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These books can offer career guidance and inspiration

As the new academic year begins, you might be sorting through reading lists for your classes. Here, Science Careers offers our version of the back-to-school reading list: recommendations for nine books that have helped researchers navigate their work and careers. Happy reading!


The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, by Barry Schwartz

As I was finishing my Ph.D., I felt an unexpected and overwhelming sense of anxiety about the seemingly endless paths my life could take. I wanted to follow the postdoctoral route, but I couldn’t choose which topic I wanted to study, which lab to join, or which continent, country, or city to go to. It was very confusing that the freedom of choice, which I had always valued so highly, was now creating intense worry and fear.

Through The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz cleared my confusion by explaining why seemingly unlimited options may foster difficulties in decision-making, including feelings of dissatisfaction and regret. At the heart of the issue is the realization that we are solely responsible for the identity we create for ourselves, which, though liberating, can also be psychologically debilitating. Schwartz offers valuable advice to deliberately limit how many choices one has to make, focus only on the most important ones, and avoid regret about the decisions made. He encourages readers to trust our “gut feelings,” be satisfied with good enough,” consider our final decisions nonreversible, and practice an “attitude of gratitude” by valuing the positive sides of all of our choices. Right after my Ph.D., and at several other important transition points during my career, Schwartz’s suggestions helped me reshape my mindset and restrict my choices based on my true personal interests, follow my instincts, and try to commit to my decisions by fully embracing them and being grateful for every step I made.

Irini Topalidou, research scientist in molecular biology and genetics at the University of Washington in Seattle


Failure: Why Science is So Successful, by Stuart Firestein

Science is replete with the everyday setbacks of failed experiments, hypotheses that are proven wrong, and months of effort going toward negative results. Failure: Why Science is So Successful demonstrates that failure is a cornerstone of scientific advancement and, more importantly, that scientists must be willing to fail to eventually succeed. Rather than working to minimize failure, Stuart Firestein encourages scientists to embrace uncertainty and to investigate their apparent defeats to be most creative. This is a lesson that was especially valuable to me as I became a graduate student. As an undergraduate student, I always strove for perfection, and the transition to grad school was difficult. Taking Firestein’s approach has helped me reframe my failures in the lab and develop a certain patience so that I not only accept temporary setbacks, but also appreciate the hurdles and lessons learned along the way.

Samuel A. Killackey, Ph.D. candidate in laboratory medicine and pathobiology at the University of Toronto in Canada


How to Work a Room: The Ultimate Guide to Making Lasting Connections–in Person and Online, by Susan RoAne

The initial stages of my recent transition from graduate school into a faculty position were dominated by the common fear that comes with navigating new social and professional circles. The fear of saying the wrong thing or being misunderstood can be hugely intimidating, and I found myself lacking the confidence to articulate my thoughts and ideas clearly among colleagues. I worried that I would not sense a natural connection with people and felt so anxious about professional rejection that I strongly considered skipping as many interactions as possible. And then I found How to Work a Room.

How to Work a Room acknowledges the normalcy of this fear while simultaneously challenging the reader not to be paralyzed by it. This combination makes Susan RoAne’s book a practical yet powerful tool for changing one’s perspective and approach to meeting new people and building networks. There are myriad lessons to be gleaned from this book, including how to craft compelling elevator speeches so that they resonate with your audience and how to optimize your online presence to establish a solid reputation and fruitful partnerships. But one relatively simple yet profound lesson has been most helpful to me during this season of transition: Rather than viewing new encounters as potentially terrifying experiences, we should embrace them as exciting opportunities to both learn more about the people with whom we are interacting and to become more comfortable and skilled in telling our stories.

Asia L. Dowtin, assistant professor of urban forestry at Michigan State University in East Lansing


Letters to a Young Scientist, by Edward O. Wilson

I try to be minimalist and have fewer than a dozen books on my shelf at work. But the one that will always hold pride of place is Edward O. Wilson’s Letters to a Young Scientist, which landed on my desk in the final year of my Ph.D. It was just weeks before I began writing my thesis, and after years of narrow focus, I needed to step back and put my beloved slime molds into the greater context. Through his essays, Wilson—who is a true great in my field—drags our inner curiosity out and eloquently shows us how extremely focused studies fit into the larger puzzle. After reigniting our childlike wonder about the natural world, he adeptly shifts to other issues facing early-career researchers and dismantles our adult-acquired fears of inadequacy and professional failure. Above all, Wilson addresses the unspoken: Scientists do daydream, and sometimes they fail. And he tells us that this is not only OK, but it is also necessary. Over the course of a Ph.D., there are few who do not wonder if they’re the only ones with these doubts. Wilson’s peek behind the scientific curtains alleviates some of this fear and will bolster any budding researcher.

