From my own point of view, the first year of a PhD is heavily packed with new information, theory, techniques, conventions, experimental abilities, etc. Let us call all these elements "material". This new material required a lot of effort which I felt as a heavy burden in comparison to my master thesis or any previous academic experience. This burden was also complemented by requirements of the PI, funding entities, bureaucracy, etc.

The second year was also heavily packed with new and deeper material. But the burden of acquiring this new material was in my opinion, lower. This perception of a lower burden can be due to better learning methods, more experience, a more relaxed view on life, due to actually less new "material" to deal with.

I felt as if I had to sustain the same first year burden for several years, I would eventually collapse. And even though the second year burden was lower, I would not be able to continually perform at a good level under such burden.

Is there any point in an academic's life where the burden diminishes? I enjoy learning new stuff, carrying out new experiments and acquiring new skills. But the rate at which I feel this is necessary during a PhD is for me too high and I would not like to have a permanent life under this burden.

Just to be clear, it is obvious that in Academia it is necessary to acquire and master new "material" continuously. My question focuses on the "rate", if it makes sense.

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    Might be useful: (68958), and a comment.
    – user68958
    Mar 22, 2018 at 13:27
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    Academia is remarkably similar to raising children. Your workload, challenges and worries will not diminish, only change. Soon enough you will be writing grant proposals, serve on committees and be generally overworked. ... Mar 22, 2018 at 14:29
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    Yes, reading and understanding a paper will be quicker and easier, and that's a good thing, too, because you won't have a lot of time before you have to review two manuscripts and one thesis, adjudicate two grad students' feud and deal with one instance of academic misconduct in your committee today. Mar 22, 2018 at 14:29
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    Oh, my sweet summer child... ;) Mar 23, 2018 at 13:20
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    I once told a math professor that I was sometimes discouraged by math; because I would struggle for a week to learn concepts in one field, feel slightly accomplished, then look in the vicinity and find many more mountains to climb. He looked at me and said "Well I have bad news for you; it never gets any easier." Mar 25, 2018 at 0:34

7 Answers 7


The first paper I read took two months to process. Now, I can skim through two papers for breakfast. It is not that you get more material to read, but rather you get much more efficient at skipping things you know or recognize as unimportant.

It comes with practice - try reading papers and books, and think about what are the important parts. Learn to identify the 'meat' and which techniques are used. Also, you'll notice that instead of learning 'the stuff', it is about cataloging and storing meta-information about where to find 'the stuff' once you really need it.

After a while, you realize that most of the new papers you read, you only need the gist of it, in order to reference it. Comparably few papers need to be read and understood in paragraph-by-paragraph detail.

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    As a corollary, over the course of one's career a person would tend to specialize in a specific area within the discipline. The amount of new information in that particular area would be less but the depth of knowledge one would need to possess in that specific area would increase.
    – RudyB
    Mar 22, 2018 at 14:03
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    to add, I feel that actually writing academic papers also helped me with the aspects mentioned in this answer
    – reas0n
    Mar 22, 2018 at 21:23
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    Great answer (+1). I particularly like your point that "instead of learning 'the stuff', it is about cataloging and storing meta-information about where to find 'the stuff' once you really need it". That is a crucial skill!
    – Ben
    Mar 23, 2018 at 1:10
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    One can think of papers as very extensive stack exchange answers for questions. You don't really need to know every single one of them by heart, but you must know that they exist, you must know how to judge their quality and where to find them if you ever need them again.
    – T. Sar
    Mar 23, 2018 at 11:25

(Based on my personal experience:)

On a given, very specific, subject - the rate does diminish; on the overall set of subjects you're concerned with - not so much. Or rather, there are ups and downs.

But the above is in terms of, say, pages, or words. As you learn more, familiarize yourself with patterns in people's work, writing, thought - you catch on faster. If you do achieve mastery of a something, you could get to a position where someone shows you a paper and after a few minutes' thought, if not less, you basically know what it's about, what the implications are and a few likely avenues they have taken to get their results. (But, again in my experience, this happens for some subjects, and in others you may still have the sense of having to part the see every time.)


You used the word "burden" 9 times in your question. My guess is you are learning at way above your comfortable rate.

Once you finish your PhD, in fact once you get through all the mandatory material, you will have much more control over the rate at which you learn new things. You will also position yourself to do what you are more comfortable doing and learning. Learning will feel much less like a burden that is pushed upon you and more like an interesting activity. This way you may keep or even increase the rate of learning, but greatly reduce the effort required to learn new material.

  • In Germany (where I am located) there is no mandatory material. You start with research from day 1 in quite an autonomous way.
    – Keine
    Mar 27, 2018 at 7:05

The answer partially depends on what you mean by "Academia". If you are on a research-centered career trajectory then of course you need to keep current in your field (with all of the reading that this involves) as well as perhaps branch out into related fields so you don't become too 1-dimensional.

On the other hand, if you end up in a smaller, teaching-oriented institution, you still need to learn new things -- but what you need to learn changes. I teach in such a place. I have long since given up trying to keep current in the specialty that I studied in graduate school, and I only read a handful of research papers per year. Instead I do things like spend time increasing my knowledge of physics (something I never studied in school) so that I can be more informed when I teach differential equations, learning R programming so that I can become a better stats teacher, sometimes even learning a topic which is brand new to me because I want to teach a course in it (e.g. I knew nothing about cryptography until I developed a course for it). My experience in teaching-based academia is that the depth of the learning that you need to do is greatly reduced compared to graduate school but that the breadth of the learning that you need to do is greatly increased. You might need to move from being a specialist to being fairly eclectic.


It is largely up to you. There are academics that become experts in a very specific field. If you take that path, depending on the popularity of that field, there may not be a huge amount of new material that you will need to learn once you have absorbed what there is. So, the rate of learning will diminish considerably once you are "caught up".

However, other academics like to explore and change focus. If you take this path, each time you change focus, you will be like a new PhD student, and have to learn the literature for the new topic. However, as other answers have indicated you will learn to learn faster.


In my experience as a student of science in junior college, in the first year I had this tendency to memorize everything in my textbook and notes. This method is not sustainable especially for the sciences. In my second year, I started spending much more time on the basics and see if I understood it or not. This method was sustainable as well as studies seemed much less of a burden because your study time boils down to whether you understood the concept or not. If yes, that's great. If not, you refer to other sources to understand it.


As one of my Professors once said:

You are lucky to be young, because when you reach my age, you simply can't learn radically new things!

So, basically, there is a point when the 'burden' becomes unbearable! So, clearly at some point the burden becomes less, as this is nessecary! (at least, for my professor)

However, this is pretty late in your career. As a PhD student, you really have to learn how to organise and manage the information. (But always be clever! The greatest problem solvers (such as Leonhard Euler or Louie Pasteur (I recall reading a nice story by Hamming (yes, from the distance) about Pasteurs' skills)), can find effective solutions while knowing a lot less than experts in the field)

Clearly, being a scholar is more than hoarding information, it is about deciding what is important to remember!

So, when does it get less? When you do less research, really. When the main reason you're getting paid is because you are now a manager and reeling in the grant money.

  • I don't agree with this quote, I've seen plenty of examples of mathematicians who are not so young and who are still learning new areas (and doing good research in the new areas).
    – littleO
    Mar 25, 2018 at 2:07

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