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As a PhD student, I want to be a professor in less than a decade, and I have a fear that I may never be able to learn enough to answer all kinds of questions you can get asked in a classroom you are teaching. Although I did not encounter a lot of situations like this when I attended classes, the ones that did occur were rare and the professor followed up the next days with some answers. But I also know they really spent a lot of time on that.

I have the fear that I am not clever enough to answer technical questions even after another decade of learning. The fear may be irrational. Would you advise me a path in Academia?

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  • The analogous question for TAs that don't know the answer; I suspect the strategies will be the same.
    – cag51
    Commented Dec 8, 2021 at 19:53
  • How do you currently answer technical questions during/after talks that you give? Also, google impostor syndrome. Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 17:50

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First, you are underestimating what knowledge and skills you will have in a decade.

Second, you aren't expected to know everything. Not by your peers, at least, but students sometimes have unreasonable expectations. You can't know everything, of course.

Third, it is fine to say "I don't know, but will try to find an answer". Then do that.

If you are asked a question that would be better answered by someone else, send the student to them. Sending a student to a colleague with a different specialty is fine.

You can also suggest where the answer might be found. This is often the best answer if it gets the student doing a bit of research. They learn about sources and methods that will serve them in other situations.

And, most of the questions you are most likely to get arise in situations in which you are probably the person with the most skill and experience to answer. As you have seen, most professors answer most of the questions fielded to them and do something "useful" about the others.

Let me emphasize again, though, that answering all questions may not be the best solution. Better to "guide the student to the answer" than to just "give the answer". That can even result in serious research at some levels.

In any case, don't fake it. If you have to speculate, say that you are speculating.


See this answer to a different question for a story about answering questions in class.

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