Book Review - Playing the Game: The Street Smart Guide to Graduate School by Frederick Frank, Ph.D. & Karl Stein, Ph.D.
Elegant. Classy. Charming. Graceful. None of those words describe this book; however, that is precisely what makes it such an effective guide for graduate school. Not many books about graduate school, much less books in general, come with a warning that precedes the preface and foreword. That let's you know from the get-go that this isn't your typical grad school guide. The direct and crass approach taken by the authors sets this book apart from all others in its genre. Toss the semantics out the window, forget about who may get insulted, don't mind your manners, and have a little fun telling students exactly what they need to know to survive graduate school -- Frank & Stein did just that, and it worked perfectly.
Yes, you read that correctly. Frank & Stein. These are the "alter-egos" of the two authors that drew from their personal graduate school experiences, combined that knowledge with insights from grad students that they interviewed, and then created this treasure trove of (uncensored) information about higher education. The book is broken into three distinct sections: Getting In, Getting Through, and Getting the Hell Out. This makes the book relevant to a wide audience. There is information for the undergraduate student that is applying to graduate school, the graduate student that is in the eye of the storm, as well as the veteran graduate student that is trying to wrap up their academic career.
The "tell it like it is" approach often involves foul language that would make George Carlin proud, yet the authors themselves admit that the sophomoric humor is designed to create an entertaining read. Regardless of their chosen vocabulary, the fact that this book holds valuable information is ultimately undeniable. Not only does the book begin with a list of common place terms associated with graduate school, but in the first section alone the authors cover all the intricacies of different types of degrees, the details about various entrance exams, and the nuances of the interview process. It's everything that a student applying to graduate school needs to know, but may be embarrassed to ask for fear of seeming ignorant. No matter how confident you are, we've all been in the situation where we don't want to be the one asking a "dumb" question, and thanks to this section you won't have to be that person.
Let me remind you that this is the "street smart guide to grad school," and part of being street-smart is learning how to read people. In the second section there are two chapters in which Frank & Stein introduce us to the types of students and professors we may encounter on the graduate school journey. Before the authors even begin describing the different types of students, they let you know that "this chapter is an equal opportunity offender." They then inform us about the Dumb-ass Student who everyone agrees is a "frickin idiot," the Know-it-All (who knows nothing) described as "an asshole that is a lot like Cliff Clavin on Cheers," and The Person Who Hates Everything but is attending graduate school, "because he/she hates everything in society so much that he/she sees graduate school as a kind of sanctuary."
The list of students goes on, but I don't want to spoil the rest for those of you that will read the book. The breakdown of professors is arguably more entertaining, and my personal favorite is The Slob, who is "usually very intelligent," but "has so much sh*t piled to the ceiling all over the damn office you usually can't even tell if It's there." They refer to the slob as It because, "it is often hard to tell if the slob is male or female." So what's the point? We get it, these authors are witty and good at making fun of people's characteristics. "Although some of the personalities are a bit overstated for amusement purposes," the point is that you need to understand how to read peers and professors because it will help you navigate the world of post-graduate education in a more effective manner. As Frank & Stein point out, "identifying the personalities of the various professors in your department will help you assemble a much more functional dissertation committee when the time is right."
The authors go into great detail in the third section, entitled Getting the Hell Out. They cover a variety of topics from oral and written exams to defending a dissertation and creating a CV. Much like the first section, this section does not shy away from the "silly" questions that students may have. For instance, before they get into giving advice about choosing a dissertation topic, they cover the difference between a thesis and a dissertation -- two terms that can cause confusion because they seemingly mean the same thing and are often used interchangeably. It's not a case study on the two terms, but rather some background information on topics like a master's thesis compared to a doctoral dissertation. Frank & Stein clearly care about the reader, and they are trying to deconstruct the entire graduate school experience and simply tell students what they need to know in order to be successful. Perhaps their most valuable advice is found in the book's conclusion: "Although we've spent 200 frickin pages making fun of the ubiquitous bullsh*t inherent in the graduate school system, the fact remains that in all actuality, it is an important and necessary part of our society...with that in mind, we cannot stress enough the importance of having a good sense of humor about the whole thing. Those who don't, perish. Or is it publish?"
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Playing the Game (Uncensored!): The Street Smart Guide to Graduate School by Frederick Frank, Ph.D. & Karl Stein, Ph.D.
Published by iUniverse Inc. (February, 2004)