14 Books You NEED to Read Before Pursuing a PhD

Written By: Melanie Foster

So you want to get that Ph.D., eh? Splendid! You do realize it might very well wind up one of the most agonizing, ecstatic, grueling, satisfying, emotional, numbing, stimulating, brain-deadening, fulfilling, and soul-crushing experiences of your life, right? Good! If you’re still a plucky, enthusiastic go-getter of a potential student, then pick up some of the following reads for a more detailed glimpse at what to expect and what skills to build before heading off to start on that great big scary (but usually oh-so-worth-it) doctorate.

  1. Is a PhD for Me?: A Cautionary Guide for Aspiring Doctoral Students     by Yuval Bar-Or:

    Both contemplating and current Ph.D. candidates form the crux of this book’s target audience, which makes sure anyone applying to the programs knows exactly what they’re getting into before they even hit the “send” button (or lick the envelope for schools who prefer kicking it lo-fi). Because the author cranks out everything with lurid detail, it might make or break a few minds who decide to give the book a look.

  2. Piled Higher and Deeper     by Jorge Cham:

    The popular webcomic is also available in printed format and wrings considerable laughs from the overwhelming nature of graduate school. While the book likely won’t change anyone’s opinion of whether or not to pursue a Ph.D. — nor should it — anyone considering upper-level degrees might appreciate to humor to be found in what might very well lay ahead.

  3. The Smart Way to Your PhD: 200 Secrets from 100 Graduates     by Dora Farkas:

    Hear all the horror and hallelujah stories about master’s and Ph.D. programs straight from the students themselves, courtesy of Dora Farkas’ extensive research across geographic, demographic, and area of emphasis lines. With so many perspectives to explore, anyone who picks this book up will likely learn quite a bit about anything and everything related to graduate school – the good, the bad, and the straight-up nasty!

  4. One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School     by Scott Turow:

    Juris doctorates still count as doctorates, and Scott Turow’s memoir of his freshman experience at Harvard Law receives a lot of praise as almost universal to the degree plan. It gets pretty intense in its depictions of what all it takes to receive a thorough education in law, so anyone thinking of heading down that path should explore this and other reads about the grueling process.

  5. The Complete Guide to the MD/PhD Degree: The Art and Science of “Doing it Twice”     by Brandon Minnery, Jayakar Nayak, and Ben Rosner:

    Don’t worry, aspirant and current med schoolers; we certainly haven’t forgotten to include a book relevant to your graduate interests! The M.D., the Ph.D., and the M.D./Ph.D. routes all receive thorough coverage here, and readers considering these options can use the book to help gauge which (if any) might prove best for their needs.

  6. A PhD is Not Enough!: A Guide to Survival in Science     by Peter Feibelman:

    Potential research scientists take note: scoring a hot little Ph.D. won’t necessarily open any doors to the sexy world of theorems and laws and maybe even an Erlenmeyer flask or two if you’re really saucy. As this book outlines, completing that doctorate only marks the very first step on that journey of a thousand miles the Buddhist saying loves dissecting; a proper science education includes information about succeeding long after the terminal degree gets conferred.

  7. Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School     by Adam Ruben:

    Like the title states, Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School serves as a straightforward, sometimes insanely funny, guide to making sure that master’s or Ph.D. doesn’t land you in the psych ward (as a patient, not a doctor!). It’s as charmingly self-deprecating as it is incredibly useful about what to expect and how to press forward when things “pile higher and deeper” over time.

  8. Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning an M.A. or a Ph.D.     by Robert Peters:

    Another guide about surviving the horrors of graduate school, this time a little less bouncy and satirical but equally as valuable to read, because it covers almost everything the candidate might encounter along the way. It also makes sure to include swaths of information about launching a career after spending exorbitant amounts of time in the frequently insular academic world.

  9. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing     by Paul J. Silvia:

    Because, boy howdy, does graduate school require writing, writing, lots and lots and lots of writing, and more research than what should be legal, understanding how to navigate this milieu is an essential skill. Best of all, Paul J. Silvia’s excellent instruction manual easily applies to life outside the classroom, making it a perfect resource for anyone entering into a paperwork-oriented career path.

  10. How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors     by Estelle Phillips and Derek S. Pugh:

    This guide caters to both students and faculty members involved with graduate programs, allowing either side to see what goes on with the other and building understanding relationships. Nontraditional and minority students should especially read up on the sometimes institutionalized examples of discrimination, though they ought not let it stand as a detriment towards applying and accepting Ph.D. programs!

  11. The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research     by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg:

    Unless you’ve been extensively interviewing doctoral candidates and holders, you probably don’t know just what all the researching and writing for the degree entails. This book explores territory well beyond “it involves lots of both” and offers up a detailed look at what all really goes into getting those papers hammered; for those on the fence about applying to programs, that might mean a deal breaker versus a deal maker.

  12. Playing the Game: The Streetsmart Guide to Graduate School     by Frederick Frank and Karl Stein:

    With cheeky humor, the anarchic minds behind Playing the Game: The Streetsmart Guide to Graduate School outline all the ins and outs of what potential, upcoming, and current grad students can expect and what to do when common situations arise. Readers seem to absolutely love it because of how straightforward it portrays the overall experience, leaving no positive or negative behind.

  13. How to Survive Your PhD: The Insider’s Guide to Avoiding Mistakes, Choosing the Right Program, Working with Professors, and Just How a Person Writes a 200-Page Paper     by Jason Karp:

    The full title might be quite a mouthful, but anyone considering graduate school would do well to consider this one of many valuable options toward understanding the whole crazy thing. Jason Karp pulled from his very own experiences hacking through a Ph.D. and explains in agonizing detail what he did that you probably shouldn’t.

  14. Even a Geek can Speak     by Joey Asher:

    Because a Ph.D. requires a lot of talking, debating, and defending, anyone hoping to earn one will absolutely have to brush up on their public speaking skills before taking the plunge. This particular guide mostly targets anyone working toward something in the technology field, though almost anyone with crippling shyness or Not The Right Way With Words Syndrome might certainly benefit.