Working with Uncertainty

Uncertainty is one of the things we find most difficult to manage. Not knowing something can mean we don’t know how to react or what to believe, leaving us in an uncomfortable limbo state. It can also raise anxiety, as we don’t know if some aspect of us is at risk or not. From an evolutionary perspective, this has some short term benefits – if you don’t know if the movement in the bushes is a lion or a breeze, it is better, for your safety, to remain aware that it could be a lion and be on the edge of running [1].

There are many cases in which people find bad news easier to manage than uncertainty, in fact you might even find people making a decision to assume the worst, as that is easier to handle than not knowing [1].

This poses particular difficulties for those involved in research. Research requires uncertainty. The whole basis of research is predicated on the phrase ‘we don’t know.’ It is what we don’t know that sets the direction for future research and paying attention to what we don’t know ensures its integrity. If you were researching something that we already knew, then it would be difficult to produce an original contribution to knowledge [2].

Some students will respond to this, by trying to push how uncertain their research is to the back of their minds. They try to avoid acknowledging the uncertainty and avoid thinking about it – unfortunately, this doesn’t tend to work for long. The process of research, conversations with peers and your own thoughts will bring it back into focus.

Instead, it can help to embrace the uncertainty. Make doubt your friend because doubt tells you that you are doing valuable work. 

You can help yourself to embrace doubt in a number of ways. The key is not to avoid it but to make it something you recognise, acknowledge and work with as something that is helpful. When discussing research find opportunities to say “I don’t know,” proudly.

You can also recognise that not knowing continues to keep you safe. Sometimes, when we make a discovery or have a breakthrough, because we are natural story telling animals, we might find that we use this discovery to offer all kinds of explanations and solutions. It isn’t unusual in this surge of creativity, to wander into over claiming its significance. (This is ok – this creativity will help you see ways it genuinely can be applied and open up your next research question.) But it is here that embracing uncertainty can keep you safe by forcing you to apply criticality to your ideas. It can make you ask – do we really know? Is the evidence strong enough? Do I need to qualify that with what we don’t know? This will make your published paper on your new discovery that bit stronger.

You can also help yourself by constructing an exercise to work with uncertainty. Make a list of what you don’t know in your area of research and then identify why it is exciting and interesting that we don’t know. Make the ‘don’t knows’ a positive.

Finally, managing uncertainty can be easier if you create other certainties to lean on and support you. Having a regular structure and work routine, for instance, can ground you in day to day activity [3]. Having a clear project plan and a worked out methodology can ground your research activity in trustworthy methods and you can mark your progress over time. Working with the literature can give you confidence that you are pursuing something new, worthwhile and with a solid evidence base to build upon.  

Video Resources

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Recently Finished PGR Students Talk About the Advice They Would Give Current PGR Students



Norwich, B. (2000). Education and Psychology in Interaction.


Gray, D. E. (David E. (2014). Doing research in the real world. Retrieved from


Wood, W., & Quinn, J. M. (2005). Habits and the structure of motivation in everyday life. – PsycNET. In Social motivation: Conscious and unconscious processes. Retrieved from