My PhD involved using a commercially available software to carry out simulations. Now I am pursuing postdoc at another lab. My current advisor wants me to develop new complex models for which I don't have any academic experience in. I have 3-4 months before he starts expecting outcomes.

I am panicking as I don't have theoretical background to do the job. This will involve studying 2 courses right from scratch. (continuum mechanics, non linear finite element analysis). This, I have to self study right from basics and I am feeling that I will fail.

I never lied on my resume. I knew this project will involve more rigor than what I had done before. But now, I feel that I should have done more coursework during my PhD. My undergrad was in different field, so never took classes for these subjects. Now, as a postdoc in a lab, it's impossible to do actual courses in a university. I feel miserable.

Do you have any suggestions on how I should proceed with this?

  • 5
    To have done what you have, you must be smart and capable. Now you need to apply that to get up to speed on these things. Jul 3, 2019 at 1:49
  • Courses are just ways to make material found in books/papers accessible. Can you find the relevant literature? There's also a lot of excellent courses online - Coursera, EdX, Udacity and more. Are these an option?
    – Spark
    Jul 3, 2019 at 2:10
  • Any idea why you expect to fail at independent study? Time management? Difficulty reading and understanding the books? Imposter syndrome? Something else? The problem is probably solvable, if you know what it is. Jul 3, 2019 at 7:15
  • I guess it's more of guilt that's making me fear studying. These subjects are what every undergrad student in my current field know before their 3rd year. I am a Postdoc in the field. I should be an expert in this. But, here am I lacking the most basic of the skills.
    – Polliday
    Jul 3, 2019 at 7:20
  • Yes, there are courses online. But, I fear that I am too old to actually be good in understanding this.
    – Polliday
    Jul 3, 2019 at 7:21

4 Answers 4


I started my PhD in computer science in 2002. My last prior formal education was a master's degree awarded in 1975. Everything I knew about the prior quarter century of developments in computer science I had learned by self-education from books and papers, as well as practical experience and a couple of industry courses. Although I did take courses during my PhD studies, my dissertation research depended on basic ideas in linear algebra that I learned from books.

I find it hard to understand deciding in your 20's that you are too old to learn new basic material from books, papers, on-line tutorials, and other self-education.

To proceed, I suggest discussing your need for more basics with your advisor, not in a spirit of expecting failure, but asking for advice on what you need to know and how to go about learning it. Your advisor may recommend books, or a course you can audit.

For your long term future, it would be better to learn now how to learn without courses, and get over your current block. Avoiding it by collaboration will just leave the block in place to stop you the next time you need to add to your basic knowledge.


You need to disentangle your expectations of yourself from what other people are expecting from you.

You have every right to feel uncomfortable about this situation, simply because from your life experience so far (as you have described it, at least) this is a new situation for you. You have spent a long time being educated. Education often works by teaching you how to do something and then asking you to do it. This is a comfortable situation: "We won't ask you to do something you don't know".

After this, having to do something that you really have not studied and really do not know how to do is naturally rather a shock.

First thing: eliminate guilt about not having studies these subjects earlier. It is not doing anything useful, and you can't go back in time.

The next thing is that this is going to be a good step in finding out who you are. Some people are at their best doing what they know how to do, becoming more and more expert at it throughout their lives. For others, the delight is to be always doing something that they do not already know how to do. I know a plumber who sorts out people's PC catastrophes for them: he has never trained for it, but he loves learning new things. I have just been proof-reading and editing some texts in Malagasy, a language which I do not know at all. It was tiring, but I enjoyed the challenge.

Some people are one way, some are the other way. There is no dishonour about being one as opposed to the other.

The one valid concern you have is that your advisor may be misunderstanding your level of knowledge. If you think your advisor thinks you are expert in fields that, in fact, you know nothing about, then you need to correct that impression. But don't do it in terms of "I can't do it because I haven't been trained". Do it in terms of "I don't know this or that subject, so I will have to get up to speed on them in order to get this work done". That way your advisor has been warned there is a risk that you may need extra help; but will also be encouraged by seeing someone who wants to learn and is willing to learn.

If I were you, I think I would go ahead with the job. But it is your decision. Just make it for the right reasons. Don't include any guilt about not having done the right courses before. That isn't relevant. And don't include too much worry about not being 100% successful, or taking longer than you should. As long as your advisor has been warned, you will not be letting anyone down.


You learn.

You've already done undergraduate studies, a Masters, a PhD. You've learned what it's like to learn. All you need to do now is self-teach. It's easier of course if there's someone else to teach you, but that situation won't persist forever. If you only ever learn when someone else teaches you, you restrict yourself out of many fields for which there isn't a convenient teacher. Further, at the edge of human knowledge there's no teacher; you must teach yourself.

This situation really isn't that different from finding an interesting research paper not in your specialization. For example when the first exoplanets were discovered, it was a very exciting result, and lots of astronomers were interested. You can bet that many of them didn't know anything about how to find exoplanets. They taught themselves. You can do it too (you've undoubtedly already done this too actually, when you did your PhD).

I'd start by going to the library and getting some textbooks/monographs on the topics. Read them, work through the exercises. If the topics really are elementary, then even better: you can ask undergraduates at your institution for help. There's no rule that a postdoc should know more than an undergraduate - in physics for example it's possible to earn a Bachelor's degree in most universities without ever taking a course on General Relativity, which means one probably knows less about the theory than an undergraduate who's taken the course. That's not a problem, since one undoubtedly knows more about other areas of physics than the undergraduate.

It's likely your supervisor is not expecting instant results, especially if they're aware you don't have the necessary theoretical background, so you'll have time.


I am panicking

First, try to stop doing that :)

There's nothing particularly alarming in the situation you describe. It's common not to have all the ideal conditions for a research project to succeed. Sometimes some of the conditions are our own level of knowledge in a certain area of expertise. It's fine, nobody knows everything. You are not required to be the best at everything, you are required to do your best with whatever the conditions are. If the PI chose to hire you for this job knowing your background they certainly had good reasons to do so.

There are two keys in this kind of risky project:

  1. A good plan
  2. Good communication with the PI

At the start it is crucial that your PI knows about your doubts and that you agree with them about a plan. The plan should be detailed enough with milestones and preferably an exit strategy if things don't work out. You should have a regular meeting with the PI to inform them of your progress. It doesn't matter if the plan has to be changed during the course of the project, what matters is that you and the PI know where things are at any time and discuss every option. The goal is to avoid high expectations due to a misunderstanding of the details, and to avoid discovering critical problems too late.

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