The discomfort of not knowing

Published by Hazel Booth

In my last post (2) I wrote about my research topic and how a paradigmatic epiphany had made a lot of disconnected thoughts fall into place. To be fair and from my anthill of an 8 month vantage point, ‘disconnected thoughts’ seems to characterise the PhD process. The trick is getting them to connect, and when you arrive at the door of PGR study, PGT hasn’t quite prepared you for what’s to come. Let’s consider my experience:

Over a year ago I wrote a blog about my decision to undertake a PhD (3). In it, I wrote about the fact that in spite of reaching the age where many people are totting up their pension pot and settling into comfortable knickers, I had decided to do a PhD.

The event leading to this folly began several years prior. I had returned to Uni at 44, having first graduated in the halcyon days of government grant-funded education in psychology in 1987. Sidetracked by sex and parties I’d engaged with learning at little more than a functional level then, but this time I worked like stink because I’d made a very conscious choice to become a mental health nurse.

During that first year I sat in a research lecture, and while my peers yawned and sent snapchats to each other, I sat to attention. Quite by surprise, I’d found a different path to follow. I pursued it with zeal, working on a research project in my spare time as an undergraduate. When I qualified as a nurse I worked in a series of clinical positions while studying part time for my Masters in Health Research. It was bloody hard work. With all that was going on in my personal life at the time, and facing the sort of financial struggle that finds you eating rotten-corner stew every night (4), it’s a wonder I managed to keep going at all.

My pay-off was an ESRC-funded scholarship to study a topic I chose. I had been handed a golden opportunity to indulge in a 3 year long intellectual masturbation. The victory was sweet, but not for long.

I remember clearly that first day, but I remember more clearly the 7th when, after all the reassuring induction talks and peer chit chats were over, I sat at my desk and thought ‘what now?’ So, I wrote a list.

Now, I’m fond of a list. I like lists where I can cross off the first few items immediately – get up, have coffee, get dressed. However, my PhD list looked like this:


  1. Learn about policy making, do a policy analysis
  2. Learn about mental health self-management
  3. Learn about metaethnography, do one.
  4. Learn about constructivism, and all that philosophical stuff
  5. Do a bunch of interviews about stuff. Analyse it and draw cool conclusions
  6. Create impact of some sort

As SMART goals go (5), my list fell laughably short. In the modern manner of many PhDs my work was going to be interdisciplinary, and encompassed many topics about which I had not a single prelearned scooby slopping around in my academic slush pile. It felt absolutely insurmountable. So much to learn.

Then the imposter syndrome (6) started in earnest. Always present in my life but now with knobs on, the destructive inner narrative consumed me. Within a month of starting, I’d contacted my supervisor and told her I couldn’t do it (7).

But how had this lamentable state of affairs arisen?

The distance between the oasis of Masters and the vast lifeless desert of PhD seemed huge and perilous. In the Masters I was guided through the desert of ignorance by a series of yodas, who Knew All The Stuff. My understanding of the topic at the end of the term-long module was either brilliant (distinction, yay me!) or lamentable (resit, boo-hiss). Direction was defined. Success, failure and progress was measurable.

When I started, I was still in the Masters mindset where the answer was already known. If I worked hard enough and read enough literature I would get to the end-point which somebody had already determined was ‘right’.  If a PhD was the natural progression of the Masters I could only conclude that in this scenario, my supervisors were sitting on the sidelines cheering me on because they knew the answer I was striving for but didn’t want to spoil the fun by telling me. As soon as I realised that wasn’t the case, I was lost.

So in those early days I lived with the overwhelming feeling that this PhD was big. From the security of a Masters, I didn’t appreciate how vastly, hugely, mind-boggingly big it was (8). The PhD was an entirely different prospect to a Masters, with a distant and vague end-goal. I was in the driving seat of a car I didn’t know how to drive, going to a destination I’d only read about on TripAdvisor.  My supervisors were the people who could teach me to drive, how to read maps, and would administer CPR if I drove into a tree, but the only person going to the destination was me.

Those were the darkest days I had had since I returned to academia. Yes, darker even than those questionable meals I’d eaten after a long, fraught shift at Barlinnie and with a 3000 word essay still to be done.

One day, not too long ago, it all changed. My supervisors had been telling me for ages that it was ok not to know and that working towards knowing WAS THE ACTUAL POINT OF A PHD. At some point after a long cold winter, spring appeared, and I finally understood, broke it down into small learning goals and began to fall in love with this PhD of mine.

The PhD is an unholy baptism in learning to sit with the discomfort of not-knowingness (9). You fight it, and then one day when you least expect it, you accept it, let it wash around you, and start again; reborn.

Hello. My name is Hazel, I don’t know much, but every day I know a little bit more. And d’you know what? That’s ok.

So we’ve established I am growing every day, but in the next post I show how the transition is more than academic. Next time, it’s personal…

About the author

Hazel Booth is an ERSC-funded student currently in her first year of PhD studies with the Faculty of Social Science at Stirling University. She is expertly supervised by Tessa Parkes (FSS), Paul Cairney (Politics) and Nicola Ring (Napier, School of Health and Social Care) and is already very grateful for their expertise and apparently limitless tolerance.

She has been keeping a blog since the early days of the ESRC open competition. In it she offers an open and personal account of her voyage on the choppy seas of PGR study. She has brought her blog to the pages of the Faculty newsletter, writing a series of posts for readers which reflect on the transformative experiences she has already had.

Hazel’s blog can be found at


  • Blog one – why opinions matter:
  • Link to the post ‘Smelling the coffee’ .
  • Rotten-corner stew: Visit Asda at specific times of the day when they reduce the food which is about to go off to prices you can afford. Buy the least repulsive items. Chuck them in a pan. Serve with a (neo)liberal dash of disappointment and a side order of desperation.
  • Link to simple SMART goals explanation, the wiki page would do in this case.
  • Link to the post ‘the imposition of imposter syndrome’
  • Link to the post ‘drama llamas and how to tame them
  • Shamelessly plagiarised from Adams, D. Where clever folk quote Nietzsche I quote HHGTTG. Telling, isn’t it!
  • Writing on a similar theme in a different discipline Schwartz (2010) wrote ‘The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries’.

Schwartz, M.A. (2008). The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science, 121, 1771. Available: [Accessed 24/5/18]