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I am starting a PhD this Fall, and I'm absolutely terrified that I'm nowhere close enough to the "frontier of knowledge" to enable me to do quality research.

For background purposes, I have a BSc in Chemical Engineering and a BSc in Pure and Applied Mathematics. I finished both of these simultaneously in a 4 year span, as my philosophy was always that I need to be as efficient in my learning as possible and race to that mythical place where the edge of knowledge resides. The issue, however, is that it's now all too clear to me that I'll never be quite where I initially envisioned I would be before starting my PhD.

It is also clear that I have a lot to learn before being able to contribute significantly to the project I'm being placed on, and I worry that I'll spend too much time taking classes and learning what's already known, and not enough time exploring what is not known. This is all made worse by the fact that my PhD will be mostly theoretical in nature, so I feel that the lag time between when I am done "training" and when I can start publishing papers is significant. I did a lot of experimental research in my undergrad, and it was clear to me there that this problem does not exist in as dire a form as the path I chose to go down (and that I am actually excited to go down).

To be clear I am not expecting to make monumental revelations in my PhD, and I don't think anyone is really expecting me to do that either. I am just wondering how someone that carries out theoretically/computationally focused research decides when "enough is enough" and stops taking classes. In sorting out my class schedule for this Fall, I am worried that my addiction from undergrad of taking as many courses as possible will interfere with my research, and at the same time I am not confident that I know enough to conduct research of any sort at the moment.

So if your PhD was largely theoretical and computational in nature, I guess I'm wondering how you were able to balance learning and researching? Anything you wish you did differently? Is it normal to spend a couple years accruing knowledge and not publishing much? Do you have any books/resources you recommend that deal with this sort of dilemma?

  • Is the question about classes per se, or it is about the desirability of further study and enhancing scholarship? – paul garrett Aug 10 at 22:26
  • @paulgarrett Great question. I don't think I'm asking about desirability so much as necessity. Really I'm looking for general guiding principles on how to best approach a PhD that's largely theoretical. I worry about this because I can envision a trap where I spend all my time "enhancing scholarship" - whether it's through classes, reading papers, or some other method - and not enough time contributing to new publications in my lab group. – AlkaKadri Aug 10 at 22:47
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    Nobody expects you to be at the frontier of knowledge when you start your PhD :-) – Flyto Aug 10 at 23:20
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    Make use of your supervisor. Ask him/her for directions to the frontiers of knowledge. I for example give my new PhD students new problems or research questions. They are then tasked with learning all that's required to be able to understand what is it I'm asking them to do. This allows them to be more directed in their learning process. – Prof. Santa Claus Aug 11 at 2:56
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    I had this problem as well and found myself in lecture hall hell where I seemed to be eternally attending classes, basically you have to go through a psychological switch where you stop worrying that you 'don't know enough' and try to learn stuff on the hoof as you go along trying to solve problems, ultimately this approach makes it more likely that you will get publications as you will be working on problems and might find something new. – Tom Aug 11 at 13:41
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I sympathise completely with your situation, as I went through exactly that thought process when I began my PhD. I am in my second year.

I did not begin my PhD with a tightly defined research question, and I would guess that you are not doing so either. I did have an idea of what general area of research interested me and spent a lot of time looking at published papers. Sometimes, while reading a paper, I realised that I needed more general understanding of that topic, and then read text books, or attended classes.

I also attended seminars and such like, to get some idea about how other researchers in my general field go about their work. And I volunteered to give talks on quite general subjects in my broad field, on the basis the best way to learn a subject is to try and teach it to somebody else. I have been surprised by how much of that haphazardly gathered learning has turned out to be helpful in my own very specific research - sometimes directly relevant but more often by suggesting ideas to me about a way of looking at a problem.

I thought, and still think, that it would be a mistake to take classes and read textbooks until I was at the frontier of knowledge, because I would never reach the frontier that way.

What I did instead, after reading, more or less deeply, a few hundred papers, was to realise that none of them really addressed a particular question that I was interested in. Having, almost inadvertently, identified a specific research question, I could then conduct a very intense literature review to confirm, or otherwise, that nobody else had researched that question.

Guess what! I had reached the frontier of knowledge. I am now in the process of seeing if I can push the frontier further out.

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    This is a wonderful story, thank you for sharing Jeremy! I definitely don't have a tightly defined problem that I'm working on, but I do have a pretty specific domain I know I'll be working in so I suppose my situation could be worse. "A few hundred papers" is mega impressive for being in your second year. I think your method of reading papers and attending seminars addresses my concerns. There are many frontiers of knowledge, each requiring more/less knowledge to access, and I'll probably be working hard with my adviser/reading papers to find a suitable one to push out. – AlkaKadri Aug 10 at 23:21
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Unsurprisingly, there is no one-size-fits-all method for balancing the tasks of acquiring knowledge and producing knowledge. It is a very common concern for starting PhD students like you, but in the vast majority of cases things work out fine. I'll try to explain why and how:

Acquiring and producing knowledge are not mutually incompatible tasks. In fact, they are often fruitfully combined with each other. For example, one may read a paper which gives them an idea for a new approach in their work; conversely, one may stumble upon a problem in their research and switch to discovering how existing works deal with the same kind of problem. The balance is achieved by keeping a flexible goal-oriented approach, by this I mean that it combines two aspects:

  • Nobody can know everything in their field, so researchers don't try to achieve that. Instead they focus on the topics which are susceptible of contributing to their own research. That's the in-depth aspect of acquiring new knowledge: choosing what one needs to know in order to progress in their own research goals and study every detail of it.
  • On the other hand, researchers need to keep up to date with the major discoveries in their field. But for that they don't need to know or even understand every detail of every single new paper, they can skim through abstracts/papers and select whether they want to dive deeper depending on their goals (or depending on how soon their next deadline is). That's the in-breadth aspect.

