Regardless of what you are studying, there are a few books that can help just about any graduate student master the art of being a scholar and get through their program. Some of these are going to be painfully obvious or things you may not want to read cover to cover, but all are invaluable.
Books about the Graduate School Process
The graduate school process is a thing onto itself. From application to oral exams to thesis/dissertation defense, the process is like nothing else in the world. Here are some books that can help.
Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text Unlike Destination Dissertation below, this book provides excellent techniques for some of the very mechanical tasks you will be doing. What is the most expedient way to take notes on the literature? How do you organize all that material? Destination Dissertation also contains these kinds of tips, but frankly I find the ones in Demystifying Dissertation Writing more usable. Check out my review as well for more ideas of what is in this book.
Playing the Game: The Streetsmart Guide to Graduate School This book is one of the more realistic books I’ve come across with respect to the actual process of graduate school. It’s also irreverent and funny. It starts with asking an important question; do you REALLY want to do this and why? If yes, it then plots the shortest possible path from application to graduation. It further helps you clarify where you should cut corners and where you shouldn’t. I’m pretty sure most faculty don’t want us thinking about the process this way, but frankly given the crappy academic job market this type of fore-thought is a leg up on finding a job after graduation. That alone makes it worth the money.
Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation While this book is focused strictly on the end process of completing your dissertation (which is far and away the hardest part), it contains a remarkably down to earth approach. Specifically, it lays out the steps you need to go through and estimates of how long each should take (in working hours). This may sound like no big deal, but the hardest part of project management is always figuring out what all the steps to the plan are. These guys have done it, AND given you an idea of the level of effort required. Whether you can work on it every day all day, only on weekends (like me) or just a couple of nights per week after the kids are in bed, this book provides a structured plan and an idea of how much further you have to go.
Note that I have left out one of the most commonly cited books in this area, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. This is for two reasons; First, it is somewhat out of date in terms of technology and process. Second, there is one principle piece of information you get out of it, and I can sum it up for you right here:
Write a little every day, even if what you write sucks or you do nothing more than type “I don’t know what to write” over and over. Write often, don’t wait for bit chunks of time. The more you do it, the better you will get.
I’m certainly not telling you NOT to read this book, as it’s considered a classic for a reason. But If you take that one piece of advice and use the techniques and processes from the other books it will get you just as far.
Books about the Academic Process
Being an academic requires changing your approach and integrating new ways of writing and communicating with other scholars. These books can help with that process.
The Craft of Research, Third Edition (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) Also a classic, this books goal is to help you move into clear, concise research writing. It will help while in school and for years to come as you work on becoming published and later teaching others how to do the same. It isn’t short, but it is comprehensive and can be used as a reference book when you get stuck. Think of it as the old 5 paragraph essay format you learned in middle school all grown up.
“They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (Second Edition) This book is all about the process of entering the conversation. Scholars use specific phrases that vary only slightly between fields, but in essence every paper amounts to a recitation of what other scholars have said, either an acknowledgment of why they are right and important to your argument or a polite disagreement, and then presenting your own argument. This book gives you a leg up on integrating these types of arguments into your writing smoothly and respectfully. Additionally this is a short, easy read. Given some of the stuff you will read in graduate school that will be a welcome change.
The Chicago Guide to Writing about Numbers (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) Even if you plan on writing a qualitative dissertation, you will still be talking about other people’s numbers and this book will help you learn to do so clearly and concisely. This is not as easy as it sounds, as anyone who has seen a page full of numbers or a junk chart knows. This book isn’t about artistic infographics; it’s about clarity in research papers, which are going to be your entire world for a while.
Books about the Writing Process
We all like to think we are decent writers, but we all need some help. Here are some of the best:
The Elements of Style (4th Edition) Strunk and White’s classic book is as relevant today as ever. What really amazed me is that it is short, concise, and easy to find things in. Read it through if you can (or at least skim it) then keep it close at hand as you write.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation Who thought punctuation could be funny? This book never ceases to make me laugh while FINALLY explaining where I should and shouldn’t use a comma. (I still use too many in casual writing.) This book is useful as much because it is an easy and pleasant read as the fact that you will learn something from it.
Economical Writing, Second Edition While written for economists, this book is a quick, easy read that makes a strong case for getting rid of the weasel words, writing in active tenses and being concise. People outside economics may not recognize the names she throws around or understand what the quotes she uses means, but you will quickly see how you can improve your writing while making it clearer to your reader. Probably one of the most valuable skills out there.
Your Field’s Style Manual
Every field has a chosen style manual. Own it. Social sciences generally use APA, Humanities generally use MLA, History generally uses Chicago, etc. Whatever it is have a copy close at hand. (Since you only need one, this counts as just one book.)
If you are short on time I would suggest going for the first book in each section. Those are the books I turn to again and again. They aren’t necessarily the shortest or the most amusing. They are, however, the must reads on this list (along with your style manual) and books that will serve you well throughout your career.