I seek advice from mathematicians.

Sometimes I come across a topic I partially understand in my research, but I understand enough to get my work done. Yet I want to know everything about the topic, even if it isn't beneficial to my work. I can not get rid of universalism. For example, I think I do not know a lot of about my research field without reading all the grad texts.

But at the time of doctoral education teachers always advise you to look at the research and stop reading too many books.

How is it possible to get rid of universalism?

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    I'm afraid I don't find your question very clear. First of all you don't say who you are: are you a mathematics graduate student? At what stage -- are you working on your thesis? Second, I think that by "universalism" you mean that you are having a hard time getting away from the need to fully understand every result you're using. (I don't think "universalism" is a good word for that, by the way.) But whether, how, how much and in what way you should stop doing that depends so much on your particular situation that a general answer could be useless or worse. What does your advisor say? Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 15:54
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    As is often the case, XKCD has a relevant comic: xkcd.com/761 - you need to figure out what is important to know for your research, and learn that. Don't learn everything and then find out what you need to know for your corner of math.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 16:58
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    "I think I do not know a lot of about my research field without reading all the grad texts" I hate to break the bad news to you, but when you really start looking deep into a particular topic, you'll find that quite a bit (often over 95% of the total) never makes it into the santitized and streamlined textbooks, such as for example the results involving the nowhere differentiability properties of most continuous functions in my answer to this question. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 20:09
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    How did you overcome the need to fly, or to turn invisible, or to have X-ray vision?
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 0:18
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    Take a look at academia.stackexchange.com/a/78073/32436. I can't tell from your question whether you experience a compulsive need to read all the grad texts on a certain topic. After you read the answer I linked to, could you come back here and let me know if you think there is some compulsive quality to your urge to understand everything about a topic? I really wasn't sure from your post. Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 4:08

2 Answers 2


I propose that your behavior is not caused by flawed methodology but stems from certain acquired beliefs about your self worth, that you should try to address to solve this "problem".

Reason for Behaviour

The need to

  • read everything stems from the need
  • know everything which stems from the need to
  • not miss anything important/useful which in turn stems from the need to
  • submit the perfect paper or thesis which stems stems from the need to
  • get appraisal from your advisor or peers which is a
  • source of happiness

Thus, unconsciously you are afraid that, if you miss some information your work will be less than perfect and you will not get the approval that you are used to get. People will be disappointed, saying something like "This is not the quality of work we are used to get from you".


It is usually hard to change these core beliefs about ourselves, but you could

  • realize that even with a non perfect paper you will be much better than other researchers (if the need to be the best is not something you can change)
  • realize that your advisor values it more, if you finish your research in time than making the best work possible ("Better done than perfect"). Therefore you will get more appraisal for finishing quickly.
  • look for other sources of happiness and validation in life that will make imperfections in your work seem less important
    • friends that value your company
    • spouse that loves and values you as a person
    • children
    • teaching, where the amount of knowledge you need to acquire is much lower and the reward (admiration from students) is easier to achieve

(Disclaimer: I am not a mathematician)


Not a mathematician, but my field gives rise to many many of those moments. Just note the areas of interest in a text file or table. You need to focus. You can also set aside a fixed hour or two each week, to allow yourself to cover those additional areas of interest. But mostly you'll just have to accept that you'll never ever know everything in the world... It's like wanting to eat everything on the buffet table.

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