Books that helped me through my doctorate

6 minute read


Two months ago, I defended my dissertation. I am very grateful to my advisors, my doctorate committee, my opposition committee, and my paranimphs. I thought long and hard about which thank-you presents would be appropriate and of value to them. In the end, I just decided to present them with some wisdom.

So I selected seven of the books I read as a doctorate student, and bought a few copies of each. These books all changed the way I looked at the world, at science, or at myself. Some of them held a mirror up to me. Some of them inspired me to be a better person, or to work to make the world a better place. Some of them made me realise that my responsibilities as a scientist extend further than I previously thought.

Each of them helped me grow as a person, and each of them influenced my journey as a doctorate student and as a scientist in one way or another.

I distributed them randomly among my advisors, committee members, and paranimphs, with the explicit permission to each of them to swap with each other or to give their book to one of their friends, coworkers or students, if they felt that their book didn’t resonate with them and would be more appreciated by someone else.

It seems that by now, all the books that I had to send overseas have arrived at their destinations, and I wanted to share a bit about which books I picked and why.

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The Guilty Feminist, by Deborah Frances-White

While this book in itself is a great read, full of jokes and wisdom, it is mostly a placeholder for the The Guilty Feminist podcast. Early into my doctorate, my advisor Siegfried’s tenant recommended the show to me, and I’ve been a listener ever since. The main message of the podcast is: you don’t have to be perfect to make meaningful change.

It’s through this podcast that I dared to call myself a feminist. Deborah, her co-hosts and her guests motivated me to show up, to speak my mind, and to stand up for myself and others. Additionally, this show was a gateway drug (to borrow a phrase from DFW herself) into many modern (feminist) thinkers, with whom I connected and interacted online.

It broadened my world and my thinking. It gave me a lifeline, a place of recognition, a place of growth. It gave me joy and companionship when I felt isolated as a woman in a male-dominated field.

Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation, by Hannah Gadsby

I hadn’t actually read this book (although I bought myself a copy and am in the middle of it now), but in a way, this is also a placeholder book for me. It stands for Nanette and Douglas, Gadsby’s Netflix Specials, as well as for her speeches (this one and this one, in particular).

I recognise a lot of myself in Gasby’s stories, and she does an incredibly good job at telling them. I’ve used both Nanette and Douglas as tools to communicate truths about myself to other people. She has words for things that I cannot say.

She has so much wisdom to offer. There’s a reason I cite her in the final chapter of my dissertation.

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren

I read this book in less than two days. It is a memoir of a female academic, trying to make her way in a male-dominated field. I can relate. It was incredibly painful to read.

It is also a book about tree facts. Those were a joy! For months after reading this book, I infodumped endless tree facts on my friends and family. A great read!

Circe, by Madeline Miller

Unlike Lab Girl, this book took me months to finish, mostly because I could only read about one chapter a week, needing time to process what I’d read.

I was taught Greek myths in school, but through this retelling of the story of Circe, did I finally relate to them in a way that made me understand why these are classics. I guess it also helped that I now have some life experience under my belt. This book really hit me hard.

For extra context about why Miller wrote this book, I can also recommend Ezra Klein’s interview with the author.

Inferior and Superior, by Angela Saini

I think every scientist should read these two books by Angela Saini.

The first, Inferior, is about research into the differences between men and women. Saini does a great job at dismantling the flawed logic and assumptions behind research questions, study design and interpretation of data. She’s a great critical thinker and understands the power of the stories we tell ourselves and others.

In Superior, she does the same, but for the research into the difference between “races”. It’s an absolutely terrifying read, illustrating the destructive power of the clout that comes with academic titles.

These books stimulated me to look critically at any piece of research that is about people, or has conclusions that affect people, because they make it very clear how bias affects scientific research.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Before I read this book, all I knew about the story of Henrietta Lacks was: “White doctor takes cells from Black patient without her knowledge or consent, and gets rich and famous.”

This book provided a lot of context, from a lot of different angles. It is about journalism, science, history, and the personal histories of Henrietta and her family. I’m truly amazed by how much the entire world has benefitted from Henrietta’s cells, and mortified by how her family was treated.

This was a fascinating read, and I’m happy that Henrietta’s story has been getting some more attention the last years. Every scientist should read this book.

I hope you, reader, may pick up one or more of these books one day. Please let me know if you do, and let me know what you thought of the book?