You know nothing…Jon Snow and graduate school

Did you finish the title by ending with Jon Snow? Its ok, I forgive you and I am sympathetic to your plight! The series is hard not to get caught up in.


When embarking on a new degree, in a new field or one which is fairly different to your existing background- this may (probably will if you are human) ignite feelings of inadequacy causing you to doubt yourself and your abilities. You may even go so far as to think, I know nothing…Which is of course not true, but tell that to your over-active, woe-me, the sky is falling brain! But do not despair, everyone goes through these feelings, unless you are blissfully ignorant or in denial or simply have an extraordinarily healthy ego.

This feeling as troubled me over the past two weeks, having just begun my PhD after finishing my Masters dissertation. I am extremely excited about this new chapter in my life and what knowledge and experiences this degree has in store for me, BUT I am unfortunately not the world’s most patient person and I would love nothing more than to just miraculously learn everything I need to know about my field, be familiar with all the important literature and be able to identify the gaps. And if that were all possible in the space of a week I would run gleefully through the halls of the biology building (i.e. imagine doing this in my head upon task completion). This is however an unrealistic task and one simply driven by my desire to do everything perfectly. Well at least perfectly in the most subjective of senses. You see we all want to achieve and do the very best we can.

Anyone who signs on to undertake a postgraduate degree will have their own expectations and desires of what they want to get out of it. And I strongly recommend that anyone pursuing graduate studies have these figured out before you start. I have seen many people continue their studies not because they want to, and not because they are passionate about their fields but rather out of necessity, a means to an end and they become very unhappy while doing this. This can be for a variety of reasons, poor supervision, obstacles in their personal lives, funding mishaps (which is increasingly an issue) etc.But I digress.

The point of these feelings is that you should not let them control you or reduce your productivity. It is very easy to get bogged down and despondent under the weight of overcoming this herculean task of coming to grips with this mountain of literature you need to summit and put your own flag (i.e. write a decent proposal and literature review). The trick is to acknowledge that you are much like Jon Snow at the moment, but that you are prepared to tackle this task slowly, consistently and then you will start to get somewhere. I have thought up a list of some tips that help me (I have to constantly remind myself) and will hopefully help others out there:

  1. Do not start off by saying that today I will know all there is to know about such and such. Rather identify a section of the literature that you know you need to brush up on or are weak in, find some decent papers (reviews are great here) and then make it your goal of thoroughly reading those few papers for the day. At the end of the day you will feel like you have accomplished a whole lot more!
  2. Keep track of what you read! I cannot stress enough how important this is. Every time you read something, a certain point or technique or new reference will stick out for you or perhaps even raise a new point you need to research. DO not rely on your memory to remember these for later. We all forget things after that mid-morning tea break and chat with your friends. Create a simple template for each paper you read where you put the title, authors(or citation), what the paper is about, why it is useful to you, techniques or methods that might be applicable and a section where you can note any references to follow up on or points to expand on.
  3. Keep track of what you read! -Deja vu? not quite- Above keeping track of what you read and making notes on a paper you should also store this reference in a reference manager (I recommend Zotero– It is free and I have never had an issue with it over the years). I am flabbergasted when people tell me they spend hours compiling a reference list! A reference manager frees up so much time to focus on the content rather than the task of mindlessly typing out references. What’s more is that you can add a reference list in pretty much any journal style you like, but check what your department prefers.
  4. If you have read a paper and a thought pops into your head while you are busy with something else write it down! You never know when these moments of inspiration will strike and you make a connection in your head between two papers or ideas.
  5. Last but not least stay motivated, remind yourself why you are doing this- never forget your passion for what you are doing and take each day as one step closer to knowing everything you need to know to write that proposal and satisfy your supervisor (s). Also be proud of yourself! many in our lives will not always understand the difficulties of what we do (every career path has its own struggles) or even why we do it.

Please let me know if you have any other ideas that might be helpful! I am always keen to learn something else to help others and to better myself 🙂 Happy reading and writing!


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