Naturally figuring out one's methodology, for example recognizing the papers of interest, takes some learning. Well, that's exactly what a PhD is for: a PhD student is a researcher in training. It's understood that they are not immediately operational and that they need to acquire a lot of new knowledge, both in their specialized field and in general scientific methodology.

It's very common to spend at least the first year (often more!) of PhD learning and exploring around the research question, sometimes a bit randomly. During this time it's frequent not to actually produce anything, and even occasionally spending time exploring something which turns out to be irrelevant. It's fine, mistakes are entirely part of the research process.

What is important is to keep a main research objective in mind: at the beginning it's often a very general and vague objective. Then progressively, by getting a better understanding of the state of the art and discussing with your advisor, you will start zeroing on what will become your specific research contribution.

  • That PhD students are still viewed as researchers in training at the beginning is reassuring. Looks like I'll need to work on marrying the ideas of Acquiring and Producing of knowledge together as you've suggested. Thank you for the very helpful advice Erwan! In response to your comment above, I'll be doing grad school in the US (in CA) and what I've experienced thus far of the program meshes will with what you've laid out. So much appreciated again :) – AlkaKadri Aug 12 at 4:51
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I'm wondering how you were able to balance learning and researching?

You seem to be under the impression that one day a switch will flip and you'll know everything there is to know about your field, thus allowing you to start pushing that boundary of knowledge.

The good thing is: there is no such switch! You will not stop learning at all during your PhD, and there will never come a point where you know everything. The key thing is to recognise when you know enough, and your supervisor (if they're good at their job) will help you in this regard.

Is it normal to spend a couple years accruing knowledge and not publishing much?

Yes. There's an old saying: a PhD is three years of training in how to do a PhD in six months. It sounds like you're in the USA, so that timescale is likely going to be a bit longer, but no one is expecting a new PhD student to be churning out papers. That's not a healthy way to do science. You need to get the lay of the land first; not know and understand everything there is to know, but to be able to identify the key open questions in your field and the ways in which they can be addressed.

My PhD will be mostly theoretical in nature, so I feel that the lag time between when I am done "training" and when I can start publishing papers is significant.

From my experience, theoreticians publish papers far more quickly than experimentalists. In my department, it's common for the theory people to finish with 3--4 papers; observers (I'm a cosmologist) with only one or even none. However, try not to fall prey to the "publish or perish" trap. Yes, it's important to publish your work, but don't rush it. Make sure you do good science and write it up really well.

for example, I started my PhD having already done a Master's degree, i.e. I had some experience of research and the literature in my field. I still spent at least three months just reading papers when I started, and only began to feel like I really knew what I was doing about 18 months in, when my first paper was published. This is normal. Just be patient and be open with your supervisor about your worries from the start.

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    I laughed pretty hard at "a PhD is three years of training on how to do a PhD in six months". I also definitely have zero expectations of ever knowing everything, and and actually look forward to always learning! I just wasn't convinced that one can arrive at a point where they know enough to do such theoretical research in just a few years, but the vibe I'm getting from this thread is that it's very achievable once you zero in on a specific problem. That theoreticians publish more quickly and frequently is an interesting observation. Thanks for all your helpful advice my guy :) – AlkaKadri Aug 12 at 4:58
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I'd rather like to give you some practical tips. In my view a big part of a PhD is learning how to learn and to deal with the huge information overload that might exist in your field of research, especially nowadays. Reading a 100 papers is warning signal in my opinion. Most PhD thesis only contain 100-200 references. Overflying a 100 is ok. This points me to the suspicion you are analyzing and reading the literatur not efficiently and this is of course a matter of time.

So, if I would start doing a PhD again, I would like someone to tell me how to select and what to read. My suggestions now after PhD are:

  • Start with a review article published in the past 10 years instead of reading the most cited current papers, which will not help a lot, as those are very specialized research reports, often in letter format.

  • If you don't understand most of the content, read a text book covering the topic, if you still don't understand you have to switch to university courses, lectures, seminars

  • after reaching some understanding look for open questions -> search google scholar with

    "intitle:opportunities/advances/roadmap" AND "your field"

as these articles look into future, list open questions or methodological gaps. Simultaneously you should visit conferences, workshops and summer schools if you can and talk especially with PhD students which are at the end of their odyssey and discuss open questions.

  • then you have to decide what you can and would like to do, where sits the expertise of your advisor, your colleagues and you and what facilities do you have (intellectual, experimental, computational ... you have at all). This will narrow down a lot what you actually can do and running into too many dead ends, which you have to risk in fundamental research.

The rest is the PhD. And when you are able to come up with new correct and interesting questions to your peers in your field your supervisor could not think of, this is a very good sign you have become an independent researcher, which is the main goal of a PhD.

  • This is all golden stuff, thank you very much for your insights! In a way, I guess my question was essentially on how to deal with "information overload", and everyone here seems to be saying that managing that is actually a skill that needs to be learnt and practiced (thinking out loud here to make sure I'm not interpreting this incorrectly). I've also heard others mention that reading papers is something of a skill, so I'll definitely make that a key focus. Your Google Scholar suggestion is amazing, I can't believe I haven't seen that before! Thank you again for all your help. – AlkaKadri Aug 12 at 5:08

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