A research career is a complex career. It involves many skills and knowledge that are not necessarily related to the specific topic that you choose to investigate.
In my experience, students just before of at the beginning of their PhD research (at the beginning of their research careers) are often quite disconnected from the actual skills and background that will make them successful. This is why I try to supply my students with some of the knowledge that, sooner or later, they will need to apply. To help with this, I have selected four books that all my students get at the beginning of their PhDs (to read in their free time). Here is the selection, and why I selected each book. Note: I’d love you to share other books you think are valuable at this stage (use the comments below).
Science/Engineering students often think that writing is the boring part of the job. Most of them realise that they have to do it, and some might even know that they have to do it well to be successful. However, telling a student that they have to get better at writing is not the best approach. In the best case, they already know that they have to do it, and in the worse, they might start hating it.
Instead, I like to consider writing (of academic papers and reports) as thinking on paper. It is often not until I have written the last bit of a paper (e.g., the discussion section) that I fully understand the research that I have done, the implications, and the value of it. Of course, the research is mostly already in your mind (and in your code, data, etc), but putting it on paper takes you to the next step: you can communicate it to the world and, perhaps most importantly, to yourself.
And this is what this book is about: setting up questions, understanding the problem, structuring a solution, all mediated through writing. A particular favorite of mine is the bit about making arguments; being able to make a claim and support it with evidence in a convincing way is one of those things that students think they know, but only learn after supervision, much experience and, perhaps, reading this book.
Once you know why you are writing, you need to know how. Although some authors think that this book might not be as good as everybody else thinks it is, it takes many students out of some of the worst habits in writing, namely:
- Writing to look smart.
- Writing without thinking of the reader (e.g., long sentences).
- Writing to fill in the space (lack of brevity).
Although the grammar advice might be somewhat antiquated and not always completely correct, the rest of the book, in particular the parts about style, helped me significantly improve my writing (although I certainly don’t claim mastery!). I think this book is particularly useful for students who are not native speakers of English and who come from traditions where clarity and brevity is not as central as in the English speaking scientific community (I’m from Spain, and I’m in shock most of the time I have to read or review a thesis in Spanish).
The most important point of the book might be summarised in a quote attributed to Blaise Pascal: If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter. Well, a student should have the time, so the text should be shorter while keeping the crucial information. It takes time and effort, but readers (and markers) will be happier, the world will waste less paper, and the paper/dissertation will be more likely to be read and used by others.
Very often students lack context. They might know that they want to do research, they might even know that they like research. But what else is involved? Why would a PhD be useful? What does it get you? Most importantly, what does it NOT get you?
This book might be a bit harsh to start on (sometimes reality is a bit hard), but it provides a nice glimpse on the world of research and highlights much of what really becomes the focus of what you do as a researcher and academic. The bad news is that there is a lot more of politics, strategy, and marketing in this job than what we all expect when we start. The good news is that you can be prepared for it, and might even get to enjoy some of those bits. In any case, and from my personal opinion, being in research is awesome, but it is better to be ready for what it requires from you.
Note: there are other similar/related books about research and academia that are worth mentioning and reading (e.g., this, this, and this), but perhaps not strictly necessary at the beginning of a PhD).
So, what is really required from a PhD? Effective work and perseverance. Most people in academia know that you don’t have to be a genius to get a PhD. Gosh, you don’t even have to get the best or most novel ideas. But your ability to work hard, avoid procrastination, and persevere will determine the chances of being successful in your PhD and of being able to take your career further.
Although there is a lot of crap in the self-help and productivity literature, this does not mean that it is better to ignore it all. This book describes my favorite system, and although it is not perfect and I still work really really long hours, it has helped me enormously. This might not be the best system for productivity that there is, or be the best system for everyone, but at least is honest, well explained, and feasible. I’m a fan.
The reality of a PhD is that, if students think they are busy during their undergrads or MSc, the demands on time will only keep increasing. This is certainly true after you have become a doctor. If you don’t like GTD, you better find something else!
Have you come across other books that you think are useful? I’d love to compile a list with your suggestions, and I might even add a book or two to my list!