Remember when you had just started university? The syllabus was all laid out neatly at the start of the year. Pretty much everything was guided or supervised. Help was always around the corner. And in most cases, someone surely had the answers to any questions you had from the recommended reading list. By no means am I implying that undergraduate studies are easy - they have their own challenges. But taking up postgraduate studies made me realise how much more challenging it can get.
It’s very different to undergraduate level. To start with, a lot of it is not guided or supervised. The transition to master’s is quite smooth, as it’s still partially guided. So for part of the course, help is available, there’s a syllabus, and you will have a good idea of what you are supposed to know by the end of it. The other part, however, is like stepping into the unknown. This could be your dissertation or course project, or additional modules. Though you will be fairly well supported throughout, so you’re not roaming around an unknown terrain in absolute darkness!
Being a PhD student is a completely different experience. The entire course is getting to know something which was previously unknown. There is a high possibility that your research topic is as unknown to your supervisor as it is to you. Although you get some help from them, it’s to guide you rather than telling you exactly what to do. You may or may not be trained enough to tackle all the problems that you’ll encounter throughout your research. This is the crucial bit. You need the motivation to teach yourself new skills and keep going in the face of the failure.
This is when you’ll realise that asking for help is actually a skill. A lot of PhD students assume that they are expected to be completely self-sufficient (they’re not!). When they cannot get enough resources to teach themselves the skill, they feel hesitant to ask for help from the ‘experts’ in the field because they feel inadequate. This is imposter syndrome, a major antagonist in every PhD student’s life. Overcoming this fear and feeling of inadequacy is as important as knowing what you are asking help for. The more specific your question, the more likely you are to get an answer. The responses may not always be helpful though. You will also learn that not knowing the answer to something is actually alright – it’s all part of the learning process. And at the end of the day, when nothing seems to work, having the support of your friends, family and supervisor is the most important.
Pragya Chaube, PhD (Animal and Plant Sciences)