I'm going to fail my PhD because I know nothing :(


Hello everyone! I love this forum, so thought I'd post something (sorry, limited words... running out!)

So, I'm doing this PhD in chemistry, and I'm 1.5 years in. My first year was pretty much a complete waste of time. No data that's usable, and to be honest, I didn't really know what I was doing at all.

Since October, I've been into it, but my results have been "negative." In January, I failed my transfer, and in October I'll have my interview again. If I fail this time that's the end of my PhD route.

I know why I failed - I didn't know anything, and I put in far too much broad stuff that it was impossible for me to know it all, especially at that stage. Now I have a solid plan and I'm confident that it's a tight and specific area I can revise for and all my work is well justified, but...

I had a meeting today with the company to discuss my results. I should be very happy because the results are great in that they're leading somewhere very nice. But I couldn't answer basic chemistry questions... talking A Level here. And I can't with a lot of stuff. Even though I know I've been over it. I'll never learn all of the subject material and I really won't pass again based on lack of knowledge and lack of being able to apply it and discuss ideas with it. They even commented on how I need to turn from passive to being more active in this kind of thing. But the problem is.. I know NOTHING! I'm really hopeless. I feel so sad right now there is absolutely no way I can revise all of the chemistry I need to know on top of what I need for this PhD. I'm really doomed as I have no solid grounding in even the most basic chemistry. What can I do now?


I really feel completely destroyed and hopeless. Please don’t say something along the lines of “just revise more,” because I’ve already tried and it doesn’t stick. No matter how often I go over a concept I just forget about it and the finer details. What can I do? I think I’m a good scientist, in that everything I do has justification, reasoning behind it and follows a logical sequence to solve a problem, but I can’t discuss the finer details of it.

I won’t drop out because it’s not financially feasible. I’m going to stick it until October and if I fail again I won’t be able to face the world. I’ll be so humiliated and embarrassed. I really don’t know what to do! I do enjoy the project; it’s interesting and ahs great opportunities, but how on earth can one go about learning EVERYTHING there is to know? And then retain it? Especially stuff you’re already supposed to know? I was asked about an acid reacting with something to make a salt, and I don’t know! I’ve read it before, countless times, but I just don’t know. What’s wrong with me? What am I to do?

Thank you for taking the time to read. I think I'm a hopeless cause and will suffer the embarrassment in October.


Hi ninja. Sorry to hear about your situation. I am a teacher and when my students have similar problems to yours we do a few different things:

1 - the best way to learn is to teach. Have you considered doing some coaching/mentoring? When you have to explain something, it really sticks. (also good for extra cash.) If you don't want to teach talk about your project to your friends and family.

2 - most people don't learn well by reading, they learn by doing. Make cards to match up, play pelmanism with connected concepts, use physical objects to represent things.

3 - brainstorm. Despite what you think, it sounds like you know quite a lot. Do this without reading anything first because you might surprise yourself. Choose specific topics to begin with otherwise you'll go blank. (if someone says "tell me a joke" it's impossible but if someone says "tell me a joke about pirates" it's easier - why are pirates called pirates? because they arrr.)

Keep going! Good luck!


Hello ninja!

Sorry to know what you're going through. I think I have a fair idea of how you feel. I am a 3rd year PhD student in Developmental Biology and trust me there are a lot of basic details that I keep forgetting. In fact, I found out it is normal. I mean the other day my colleague and I were assuming that Amoeba is a prokaryotic organism. This stuff is taught in 9th grade! So first of all, if you feel ashamed of not knowing the basics, do not feel so.

Regarding how to deal with your problem, FinnicketyKick has given very good suggestions. Apart from them, I think what is essential for you is to focus on what exactly your project is about. Usually the questions that are asked revolve around the project, even the basic ones. You should know each and everything related to your project. Question yourself on every small aspect of your project. Check the literature on previous work done in your field. When you dig into the finer details, you will need to know the basics and then the whole project will make even more sense. And then you will be able to retain the details.

Make a list of the basics that you need to brush up right before your examination so that you can revise them. There's still a good amount of time left. Just focus on getting through this. Best of luck!