getting better and better at the process of learning itself.

How do you find time to refresh the knowledge of areas that you 'should' know, even if you have no use for them anymore in your research?

I don't think there is any particular need to force this process. The memories that fade the most are the ones that are being used the least, and there's a good reason for that: they are the ones that are less important to you.

General reading will help to keep memories fresh - it's always useful to read broadly around your subject. If you are worried about forgetting things because they are interesting to you then try to find some enjoyable reading on the subject - perhaps pop-science books, or magazines.

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