The 7 Books Every PhD Student Should Read

By Alex Wakeman

Let’s be honest. If you’re nerdy enough to be doing a PhD, you probably love a good book. Whether you’re looking for entertainment or advice, distraction or comfort, the seven listed here can each, in their own way, help you through your frustrating but uniquely rewarding life of a PhD student.   

  1. Isaac Asimov – I, Robot  

“1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.  

3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”  

The Three Laws of Robotics. Simple. Elegant. Watertight. What could go wrong? These three, now legendary rules are printed on the first page of ‘I, Robot’ then are immediately followed by a series of masterful short stories in which Asimov dismantles his seemingly perfect creation before your very eyes. With ‘I, Robot’ (and many of his other works) Asimov displays dozens of ways rules can be bent and circumvented. As it turns out, a lot can go wrong.   

In some ways, this collection of short stories about misbehaving robots acts as a training manual for one of the most essential skills any PhD student must develop: discerning truth. Has that experiment proved what you think it proves? To what extent does it prove that? Are you sure? You might be convinced, but will everyone else at the conference see it that way? At first glance, Asimov’s Three Laws seem like a pretty good crack at a clear and concise system to prevent anything from quirky, metallic shenanigans to an anti-organic apocalypse. Are you sure about that? Look at them again, have a think, test them as vigorously as you would any real-world proof. Then go and read ‘I, Robot’ and find out how wrong you were.  

  1. Sayaka Murata – Convenience Store Woman  

You could probably be doing something better with your life, you know. Most people doing a PhD are a pretty effective combination of intelligent and driven. You almost certainly got a 1st or a 2:1 in a bachelor’s degree, probably a masters. Someone with this profile could certainly find a career with a starting salary above the RCUK minimum stipend level of £15,285 a year, likely one with a much more concrete future ahead of them as well. For most people it doesn’t make a lot of sense to do a PhD; it’s a huge investment of time and energy directed towards a very specialised end. But there are plenty of good reasons to do one as well and if you’re currently working on a PhD you are probably (I sincerely hope) aware of one of the main ones: it’s fun. It really can be fun, at least for a very peculiar type of person. But, of course, it’s not a particularly normal idea of fun. Most people have had their fill of learning by the end of school, or at most university, and it can sometimes be tough convincing a partner or family member that this genuinely is what you enjoy, despite the dark rings they’ve noticed forming under your eyes.   

Keiko would probably understand. She feels a very similar way. Not about PhDs or learning, making novel discoveries, or changing the world for the better; but she does feel a very similar way about her work in a convenience store. She enjoys everything about the convenience store, from the artificial 24/7 light to the starchy slightly ill-fitting uniforms, it provides her with enough money for rent and food and she wants for little else. Murata presents us with a tender and often hilarious portrait of a woman attempting to claim agency over her own, unique way of living, and convince others of the simple joy it brings her. If the average PhD student is twice as strange as your typical person, then as a PhD student you have twice as much reason to follow this proudly comforting story of an atypical person and her atypical interest.    

  1. Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning  

Suffering is relative. It is certain that I will struggle with my PhD. I am still in the early days of my studies, but I am aware that studying for a PhD is likely going to be the hardest thing I have done with my life so far.  In all the interviews I had for various funding schemes and DTPs, not one failed to ask a question that amounted to: “How will you cope?”. But at its worst my PhD still won’t cause me to suffer nearly as much as Viktor Frankl did. Don’t think I’m recommending this book to remind you to ‘count yourself lucky’, or any similar nonsense; Frankl isn’t concerned with pity, or one upping your struggles, he just wants you to feel fulfilled, even in the worst moments when nothing’s going right and you’re starting to doubt if you’re even capable of completing a PhD.   

The first half of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ is a stark, sometimes unpleasant autobiographical account of Frankl’s time imprisoned in various Nazi concentration camps. But the difficulty of the subject matter is worth it for the fascinatingly unique perspective of the author: Viktor Frankl was one of the 20th Century’s foremost neurologists. The first-hand experience of one of Europe’s blackest events – viewed through the lens of a Jewish psychiatrist – could quite easily paint a rather bleak and hopeless image of humanity. This, however, is not the case. Instead, Frankl uses the second half of the book to explain in layman’s terms the psychological basis behind his biggest contribution to his field: Logotherapy. Frankl emerges from the immense suffering of the holocaust to clearly and kindly encourage us to find meaning and joy in all parts of life. Far from being a depressing read ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ is instead likely to leave you feeling inspired, cared for, and capable of getting through whatever nonsensical data, failed experiments, and frustrating failures your PhD might throw at you.   

