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Author: Isabelle de Coninck
“What if, after all this hard work, I am left with nothing interesting to say?” Suddenly the thought creeps in your head and toys with your sanity. “Surely everybody – anybody! – knows this!”
The more you frantically dig deeper, leaving no stone unturned, the worse it gets. Soon everyone will see that your work is derivative, your knowledge basic, your method flawed or your analyses self-evident.
You’re already familiar with imposter syndrome. It is intrinsically linked with the lesser-known Curse of Knowledge (capitalized for dramatic effect).
A psychological experiment by Elisabeth Newton in 1990 demonstrated that once you have information, it is extremely difficult to imagine lacking it. In the experiment, ‘tappers’ chose a song and tapped it out on a table. ‘Listeners’ needed to guess the song, based solely on the rhythm of the taps. Tappers vastly overestimated how well listeners would recognize the song. “Come on, this is obvious!” While they heard the tune in their heads, listeners lacked this information and just heard disconnected taps.
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Once you have acquired certain knowledge, it is impossible to relive your ignorance. Tying shoelaces, for example, seems very difficult only until you learn it. Once you know, it sticks. You can’t even phantom how it felt not to know how to do this.
Maybe less dramatic, but the same happens as you progress in your PhD. New knowledge settles in as you read, research and analyze. Insights and ideas roam in your head and claim their place. Soon, it will feel as if they have always been there. As if it is impossible for anyone to miss. It’s the unvoiced melody in your head.
If that weren’t enough, with knowledge there is an extra caveat. The more we learn, the more we understand there is much we do not yet know. Because we see nuance and a sea of potentially relevant issues that we do not fully master, the confidence in our understanding of a topic may actually drop as we increase our expertise. With every increase in experience, the known unknowns multiply exponentially. Don’t set off on a desperate quest to ‘cover all knowledge gaps’. Instead, be aware of the traps, and of the tune in your head.
Here are three straightforward and practical things that helped me combat the crippling Curse of Knowledge (and related illnesses).
1. Keep your definition of excellence in check by reading… theses
Dig up a couple of theses – as they were submitted officially – and start reading. Pay attention to the struggles and dilemma’s these doctors faced, they will be evident below the surface or even explicitly discussed. Notice the varying depth in which they covered different aspects, and how they emphasised their core interest against background information. What is the reach of their arguments and explanations? How certain and airtight are the conclusions? How would you judge the contribution of these theses to their respective fields?
The idea is not to poke holes in other people’s work. Quite the opposite. It is to recalibrate your understanding of what excellent doctoral research is. The point is to feel the voice and authority of the author, to grasp the scale of contributions better, and to understand that perfection (of circumstances, data, writing…) and paradigm-shifting revelations are not key. Understand what makes the theses you read good. You don’t need to prove, in excruciating detail, that you know everything about everything. Instead, stay on topic, show you understand the context and delineation of your work, and present your insight and contribution.
Reading a random thesis for which you have no quality indicator arguably won’t have the same effect on (re)shaping your understanding of excellent research. I recommend reading theses within (or close to) your field written by scholars whose judgment and work ethic you trust. These could be (former) colleagues, small and big stars in your field, or – why not? – your supervisor’s thesis.
2. Benchmark your own knowledge base
I previously stated that you can’t go back to a previous state of knowledge. But what if that weren’t entirely true, what if you benchmarked your basic level of knowledge? Keeping your very first notes on a topic is a very simple yet highly effective strategy. I still get a little embarrassed when I dig up my first proposal draft, my first notes on my dissertation topic at large or new theories and methods I was exploring. But it’s also encouraging because it reminds me how far I’ve come.
Such mementoes of ‘ignorance past’ are by far the most tangible proof that you have progressed with great strides. Growth is incremental and often invisible to those who undergo it. It’s much like the before and after pictures in a weight loss endeavour. You may intuitively understand that you have improved, but it is only when you are confronted with the baseline that you truly appreciate the process you’ve made. What you know now is not self-evident, but it has become your new normal. Use benchmarks of your knowledge to value your insights and contributions adequately.
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3. Courageous vulnerability
I know it is scary, but dare to hum your tune – even when you are in doubt of the value of the contribution you’re making. It can be intimidating to voice the ideas you aren’t sure of yet, those you haven’t perfected yet, the ones regarding which you didn’t solve all known unknowns yet… Keeping them as an unsung melody in your head however, will only increase your doubt. Instead, voice your idea. The value of your contribution can be found only outside of your head. So bounce your idea off someone else’s mind. Even if it isn’t perfect. Even if it’s scary.
Build yourself a growth community: an uplifting but always-honest platform where courageous vulnerability is met with a collective effort to come up with a solution – or an appropriate process of getting there.
Do you have a colleague you connect well with and trust? Start there! Connect to others across departments and faculties, offline and virtually. One of the greatest things about community is that it keeps both ego and imposter syndrome in check. Dare to talk about your ideas and about problems or (known) unknowns you are facing. It takes courage. The great thing about courageous vulnerability is that it is contagious. It will foster a tight, supportive platform with a tremendous potential to elevate the work – and spirit! – of all involved.
Work diligently and strive for excellence, but don’t forget to consider what your knowledge looks like from the outside in. Your knowledge has expanded incrementally and your mind has grown accustomed by the ideas and insights that have been roaming it for a while now. Don’t be paralyzed by an impossible standard, voice the tune in your head and recognize its value, and finally, trust that other scholars will evaluate your work as you would theirs.
Isabelle is a political scientist and doctoral student at the Public Governance Institute (Faculty of Social Sciences) of Leuven University. She is in the final stages of her PhD. Want to find out what exactly she is working on or contact her? Find her page here.