I am half way through the first year of my PhD (physics) and I find myself faced with the following problem related to research discipline and learning new techniques while doing a PhD. The problem is probably specific to my personality, but I am hoping that some people can relate and provide their experiences/advice.

Essentially I find it hard to actually learn anything new, especially when it comes to techniques. Let me clarify by describing how I read a paper

  • When reading a paper I usually read just enough to 'understand' it on a functional level. I.e. afterwards I know: a) What has been done b) How it fits with some other things I know c) If it is useful for the research my group is doing and the projects I am working on. When c) applies I read 'in more detail'. That usually just involves following the derivations on a functional level. I.e. afterwards I would know a), b), c) for every part of the derivation.

The problem is that I don't actually learn any techniques this way. I could not sit down and do what has been done in the paper, even though I could tell you exactly what has been done in the paper and (for the ones I read in detail) how it has been done.

That isn't too bad if you want to come up with new research ideas, I even found that you can solve some problems this way, but you can't actually write the solution down. The latter unfortunately is very necessary if you want to write a paper.

I have a similar problem with textbooks that I was going to describe here, but for the sake of brevity1 I will spare you the details.

To me the situation is a bit worrisome, especially because that did not happen to me during my undergraduate. When doing supervision work and exercises I always felt like at the end I understood things on a level where I could do them again. When people asked me questions about it I could not only tell them how to do the question in principle, but also point out technically details that you encounter along the way. I am worried that I will never reach such a level of understanding in any new areas the way I am approaching it at the moment.

I suspect that one of my problems is that I have become really impatient somewhere in between feeling the pressure of trying to produce valuable research and trying to learn things as quickly as possible. This creates the feeling that I am unable to 'sit down' and 'actually do something' 2 .

So, reading my question above again I don't feel like I have pinned the point down very well at all, but this is my 3rd try, so I'll go with it and see if people have some advice. The title question is going to be: How to deal with impatience when starting off in research?

1 Really not an appropriate description of this question anymore...

2 Don't get me wrong, I am not procrastinating. I am doing a lot of work and I also enjoy the work very much. It is just not very effective and when I think after each day what I have achieved, there is a lingering fear that I just wasted a lot of time.


3 Answers 3


A lot of this just sounds like the transition from undergraduate work where the solutions are relatively obvious (i.e., apply the theorem we learned this week...oh look, beautiful solutions with round numbers everywhere, huzzah!) to actual research that requires a bit more creativity.

Have you talked to your advisor/PI about this? It just sounds like you need a bit of a push/direction to get started, and that's a big part of what your PhD advisor is for early on.

Also, I don't know what types of problems you are working on, but although I'm a wet biologist by training, I spend most of my time in research choosing the right algorithms to analyze a particular set of data. In that area, often your progress is measured less by "how many problems did I solve today?" and rather by "how many approaches did I rule out for this one problem?" Perhaps you will feel like your time is better spent if you recognize that a lot of the background work you are doing is also important. Maybe paradoxically, if you are working on problems that are easy to solve, you are probably wasting your time because if they are easy, they were probably solved already.

  • +1 and thank you for your answer! I have mentioned it to my advisor but what he can do about that is limited. my actually work (which I already know all the techniques for) is going well, the thing I am having problems with is learning new things on the side. I might have not gotten that in the question too well. Thank you for your last paragraph though, that was something helpful! Commented May 6, 2017 at 12:08

From what you describe, i.e. preferring learning by doing rather than first getting strong theoretical foundations, you seem to be more a hacker than a academician.

From Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham (whole essay is about this difference):

The fact that hackers learn to hack by doing it is another sign of how different hacking is from the sciences. Scientists don't learn science by doing it, but by doing labs and problem sets. Scientists start out doing work that's perfect, in the sense that they're just trying to reproduce work someone else has already done for them. Eventually, they get to the point where they can do original work. Whereas hackers, from the start, are doing original work; it's just very bad. So hackers start original, and get good, and scientists start good, and get original.

In my personal case, impatience brought me from academic science to startup world and data science What I do or: science to data science. If I had know about my psychological traits, I wouldn't have dove into the academic world (it's not only about intellectual skills, but also patience... and ability to deal with hierarchy).