Allison Perrigo, coordinator of the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre in Sweden


The Power of a Positive No, by William Ury

As an undergrad, I felt like I needed to say “yes” to almost any request or opportunity that came my way. All too often, this left me with little time to do what I actually wanted or needed to do for myself. I knew that, if I wanted to be successful in grad school, I needed to be more focused and make a change. The Power of a Positive No helped me realize that saying “no” is not only a means to achieve my own goals, but also a protection mechanism for my sanity and, importantly, that declining requests and opportunities doesn’t necessarily mean jeopardizing my relationships or professional trajectory. Through the book, I learned how to prioritize my goals and interests, be realistic about how much I can achieve, and assess when it is appropriate to say “no”—and even when doing so, keep the doors open for future collaborations. Recently, for example, I was really excited about a conference I was asked to help organize. But after considering everything else I had on my plate, I felt it was best to decline the offer—thanking the person for thinking of me, putting them in touch with other potential organizers, and making it clear that I would gladly consider future opportunities.

Brittany Jack, Ph.D. candidate in cell biology at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City


Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Have you ever finished reading a paper or a grant proposal and turned to start the review, only to find that you can barely remember the main ideas—or, conversely, that you have been able to write nearly the full review without having to look back at the manuscript? Made to Stick covers exactly this phenomenon: What is it about an idea that makes it unforgettable? According to this book, the basic qualities of memorable ideas are SUCCESs: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories. This writing framework has not only helped me craft more effective grants and papers, but also challenged me to think bigger about my research strategy. For example, Made to stick helped me simplify my research ideas without losing the main thread. I've also rephrased descriptions of my research themes, incorporating some of the mystery and urgency that pushes me to pursue them.

Alona Fyshe, assistant professor in computing science and psychology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada


Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, by Gish Jen

In Tiger Writing, Gish Jen, who was born in the United States to Chinese immigrant parents, explores how Eastern and Western beliefs affect self-identity. As a first-generation Indian immigrant, Jen’s eloquent description of the constant struggle between defining your own identity and adhering to family customs deeply resonated with me. My family places an emphasis on collectivity and, in many cases, outdated gender roles and expects me to make career decisions for the larger good of the family. This gap in our mindset has led to numerous conflicts as I pursue an academic career based on interest and fit, when my family would prefer that I choose a job based on geography and pay. There are no all-encompassing solutions to such problems. But in deconstructing the myriad forces that form an immigrant’s identity, Jen’s book helps us—whatever our origin—gain clarity about the balance we need to strike between independence and interdependence as we forge our life and career path.

Arnav Chhabra, Ph.D. candidate in medical engineering and medical physics at Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts


Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia and Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia, by Emily Toth

The transition from postdoc to new faculty member can sometimes feel like skydiving without a parachute. It was precisely at this point in my career that, just by chance, I came across Emily Toth’s two wonderful books. They offered valuable advice about every conceivable issue that you could imagine facing as a new (or seasoned) academic, from how to foster optimal student interactions or deal with challenging colleagues to what it really takes to get tenure. What’s more, her sharp wit and great humor make the books a joy to read. One of the many gems that I took away is that it is OK to “be adequate, not perfect,” and that compromising on the things that are less important so that you can focus on the ones that really matter to you is not a failure. Toth’s advice to take every single professor at your department to lunch upon arriving to a new institution, as daunting as it may seem, also paid off. These early interactions helped me learn the ins and outs of my new department quickly and build up the foundations for good relationships that I hope will last a lifetime.

Lynn Kamerlin, professor of biochemistry at Uppsala University in Sweden


Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence—and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process, by Irene Pepperberg

On the face of it, Alex & Me is a popular book about science. However, it is also the story of how Irene Pepperberg faced and overcame adversity in academia and how that affected her personal life. I read it at a time when I was really floundering in my own career, and her story helped me through that. Before I took my current postdoc, I was effectively unemployed and had been for 2 years. I applied for grants and jobs but failed at every attempt. I felt hopeless and questioned my worth. I contemplated whether I should continue pursuing an academic career or change direction completely. But during that stint, I continued to publish. Most importantly, perhaps, I also read like a man possessed. It was heartening to read about how Pepperberg, whose scientific career has been a boundless success, also experienced challenges like any other academic. Like all of us, she did not always succeed. She went through periods of unemployment. She experienced challenges in romantic and professional relationships. Yet she never quit. Pepperberg demonstrated how far dogged determination, staunch colleagues, and solid research—also, I am certain, her African grey parrot research subject and the book’s eponymous mischief-maker—had taken her in science. It was a message that I needed to hear during my own career lapse—and one that I will never forget.

Stephen Poropat, postdoc in paleontology at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia

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