I am 3 months into a 3 year theoretical physics PhD in the UK. Since I am fairly early on in my research career, there are many new ideas and techniques for me to learn, as well as the need for me to work directly on my research questions.

Either through reading papers or attending seminars, I often come across new ideas which seem interesting and conceivably applicable to my research. However, I find it difficult to decide whether to further study those ideas to more deeply understand them.

On the one hand, my impression is that it is important to deeply understand ideas to be able to apply them to one's own research. On the other, attaining good understanding usually requires a significant investment of time, and this is time taken away from working more directly on the details of my current research. In some sense, this could be seen as balancing short- vs long-term investments of time and mental energy.

My question is about how one should decide whether to invest the time learning new ideas now, or wait until they come up more directly in later research. Of course, the difficulty with research is that one is often not sure if or when a new idea will come in handy.


What thought process do you go through to decide whether to spend time now in learning a new idea?

3 Answers 3


First year PhD students must establish their problem. That problem may be defined by the supervisor, or the student may have to define it themselves. Regardless, a thorough understanding of the problem domain must be established. Hence, it is not only important to "deeply understand ideas to be able to apply them to one's own research," but a requirement. So, such an investment isn't really "time taken away from working more directly on the details of my current research," it is part of research. Establishing whether a topic is essential is more problematic and probably something that should be discussed with the supervisor. Students should study topics beyond their immediate research and the first year of a PhD is an excellent time to do this. Perhaps by committing less productive time to, e.g., the last day of the week, early evenings, or ... Again, this is something that can be discussed (and possibly even negotiated) with the supervisor.


First of all, good luck on your PhD!

The way I was explained it, the point of a PhD is to become super good at something. To do so, a shallow understanding of lots of things is oftentimes less useful than a deep understanding of one thing. This is just practicality: you need to graduate in X years with a PhD certificate. I would say 80/20 ratio in favor of deeper understanding of a topic vs reading something new, at least.

I would attend seminars anyway to keep abreast of what’s going on, and to learn how to speak about one’s work.

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    The trouble with this approach is that you don't know, at least during the first three months of a PhD program, what that something is that you want to become super good at and gain deep knowledge of. You need to gain a lot superficial knowledge about a lot of other things along the way. Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 14:34

You've already answered this question.

How did you become a PhD student in the first place? You had to have made a decision about how to invest your time.

You are proficient in mathematics. If you're not any good with the numbers, then you've got skills you've both not mentioned and using just plain wrong. You have a 3 year project on your lap that you just cracked into. Make a math problem of this. How much time per week do you have to work on your PhD to complete it on time? How much time can you afford to "new ideas" and not miss the goal?

Now you know how much total time you have to play with the new ideas. Use that to help determine how many of them and how deeply you want to pursue them.

Keep in mind that interesting ideas are not your research. Your research will be an interesting idea to someone else.

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