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While I am carrying out research or learning something in my field, I often find some other resources that are relevant to my domain and could help my understanding. Sometimes, while learning, I find myself going down a rabbit hole of these resources for hours, and come out feeling overwhelmed that there is so much to learn, and I know so little.

It could be a research paper that looks interesting, a textbook that might prove useful later, software applicable to my field, a simple side project, a course, articles etc. I make a list of these things (and it is endless) and tell myself that I will come back to it sometime later. But the reality is that there is simply too much to learn and not enough time.

Even if I work like a machine (which is far removed from my actual capability), I will not be able to learn everything in my field. I know that learning All The Knowledge In The World is impossible, but what about knowledge in my own field of interest, which is rather niche?

How do I come to terms with the fact that I will not be able to learn everything in my research area?

Do veteran researchers also feel this way, or does years of experience give them confidence in their level of knowledge?

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    You don't have to learn everything. Your desire is to learn new things that nobody else has learned. For that you don't need to know broadly everything, you need to know a subset that applies to your problems at hand.
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 24 at 13:43
  • @JonCuster that certainly makes sense, but sometimes I have this (probably irrational) feeling that unless I know everything about a topic, I cannot move forward. Reading a paper? I need to know the meaning of every technical term. Going through a textbook? I need to read page to page. And this leads to more information to assimilate, and so on and so forth.
    – justauser
    Jun 24 at 13:47
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    I will presume you are pretty new at this. Yes, you start feeling more comfortable with time and experience. But keep listening to the little voice in your head when it says 'wait a minute - is that right???'.
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 24 at 13:49
  • @JonCuster I am new at this, yes. Thanks a lot for that advice! I'll keep it in mind. But is it normal to have a bunch of ideas on the back-burner and never really getting to implement them? If yes, do you feel guilty about it?
    – justauser
    Jun 24 at 13:53
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    I advise my students to go into the literature with questions in mind; e.g., how to solve X? In other words, they are reading/looking for an answer. Hence, once they find a satisfactory answer, they are done. It is not about learning the whole field; at least for my area, which is Engineering. In this respect, an experienced supervisor/researcher is very important. He/she will tell you where to 'dig'. Otherwise, you are truly looking for a needle in a haystack. Jun 25 at 22:50
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Ah, the burden or mortality; how it pushes down on thee.

Unfortunately, (or is it fortunately?) many academic fields are very big. Depending on how "niche" you want to get, you are usually going to find that the volume of material is far more than a single researcher can master in a lifetime. Worse still, as you get more experienced you will actually start forgetting stuff you had previously mastered, so the progression is often two-three steps forward, one step back.

Perhaps the best way to look at this is by comparison to your existing knowledge. If you are a new resesarcher then your present knowledge (presumably) encompasses only a small fraction of the material in your field. As you get more experienced, you will broaden your knowledge, mastering a few parts of the field and getting a reasonable level of base knowledge in other parts. If you compare yourself to an impossible ideal then that is always going to be difficult to come to terms with, but if you compare your present knowledge with your previous knowledge, hopefully you are becoming more knowledgable and more rounded as time goes on, and that will give you some satisfaction and confidence.

I can't speak for veteran researchers, because I am not at that level yet, but in my experience, years of work in the field tends to do three things: (1) you gain more knowledge of the field, and gain confidence from this additional knowledge; (2) you gain more awareness of other areas of the field that you didn't previously know existed, or more complexities and details in things you have taken for granted, giving you an awareness that the field is more vast than you thought it was; and (3) the ratio of your knowledge to your perceived non-knowledge gets smaller as you get more experience, owing to the rapid rate at which you discover new problems/complexities in the field.

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  • My experience is that the ratio (knowledge gained in #1)/(awareness gained in #2) decreases to very small values as the years go by, even if it were possible to not forget anything gained in #1. Jun 25 at 7:02
  • @DaveLRefro: I have had the same experience. I've folded this explicitly into the answer.
    – Ben
    Jun 25 at 7:09
  • Some really nice advice here, thank you!
    – justauser
    Jun 25 at 11:28
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Allocate a time for exploring new stuff, a time for learning new stuff and a time to consolidate your current main fields of expertise.

And allocate a time to think about how to move forward from where you are, once you know enough. The best work happens on the boundary between the known and unknown.

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  • thank you, this is very useful advice.
    – justauser
    Jun 25 at 6:07
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One trick to increase your effective range of where you can do research is to cultivate collaborators. In particular, people who have similar basic knowledge but know technical areas you do not know. For this to work, you need to work on your communication skills, most particularly talking to people in other areas about your research and their research. Attending a few talks at conference outside you comfort zone is a good way to get a handle on terminology and research trends. Sometimes you can teach another person some of the basics of your specialty in return for them teaching you some of the basics of theirs.

If, down the road, you find you are needed specialist help in the same area over and over again, you can then invest more time learning that specialty for yourself.

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