I don't know if we're getting lucky over here at GradShare, or if most books about postgraduate education are just really good. We've had the good fortune of reading some pretty awesome books, and call me crazy, but I didn't think books about getting a Ph.D. would be quite this entertaining. Needless to say, we lucked out again when we picked up Jason Karp's How to Survive Your Ph.D.: The Insiders Guide to Avoiding Mistakes, Choosing the Right Program, Working With Professors, and Just How a Person Actually Writes a 200-Page Paper. The title is a mouthful, but the contents of the book are clear-cut and straight to the point. Jason has done this PhD thing, and he's here to give you everything the title advertises and much more. This book can be described in four simple words -- informative, practical, honest, and relatable. Oh, it's a pretty quick read too.
When you read this book you won't turn a page without having learned a few things first. From the preface on there are helpful hints about the nuances of pursuing a Ph.D. However, Jason doesn't simply spew what he knows, instead he also helps you gain information about yourself -- have you questioned exactly why you want a Ph.D? Have you considered what it means to think like a doctoral student? Have you asked yourself why you procrastinate? This book is disguised as a "step-by-step" instructional guide, but once you crack it open and take in a few paragraphs you will quickly realize that Jason's goal is to help you make the best decisions on your path to a Ph.D. He's giving you the tools but you have to do the work. There are points where it gets very detailed -- delving into the topic of the dissertation and the intricacies of the introduction or a literary review -- but if you expect hand-holding then this may not be the book for you. As Jason put it, "part of being a successful doctoral student is being resourceful, especially when it comes to finding information or learning how to accomplish important things."
The answers are often right in front of us, but there at times when we are too caught up in the moment to take notice. The practical advice offered in each chapter points out that sometimes "by taking a step back and not thinking about something your brain will relax and become more open and responsive to new perspectives and ideas." Struggling with your dissertation? Frustrated with your advisor? You might want to pick up this book and take a look at Jason's logical commentary; it can serve as a refresher and get you back on track. The book isn't just for someone getting ready to pursue his or her Ph.D. -- it's also beneficial for current doctoral students that are in a slump. It's easy to lose focus on what you need to do, and what you don't need to do, in order to successfully complete your doctoral program, and Jason covers it all.
One theme that is consistent throughout the book is honesty. Jason tells you the truth based on his experiences, and he isn't shy about letting you know that there are serious challenges ahead of you. What helps put the reader at ease is the fact that Jason experienced his fair share of obstacles and made it through to tell us about it -- just take a look at his anecdote about "the qualifying exam from hell." You're going to fail at times, and the book acknowledges this yet reminds you that you will learn valuable lessons in the process. It's clear that Jason doesn't hold back, he tells it the way it is -- for instance, he wastes no time in pointing out that everyone seeking a doctoral degree has a certain amount of "ego." While he admits there is no escaping the ego (with a capital "E"), he clarifies the difference between ego and egocentric, providing a well rounded view of exactly what he is trying to convey -- "ego may not be the driving force behind someone's decision to pursue his or her Ph.D., but it's usually there if you look deep enough." Welcome to the world of a Ph.D.
Say what you will about George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, but people always commented that they seemed like the kind of guys you'd like to have a beer with. Some people are disarming, and while that isn't always the best presidential quality, it certainly is a useful characteristic for someone who is giving you advice. No one wants to be on the receiving end of a lecture from some preachy know-it-all. People want kind advice from a friend that is looking out for their best interest. Throughout the book Jason makes it easy for the reader to identify with him; he uses small text boxes containing personal anecdotes about his experiences on the Ph.D. journey. The stories in each text box help the reader better relate to Jason -- whether he's comparing his dissertation committee to the Abbott and Costello sketch "Who's on First?" or giving you his personal opinion on in-state verse out-of-state tuition. The main content of the book is a guide to getting a Ph.D. based on Jason's experiences, but behind it all is a normal guy that is trying to make your experience a little bit easier -- and pay off some debt in the process.
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Published by Sourcebooks, Inc. (December 2009)