This page is dedicated to brief overviews of books that address issues pertinent to the graduate student experience. They tackle a variety of issues, including academic challenges, career planning and exploration, and how to get the most out of your graduate program.
Books cannot provide all you need to know to succeed in graduate school, the academic job market, or your career, but the information they provide can often save you a great deal of time and effort.
Enjoy browsing through our bookshelf!
Finding Careers Outside Academia
By Susan Basalla & Maggie Debelius
University of Chicago Press, 2014
The starting point of So What Are You Going to Do with That? is the perennial question dreaded by many graduate students: what are you planning to do after graduate school? One piece of advice that resurfaces throughout this book is the antidote to that dread: the importance of thinking hard about future career plans during one’s tenure in a graduate program.
It seems simple enough. Notwithstanding the ostensible simplicity, most graduate students know all too well how easy it is to maintain rigorous engagement with all aspects of graduate studies—except for seriously planning for what lies on the other side of graduate school. A key reason for this lapse is the difficulty of drawing the contours of a radically ambiguous future. The authors repeatedly remind their readers that it is perfectly normal to feel helpless when facing such ambiguity, though the lack of certainty is no reason to give up on taking the initial steps. Borrowing an analogy from the novelists E. L. Doctorow, they explain that planning one’s career while in graduate school is “like driving at night. Your headlights only light up the road 30 feet in front of you, but that’s enough to get you all the way home.” Thus, when starting your career search, “embrace the ambiguity” and realize that while lived narratives may seem confused in the present, they do eventually gain distinct forms.
To emphasize the idea of career planning as a lived narrative in progress, the book is interspersed with personal stories of former graduate students who succeeded in making important (and ultimately rewarding) decisions with respect to their future careers. Some did so by experimenting with part-time work, others by pursuing interests outside of academia, some by taking a break from incessantly obsessing over their dissertations, and yet others through having difficult, honest, and necessary conversations with their advisers about how their current projects figure within their future plans.
In addition to telling real-life stories, So What Are You Going to Do with That? provides high-level career advice, technical tips (e.g. the fundamental differences between a CV and a resume, or a list of active verbs to use in resumes), and debunks common myths such as “no one would hire me because I have no skills.” Given the prevalence of this particular myth in the graduate student population, the pressing question then becomes, so, what are you going to do about that? Well, prove the myth wrong!
Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD
By Loleen Berdahl and Jonathan Malloy
University of Toronto Press, 2018
The subtitle of Work Your Career may suggest that it is written primarily for humanities and social science PhD students. Though the discussion of career development focuses on issues pertinent to this specific group, the book does contain valuable information relevant to scholars from all disciplines, including postdoctoral researchers. A quick glance at the chapter titles is enough to indicate that at least some of the material could benefit a wider audience. There is, for instance, a chapter on “Establishing Your Funding Record,” one on how to “Cultivate a Professional Reputation,” and another about how to “Approach Academic Jobs Strategically.” While humanities and social science PhDs stand to benefit the most from reading Work Your Career, others are sure to be pleasantly surprised by the bits of seemingly basic yet powerful pieces of advice dispensed throughout the book.
For the book’s target audience, two chapters in particular are noteworthy: “Work Your Program” and “Go Beyond Your Program.” These two chapters contain indispensable tips such as how selecting certain assignment and dissertation topics can help advance one’s career goals. They also contain a discussion of how to weigh the gains from engaging in professional development activities outside of one’s academic program. Perhaps the most salient piece of advice is embedded in the overarching theme: even typical academic activities—those which graduate students perform in order to fulfill degree requirements—can/should be viewed through the lens of professional development and career goals. The suggestion is that everything graduate students do—including “purely academic exercises”—can be leveraged to serve larger career goals, be they within academia or in the broader job market. This spirit is also evident in the section titles which are presented as questions (“How do I select the best courses to advance my future career?”), thus replicating a central facet of graduate training: we must ask the right questions if we hope to reach interesting and valuable answers.
Work Your Career is organized chronologically—it starts with questions to consider when selecting a graduate program and ends with venturing into the academic job market. This method of organization might give the impression that the content presented is useful only to those interested in learning about the traditional progress of an aspiring academic. However, if you do decide to give this book a try, you are bound to be surprised by both its wide-ranging discussion and its nonconventional approach.
The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD Into A Job
By Karen Kelsky
Three Rivers Press, 2015
PhDs who have struggled on the academic job market over the last decade may be familiar with the name Karen Kelsky. With her social media presence in support of her consulting services at The Professor Is In, she has become known for providing both stern warnings and focused, specific advice regarding the academic job hunt.
Kelsky is not one to provide generic or ambiguous advice. She explains exactly how you should approach the academic job hunt, and how to present yourself as a serious academic. Her approach may seem cynical or calculating at times, but this is because she knows the hyper-competitive job market can be very unforgiving to candidates who don’t follow the many unwritten rules of engagement.
The book contains highly practical advice on topics like maintaining a CV, crafting job documents, handling interviews, negotiating offers, and writing grant applications. While it is an essential resource for PhDs preparing to enter the job market, graduate students who read this book early in their programs and consult it regularly should derive even greater benefit.
The last section of the book looks at work outside of academia, and although she provides some excellent tips, this is not Kelsky’s area of expertise. The Professor Is In is designed to help you become an employable academic, and for that it is one of the best guides available.
