People outside academia are often fond of referring to it as an "ivory tower," with the implication of a world of idealistic scholars disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life, free to follow their scholarly interests wherever they might lead. Unfortunately, students sometimes enroll in graduate programs believing this is the world they are going to enter, and are rudely shocked to find the PhD process more analogous to negotiating a minefield without a map. A tough job market caused in part by the overproduction of PhDs has added a particular edge to the whole proceeding: new graduate students may be spending five or more years of their lives preparing for a job which they will never hold.
Given these realities, new PhD candidates are advised to inform themselves as much as possible about the graduate school process so they can make it work to their advantage. Doing so will not change the statistics about the number of PhDs who will never get an academic job, or who spend years drifting from one postdoctoral position to another, but it will improve the chances of those informed individuals both to have a good experience in graduate school and to land a career-track job upon graduation. Mastering Your PhD was written to provide some of that information: it focuses on the non-scientific aspects of academic life and the PhD process, discussing issues which often are neglected as both graduate students and their advisors focus their attention exclusively on the research leading to the student's doctoral thesis.
The authors are both scientists, and both from Europe. Patricia Gosling earned her PhD in Organic Chemistry at the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and is currently the Research Manager of the European Neuromuscular Centre in The Netherlands. She also works as a freelance science editor and medical writer. Bart Noordam earned his PhD in Physics from the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. He is currently a Professor of Physics at the University or Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and director of a Regional Audit Organization.
Gosling and Noordam touch briefly on a number of topics relevant to PhD students: Mastering Your PhD includes 19 chapters in 154 pages. Some chapters are more useful than others; the book really shines in the discussion of human relations issues, such as how to communicate effectively with people different from yourself and how to cope with the inevitable hierarchies and jealousies of life in a research laboratory. Their suggestions on time management, planning and self-regulation are particularly useful: people who acquired their PhD years ago may also profit from reading these chapters. On the other hand, the chapters describing describing how to search the scientific literature and how to do good scientific writing are too perfunctory to be really useful, and these topics have been covered elsewhere in greater depth.
An abiding problem in graduate school is the inequality of information: professors know how the system works, while most new graduate students do not. Gosling and Noordam have done a great service by discussing some basic facts of life in the modern research university environment, and suggesting how students may best find their place in this world. Their introductory chapter, which describes four types of labs and suggests how students may evaluate which will be the best fit for them, is a model of brevity and common sense. Interestingly, Gosling and Noordam say they have encountered some opposition from within academia, from professors would prefer to see students "sink or swim" without access to the kind of information provided in this volume. While that approach may have its merits, it also favors students who come from particular backgrounds, particular universities, and perhaps of particular genders, ethnic groups and personalities as well, none of which should be allowed to determine whether an individual will have a successful scientific career or not.
Mastering Your PhD can be recommended to any student considering graduate school: it will be most useful to those in the sciences, but some of the advice also applies to the social sciences and humanities. It would also be useful for professors who advise graduate students or undergraduates who are considering graduate school because it sets forth information which the professor may take for granted, in and also presents aspects of the PhD experience which may be omitted by professors who have forgotten what graduate school was really like.
Sarah Boslaugh, PhD, MPH, is a Performance Analyst for BJH HealthCare in Saint Louis, Missouri. She published An Intermediate Guide to SPSS Programming with Sage in 2005 and is currently editing The Encyclopedia of Epidemiology for Sage (forthcoming, 2007) and writing Secondary Data Sources for Public Health (forthcoming, 2007) for Cambridge University Press.