Feeling like you haven't got 'the basics'


Anyone else had this issue?

I did a joint honours BA - 6 assessed modules in one subject, 3 in another. And the modules I did in the subsidiary subject weren't exactly carefully chosen to give me a rounded view of the field, in fact they were in rather specialised areas that I've since pretty much lost interest in.

Anyway, I realized late in the day that the subsidiary subject was where my strengths and interests lay. So I did an MA in that subject, and did my best to choose a course that had a strong taught element in core areas. But the specific topics we were looking at had clearly been chosen with a view to putting something new in front of people who'd tackled a lot of the really 'central' material as undergraduates.

As a result I was painfully aware throughout my MA that the topics I was studying were set in the context of a wider background I didn't know that much about.

None of this seems to have been a problem as far as results go - I got a good distinction and I'm starting a funded PhD in October. But I still feel more like someone who's managed to write a few good essays than someone who's got a real command of their subject.

You know how everything's supposed to 'click' when you reach a certain stage in your learning and begin to see how topics that used to seem unrelated all fit together? Well, I just don't feel like I'm there yet. And I'm starting to worry that I'm not going to get there while I'm studying for a PhD, because presumably I'm expected to engage with my chosen topic without having to break off and study a load of stuff everyone else tackled as undergraduates! I'm feeling even more intimidated at the minute because I've been looking at the BA programme within the department where I'll be doing my PhD, and realising that the average third-year single honours student is going to have covered way more ground than I have even now. And as for the prospect of actually *teaching* a subject I feel like I hardly know my way around... eek!

Anyone else had/have this problem? I know some people do a masters and then a PhD in a subject they haven't studied at all at undergraduate level. How does that work? Does PhD study allow for some time spent reading round the 'basics' everyone else has already studied? Do I just have a touch of 'imposter syndrome'? I'm in the weird position of being perfectly confident of my ability to do this subject, while also feeling like I just don't have the sort of grounding in it I really need.


Definitely sounds like Imposter Syndrome, Magic.

I didn't do an MA at all, which has probably fuelled a sense of waiting to be sprung. My imposter-ish feelings faded quite a bit as I progressed through the research and felt a greater sense of ownership. But even close to submitting it's still in the background and I think it might always will be.

I heard a programme on Radio 4 a few months ago with in which a panel talking about Imposter Syndrome came to the conclusion that it's less bombastic, more self-deprecating people who tend to suffer, and on balance that sort of person tends to produce more sensitive work and is nicer to work with. I'm obviously biased but I thought it was quite an interesting theory.

Pretty much all PhD programmes have lots of research skills training when you start. Plus, the PhD is your journey so it's doubtful you're going to be getting compared with anyone, if that helps at all.

If you feel like doing any reading on PhD skills over the summer, I can recommend: "The Craft of Research" - Booth, Colomb & Williams and "How to Write a Thesis" - Murray.

Good luck with your research!


Quote From magictime:

You know how everything's supposed to 'click' when you reach a certain stage in your learning and begin to see how topics that used to seem unrelated all fit together?

Is it?

I'm still waiting

Seriously, if I were you, and I had some time, I would spend some time reading the topics that you are concerned about? If you feel that the BA in your prospective department covers ground you wish you had covered, why not get in touch with your prospective sup and ask for a reading list or some of the materials. Material from an undergraduate course may well be accessible to you as you have managed to get a distinction in your Masters (congratulations (up) ) whilst suffering from the uncertainties you describe.

I'm not suggesting that you need to do this to make the grade, more that it might put your mind at rest and also if I have understood your post correctly such material should be of interest to you in a more general sense (i.e. it is the topic of your PhD).

Good luck and enjoy the summer!



