We all know that graduation is an incredible rite of passage, but what if that isn’t the end of your academic career?
In the U.S.A, an estimated 5.5 million people hold a doctorate of some kind. That’s around 1.77% of the population, and I’m one of those people.
Even for the most passionate and organized student, studying for a PhD is a relentless, difficult, and lonely road. It’s a decision that oftentimes cannot be understood by those who are close to us, with friends, family members, or people we meet on a daily basis, questioning why we on earth we would want to undertake yet another degree.
If you search on Google, chances are you’ll stumble across a myriad of articles containing all the reasons you absolutely shouldn’t do a PhD, why graduate school is unnecessary, and the many stories of those who struggled to meet the demands of higher education.
And yet, the pursuit of knowledge – the thirst to know more, to investigate the uninvestigated, and expand our horizons – keeps thousands of us going back to graduate school for more, every year. Graduate school offers unparalleled opportunities for learning new skills (including languages), foreign travel, public speaking, teaching, and more. For me? My genuine love of research and writing made the four years of my PhD some of the best of my life so far.
I’ve put together a definitive list of the most helpful and encouraging titles I encountered during my time at graduate school, mostly because I wish someone had been able to recommend them to me when I needed them. So whether you’re just embarking on a PhD, or are almost ready to submit your thesis, you’ll find something of interest here.
1. One Hundred Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned along the Way, William M. Chace
William Chace entered graduate school in English at the University of California at Berkeley in 1961. He was just one of an astonishing 120 new students who embarked on graduate study that year – in his department alone. Among his cohort, however, just 12 students ended up receiving their PhD. The professors who taught him were unsurprised that only 10% of the 1961 cohort actually completed their studies, a fact Chace puts down to their view of graduate school as a calling. “Graduate students were being considered for membership in a secular priesthood,” he writes – and those of you who are already at graduate school today might empathize with his sentiments.
In One Hundred Semesters, Chace combines incisive analysis with his personal memoir to create a larger picture of the way American higher education has evolved during the past half century. We journey with Chace through the decades of his own education, from his undergraduate degree at Haverford College; the boredom and confusion he felt as a graduate student during the Free Speech movement at Berkeley; a trip to jail following his support of his own students at a civil rights protest at Stillman College, Alabama; his days as a professor at Stanford; and his later appointment as president of both Wesleyan University and Emory University.
Chace’s memoir – and his research – is born out of his own rich, varied, and incredibly complex experience; portraying the unique importance of the classroom with as much insight and vigor as the peculiar rituals, rewards, and difficulties of administrative office. One Hundred Semesters is vital reading for students today, because it reminds us that although there is much to despair over (costs, underfunding, institutional marketing) the true purpose of higher education remains the same.
2. The Dissertation Warrior: The Ultimate Guide to Being the Kind of Person Who Finishes a Doctoral Dissertation or Thesis, Guy White
There are so, so many dissertation writing guides that I could’ve pointed you to here, but I also know it’s highly likely you’ve already found them on your own. So, I chose Guy White’s Dissertation Warrior instead, for several reasons.
Though the ‘classic’ guides like Destination Dissertation and Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day are still interesting and relevant – and indispensable if you aim to familiarize yourself with the full breadth of dissertation writing advice – they have also become somewhat outdated. In addition, the interactive, online only challenge of AcWriMo has essentially rendered the latter unnecessary. But White’s book is different, because it reaffirms what I now know to be true: that doing a PhD is a transformative process that leads to being the best version of yourself, not about just finishing your thesis.
While he does talk about conquering your introduction (the hardest part!), creating alignment in your argument, and tackling the literature review, White goes far beyond providing tips for attacking the thesis. He provides an important – and much needed – sense of perspective on the actual process of getting a PhD; transforming yourself into a scholar with something to say, and maintaining your personal relationships along the way.
Though this book isn’t a dissertation how-to, it’s the perfect gift for a friend or relative who is about to embark on the PhD process. It’s motivational yet realistic, and it’ll get anyone into the kind of mindset that’s necessary for getting through graduate school.
3. Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning an M.A. or a Ph.D, Robert Peters
Some books are classics for a reason, and Getting What You Came For fits into that category nicely. First published in 1997 and subsequently revised, you might find that some parts of this book – including an appendix on buying a computer – are a little irrelevant, but others are worth their weight in gold.
Unlike many other guides, it starts at the very beginning – asking questions like, is graduate school right for you? Should you get a Masters or PhD? How can you choose the right school? At almost 400 pages, this is a substantial book that covers all the bases, from selecting a school and applying, to defending your thesis, graduation, and beyond. Based on interviews with career counsellors, graduate students, and professors, Getting What You Came For is full of real-life experiences that have, surprisingly, stood the test of time. The experience of going to graduate school – from applying for grants and financial help to dealing with departmental politics – has actually changed very little in the last twenty years or so.
Don’t read Peters’ work if you’re looking for a reassuring, motivational title that will take you by the hand and tell you that everything is going to be OK. Every chapter is a reminder of the commitment you’ve made – to yourself, your education, your supervisor, and your institution – and the hard work that will be necessary to graduate at the end of it.
Nonetheless, whatever you’re studying – from science, to humanities, education, and beyond – you’ll find some valuable insights to help you get what you came to graduate school for.
4. Playing the Game: The Streetsmart Guide to Graduate School, Frederick Frank & Karl Stein
If you’re looking for a realistic, down to brass tacks guide to going to graduate school, this is for you. Both Frank and Stein graduated from prestigious doctoral programmes, and used their combined experience in publishing, researching, conference presentations, doctoral committee service, consulting, grant writing, and teaching graduate school to write this no-nonsense guide.
One reviewer described Playing the Game as “lewd and rude,” but it’s also incredibly helpful and insightful. It’s broken down into three sections: getting in, getting through, and getting the hell out. Whatever stage of the PhD process you’re at, you’ll find something relevant among the boys’ own brand of intelligent, humorous wisdom.
Frank and Stein simplify the process of getting into graduate school, translate the complex jargon you’re expected to know from day one, and impart a series of personal, relevant, but comedic stories based on their own experiences. Personal experience has taught me that it’s easy to get caught up in, well, the game of graduate school, which encourages competitive spirit, unhealthy habits, and self-doubt. Reading Playing the Game is a reminder that everyone working towards a PhD feels – and goes through – the same things, even if they are more successful at hiding it from other people.
When you’re knee deep in literature or trying to learn an entire semester’s worth of teaching material, this is welcome light relief. I guarantee you’ll pick it up again and again during your graduate school journey, and find something of value every time.
5. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, Paul J. Silvia
Whatever your discipline, one thing is for certain: if you’re studying for a PhD, you’re going to have to write – a lot. The sheer volume of writing, as well as the many distractions we face along the way (teaching, conferences, and other commitments) can make it really difficult to fill our graduate school word quota.
Paul Silvia wrote his book – now in its second edition – in recognition of the fact that though all academics have to write, many struggle to finish their dissertations, articles, books, or grant proposals. Writing is hard work and can be all consuming – surely there has to be a way to write and still have a life? How to Write a Lot covers bad habits, common excuses, and practical strategies to help students, researchers, and professors become more prolific writers.
Silvia draws on his own experiences to explain how to write, submit, and revise academic work, without sacrificing your evenings, weekends, and vacations. This edition has new sections on writing grant and fellowship proposals, which is helpful for post-doctoral researchers and early career fellows. It’s pretty much universally loved among academics of all ages, and it’s easy to see why.
How to Write a Lot is a really useful guide – probably the most useful on this list – wherever you are in your graduate school career. At some point, everyone faces the infamous writers block, but reading this makes it both less likely that you’ll end up there, and more likely that you’ll break out of it faster. It’s ideal for all PhD students, as his advice is universal and transcends disciplinary boundaries.
6. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, Mortimer Adler & Charles Van Doren
Though graduate school is about finding your written voice and learning to articulate your own argument clearly, reading other people’s work is equally – if not, for a while, more – important. The often dreaded literature review will form a crucial part of your thesis, as well as informing the other papers, talks, lectures, and proposals you write.
For that reason, the classic How to Read a Book is an important addition to this list. With over half a million copies in print, this is an enormously successful guide to why and how we should read books. Originally published in 1940 by Adler, a philosopher, it was heavily revised in 1972 when editor Van Doren came on board. Though it provides guidelines for critically good reading books of all types, the sections on analytical reading, speed reading, and extracting the author’s message from a given text are particularly useful to graduate students.
I’d argue that How to Read a Book is a must-read for anyone, but it’s especially important when you’re studying for a PhD. It’s no surprise that some of the best writers are avid readers, because we learn, assimilate, and create our own writing style based on what we read and our responses to it (if it was clear, concise, florid, wandering, dense, and so on and so forth).
You might think that writing and writing well is the skill you need to focus on honing during graduate school, but I’d argue that reading well is just as important. This isn’t a short book, but it’s something you can dip in and out of at will.
7. Teaching College: The Ultimate Guide to Lecturing, Presenting, and Engaging Students, Norman Eng
Whatever your course of study, chances are you’ll need to do some teaching at some point in your PhD. Presenting at conferences is also a vital method of disseminating your research, networking, and entering the job market – so it’s important that you can do it well.
Norman Eng is a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) with a background in teaching and marketing. Working as a marketing executive, he realized that his clients needed to know and engage with their target audience in order to communicate effectively and be successful. Eng then went on to be an elementary teacher, and was nominated as one of the Honor Roll’s Outstanding American Teachers in the mid 2000s. Later a college professor, he found that much of his experience in marketing and elementary teaching held true for college instructors – that students, undergraduate or graduate, need to see the value of what you are teaching to their lives.
Teaching College is an approachable blueprint for learning the necessary graduate school skills of presenting, lecturing, teaching, and engaging students. Eng’s goal is that adjunct professors, lecturers, assistant professors, and graduate assistants alike can learn effective teaching methods – and in that, he’s incredibly successful.
Whatever the level of the reader, Eng’s guide has been highly praised and recognized as a stellar resource. His practical tips and down-to-earth advice make this an excellent, approachable read, whether you currently have teaching experience or not.
8. The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job, Karen Kelsky
I hate to say it, but the long and arduous journey of getting a PhD might be just the beginning. Sure, some people see getting a PhD as a personal academic challenge, but the vast majority go through graduate school with the aim of securing the job at the end of it.
As Kelsky tells us, “for every comfortably tenured professor or well-paid former academic, there are countless underpaid and overworked adjuncts, and many more who simply give up in frustration.” The small minority who don’t fall within these two groups have one thing in common: a plan. The Professor Is In is a definitive guide to setting yourself up for success when you already have a PhD in hand. Kelsky covers a myriad of valuable topics; providing the lowdown on academic job searches, the common mistakes made by unsuccessful applicants, and when and how to point your PhD to other, non-academic options.
This is a wonderful, non-judgemental book that is essential reading for new PhDs. Learn when, where and what to publish; how to write a grant application; tips for job talks and campus interviews; creating the perfect Curriculum Vitae and more. And if you don’t land the perfect tenure-track job, or become disenchanted with the process along the way? Don’t worry about it. You aren’t alone, and there are many, many things you can do with a PhD outside academia. The Professor Is In and she is here to help!
I set about writing this article with the aim of helping students find the resources necessary to support and encourage them on their journey through graduate school. Doing so helped me to relive some of the many highlights – and low points – of the years I spent working towards my PhD. It remains one of my biggest achievements, and the thing I am most proud of.
Graduate school isn’t always easy, and sometimes you won’t see all the positives until the PhD is defended and done. But wherever you are now, good luck. And in case no-one else has told you this lately: what you are doing is relevant, your argument is valid, and you deserve to be right where you are.
“It always seems impossible, until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela