There's a famous quote from a former US government official regarding the things we know, the things we know we don't know, and things we don't know we don't know. Likewise, there are many colorful versions of this too (my personal favorite - careful, some cursing involved).

As a soon-to-be second-year graduate student, I'm rapidly discovering just how much damage that last category - the "unknown unknowns" - can be. To wit: I was given a project to work on by my advisor that seemed straightforward enough, and I was confident I could successfully complete it within a few weeks. I even tried to pad the time required by asking for a month.

Fast-forward a month, and the project was "working" in only the broadest sense of the term. I ran up against a number of problems - ranging from being bottlenecked by other lab members who were struggling with their own projects that fed directly into mine, to taking a wrong turn and attempting to use a software package that didn't work correctly, to discovering numerous times that what I had coded was extremely clunky to move forward and needed to be refactored.

In each case, I learned something new (usually several things) that made the next iteration of my work more successful - and yet after 3 iterations over the course of a month, the project itself is still barely working, I'm rather sleep deprived, and at this rate I'm likely to miss an important deadline to gather results for a paper (it won't torpedo the paper, but it will likely weaken it).

What I'd like to know is this: are there any strategies I can follow to try and minimize the number of obstacles before I start a research project? I spent nearly a week prior to starting this - and several days over the last month - reading nearly a dozen related papers, sketching out ideas, but I only just realized that I was researching the wrong topic (specifically: "how are multiprocessor scheduling policies designed" while I should have been researching "how are multiprocessor schedulers designed" - a subtle difference I think). To be honest, I'm not certain I can sustain this level of stress for the duration of my degree program.

  • 7
    The answer to your titular question is unknown. :-)
    – Mad Jack
    Aug 15, 2016 at 3:45
  • @MadJack: What I rephrased the question/title to be, "How do I maximize the number of 'known unknowns'"? Is that a better/more answerable one?
    – tonysdg
    Aug 15, 2016 at 3:48
  • It could be that your only mistake was underestimating how long the project would take. What does your advisor say about your progress? Does he/she have any advice for how to proceed more efficiently?
    – user37208
    Aug 15, 2016 at 4:17
  • @user37208: My advisor has asked me why I didn't ask him questions earlier, to which my only response has been "I didn't know what questions to ask until now." At least, as I noted in my question, I've been asking the wrong questions for a while now. As for how to proceed more efficiently, the last time I asked I was told that "you're still relatively new and have a lot to learn", which isn't particularly helpful.
    – tonysdg
    Aug 15, 2016 at 9:30
  • 1
    I think your perspective is off a bit. I encourage you to read this answer of Pete Clark: academia.stackexchange.com/a/72748/19607
    – Kimball
    Aug 16, 2016 at 4:38

1 Answer 1


If you wish to minimize the known unknowns, them you would have to explore more studies published in the area you are researching on. Your advisor, provided he is well versed on the topic, could help you out with this. On the other hand the unknown unknowns can only be discovered by exploring the topic yourself with extensive experimentation and see whether the concept has been published before. To know what is really unknown, you would have to know everything that is known.

Well that would be the holistic view. But coming to the practical view, the known unknowns would only point to the knowledge your thesis committee or reviewers know that you don't but aware of. And, unknown unknowns is more or less the same only that unaware of what they know.

So it would be better to understand the practical implications of your problem and not to get yourself stressed out too much.

Hope this helps.

  • So basically are you saying that there is nothing we can do about this?
    – Ooker
    Aug 15, 2016 at 13:24
  • @Ooker: As a true researcher, you can; as a grad student, you cannot.
    – Ébe Isaac
    Aug 15, 2016 at 13:26
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    What exactly is the difference between a "true researcher" and a "grad student"? Are you suggesting that a "true researcher" somehow knows everything, and that once someone earns their last graduate degree they reach that state?
    – ff524
    Aug 16, 2016 at 1:21
  • @ff524: there are possible overlaps between the two. But the main thing is that a true researcher is not time constrained. He can afford falling into rabbit holes and delve into the unknown. No one knows everything; no one can. But a true researcher can try a better hand at this.
    – Ébe Isaac
    Aug 16, 2016 at 1:30
  • 1
    True research does not occur as a result of your thesis publication but what you do after your thesis (my mentor taught me that). Research as a grad student always has it's limits: abiding the guidance of your advisor, meeting up with the expectations of your thesis committee, finishing it within the max/min duration. Diving into the unknown unknowns it's a luxury most grad students cannot afford. It's not always about results. Research of this sort has no end, but is truly a journey worth taking for the like mind. I'm sure you would understand this, @ff524.
    – Ébe Isaac
    Aug 16, 2016 at 2:02

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