Academic book club: Books for graduate students and professors

This is a guest post by my friend Mackensie!

I love reading. I also feel incredibly lucky to be one of the few people that have not been ruined by graduate school in that the mere sight of another book doesn’t leave me in a panic. I typically read before bed because my insomnia is terrible, and it’s either read or stay up late into the night, remembering every embarrassing thing from childhood I’ve ever read. As a result, I’ve read a lot of great popular press books that aren’t academic but may appeal to academics–books about productivity, books to read before starting grad school, and books for aspiring researchers. Here it is: the first (possibly last? We’ll see how motivated I am…) post of Academic Book Club. I’ve included five extremely different types of books, depending on what you’re in the mood for.

If you’re looking for an inspiring, contemporary memoir….

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren

Years ago, I came across a list of best books for academics. Lab Girl was on it, but I read another recommendation first and the book was so terrible I refused to read any other book on it. A few years a later, I was going to an international conference, which meant leaving the country for the first time. I downloaded a recommended app for borrowing library books on my iPad, went to the public library and got a card. Lab Girl was available as an eBook and I downloaded it along with ten other books.

Lab Girl tells the story of Hope as she begins her academic journey as an undergraduate student, eventually becoming a professor, and later runs a lab studying trees. She talks about becoming interested in the field, her struggles with mental health, her difficulties funding her lab, competing in a hypermasculine field, and why trees are dope and we should all love them. It captured my feelings about science beautifully, even though my approach is social, while hers is environmental. I was moved and touched throughout. I cannot recommend it enough. Plus it was on Obama’s favorite book list, which means Obama and I have the same great taste so we should probably be friends?

If you feel like you are completely inadequate and are incapable of finishing a project:

Finish Give Yourself the Gift of Fun Academic Reading List Suggestions

Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done by Jon Acuff

I’ll admit, I’m a self-help junky. I love a good self-help book, and devour them in hours, resolving to fix my life, only to give up a few days later. However, I’ve been a bit put off as of late. What I liked about this was that there was no manifesto, no “dig deep and work harder”, and no “just manifest the future.” I’ve tried writing positive mantras, de-prioritizing sleep, and manifesting everything under the sun, and I still have some unfinished manuscripts. I also did not magically hit a 7 minute mile, nor am I rich, nor has my dog fully learned healthy boundaries. 

Finish is a different type of self-help book. Acuff outlines typical issues with finishing goals, including how setting unrealistic goals and deadlines can ruin your chance of success and that refusing to quit can also be worse in the long run. He goes into issues with perfectionism and has some concrete ideas on how to improve your ability to do things, like splitting goals in half and making things fun. It’s an easy read (or listen: it was my dog walking and car driving audiobook), and I felt like I walked away with some really great tips for how to practically finish goals, without feeling like I wasn’t LiViNg Up To My P0TenTiAl. It is a must read for anyone starting grad school or anyone about to go into the field as an assistant professor who is nervous about being able to get everything done.

Preview of something that worked from it: Acuff talks about finding something that makes the work fun. He personally lights a candle scent that he loves when writing, but can only light it when writing. I love candles, and there’s a local candle company I’m obsessed with but refuse to shop from because I know I’ll burn through the candle immediately and the candles are expensive. Well I hauled myself over to Wax Buffalo, bought my dream candle, and told myself I would only light it while working on my dissertation and it’s AMAZING. My office smells great (home office, as I’m sure I would be breaking a fire code immediately if I lit it in my school office), I’m actually excited to work, and I’ve been so much more consistent.

