Short version: Do you expect your knowledge in previous degrees to play a big part in your PhD?

Just to give you a bit of my background, I studied maths in my previous degrees and I am also doing maths in my PhD (trying to solve some kind of discrete optimisation problem). All in the UK, by the way.

Now some of you probably know that it's usually hard (NP-hard, if you like) to solve discrete optimisation problems. I got to learn some of them in my previous degrees and found them really fun and enjoyable, probably because I could understand how to solve them and why such and such methods work. (Well I guess it's obvious that they would only teach me "easy" problems at that stage.)

I know that I am expected to learn new things during a PhD, but since I started my PhD, I have been feeling that I rarely get to use what I studied before to tackle my research. It's like I started from zero again. Anything I learned before doesn't seem to be useful and I had to learn new techniques from scratch. All this made me wonder that I probably chose a wrong topic because I have almost zero knowledge to do this topic.

Have you ever had a similar feeling? Is it just another normal PhD life? I'm just no longer sure if I made the right decision to do this particular topic (or even to do a PhD).

Edit: I tried to think about this again and realised that I shouldn't have asked "how normal is it?", but rather "has anyone else experienced this and how did you deal with it?"

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    Not too closely related to your actual question, but you sound as if this could be helpful to you: How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student? Jun 5, 2015 at 19:08
  • I think this very much depends on individual experience which cannot be generalized.
    – CuriousCat
    Jun 5, 2015 at 19:42
  • @StephanKolassa Thank you very much for the link. It makes me feel better to see that I'm not the only one that has self-doubts.
    – Wayne
    Jun 5, 2015 at 20:18
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    "If we knew what we are doing, it wouldn't be called research". You can't really teach the unknown. However, the undergrad has hopefully taught you how to tackle new problems, and give you new possible perspectives to look at things.
    – Davidmh
    Jun 5, 2015 at 20:41
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    Have you ever had a similar feeling? — Yes, about every five years, every time the focus of my research changes.
    – JeffE
    Jun 5, 2015 at 21:03

1 Answer 1


It's quite normal for your bachelor's and master's studies to have little, if any, influence on your PhD research, particularly in the sciences and engineering. I think this is especially true in engineering, as the contents of engineering curricula tend to be more "conservative" than the research ongoing in most departments.

Moreover, though, one of the skills you need to learn to survive as a research professional is the ability to learn a brand new topic to which you have not previously been exposed. This is because it's quite likely that you'll move into another research area multiple times during your professional career, and the only way to figure out what makes for good research in the field is to become an expert in it. So studying something brand new in your PhD is not only not a problem, it represents a great opportunity for your future career.

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    In a very real sense, the most important thing the Bachelor's degree should have taught you is how to learn efficient in a number of different modes.
    – keshlam
    Jun 5, 2015 at 18:42
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    From personal experience in engineering I could not disagree more. Though conducted at three different universities, all my engineering research followed a common thread and generally built my experience and confidence in that field. Transitioning into R&D at a large company I can say that I easily apply 75% of the things I learned during my various under graduate and graduate studies.
    – CuriousCat
    Jun 5, 2015 at 19:36
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    I'm a chemical engineer, and I've had completely the opposite experience—no use of my undergraduate education in ChE in my graduate research, and minimal use of my graduate courses, too. This depends entirely on which discipline (and subfield) of engineering you're in.
    – aeismail
    Jun 5, 2015 at 19:39
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    @aeismail, I don't understand how you can say that as a ChemE none of your undergraduate education applied!! Presumably calculus, differential equations, basic chemistry, something(!) must have been relevant to your graduate studies. You may not have used Radiative Transfer if you were doing work primarily on polymers, but I'm surprised to hear you say that nothing overlapped.
    – Bill Barth
    Jun 5, 2015 at 22:28
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    @MassimoOrtolano: This is not just personal experience, but observations over the last fifteen years or so. There is simply not much overlap in many fields of study, and people should not be afraid of this when choosing a graduate project.
    – aeismail
    Jun 6, 2015 at 14:00

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