Book Review: The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research

On Monday I start my PhD! I’m very excited. It has been great to relax over the summer but I’m keen to get back and make a start. It’s the first summer since I left secondary school that I haven’t been working full time in a bookshop (although last year I did a UROP placement at Imperial rather than sell books, so that’s not really work). Admittedly I have ended up a little bit further into my overdraft than I had hoped but I think I deserve a break after working so hard last year. It’s not really a problem anyway because of my PhD stipend. It still hasn’t sunk in that I’ll be paid actual money to do science!

I’ve taken advantage of my temporary freedom to read lots of books and reduce the size of my “to read” pile (you can see what I’ve been reading on my Goodreads profile). Earlier this summer Erika Cule blogged about a book called The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg. To be honest, I’ve always raised an eyebrow at educational guides like this and held a rather derisive view of self-help books in general; I hated maintaining the self-help section at work. However Erika’s post intrigued me and the Amazon reviews were good so I put my presumptions aside and ordered it. I’ve just finished it and I thought I’d write a short review. I haven’t written a book review in years but I’ll do my best!

Overall I thought it was great. It’s a light-hearted read and written in an informal, friendly tone. The blurb pitches the book as a guide to a the “whole PhD process” and I think—as far as I can tell anyway, considering I haven’t actually started yet—it achieves that. In the introduction the authors recommend you read the whole thing through once and then consult the appropriate chapters when needed.

Petre and Rugg write that the process of a PhD is a lot like making a fine cabinet. You, the apprentice, have to learn lots of skills and demonstrate them in your grand masterpiece—your dissertation—to prove that you are worthy to become a master cabinet maker. The whole cabinet is then inspected thoroughly by experts in a viva and they decide if you pass or fail.

The book is split up into chapters describing particular aspects of a PhD. Some are quite general, such as advice for supervisor-advisee relationships and becoming an independent researcher, whereas others a lot more specific, for example what you should do at a conference.

I particularly liked the chapters on the different types of academic paper and designing research, which will be very helpful when I write my research proposal and/or plan in the next few months. Writing and presentations are covered too. Petre and Rugg regularly point out the opportunities in things that seem to be an inconvenience or waste of time and say that one should to take care when considering fighting “The System” because it’s peculiar ways might just be peculiar for a good reason.

The chapter on reading was good too. You can get away with relatively little reading as an undergraduate but not as a postgraduate. I think I read a lot more papers than a typical undergraduate as I prefer to learn by reading rather than listening in lectures, so I think I’ll be fine with the hour a day they recommend. A couple of tips I liked were to maintain an annotated core bibliography of around a 100 papers and to make sure you read papers that are not just specific to your area but also more general to your discipline.

Academia seems a lot like a mysterious “clan” with the PhD being a prolonged admissions procedure. The chapters on reputations and habits point out potential pitfalls—the rules of the playground, if you like. Where the real science happens, beyond the walls of teaching labs and undergraduate computer rooms, has always seemed rather mysterious. After reading Petre and Rugg’s book I feel a little more enlightened and aware of the social aspects of scientific enterprise. I feel better prepared now than prior to reading the book. Overall I would highly recommend The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research to anyone about to embark on a PhD (or anyone has already started). After reading it through just once I feel quite confident that this will be an indispensable reference for many years.