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.”

And I was away.

You see I am a tangent machine. I love them. Most of my ideas come from the wandering of my mind. Therefore, over the next few days, my subconscious went to work trying to figure out exactly what the difference between understanding and knowledge was.

I had an intuition this was important for my imposter syndrome. I cannot recall the number of times I have sat in a meeting or around the coffee table with colleagues, worrying about all the words, concepts and techniques I didn’t know about. I felt like everyone else around me was an expert, and in comparison, I was most certainly not.

My mind first thought about possible examples of humans who have a great propensity for knowledge. An image flashed up in my mind of a news story I had seen on the internet. It was of this man (an autistic savant) who was able to go on a single helicopter ride around New York City, then incredibly, was able to afterwards paint the entire scene from memory – including intricate details like the positions of each window on every building. He had this fantastic ability to store knowledge far beyond the average human being.

I began to wonder why there weren’t more people like this in the physics community? When considering those around me, I realised that quite a few would be pretty poor at attempting to draw from memory – including me. Early on it seemed like physics does not require a high propensity for knowledge.

I considered the most extreme case – an individual who had all the propensity for knowledge but not for understanding. They would be able to draw the scene of New York from memory without a single error. However, if they were asked to draw the sewer system, they would simply respond: I can’t see the sewer system. They would be only able to draw what they see.  They wouldn’t be able to connect the dots from known gaps, or project to new pieces of knowledge from known connected pieces of knowledge.

We can guess where the sewer system lies by connecting pieces of knowledge we have from the image. Firstly, each building must contain people for protracted periods of time, each of these people require toilets, so some of the rooms in the buildings must be toilets. These toilets require plumbing systems which must take waste away from the city (or else it would pile up and smell really bad). Since there are no pipes seen above the ground, they must be underground. Due to erosion over time these pipes will require maintenance, therefore almost the entirety of the pipe must be easily accessible. The pipes should therefore follow the roads.

Without seeing the pipes we can understand where the pipes are by using the knowledge available to us and connecting them together. If we represent a piece of knowledge as a dot, a ‘piece’ of understanding is the connection between two dots. An idea is a bunch of dots connected together.

As a researcher, we are attempting to obtain new pieces of knowledge. So if we imagine drawing a circle of known human knowledge, a new piece of knowledge is a dot that resides just outside it. A researcher’s job is to draw a line to a potential new piece of knowledge. Science is the act of drawing as many new lines from different dots as possible and the dots remain in the same place. A researchers job, I realised, has a great propensity for understanding (of drawing new lines) rather than knowledge. A researcher’s job is to extend understanding to a new piece of knowledge, not to know what already exists. Neither is it the researcher’s job to have a good understanding of previous knowledge outside of the specific area the researcher works in. It can certainly help draw unconventional links and form better ideas, but it is not necessary.

As a new researcher, you enter an environment where initially most have more knowledge than you, and maybe even a better understanding of previously known concepts – but that is not what defines what a ‘good’ researcher is. A good researcher has a great propensity to draw new lines. Vivas are supposed to test understanding, not knowledge. Understanding is what is tested in the examinations towards the end of an undergraduate. The ability of the individual to draw new understandings, not how much the individual knows – moving away from the knowledge-based examinations at school.

Objectively, at the beginning of a PhD, there is no reason to feel like an imposter. If you are on a PhD program, it means your grades were good enough to show that you are able to derive new understandings from previously known knowledge. Even with this knowledge, it can still feel like that is not the case, but in time this will change. When you become more knowledgeable about your field you will be surprised how your language changes.