5 Great Reads for Grad Students
Kaitlin Gallagher is a PhD Candidate specializing in Biomechanics at the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and a permanent author for GradHacker. You can follow her on twitter at @KtlnG.
In March I decided that I was going to read more. Despite a heavy workload, I figured there was still time in the day for reading besides journal article after journal article, so I made a goal to read 20 books this year. At the time this seemed impossible, but this week I finished my 21st book. I noticed a few things along the way: (1) Reading has done a lot to help with lessening stress and anxiety, (2) I dislike any Nicholas Sparks book where he writes chapters from the perspective of a villain, and (3) If there is something that you are struggling with, others likely are too, and someone probably wrote a book about it.
I’ve discovered a lot of great books related to academic and research life during this process. In the past couple weeks I have written about The Checklist Manifesto and The Nerdist Way, but here are five more books to add to that list:
Demystifying the Dissertation by Peg Boyle Single. I recommend this book to everyone writing their dissertation or proposal document. I came across the author when she wrote a series of columns on Inside Higher Ed. The purpose of this book is to provide a structured system that brings a person from the initial stages of a degree all the way through completion. Not everything applied to me, but the book is written in such a way that you don’t need to read everything and you can read along as you progress through the different stages of your work. The book also addresses procrastination and perfectionism in writing. Although writing my thesis proposal was an exhausting process, I owe a lot to the foundations provided in this book as a reason why the process was manageable.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I read this book based on excerpts in “Demystifying the Dissertation”, not so much to learn how to be a novelist, but for the sake of insight and interest. Half autobiography and half lessons on the craft, King provides a basic foundation for those on the path to becoming novelists. He stresses the importance of reading widely, creating dedicated writing space, and the revision/editing process, all things that apply to grad student life as well.
Ignorance: How it Drives Science by Stuart Firestein. While ignorance can have quite a negative connotation associated with it, Firestein, a Professor of Neuroscience at Columbia University, argues that ignorance is the exact reason that science thrives. He provides a definition of knowledgeable ignorance: “the absence of fact, understanding, insight, or clarity about something”. Many people unfamiliar with the day-to-day processes of science may believe that science is building on facts, and to some extent, I even think as grad students we can get into this mindset as well. The book is written with an audience of lay-people in mind, but I believe that this book is a valuable read for graduate students because they are transitioning from lay person in society to expert. The big picture of the research process can be lost when concentrating on specific projects and the end goal of graduating.
The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young. Those familiar with Imposter Syndrome have likely read at least one blog post or article on the topic. In this book, Young provides a framework for addressing potential reasons that you’re suffering from imposter thoughts, the effect of these thoughts on your life, how to respond to failure, and taking action even when you're not 100% confident. Although the title has “women” in it, Young is quick to say that this book applies to everyone. I wouldn’t say this book is a cure-all for Imposter Syndrome, but anyone who thinks simply reading a book without further action will solve everything should rethink things. I really appreciated that Young relies on self-reflection by the reader as they progress through the book. I think that this is the books main strength - not to solve all of your problems, but to give you the tools and mindset that you can them go forward with the confidence to get past these thoughts.
Currently Reading: Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword. Sword, an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, says that many academics feel that “stylish academic writing is at best an oxymoron”. She argues that stylish academic writing should be part of disseminating information because “elegant ideas deserve elegant expression”. I’m a few chapters in and so the book has reviewed how different research disciplines (i.e. medicine versus evolutionary biology versus computer science etc.) all have different types of writing styles that may be learned or expected and if these disciplines incorporate elements of informal writing in their work. The end of each chapter provides some food for thought and ways to practice altering your writing style. In my initial reading, I’m a little hesitant on how far a person can go with this in their academic writing and find myself asking where the line is drawn between stylish and unprofessional. So far it seems like Sword is asking researchers if there are small things that can be changed about their writing to make it more approachable and not to completely overhaul their writing style. I’m looking forward to seeing where this book is heading.
A final point that I’ve learned through reading is that at some point you need to put the book down and take action. Sometimes the advice works perfectly, sometimes you wonder why on Earth anyone could think that was a good recommendation, and sometimes the advice spurs thoughts of your own and you come up with your own way to get things done. And to end things off, I’ll recommended my favourite book that I have read this year, Attachments by Rainbow Rowell and one of my favourite books, Microserfs by Douglas Coupland.
What books do you recommend that graduate students should read during their degree? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
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