  • If I had know about my psychological traits, I wouldn't have dove into the academic world (it's not only about intellectual skills, but also patience... and ability to deal with hierarchy) -- That's interesting; I wonder how these types of folks (that I can identify with on some level) end up doing in academia ... I guess I'll have a data point in 5 years or so. (+1, by the way.)
    – Mad Jack
    Commented May 6, 2017 at 2:29
  • +1 and thank you very much for sharing your experience! This distinction between hackers and academicians is useful. Interestingly after reading this essay I come to the opposite conclusion. Maybe this is due to the subject. In physics I would say a 'hacker' would be someone who calculates (programs) away on some problem until they notice something and then make it beautiful. An 'academic' would be someone who understands problem first until they have the solution (programming plan) and then just do the calculation (programming) at the end. Commented May 6, 2017 at 11:43
  • So by this analogy I think I have a problem with the hacking part. Any tips on becoming a better hacker? Commented May 6, 2017 at 11:45
  • 2
    preferring learning by doing rather than first getting strong theoretical foundations — This makes as much sense to me as "preferring living in the northern hemisphere to living in the western hemisphere".
    – JeffE
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 1:15
  • @JeffE Could you explain that? While people can use both methods of learning (and often, though not always - there is some combination), many people (and places) have preference for one over another. E.g. in you can play around with a practical project without any understanding of its inner workings (unacceptable in academia) or deep understanding of mathematical foundation without any playing with any practical examples. Plus, time is finite, so it is not as perpendicular as hemispheres. Commented May 7, 2017 at 19:21

As per request in the comments, I am posting an answer about my experience since I asked this question about 3 years ago (time flies...).

I think the first advice I would give my past self is: Calm down, it is all going to be fine! and Find your own way to do research.

Parts of the problem were probably caused by my personality, other parts are quite common problems in my experience. Some younger PhD students seem to struggle with the same issue. The main reason is that when you start out in a new field, there is simply too much material to learn everything on the level you were used to as an undergraduate. With time that will change.

That said, I think it is useful to give some advice and strategies on how to get to that bright future. Here is my take:

  • Have a goal, create your niche. If you want to learn a technique that you find cool or useful, cast it into project or a problem to solve. If you want to become an ''expert'', you have to choose what to actually become an expert in. I personally chose a very particular goal that kind of acted as a guiding thread through the literature, making it easier to also understand other topics. 3 years later I am still not an expert in the whole field, but I can quite confidently claim that there are few people in the world that know more about my mini-niche than I do.
  • Learn by doing: This has also been mentioned in the comments and other answers. Just reading a paper cannot get you to the full level. You have to do the calculations or implement the results in one form or another. For example, I just started redoing plots from some papers I found interesting in python. Often, one may even find someting interesting that way that the authors did not realize... A new research direction!
  • Find your own style: Finding the right balance between reading and doing, inventing new stuff and implementing old works, creating and documenting your own results etc. etc. is largely personality dependen and on how you learn. I think the academician vs hackers analogy from Piotr Migdal's answer is too simplistic, as also alluded t in the comments. There are many ways to achieve progress in science! Don't let yourself get locked in by what others say. Find your path, persue it with confidence, but be critical about how to improve.
  • Get back the patience: That said, once you have a goal and your style and maybe an overview of your field, sometimes is important to just sit down and understand that entire pesky paper from the 80s that you have been staring at for a while. This is where to start the "Learning by doing" strategy and "do" the whole paper. However, choose wisely which papers/textbook chapters etc. you want to do that for.
  • Be bold: This one is largely personality dependent. I find that I can learn stuff much better and in a lot of detail if I make a conjecture or have a goal that is very bold. I always fail to achieve it, but in the process and by understanding why I failed I learn the subject and crate my own perspective on it.
  • Ask for feedback: Advisors are there to guide you. Ask them what you can do better. Tell them what you have problems with and ask how to improve. Some advirsors give very useful advice on that, others don't.

That's it. Most important point is probably the Find your own style. Don't take the rest too seriously, I'm still a PhD student and have no clue what I'm doing really.


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