The PhD Knowledge Lifecycle: Actual Versus Perceived Knowledge

by Erika Martin, PhD, MPH

Surviving your dissertation and the job market requires a secret sauce of excellent research, strong work ethic, and effective project management. Dissertation advisers typically focus on the first two ingredients. However, project management skills are equally important, and not just for MBA, MPA, MHA, and other terminal degree students who are training for managerial positions. In this series, we will work together to demystify the soft skills required to be a successful PhD student. My advice blends things I have learned from mentoring doctoral students as a course instructor, adviser, and PhD Director; and reflections on what helped me in my own PhD program and where I went disastrously wrong.

Doctoral studies are an emotional roller coaster. Students visit my office in different stages of anxiety over their progress, capabilities, and intellectual ideas. Some students resolutely accept their misery, while others freeze with writer’s block and question whether they will ever finish—let alone get a job.

Do you really need to be this miserable? Over the past decade of working with students in different stages of their PhD programs, I observed a predictable pattern of intellectual growth – and corresponding anxieties. By understanding this process, you can develop strategies to overcome these challenges.

Understanding the PhD Knowledge Lifecycle

A common student experience is progression through what I call a “PhD Knowledge Lifecycle” (see Figure 1). Similar to a software release lifecycle, students transition through several distinct phases:

  • Coursework phase: Prior to achieving candidacy, students take coursework to learn different theoretical concepts, develop research skills, and narrow down their interests. Studying for comprehensive exams and completing other candidacy milestones solidifies these skills and knowledge.
  • Prospectus development phase: During this “wilderness year,” students sleuth for elusive dissertation topics. During this phase, students refine their interests, brainstorm ideas, locate data sources, ensure feasibility, and finalize dissertation committees.
  • Dissertation research phase: Students subsequently spend one or more years executing their prospectus project plans, including collecting and analyzing data, writing initial drafts, and responding to their committee members’ feedback.
  • Public release phase: Students polish their dissertation manuscripts, submit conference abstracts, and send manuscripts to journals; during this time, students also prepare and submit job applications.

These phases map onto the software release stages of planning, development, beta, and final stable version. After a software’s public release, it is common to encounter problems that are fixed in patches or new subversions before the final version release. In a similar manner, students receive feedback at conferences, from journal peer reviewers, and at job talks. Incorporating external feedback improves the final published versions of manuscripts.

Figure 1: PhD Lifecycle

Understanding PhD Anxiety: Actual Versus Perceived Knowledge

The PhD Knowledge Lifecycle implies linear learning and development. However, students’ anxieties do not progress linearly. I have observed that most students (including myself!) have the least self-confidence during their prospectus development and public release phases. How is this possible?

Professional masters degrees, such as an MPH or MPP, focus on building practice-oriented skills for the workplace. In contrast, PhD students gain competencies over a longer duration: developing and applying theory, learning and implementing sophisticated methods, generating research questions, working independently, time management, defining their contribution to the field, developing professional identities, responding to critical feedback, and communicating complex ideas. These competencies surpass those in a professional masters degree: the tasks are more complex, and being a good scholar requires a keen awareness of the field. Doctoral studies repeatedly push students outside their comfort zone throughout the PhD Knowledge Lifecycle.

Enter psychology. Two important cognitive biases are the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which people are overconfident in their abilities due to their inability to recognize what they do not know; and the imposter syndrome, in which people doubt their abilities and believe themselves to be frauds. Numerous posts describe these phenomena (for example, see here) but I find it useful to plot actual and perceived knowledge (Y-axis) over the PhD Knowledge Lifecycle (X-axis). In my experience, doctoral students’ anxieties are highest during the phases when there is a large gap between their actual and perceived knowledge (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Actual vs Perceived Knowledge

Many students start their PhD programs with self-perceived expertise in a topic area and develop some mastery of their subject area through their coursework and comprehensive exams. Their self-confidence deflates during their post-candidacy “wilderness year,” as they muddle through identifying literature gaps, developing dissertation ideas, abandoning ideas that are infeasible or already studied, and resuming the cycle. It feels like Sisyphus continuously pushing his boulder up the hill for eternity. This is a pivotal moment, with the first of several existential crises about one’s capacity to do meaningful research. Self-confidence subsequently rises after the prospectus is defended, and then plummets during dissertation hiccups (eg, missing data, statistical models that don’t converge, getting “scooped” by another researcher, committee conflicts, insignificant p-values, rejected conferences abstracts, etc.). By the time students are on the job market, they may have full-blown case of imposter syndrome and worry that job search committees will discover they are unemployable.

Yet while self-perceived knowledge oscillates wildly, actual knowledge increases. The process of developing and abandoning prospectus ideas teaches valuable lessons about research design, assessing feasibility, and prioritizing topics. Working through dissertation hiccups teaches the art of identifying solutions and making choices without clear answers. Navigating committee feedback teaches teamwork, negotiation, and communication skills. During the public release stage, students transition from conducting research under close supervision to becoming independent scholars with a broader research agenda.

Master the PhD Knowledge Lifecycle

Now that you understand some of your underlying causes of PhD anxiety, what can you do about it?

  1. Understand and accept the process. Your emotional roller coaster is a normal evolution, and you are not alone. Many students who speak with me about their anxieties are surprised to learn their feelings are common; seeing the lifecycle diagrams can lesson their doubts. Dissertation support groups can be helpful to share common concerns.
  2. Master the art of humility. This can be the hardest in the first stage—while PhD coursework is difficult, it is an extension of what you already know how to do. Be open to change. Accept that you have a lot to learn, and that your peers and mentors can expand your capabilities in many areas. In my doctoral research design course, students conduct peer reviews on early drafts of their project proposals. Students consistently do not incorporate their peers’ feedback, which is surprising because their peers’ feedback is usually spot-on and incorporating their feedback would have resulted in higher quality work.
  3. Shift your thinking about what you know. Albert Einstein famously stated, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” (This sentiment transcends time, as Aristotle and Socrates provided similar observations.) Rather than feeling dejected when you hit rock bottom and discover that your idea has already been studied or is infeasible, reframe this as something new that you didn’t know when you entered the program. Paradoxically, feeling overwhelmed about what you don’t know is a sign that of intellectual progress and developing a better awareness of the field!
  4. Think big-picture about what you need to learn. Inventory your desired skills to cultivate during your PhD program, eg, applying theory, learning research methods, writing clearly, project management, etc. You cannot master everything at once. Prioritize one or two items for improvement over the new few months. That helps you make progress towards your overall goals without feeling overwhelmed by everything that you don’t yet know.

While these four strategies may not solve all of your PhD anxieties, they can offer you a better perspective on how much you really know.

Erika Martin, PhD, MPH

Erika Martin, PhD, MPH, is Associate Professor and PhD Director at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany-SUNY. As an applied health policy researcher, she uses mixed methods to evaluate issues related to the allocation of scarce public health resources, the adoption and impact of public health policies, with a focus on domestic HIV and related syndemics. She also studies ways to improve the sustainability and impact of open data platforms. Articles she’s written have appeared in an array of leading health and public policy journals such as the New England Journal of MedicineJournal of the American Medical AssociationHealth AffairsAmerican Journal of Public HealthPublic Administration Review, and Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

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