If you’re in need of some GD tough love…

The Professor is In PhD Book Reading List Suggestions

The Professor Is In by Karen Kelsky

This blog has only recommended this book three times already, but if you want to start a polarizing, Jets vs. Sharks, NSYNC vs. Backstreet Boys, Taylor vs. Katy (thank god they’re ok) type argument among graduate students, bring up The Professor Is In. People have opinions about it. The Professor Is In talks about how grueling the academic job market is and how to prepare yourself for it in (her interpretation of) the best way possible. I know so many people who read the first chapter and gave up, claiming it “bummed them out”. Well TOUGH LOVE MOMENT. You know what else bums me out? Flossing my teeth, especially when I haven’t in 3 days. Just because flossing bums me out, doesn’t mean it’s not good for me, or doesn’t prepare me to live a better life where I can continue to voraciously consume gummy candies like my life depends on it.

The point is, she’s harsh, and disillusioned by the academic system, which is ok. Some people are. But it also has some really good advice, great templates, and is really helpful to read before starting your doctorate. I read it the summer before I started and it helped me to think about how I could create a scholarly agenda position my projects well. It came in handy during the job market and whenever I felt panicked over what to put in a research statement or cover letter, I could open it and know where to start. I actually got a job in this “cutthroat” field. Consider it your graduate school flossing. 

If you want a fun, hilarious, short read….

Dear Committee Members Academic Book Suggestions

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher 

Dear Committee Members is written entirely from the perspective of a tenured professor through recommendation letters he is frequently called to write for students, fellow faculty, and committees. You find out about his students, his divorce, and even his dilapidated office. I found myself laughing out loud throughout, much to the frustration of friends around me and the people on the plane who were trying to sleep. I’m not sure if they were actually trying to sleep because they did not verbalize these thoughts, but the withering looks and my impeccable sense of inference seemed to be enough. This book is short, but really funny.  The end definitely gets deep, but it does a great job critiquing academia without being patronizing or jaded. 

If you want a deep read that’s only moderately related to academia….

The Mars Room Academic Book Recommendations

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

This book is, at best, tangentially related to academia. Which means there is one character in it that is a graduate student, and while we get to hear his story, it is not the story. The Mars Room follows the story of a Romy, a woman who has been sentenced to two life sentences after killing her stalker. The perspective shifts from her, to the graduate student who has taken time off of graduate school when he fails to receive the accolades he believes he deserves to teach prisoners high school classes, to a few of her fellow inmates, to a crooked cop who finds himself on the other side of the law. Sometimes, this shifting can get confusing, and a few times, feels wholly unnecessary, but the book does a good job of illustrating the complexities of our justice system, and how it disadvantages social classes. It’s dark, and upsetting, but moves well, and definitely leaves you thinking and wondering, which I believe to be an important hallmark of a good book.

That’s what I have! I’m always looking for recommendations, so let me know what to read, or it there should be more installments of Academic Book Club!

3 thoughts on “Academic book club: Books for graduate students and professors”

  1. Graduating PhD here! I have read the Professor Is In during my first year in grad school and oh my that was some TOUGH love. To give some context, I chose to relocate for grad school and left my then-bf-now-husband in a state 600 miles away, so I was already an emotional wreck during my first year. One night I thought it was a good idea to see what this book is all about. Cue me still awake until 4am having a MASSIVE existential crisis, wondering what on earth I was doing with my life… but like you said, it was grad school flossing. I appreciate her honesty about academic job market, and while I did know whether I would want to stay in academia (which is the ‘norm’ for my field), her words pushed me to think about my career broadly and to gradually develop transferable skills that would make me competitive in various job markets. Fast forward to now, I landed a job offer for an industry position that is in the same city as where my husband works, ending our 6 year long-distance. I still have flashbacks to that night when I read the book, and wondered how different my journey would be if I hadn’t experienced that tough love!
    Also, your blog is so awesome to read – passionate, real, honest, and humorous. I will for sure share your posts with first year students in my program 🙂


    1. Thank you so much. It is really tough love but it gave me a clear head going into the PhD and then the job market later, and so many professors are unwilling to say what Kelsky will. And thanks for sharing the blog–it is a true delight to write about clothes/academia on the internet hahah. No really, I have a ton of fun with it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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