Over the summer, try to get some of the basic terminology in your area sorted. I got myself an address book, and compiled my own dictionary of commonly used words. Its quite important to know you understand what is meant by some things, rather than think you know. I have a goldfish mind when it comes to some of them so still find myself looking up words just to confirm their meaning. It may also be worth having a look at some of the books in the library concerning your area, and general areas such as methodology in all the various permutations etc. As for 'clicking' that might come when I've finally managed to do without my 'dictionary' :$


I did my masters in a different field, then my PhD mainly in yet a different field again. I do sometimes wonder what on earth I would do if I had to lecture in any of these fields :p as my knolwledge is quite specialised. I'm definitely not fluent in all areas - but it's not that uncommon and does have some advantages. As Joyce says, a lot of it is about getting bast the jargon boundaries. I do feel as though I frequently reinvent the wheel (because I didn't realise there was already a wheel....), but I tend to think of it as character building.

You might find that you have to set aside small amounts of time to catch up on specific areas you haven't studies - but not whole degree-shed loads. That's what I found.


Thanks for the advice/reassurance everyone!

Yeah, I am doing a bit of reading to try and fill in the blanks in my knowledge, especially areas I know will be relevant to my PhD topic. The trouble is, the more I read, the more I think EVERYTHING is going to be relevant sooner or later! I just have a growing sense of a huge amount of interlocking material out there that I've barely scratched the surface of.

I think I need to keep reminding myself that it's not really the case that everyone else has the whole Western philosophical canon at their fingertips, and that I'm (hopefully!) perfectly capable of picking things up fairly quickly. I just can't help picturing scenarios where I have to confess (e.g. to my supervisor) that I don't know the first thing about Wittgenstein etc. etc...


I start my Masters in September and although I don't yet anticipate this being a problem for me when I start a PhD (hopefully), I do think a lot of PhD students would be able to relate to you not feeling 100% confident with teaching the undergraduate course - is there a formal introduction to the course beforehand, or anything similar? Are there other PhD students who you could talk to about this if you don't want to go to your new supervisor straight away?

You have clearly done really well until this point, and they wouldn't have accepted you as a funded PhD student if you didn't fulfil their expectations - if anything they probably have more respect for you as you have pushed yourself to pursue an interest in a subject area that may not have been entirely supported during your undergraduate degree. That shows real determination and commitment, I think.

And what is this 'imposter syndrome' exactly?!


Natassia - for imposter syndrome in a nutshell:


(I'd never heard of it till someone mentioned it on this forum!)

Thanks for the encouragement. I think the support for tutors is pretty good in my dept., and it has been spelled out that tutors are NOT expected/required to have in-depth subject knowledge in every area they might end up teaching.

As I say, it's not my ability I'm unsure of - I know I've done well so far (and a lot better than most people who joined my MA course fresh from a single-honours degree). It's subject knowledge where I feel shaky.


I did a Masters in an area unrelated to my undergrad degree, then went on to my PhD. I'm in a specialist area, and also didn't have the basics, however I picked up what I needed to. You don't need to know everything! And you probably know more than you realise. In regards to teaching, last semester I tutored a postgrad subject where I didn't know much at all - the students knew more than I did, but it was fine. Tutorials aren't lectures, so you're not expected to be a subject matter expert, that's what the lectures are for. As long as you do the reading, get across the basics, then can lead a class discussion, you'll be fine. My uni also had an excellent course for new tutors which gave us tips and confidence.


Hi Magictime

I feel exactly the same, although I am doing my PhD in the same area as my masters, but did my masters a long time ago and have since been lecturing, but got caught up with teaching all subjects not in my area, so spent a lot of my time researching these areas rather than reinforcing my knowledge; so now I do feel like an imposter not an (budding) expert that my supervisors tell I will be in time.  I keep thinking that once I get my PhD I will feel more confident, but I am starting to realise that this feeling wont leave me, and may be its this feeling that drives me to keep learning. But the short distance I have travelled so far I realise how much more I do know - as well as how much I dont yet know. Its normal to be learning new skills on a PhD, and quite a few are PhDers are taking on a new subject, so I suggest you are not an imposter and as a previous poster said, you probably know more than you think, and this is your learning journey; also you have a bit of time to do some reading in the areas you think you need to, just dont waste your time being too general, make sure your reading is in the area you will be researching.  Sorry I've had a couple of glasses of wine and my syntax is probably appalling, but the double vision is preventing me from editing - goodness am I really doing a PhD :p


found this video really helpful!
has helpful tips and changes your perspective on imposter syndrome x