I'm in my first year of PhD, but sometimes I forget basic concepts that I have learned in my undergraduate years. I have a masters but my masters was general not specific, and now I'm working in a specific topic in the PhD. My PhD is in the field of piezoelectricity and I have forgotten information that I studied before in Electromagnetism. I am now finding myself watching lectures for undergraduate students, but its not that bad, it doesn't take me much time to understand. But then, I get more questions in my head as I explore more and more information, and then more time passes before finishing what my supervisor told me to study.

Is this normal, or does it mean that I'm not ready for PhD? So when PhD students start their PhD, and start doing literature review, do they also review material studied before?

By the way, I also think that I have maladaptive daydreaming, so this makes things worse. :(


3 Answers 3


I actually wonder if you have a different issue than the one you think :). I suspect that you do have the knowledge and background to complete your task, but perhaps as a side effect of imposter syndrome, are avoiding the steps you need to take to learn the material you need for your research problem.

It is completely normal to need to review information that you don't have at your fingertips. Even if you have taken and done well on courses in electromagnetism, doing a PhD in a subfield of electromagnetism means that you are now going to hyperfocus on a specific area, and you are very unlikely to remember all the details you learned about that area in your course. A good researcher is not someone who knows all the details they need and never needs to look something up; a good researcher is someone who knows how they can find what they need, learn it, and put this knowledge to use. There are some advantages to reviewing undergraduate lectures: (a) they tend to be at a higher level, which is useful at the beginning of a project when you are getting your feet wet with the subject and don't want to get lost in the weeds, and (b) more undergraduate lectures tend to be available online than graduate ones.

Having said that, what stands out to me in your question is this:

But then, I get more questions in my head as I explore more and more information, and then more time passes before finishing what my supervisor told me to study.

It sounds like you might have an issue with focusing on the parts of the material that are relevant for your research problem. This can be a big issue, especially if you end up spending a lot of time re-watching lecture videos and don't make progress on your topic. A lot of a PhD is self-driven, and requires focus in a narrow area. So it is important to develop the skill and discipline to be able to identify what you need to know, and learn those things, without going too far down rabbit holes that take you away from your goal. Of course, there's some balance, because defining what you think you need too narrowly can lead to your pre-conceived notions of how you think something works blinding you to important concepts you need to learn, so there is always some "exploration" part of learning and you cannot be 100% efficient. But, it seems to me you know that you are spending too much time thinking about questions about the lectures that are not relevant to your research.

Additionally, while undergraduate lectures have the advantages stated above, at some point you will likely find that they do not cover the material in sufficient depth for what you need to do. Therefore, it is also important to look at other sources. Probably, you will find that you need to read advanced books and research papers to learn the techniques you need. This can absolutely feel scary and intimidating if you have never used these kinds of resources before. And if you are experiencing feelings of imposter syndrome, then it's normal to feel like "you aren't smart enough" to tackle these more advanced resources. However, you don't need to believe or act on these feelings. You want to make sure that you are not using the undergraduate lectures as a crutch because they feel comfortable, but instead are making rational decisions about using the source(s) that contain the information you need at the right level to do your work. Your advisor can help you determine what the relevant sources are.

I'm not saying this is what is happening in your case, but here a common example of the kind of thing I am saying. Many students who did very well as undergraduates have a difficult time transitioning to a PhD. They find research challenging given the difficult, open-ended problems and long timescales of a research project, and miss coursework where they did well and got rapid, positive feedback. So, they try to recreate the experience of taking courses, and do not advance in their research. These students eventually have to learn that research progress is measured using different metrics than coursework, and change the way they work to be successful in research.

Here is a relevant and perhaps inspirational quote from Nobel Laureate Stephen Weinberg (from here: https://www.nature.com/articles/426389a)

I managed to get a quick PhD — though when I got it I knew almost nothing about physics. But I did learn one big thing: that no one knows everything, and you don't have to.

Given that you were admitted to a PhD program, I absolutely believe you have the background needed to make the jump to using the research literature successfully. What you are feeling is very common, and not easy. It may feel like you are stepping outside your comfort zone at first, but the rewards for "learning how to learn" are enormous and will pay dividends throughout your career.


Disclaimer: I only speak from personal experience below.

I also had similar problems during my PhD. It helps to remember that a PhD is a specialisation in a very very specific direction of research. You do not start with Classical Mechanics when you do a literature review. Even if you do not recall the analytical solution to the whatever order differential equation. But yes, you do review material studied before, in a reasonable amount of time.

Try to focus on what is relevant for your PhD and the immediate topic at hand. If you do not understand it, discuss it with a peer. Come back to the topic a few days later, work on something else meanwhile.

Remember PhD is just as much time management as research.

  • Thank you, I'm just not feeling confident enough. I'm also not satisfied with my bachelor study style at my past university. So, I feel like I'm on a higher level with a background study that wasn't solid enough.
    – user134613
    Commented Apr 7, 2022 at 21:38

I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's not normal. That's because as PhD students, one would already have been an undergraduate before and therefore know what it's like. As long as you have not completely forgotten what you learned during undergraduate studies, it should be clear even to yourself that you know more than you did and therefore are not at undergraduate level.

it doesn't take me much time to understand

This is the key line. Think about how long it took to master the material when you first encountered it, and compare it with now. You might review old material (who doesn't do that?) but when you do you know what you're looking for and can skip to the relevant part, and also learn it a lot faster.

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