03 October 2010

The PhD Student Startup Kit: Materials and Books

Here are some office materials to get so that your cubicle is the most organized:

  • Stackable Letter Trays
  • Brother PT-1290 Label Maker, with AC adaptor and tape refill
  • Swingline Stapler, with staples; (Red, of course.)
  • Box of File Folders, assorted colors
  • Classic Ballpoint Pen, with refills
  • Foam Keyboard Wrist Rest
  • 16 GB USB 2.0 Flash Drive
  • Wire Step File
  • Scissors
Lots of little things add up. If you can believe it, this comes to around $300! (It is a nice pen!) But they also add up in value.

And David Allen has written a really good instruction manual for using all of these materials: Getting Things Done, which is one of the books I get for all of my students:
  • Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
  • How to Talk to Anyone
  • Outliers: The Story of Success
  • The Academic Job Search Handbook
  • The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader's Perspective
Getting Things Done
In addition to being a manual on managing a paper-based system, this book also includes strategies for electronic organization. The core of Getting Things Done is to get things out of your head and inbox and to put them into a reliable system. For example, instead of keeping important things to do in your email inbox, you make a list of actions. So, don't write "Printer," write what you are actually supposed to do: "Look up printer representative's number," "Call printer representative for quote," "Place an order for more toner."

The beauty of the next-action system is that you don't have to think about what "Printer" means each time you glance at your todo list.

The paper organization is particularly relevant for PhD students: You have so many notes for projects, related works, and exam study materials, keeping large, scattered piles just isn't effective.

How to Talk to Anyone
This book is a rather easy read, and I found about 50% of the material to be quite helpful. I tell my students this is a great manual for schmoozing with people at conferences. Like it or not, our field is not a pure meritocracy, and the more people you know, the more likely it is you will have good opportunities. I hope it goes without saying that schmoozing is a necessary, but not sufficient condition: You need strong research no matter what.

Outliers: The Story of Success
Speaking of success, this is another easy to read book, which challenges our conceptions of what it means to be successful. It's not a matter of talent that you will have strong research, it's a matter of mindset. Giving yourself a growth mindset is necessary for you to get the most out of graduate school and beyond.

The Academic Job Search Handbook
For my students interested in academia, I give them this book early on to help them with their decisions. I have two philosophies for being "ready": (1) The only way to prepare for X is to be an X; and (2) The best way to be good at step X is to already start thinking about step X+1. More concretely: The only way to be ready to be a PhD student is to be a PhD student. The best way to be a good PhD student is to be thinking about yourself as an assistant professor.

[I suppose for a non-academic bound student, I would need to find a good book on the industry. Perhaps The Art of the Start.]

The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader's Perspective
Finally, this is the best book on writing I've seen. I've read many of the great writing books, but only Gopen's approach leads you to think logically about what you are writing. Word choice is actually not as important as the structure of your writing, which is a reflection of the structure of your thoughts.