Perverse Professional Lessons for Graduate Students
By Kevin D. Haggerty and Aaron Doyle
University of Chicago Press, 2015
57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School can be described as a cautionary tale of graduate school’s common pitfalls, especially those whose effects can reverberate for years. While it is easy to sabotage one’s own prospects in graduate school, the authors warn, the resulting damage can be incredibly difficult to repair.
Though the 57 screw-ups surveyed here can be avoided through careful consideration of the momentous choices one is expected make in graduate school, many graduate students continue to make these choices casually, thus repeating the same mistakes of their predecessors. The impetus behind this book, then, is to help graduate students avoid needless damage by providing them with a comprehensive guidebook that covers the personal, academic, and professional pitfalls of graduate school.
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter and the gravity of the potential mistakes, this “portrait of grad school” is written in a highly engaging style. The authors present the screw-ups as supposed recommendations to those who insist on ruining their experience in graduate school and on crushing the dreams that brought them there. They assure the reader “that following our 57-step program will result in a dreadful grad school experience.” This facetious framing device made it possible for the authors to write a serious yet readable, and often humorous, book.
If you happen to be drawn to the dreadful experience the book promises, here is a taste of the missteps you might consider making: ignore the market, stay at the same university, follow the money blindly, choose the coolest supervisor, concentrate only on your thesis, organize everything only in your head, socialize only with your clique, never compromise, and consider a non-academic career as a form of failure.
The 57 steps are of course too numerous to list here. However, one could mention the thread running through many of them: when stepping into a graduate program, you are essentially stepping into a professional space. Like all professional spaces, graduate school functions according to a complex array of unwritten rules. Thorough knowledge and serious consideration of these rules (which are by no means secret) can save you both the dread while in graduate school and the potential damage to your career in the years to come.
In a way, failing to learn these rules means failing to learn the institutional history of the professional context where you will spend some of the most productive years of your life. And we all know what happens to those who do not learn from history.
A Guide to Survival in Science
By Peter J. Feibelman
Basic Books, 2011
First published in 1993 and revised for 2011, A PhD Is Not Enough has become a well-known guide for PhD graduates in the sciences, and for good reason. Short but carefully worded, it provides pointed advice on topics ranging from giving effective talks and interviews to applying for funding and choosing research and career paths. Even if it deals with some of the hard realities of pursuing a career in science, it does so in a way that is meant to encourage PhDs to professionalize and think about the choices they must make.
In his preface, Feibelman notes that finding a good mentor is one of the keys to success, but he also recognizes that not all graduate students or PhDs will find mentors that can help guide their future careers. In many ways, this book is a highly-condensed treasury of the wisdom that one might glean from an astute mentor. Feibelman writes, “This book is meant for those who will not be lucky enough to find a mentor early, for those who naively suppose that getting through graduate school, doing a postdoc, etc., are enough to guarantee a scientific career. I want you to see what stands between you and a career, to help you prepare for the inevitable obstacles before they overwhelm you.”
Much of the advice in this book is specific to the context of careers in science, and it doesn’t venture into science-related careers that aren’t research-focused. Still, the advice he provides about topics like preparing presentations or handling job interviews is applicable to a range of careers, particularly those in academia.
A Hiring Manager’s Advice for Academics Looking for a Job in Industry
By M. R. Nelson
Annorlunda Books, 2014
Navigating the Path to Industry is a short book that aims to demystify the basic steps academics and graduate students in the sciences need to take when conducting their first job search in industry. The book’s intended reader is someone who is well versed in academia’s standards but lacks the exposure to the standards that operate in industry.
Throughout, the focus is on securing a first position, and not necessarily one to which the reader might aspire. In the midst of a career transition, the logic goes, it is prudent to target a position that may not represent everything one hopes to achieve in industry, but where one can stay for a couple of years while acquiring the experience needed to thrive in future roles.
Nelson, whose background is in biomedical science and information technology, clarifies her book’s objective by stating early on that her intention is to provide a framework for conducting the job search, not offer a holistic treatment of the intricacies involved in career transitions. “You will need to fill in the details for yourself,” she says, “based on your own particular skills and goals.” She adds that Navigating the Path to Industry does not replace full-fledged books on career transition. Instead, it serves as a starting point.
Overall, three pieces of advice stand out:
First, the biggest mistake you could make is to wait “until you need a job to start the process of looking for one.” Even in the best of circumstances, finding a position in industry is a time-consuming process that could take several months—even up to a year. The process involves research, self-inventory, and networking, all of which require a great deal of time and reflection. Failing to do this work beforehand would almost certainly sabotage your chances of making a smooth transition from academia to industry.
Second, it is crucial to learn the professional version of your academic field. Research how your specific academic expertise is applied in industry. Why do industry practitioners apply the expertise differently? Is it because they value reliability more than innovation? Try to find out the “how” and “why” while resisting the temptation to dismiss the different methodologies deployed in industry as deficient, because there is often a perfectly logical reason for that difference.
Third, put a considerable amount of energy into preparing to network. Before you even start networking, prepare a compelling but brief summary of your research—one that is intended to start a productive conversation, not answer all possible questions about your research and expertise. Most importantly, never network “to get a job.” Rather, network to learn about the available options and “to plant seeds” that will bear fruit in the future.
Written in condensed, conversational style, Navigating the Path to Industry offers practical advice along the lines of the ones mentioned above, all without requiring a substantial time commitment on the part of its reader.