Books for Graduate Students

Throughout my graduate school experience, the local bookshops around Cambridge were my refuge. On Saturdays, I could wander in, pick up a book, and reliably tweak my understanding of my life and the world around me. There are a handful books that permanently altered my worldview, for the better. At the prompting of a friend, I’m sharing a few:

Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman

Seligman helped create the academic field of positive psychology, which helps folks be more resilient, maybe even happy. In this book, Seligman describes how our internal monologues affect our response to challenges. For example, pessimistic thinking is characterized by an outlook that is personal, pervasive, and permanent. If I lose my job, a pessimistic outlook might be I always mess everything up. It’s personal: I and only I am responsible for the failure. The qualifier always makes it permanent. And the job loss has expanded to become everything, so it’s pervasive. An optimistic outlook might be This was a bad fit. Maybe my skills are more suited for this other position. I bet I won’t make the same mistakes next time. The optimistic outlook, even if it is too rosy at times, is what helps people overcome setbacks, rather than sink into learned helplessness, which can eventually slide into depression.

This insight about the difference between optimistic and pessimistic outlooks is actionable, too. Once you know the difference, you can start to recognize your own pessimistic thinking when it occurs, and ask whether a given situation truly is personal, pervasive, or permanent.

In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honoré

Carl Honoré is a journalist who once got excited about a book of extra-short bedtime stories for his child, because he felt so rushed. Then he realized that was insane. His book first explores society’s evolving relationship to time, since we have not always had clocks, let alone wristwatches that synchronize themselves with satellites. He then investigates the benefits of giving each and every activity the time it needs and deserves. It was invaluable to have the lessons of this book in the back of my mind as I wrote my dissertation because it inevitably takes longer than you expect.

Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

These two professors break down the results of their work together on the effects of scarcity on cognition. For example, they found that just being reminded of how little money, time, or support you have — whatever you feel is scarce in your life — can temporarily make it harder to think clearly and solve complex problems. In one study, they found that sugarcane farmers were measurably smarter after their crop had been harvested and sold, when they were no longer surviving on the last of last year’s savings. This has implications for the design of government programs and sheds light on another cost of poverty.

The book also explains how the effects of scarcity manifest themselves in the lives of managers and knowledge workers. Apparently, I’m not the only one who sometimes experiences intellectual overwhelm and makes poorer choices as a result. The knowledge that our intellectual bandwidth can be compromised in this way is helpful, if only because it helps us recognize when we’re butting up against our innate psychological limits and need to back off.

The Sense of Style by Stephen Pinker

My advisor recommended this one, and I’m glad he did. He made me a better writer by beating bad habits out of me, and now I’m on my own. Pinker’s book helps. He approaches language like a cognitive scientist, as you’d expect. He explains through many thoroughly annotated examples all the possible pitfalls of translating our ideas, concepts, and observations into linear sequences of English words. For example, when arranging clauses and modifiers, position really matters. To steal his all-too-memorable linguistic illustration, which would you rather watch: (1) A panel discussion about sex with professors or (2) a panel discussion with professors about sex?

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown

Brené Brown is an academic scholar who studies shame and its offspring, like imposter syndrome and perfectionism. She writes candidly about her own reckoning with shame, failure, and vulnerability, which will be all too familiar to anyone who has led a team project that failed or shuttered their start-up or poured their heart into writing a book that no one wanted to publish or read. This is interspersed with her academic findings from carefully interviewing countless men and women about how they process shame and, as a result, either contract into smaller versions of themselves or become stronger and more resilient. I don’t have a pithy take-away to explain here, but if you feel shame because you fail your quals the first time, read this. I bet you a cup of coffee that you’ll thank me later.

Happy Reading,


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