Whilst on this research trip I’ve been trying to get my head around a new topic, quantum stochastic processes (stochastic processes have a certain amount of “noise” and are used for modelling all sorts of things, including stock markets). Getting to grips with any new area requires a lot of dedication, some really good resources, and (ideally) someone patient enough to sit with you and answer all your questions. When you’re struggling with a new topic, it’s normal to feel like you don’t understand any of it. It’s normal to think that you will never make any sense of the material in front of you; that this is beyond you and that you’re not clever enough. It’s normal to want to give up, to throw the textbook across the room and get a job at Tesco’s.
I’ve thought these thoughts (and more) every time I try and teach myself a new topic. It’s a painful process. But until we sit down with the material that we don’t understand, we don’t know the limits of our knowledge. The first step to learning something new is discovering what we don’t know and exploring the limits of our understanding. This can be frustrating and demoralising. “I thought I understood X”, you say to yourself; “if I don’t even understand that, then obviously I don’t understand anything else either!” Cue massive confidence crisis and general feelings of unworthiness and misery.
Before you fill in the Tesco’s job application form though, consider this: by realising that you don’t understand something, you have taken a step towards learning it. That’s probably the most painful step in learning, and it’s one we’re not given much guidance on dealing with. Whilst at school, high flyers don’t often experience the feeling of not being able to understand something, and the first year of university comes as a shock to many who were used to getting 100% on their school homework assignments. It can be very difficult to make that adjustment; to go from thinking that your understanding of the universe is basically complete to realising that your knowledge is shaky, incomplete and often wrong.
During a PhD, the inconvenient truth of your incomplete knowledge is brought home, day in, day out, often brutally. It’s no wonder that PhD students often doubt themselves and their capabilities; they’re coming up against the limits of their understanding on a daily basis. “I’m so stupid”, they say, “I can’t even put the optical master equation into Lindblad form!” What they often forget is that not only does this make absolutely no sense to the majority of the population, but also that probably made no sense to them until relatively recently. To know you can’t put something in Lindblad form, you first have to know what Lindblad form is.
It also doesn’t help your confidence that everyone else around you at work is throwing around Lindblad equations like they were born doing it. But remember: this is just an act, a clever disguise. Academics make a career out of being smart, so it pays for them to look smart. They weren’t actually born knowing all of physics, they had to learn this stuff too. This means they’re in a great place to help you learn it. So ask them questions, again and again, because in my experience books can only take you so far. You’ll need someone to thrash ideas out with, to explain those sticky points and correct you when you go wrong. With patience, perseverance and (probably) some help, you’ll get there. But before you move onto the next thing you don’t understand, take a moment to congratulate yourself. You learnt something new.