Second Year PhD Skills


16th May 2024


8th June 2024

I attended the PhD 2nd year skills workshop, put on by the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Academic Development and led by Dave Filipović-Carter. This was a really helpful day for confidence, although it was not what I though it was going to be. I do not think I came away with any skills I didn’t already have at the start, but what may have changed are some important attitudes and perspective.

The PhD journey

One of the early activities was to unpick what a PhD actually is. This might seem odd but it became clear that having a clear picture of what a PhD at Edinburgh is (we were all from Edinburgh), and what the requirements are, is refreshingly reassuring. The clarity on how this is likely to turn out was for me quite invigorating and helpful. My own take on the question began with the sketch of where I see myself on the journey, but I also wrote that for me, it will be the realisation of latent capacity. I feel like I am growing every day I do PhD reading, writing, thinking, or talking. The picture is badly planned, as my sketches often are, because there may be a significant part of the mountain to traverse beyond the viva – 85 to 90% of PhDs end up as “pass with minor corrections”. This is consistent with my own anecdotal evidence. Interestingly, information beyond how many pass is not a matter of public record.

A sketch of me on my PhD journey. Here is my sketch representation of me on my journey using a mountain climbing metaphor. I’ve got the gear, and I know where I am going, with my supervisors having climbed their own particular mountains offering advice, maybe by walkie-talkie.

Dave shared a lot of useful (i.e. reassuring) statistics from HESA and elsewhere about how long it takes (somewhere around 3 and a half years as a median), the chances of failure or the consolation prize of an MPhil (very low), and the attitudes of supervisors (almost exclusively positive).

What is a PhD?
  • an apprenticeship – the Thesis is an apprentice piece
  • training in, and evidence of becoming an independent researcher
  • a unique and original contribution to knowledge
  • recognition of world expertise (in something quite narrowly defined)

Critical success factors

We were exhorted to enjoy the process, but to pay attention to being specific when it comes to methods and models. The most significant thing a “second year” PhD student should be doing is reading and writing. Yes, grammatically, that’s two things, but in the PhD they are too closely connected to see the join. This was a relief to me; it’s what I am doing but I felt I was way behind and playing catch-up on the reading and writing I ought to have been doing in my “first” year (which actually ran for two calendar years from October 2021, very part-time).

Reading and writing are the core activity; it ought to be more focused and specific than in the first year, and was quantified (with a caveat that disciplines vary) at 1 – 2 articles per week. I am doing a little more than this, perhaps 3 or 4. I feel I am catching up with where I think I ought to be. The reading and writing do not stop: you should be engaged in sustained literature review.

How long does a PhD take?

Edinburgh has a 44 week long academic year, with 8 weeks of holiday and university closure. The working week is 37.5 hours (5 days of 7.5 hours, weekends off), so an average PhD takes just short of 5,000 manhours in the old money.

Writing every day is key; it need not be long but it needs to be thesisable prose, to borrow a phrase from Steve Hutchinson’s speed reading course I did a while back. Dave urged us to define our own standards for our work; when presenting written work to supervisors, it should not been seen as coursework to be marked or corrected. “I think this piece is quite good but I’d value your thoughts”, kind of thing. Dave also encouraged us to defend each sentence we write – ultimately every single sentence that ends up in the thesis is liable to need defending at the viva.

Advice from previous PhD students included doing many of the things I do – logging, organising, reading, and talking to others about the research. Two things stood out for me, one being to “try harder than before” (I get it – no room for avoidance), and “innovate!”, which I need to pay attention to. I often tell myself that my research is nothing at all, a bit “so what?”, but this is innovation I am doing, and I need to remember that, daily.

Two theses

I liked this etymological distinction drawn out by Dave. The Thesis (capital letter) is the book that contains your argument or thesis (singular). I got a bit “high horse” about this at first, when the thesis was characterised as being a hypothesis; needed to be stated causally; and be controversial, which struck me as being of the positivist hegemony. I persevered, however, and tried to follow the example given and write a short thesis for my own research, with some of the questions it triggered, which need to be addressed in the Thesis.

a thesis for my research

“understanding of complex or challenging topics can be provided using audio sequences constructed for the purpose”

  • what is a ‘complex or challenging’ topic? (living with domestic violence at home as a child)
  • what is the context of validity? (initial teacher education)
  • what is a constructed audio sequence? (example in the Thesis)
  • what is understanding?
  • how can it be shown that it was provided by the audio sequence?

Well, that’s succinct, isn’t it? I think I need that as a poster on my desktop to keep me focused on what I am trying to do. I can hear my supervisors telling me that I must not assume the findings, and I understand why that is important, but the object of the exercise can sometimes be lost in the scrabble down in the details. I like that this task helps me keep the target clearly in my cross-hairs.

What are the criteria?

Dave cited regulation 47:

The student must demonstrate by the presentation of a thesis and/or portfolio, and by performance at an oral examination:

  • capability of pursuing original research making a significant contribution to knowledge or understanding in the field of study;
  • adequate knowledge of the field of study and relevant literature;
  • exercise of critical judgement with regard to both the student’s work and that of other scholars in the same general field, relating particular research projects to the general body of knowledge in the field; and
  • the ability to present the results of the research in a critical and scholarly way.

The thesis must:

  • represent a coherent body of work; and
  • contain a significant amount of material worthy of publication or public presentation.

Thesis structure

The same regulations stipulate the maximum word count of 100,000 words for the thesis. There is no lower limit. So, within those words, must be shown capability of original research, with adequate knowledge of the field (my emphasis). This is mostly done within the literature review chapters (although they may not be called that). It’s OK not to have read everything. It is necessary to critically relate the work to that of others. Dave’s analogy for this was two concentric circles, the outer of which is bounded by the line between what is relevant to the thesis and what is not; inside is all the knowledge you know about pertinent to your thesis. The inner circle is the hole in that knowledge that your thesis will (possibly partially) fill, in the conclusion chapter. The methods chapter shows your capability (see the criteria above).

ToC, list of figures, etc.

Literature review
Theoretical framework
Conclusion, future


All of the thesis is examinable, including the appendices, but only the material between the dashes, from introduction to conclusion and future work, is necessary for your argument. There’s no good reason to require examiners to read the appendices. Reference lists should be grouped appropriately (although I have no idea how to do that automatically yet).

It was suggested that it’s a good idea to have a look at a number of recently awarded PhD theses, in order to see what “the done thing” is in your particular field. Dave suggested it might be worth chatting to the authors, too, for their advice. I have been doing that, at the suggestion of my supervisors and the last review board.


About 22,000 to 25,000 PhDs are made every year in the UK. The vast majority of these require minor corrections after the viva. There is every expectation that if you are on the PhD programme, you will successfully complete it. I am grateful to IAD and to Dave for putting together such a positive and helpful day.

  1. Try hard and enjoy your life
  2. Sustain the literature review in your field
  3. Defend each sentence you write
  4. Define your own standards for your work
  5. Develop and show adequate knowledge of the field
  6. Innovate

These are (my paraphrase of) actions I made for myself.