Starting a PhD is daunting to say the least. The gap in knowledge between research and undergraduate study is a rather large one. Therefore many students, like myself, have experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ – the feeling that it was a mistake on the academics to choose you for the PhD project but they do not know yet. Here, I suggest perspectives that might help deal with this phenomenon. Part 1 of 2

This blog post discusses imposter syndrome, the feeling of inadequacy despite having achieved success. Alex suggests that understanding and knowledge are two different concepts and that a researcher’s job is to extend their understanding to gain new knowledge. He argues that while it is normal for new researchers to feel like imposters when they are surrounded by people with more knowledge than them, they should focus on their ability to draw new lines of understanding. Alex believes that vivas test understanding, not knowledge, and that one’s ability to derive new understandings from previously known concepts is what defines a good researcher.

My PhD supervisor and I were standing in the lab preparing a sample for the electron microscope. It is a semi-dull activity, rich in opportunity for conversations about the minutia of life. I mentioned to him I was worried about the viva. I have always struggled with thinking on my feet. When my mind is stressed in such a way it takes the option of shutting down completely, leaving the occupier (i.e. me) to stare blankly at the wall. After some much-needed reassurance and useful advice, he says something which piques my interest. He mentions the viva is a “test of your knowledge”. Curious, I respond “I thought it was a test of my understanding?”. “Well”, he says in a semi-throwaway manner, “what really is the difference between understanding and knowledge.”

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