Five books every graduate student should read

I have read a lot of books during my time in grad school, but several have had a profound impact on me. I think I would have avoided a lot of difficulty if someone had recommended these books to me before I began, but these will help you no matter where you are in the process.

Below is my list and a few comments how each impacted me.

A PhD Is Not Enough: A Guide To Survival In Science, by Peter J. Feibelman

This book explains better than anything I’ve ever seen what graduate school is like and provides a rough roadmap for healthy expectations and how to proceed. With time in graduate school, Feibelman’s observations become more and more obvious, but the problem is that depending on several factors (the culture of your university, your relationship with your advisor, your lab environment, etc.), it can take too long to figure these concepts out on your own, perhaps even long enough that your chances for success are sabotaged or improbable. While all the advice isn’t perfect, it very effectively gets the ball rolling and exposes the key issues that you need to keep in mind during the early stages of your PhD.

How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, by Paul J. Silvia

The key benefit of this book is the way Silvia de-mystifies academic writing. The advice is straightforward and simple (set a writing schedule and stick to it), but the effect it had on me was profound. His systematic dismissal of common excuses for lack of writing was exactly something I needed to hear and helped me get past some of my own psychological hangups regarding academic writing. This is an absolute must read for anyone intimidated by the idea of writing and submitting research articles.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, by Richard P. Feynman

Feynman was a famous and quirky scientist, known for both his intellectual prowess and amazing personality. This book is valuable for graduate students because it shows you a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the development and habits of a truly exemplary scientist. There are all kinds of takeaways I gleaned from this book, but I would say the main thing you are likely to gain here is lots of inspiration as well as a more fun and curious outlook toward your own research. Additionally, Feynman is quite hilarious!

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen

You will need a robust approach for managing a mountain of to-do items emanating from research projects, coursework, teaching, administrative tasks, and a hundred other things. This philosophy has worked great for me and helped me keep track of important things in the midst. I think it is ideally suited for the academic life. You will want to implement these principles in a trusted system such as a notebook/planner or one of many software options (I use OmniFocus for Mac and iPhone). There are other great productivity philosophies out there, but this one works for me.

The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

By far the strangest book in this list, The War of Art takes a look at overcoming the innate resistance we feel toward doing work that matters. While this book is geared more toward artists, I think research requires a type of creativity that is actually quite similar to what Pressfield teaches you to deal with. For me the key takeaway here is some strong ammunition for overcoming fear of doing something creative (and that you care about). Disclaimer: I can only endorse the first half of this book; the second half gets very metaphysical and weird.

Now, I want to open this up for suggestions. What key book did I leave off?

Disclosure: Amazon affiliate links throughout.

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