Eleven Books that Helped Me Survive Grad School

Written by: Terry Brock

Primary Source: Terry P. Brock


So, you’re just starting graduate school and are overwhelmed. You don’t know what to do, how to prepare, what to say, or what to expect. You’re nervous about your coursework, the workload, unsure about your advisor and committee, and not entirely sure what’s expected of you. Nevermind the fact that you have to research and write a giant study on a topic you haven’t really identified yet and stand in front of a room of your peers and act like an expert on the topic. Good luck. I’m not going to stand here and tell you it will be fun. A lot of it won’t be.

What I will tell you is that this is your chance to learn about yourself as a person, teacher, researcher, and scholar. Graduate school is when you figure out what type of professional you’re going to become. And part of this means that you are going to have to learn how to do your work. More accurately, it’s when you will learn how you do your work. I put a lot of energy into this process during my time in graduate school, since I know that I am prone to distraction. A number of books helped me along the way, to critically think about my approach to doing work, getting things accomplished, and developing as a professional.


Some things you’re going to have to learn how to do in graduate school: conduct research, write about your research, and present that research. These are the books that helped me start to figure those things out.


The War of Art

Steven Pressfield

I don’t care how smart you think you are, at some point you will feel the The Resistance. This is the voice in the back of your head that tells you to give up, that you can’t work today, that you won’t finish, that you’re not good enough…pretty much any and every negative thought that will keep you out of your chair. This book will help you defeat it by helping you to name it. Once you can name it, then it’s up to you to put a stop to it. You won’t every day…it is a war, after all. You win some battles and lose others. But at least this way you know who the enemy is, and you can start developing strategies to keep it at bay.

Purchase the War of Art


dayHow to Write a Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day

Joan Bolker

I’m not sure if you actually need to buy this book. What I got out of it was this basic, simple fact: you must put at least 15 minutes a day into your dissertation. This could be reading an article, or doing a quick free write, or even getting a couple sentences completed, or it could be day long writing fest. It doesn’t matter. What can’t happen is a string of days with no work…that will multiply, and next thing you know, it’s been two months and you haven’t touched your work. This is not a joke. This is a real possibility. So, 15 minutes a day.

Purchase How to Write a Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day



Style: Towards Clarity and Grace

Joseph M. Williams

Lots of people are Strunk and White devotees, but I like Style. There are less rules, and more discussing what it means to actually craft a useful, meaningful, beautiful sentence or paragraph. It has helped me look at my sentences within the context of a paragraph and the argument I’m trying to make, and that makes for better writing. So, for those of you looking for a different approach to writing, consider picking up this book.

Purchase Style: Towards Clarity and Grace



The Craft of Research

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams

Another book that is a must read for anyone writing a dissertation that requires, er, evidence. This book will help you gather and organize your research, but also how to actually craft and write a paper that uses that evidence convincingly.

Purchase The Craft of Research




Presentation Zen

Garr Reynolds

This book changed how I look at presentations. Instead of slides that are simply the words that I’m saying out loud, Presentation Zen shows you how to use your slides as a compliment to the argument you’re trying to make. Building presentations that are visually appealling and highlight or emphasize your argument will make for a stronger presentation, and this book will help.

Purchase Presentation Zen

Time Management

Managing your time is a critical part of life, and graduate school is no different. I have spent lots of my own time figuring out the best ways to manage my own time, and graduate school was a good opportunity to figure that out.

doneGetting Things Done

David Allen

GTD is practically a cult, but I think it has incredible value for graduate students. One of its major takeaways is the distinction between projects and tasks. “Write Dissertation” is not an actionable task. It is a really large project. “Look up article reference” is a task that is part of the Project “Write Dissertation.” GTD helps me break down every project into every tiny miniscule task, and often helps me identify why I haven’t started something. “Write Dissertation” is a daunting task. But it’s a manageable Project.

Purchase Getting Things Done


tharpThe Creative Habit

Twyla Tharp

Building habits is an essential part of accomplishing anything, and writing a dissertation is certainly a creative endeavor. This book helped me recognize that the work I’m doing is creative, and that harnessing that creativity, and making it a habit not a periodic flash in the pan, requires discipline. While I’m not always on point, it always serves as a good reminder to pull myself back on track.

Purchase The Creative Habit



Your Brain at Work

David Rock

I’m currently re-listening to this book on audio. It is a very accessible look at how the brain functions while you are working. Why is it that I get distracted? Can my brain be over worked? What are some strategies to stay focused? What I particularly like about this book was how it examined the science of the brain, and applied it to trying to do work. For those of you who like to understand how things work, this is the book for you.

Purchase Your Brain at Work

The University, Teaching, and Networking

Being a graduate student puts you in a strange middle ground at a University. You’re a student, but you’re also an employee, researcher, teacher, and mentor. Understanding how Universities work, how to teach, and what the environment you’re occupying for four to ten years is important. It also requires you to associate and navigate a new network of scholars who to this point were your teachers. Now, you are beginning the transition to them being your colleagues, and learning how to interact and build relationships is a critical part of that process.


Promotion and Tenure Confidential

David D. Perlmutter

I bought this book the second it came out. It gave me a glimpse into the world of higher education for those who just left graduate school, and was a good primer on what it might be like to be a faculty member. Regardless, it gave me a good idea as to what my faculty were dealing with on a regular basis, and made me more aware of some of the realities of what working at a university was like.

Purchase Promotion and Tenure Confidential


Learner Centered Teaching

Maryellen Weimer

At some point, you’re going to find yourself in front of a classroom teaching about your discipline, and it’s very likely your department will not have provided you with any training on how to actually teach. So, do yourself a favor and read a book about it. I took an entire course on college teaching, in addition to attending seminars offered by my graduate school, and this was one of my favorite books. Not just because I am a proponent of the learner centered approach, but also because of the annotated bibliography at the end. A great place to start thinking about your pedagogical approach to teaching, before you’re in charge of a classroom.

Purchase Learner Centered Teaching


Never Eat Alone

Keith Ferrazzi

A business book, Never Eat Alone was a refreshing and honest look at how to build and maintain a professional network. For graduate students, one of the most difficult things to do is to approach scholars you don’t know and build relationships with them. This book helped me get over that nervous hump, and realize that most people want to be contacted, and the vast majority will happily grab a beer or lunch to discuss a topic they research. While this book is geared towards the business community, the basic tenants are the same.

Purchase Never Eat Alone


This list is by no means exhaustive, and I know there are many others that helped me and have helped others. Do you have any other books that you’d recommend to future or freshly minted graduate students? Please leave them in the comments below!!

PS – a note on these links…