How to survive your 2nd year as PhD Student

How to survive your 2nd year as a PhD student

Here is a quick overview of yesterday’s training course, organised by and delivered by the fantastic Dr Jim Boran (Researcher Developer Manager, University of Manchester @whalesense) and Dr Victoria Sheppard (Researcher Developer Coordinator, University of Salford, @vishepp).

The purpose was to boost the confidence of those of us who are full-time in the second year of our PhD. Here’s a rundown of the questions we asked ourselves:

How does the 2nd year feel?

Personally, I feel that I cant see wood for the trees!


“In The Wood” by MarcoHeisler at

Other descriptions included – “Too far in to stop” “Reality sinking in” “I’m an academic teenager: -acting out!” “Middle-of-anything blues”

Where are you on the PhD mountain?

We were asked to draw a mountain – and where we are on the mountain. My image was of a tunnel: I feel like I’m finding my way under a mountain, and am now stuck half-way through, where it’s cold, dark and lonely!


“A Tunnel To… ” by Mamophoto

What advice would supervisors give someone starting their 2nd year?

– Read in an organised way 1-2 articles per week

– Start writing as early as possible

– Be clear about defending each sentence in what you write – defensibility starts in the 2nd year

– Is lack of time the issues – or is it lack of motivation?

What advice would supervisors give someone starting their 2nd year?

– Don’t prevaricate – just do it!

– Keep perspective – don’t live to work, work to live

– Read continuously – maintain a current literature review

– Manage your supervisors

What is your research question and your hypothesis?

Quite a few of us struggled to succinctly verbally explain our research question and hypothesis. This was where submitting papers, and routinely explaining the nature of my research to outsiders has helped me.

What is a thesis?

We reviewed the four main thesis type and how our research could fit into one – or none of the them! – The final work should create “sympathy for the reader”: an examiner has 80,000 words to read, so we should make it easy for them to read.

Thesis Regulations

We discussed the importance of knowing your thesis regulations, including the marking structure. We were also reassured that the best research is rarely done in your PhD, and that the contribution to knowledge does not need to be dauntingly huge. Thesis Whisperer has a good post on being realistic about your contribution to new academic knowledge

Managing the Doctoral Process

  1. Is everything you are doing taking you towards the end of the project?
  2. Where is your plan?
  3. How does your supervisory balance look?
  4. When was the last time you wrote something?
  5. Who is in your support network?

Finally, we completed a project plan, to help us plan the remainder of the year. We left, feeling energised, uplifted and ready to climb the mountain…

Mount Everest Zig Ziglar

“Climbing a Mountain” by Zig Ziglar via

What are your reflections on Year 2? What advice would you give Year 2 PhD students?


The Literature Review as Dinner Party

The best advice I had on starting my PhD was to write 3000 words each month, no matter what. After 9 months, my average is closer to 2000 words each month and my literature review, minus the conceptual framework, research questions and methodology, is only around 10,000 words. It hasn’t been easy. I chucked out around 5000 words after 4 months, having re-scoped my research and completely changed the research question. There are still areas in family business, innovation and internationalisation which I haven’t explored in sufficient depth yet. Though with new papers coming out all the time, perhaps I will always feel insufficiently knowledgeable. So what’s the answer? It’s too early to say. As my research question, sub-questions and objectives continue to get refined, and my philosophy, methodology and research design take shape, the literature review will continue to evolve. Sensible advice, as always, comes from Kamler and Thomson (2014) in their chapter on literature reviews; this is unforgettably titled: “Persuading an octopus into a glass”. I read their book early on in my studies. It made a profound impression. Thinking of the literature review as a dinner party, where, as the host, I am orchestrating different conversations, showing appreciation asking probing questions and firmly in charge of proceedings. By the end of the evening, I hope my guests will have been entertained and informed. If my literature review can illustrate the fields relevant to my research, whilst also outlining the nature of the debate, define terms and establish how gaps in the literature justifies my research questions…then I will be satisfied.

Image below “Family Meal” by PascalCampion