  1. John Ratey – Spark!  

We’ve all had times in our lives when we felt that we couldn’t afford to exercise, when life is just so overwhelmingly occupied, there’s too many important things going on. At some points in your PhD, when you feel too busy to take a break, see friends, or cook a proper dinner, having a go at the ‘Couch to 5k’ certainly doesn’t look like it’ll be getting any of your valuable hours any time soon. But after several decades of researching the human brain, Professor John Ratey is here to argue that you can’t afford not to exercise.  

I’m sure it isn’t a great revelation to you that exercise is vital for your physical health, but ‘Spark!’ instead implores us to think of exercise as an essential activity for our brain. With an abundance of examples from modern publications in psychiatry and neuroscience, Ratey explains the effects of regular exercise on the human brain. Better memory, improved problem solving, better pattern recognition, longer periods of focus, reduced procrastination and improved mood; I struggle to believe there’s a single human being who would not benefit from every one of these and the countless other benefits discussed throughout the book. But for PhD students, whose work is especially dependent on the functioning of their brain, the effects are potentially even more transformative. You wouldn’t dream of mistreating the expensive lab microscope. You’d never work with equipment that had been left dysfunctional due to lack of care: why treat your own brain any differently? 

  1. Hermann Hesse – The Glass Bead Game 

 PhD students are students. Sometimes this is painfully clear, sometimes it is easy to forget. But nevertheless, learning is at the centre of a PhD and learning is a two way-street. There is no learning without teaching, even if the learner and the teacher are the same person. ‘The Glass Bead Game’ is a novel about learning and teaching, it is a realistic portrait of two sides of the same coin, simultaneously superimposed upon one another. 

The story takes place in an imaginary European province in which experts, scientists, scholars, and philosophers are allotted unlimited resources and are permitted to follow any interest or whim to their heart’s content. In many ways this place may sound utopian compared to the current state of academia, so ruthless in its limitation of funding, and so stringent in its selection processes. Yet this is not a utopian novel. But neither is it a dystopian one. Hesse somehow manages to create a world that feels genuine and authentic, despite its fantastical premise. Though he uses the extreme concept of a country entirely focused on pedagogy to explore the nature of learning, this extremity never becomes fanciful with regards to the positives and negatives of such a way of living. Rather than leaving the reader with a melancholic longing for a fantasy world where the streets are paved with postdoc positions, the realism of ‘The Glass Bead Game’ is more likely to help you find a balanced appreciation for life in academia, better able to accept it’s many blemishes, and in doing so more able to appreciate it’s many joys.  

  1. Plato – The Last Days of Socrates  

A PhD is a doctor of philosophy. As PhD students we are all therefore philosophers-in-training. We are learning how to ask precise questions, and how to answer them in a convincing, conclusive manner. We are learning to fully understand the nature of evidence and proof, to recognise when something is proved and when it is not. The word itself comes from the Greek ‘philos’ (loving) and ‘sophia’ (wisdom), an apt description of anyone willing to spend several years of their life researching one extremely niche topic that few others know or care about.   

Although the Classical philosophers arrived long before any concept of scientific method, and they often came to some conclusions that now seem laughable, a small understanding of their world can do a lot for any 21st century philosopher. This book in itself won’t come to any ground breaking conclusions that haven’t been long since disproved, or better communicated, but it’s place in this list is earned as an essential introduction to the history of asking questions. At a time in which more and more people are recoiling from the influence of experts, this story of a man being put on trial for asking too many questions remains as relevant as it was 2,000 years ago. And ultimately, this book would still earn its spot on this list solely as the source of the famous scene in which Socrates insists that the only reason the Oracle named him the wisest of the Greeks, was because he alone amongst the Greeks knows that he knows nothing – a statement that may haunt and comfort any PhD student, depending on the day.  

  1. Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass  

Perhaps you’re wondering how a book of 19th Century poetry is going to help you be a better PhD student. Unlike the other entries on this list, I will make no claim to its ability to help you think better, nor will it help you ask better questions, nor make you feel more justified in your choice of career path. ‘Leaves of Grass’ will not help you be a better PhD student in any way, because you are not a PhD student, you are a human being, and that’s enough. Not only is that enough, that’s everything. To Walt Whitman there’s nothing more you can be. It is quite easy for your view of the world (and therefore your place in it) to become narrowed. You spend all day working on your PhD. All, or most of your colleagues are doing the same, perhaps many of your friends as well. But your PhD is not your life. The success or failure of your research is not you. The accumulation of three Latin characters at the end of your name is not an indication of value. If you are to read any of the books that I have recommended here make it this one and there will be no problem over the coming years that you will not be prepared for, not because it will guarantee your success, but because it will assure you that whilst there are trees and birds and stars and sunlight there doesn’t need to be anything more – anything else that comes out of each day is a welcome (but unnecessary) add-on. Whatever happens during your PhD, whether your thesis changes the world, or all your plans come to nothing, or you drop out halfway through, or you take ten years to finish. Just be you, be alive, be human, and know that that’s more than enough. 

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