There’s so many, many books on the market that claim to help you with your PhD – which ones are worth buying? I have been thinking about it this topic for some time, but it’s still hard to decide. So here’s a provisional top 5, based on books I use again and again in my PhD workshops:
1. The craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Greg Colomb and Joseph Williams.
I wish I owned the copyright to this one because I am sure they sell a shed load every year. Although it seems to be written for undergraduates, PhD students like it for its straight forward, unfussy style. Just about every aspect of research is covered: from considering your audience to planning and writing a paper (or thesis). The section on asking research questions is an excellent walk through of epistemology: an area many people find conceptually difficult. I find it speaks to both science and non science people, but, like all books I have encountered in the ‘self help’ PhD genre, The Craft of Research does have a bias towards ‘traditional’ forms of research practice. You creative researcher types might like to buy it anyway, if only to help you know what you are departing from.
2. How to write a better thesis by Paul Gruba and David Evans
This was the first book I ever bought on the subject, which probably accounts for my fondness for it. I have recommended it to countless students over the 6 or so years I have been Thesis Whispering, many of whom write to thank me. The appealing thing about this book is that it doesn’t try to do too much. It sticks to the mechanics of writing a basic introduction> literature review> methods> results> conclusion style thesis, but I used it to write a project based creative research thesis when I did my masters and found the advice was still valid. Oh – and the price point is not bad either. If you can only afford one book on the list I would get this one.
3. Helping Doctoral Students to write by Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson
I won an award for my thesis and this book is why. In Helping doctoral students to write Kamler and Thomson explain the concept of ‘scholarly grammar’, providing plenty of before and after examples which even the grammar disabled like myself can understand. I constantly recommend this book to students, but I find that one has to be at a certain stage in the PhD process to really hear what it has to say. I’m not sure why this is, but if you have been getting frustratingly vague feedback from your supervisors – who are unhappy but can’t quite tell you why – you probably need to read this book. It is written for social science students, so scientists might be put off by the style – but please don’t let that stop you from giving it a go. Physicists and engineers have told me they loved the book too. If you want a bit more of the conceptual basis behind the book, read this earlier post on why a thesis is a bit like an avatar.
4. The unwritten rules of PhD research by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg
I love this book because it recognises the social complexities of doing a PhD, without ever becoming maudlin. Indeed it’s genuinely funny in parts, which makes it a pleasure to read. The authors are at their best when explaining how academia works, such as the concept of ‘sharks in the water’ (the feeding frenzy sometimes witnessed in presentations when students make a mistake and are jumped on by senior academics) and the typology of supervisors. It’s also one of the better references I have found on writing conference papers.
5. 265 trouble shooting strategies for writing non fiction Barbara Fine Clouse
This book is great because it doesn’t try to teach you how to write – you already know how to do that. What you need more is something to help you tweak your writing and improve it. This book is basically a big list of strategies you might like to try when you are stuck, or bored with the way you are writing. This book is so useful I have literally loved it to death – the spine is hopelessly broken and pages are held in by sticky tape. There are many wonderful tips in here from ‘free writing’ and ‘write it backwards’ ideas, to diagramming methods and analytical tools. Opening it at almost any page will give you an idea of something new to try.
What books would be on your top 5 list and why?