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Graduate school is hard. You don’t have to tell me! I’ve had countless sleepless nights & stress upon stress. It feels like there’s always something more I should be doing — whether reading another article, writing more of my dissertation, or attending one more talk. It can be seriously overwhelming! But, I’ve found that carving out time in my schedule for non-academic reading has reaped myriad rewards — personal, academic, and social.
During my Ph.D. I have averaged around 70 non-academic books a year. I read 155 books in 2019 alone (thanks to audiobooks)! In this post, I’m sharing my top five reasons why I think reading non-academic books is important while in graduate school and why every graduate student should find time to include them in their busy schedules.
1. Me Time! Finding work-life balance in graduate school.
For me, the most important function of reading is “Me Time.” Graduate school is also a long-term commitment. Whether you are getting a Ph.D. like me (5 years and counting…), a Master’s, or a professional degree, it’s important to remember that this is your life, and it needs to be sustainable for the long run.
Work-life balance is a crucial element for finding success as graduate student. You should still live your life, have fun with your friends, enjoy your hobbies, and try new things. One of the best ways I’ve found to help me relax and find balance is by reading (non-academic) books.
I used to be somewhat of a book snob and tried to read classics and literary fiction, but I’ve changed my tune. I’ll read just about anything that sounds interesting. If I want to spend five hours plowing through a light beach read, then I’ll do it. As a result, reading has become much less of a chore, and I’ve actually increased the number of “serious” books I’ve read (but who’s counting?)
Many of us end up in graduate school because we love learning, and, if you are anything like me, you were a voracious reader as a child. It’s easy to neglect non-academic reading, because it feels like a distraction from required reading. At the end of the day, you may just be plain sick and tired of looking at the printed word. I have so many grad school friends who can’t remember the last time they picked up a book just for fun, and I think that’s a shame!
The way I make reading sustainable, even during the busiest times of the school year, is through audiobooks. I’m an audiobook fiend (and I’ll post more about that in the future). I listen to audiobooks on the bus, when I’m walking to school, in between classes, while I wait for a meeting, during lunch breaks, while cooking dinner, in the shower, while getting ready for bed, and sometimes even when I’m asleep (and yes, they do find their way into my dreams).
These are daily occurrences, even when studying for a big exam or when prepping an important lecture. So, I can usually squeeze in at least half an hour of audiobook listening without setting aside any dedicated time. Just with scattered listening sessions, I can usually finish one book per week. I also listen to audiobooks during my free time. Instead of watching TV or playing video games, I have found audiobooks to be a really nice way to relax my eyes after a long day of staring at screens and books.
2. Graduate school is social. Reading makes you interesting.
Another important thing to remember is that graduate school is social. In my case, graduate school is extremely social. Not counting personal social interactions (usually with other graduate students), I attend probably 2-3 social (or social adjacent) events a week related to being a graduate student. These range from department social events, receptions after workshops and lectures, and dinners out with invited speakers. Often these events are with the same rotating group of people. No one really wants to hear about the minutiae of your dissertation or research three times a week (or ever).
But, academics also like to read (or at least they like to stay informed about books), so if small talk runs out, I’ve always found books to be an easy fallback conversation starter. In the past year, I’ve had conversations with various scholars about the following books: The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante, Educated by Tara Westover, The Pioneers by David McCullough, the Harry Potter series (of course!), The Cursed Child, Hunger by Roxane Gay, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, the Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor, Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh, The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi, The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wolf, The Places in Between by Rory Stewart, and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. There are probably more I have forgotten (and remember nearly a quarter of this year has been in quarantine with nearly no social events)! If you read, you will never run out of things to say!
3. Reading makes you a better teacher!
Many graduate students will find themselves in front of a classroom for the first time in their lives. Whatever teaching training you may or may not get will likely be minimal and focused on federal laws, university policies & resources, maintaining online classrooms, and basic course design and classroom management. If you are lucky, you may get a one off lecture or workshop about diversity in the classroom.
I’ve found one of the best ways for me to relate to my students and to be a better teacher in general is to read fiction books. I try to keep up with books that are popular with high school and college students and books that might lead students to my classroom (in my case, the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan!). I also try to read #ownvoices books, especially YA books. #Ownvoices books are books written about diverse characters by authors from that same diverse group. Some examples are There, There by Tommy Orange, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver, and The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang. Books like these help me understand different points of views and different young adult experiences that may inform me about my students lives, values, and upbringings more than my own experiences.
Also, when my students find out I love to read (I usually announce it on the first day of class), I usually get some great recommendations from them. This helps me get to know them outside of the confines of the academic material, and it helps build rapport.
I also love to have students reflect on how books they’ve read or are reading are related to class material and even bring those texts into the classroom. For instance, students in my Roman history class wrote blog posts about various Rick Riordan books and the Hunger Games series. I’ve brought in passages from Harry Potter in ancient Greek and in Latin for my beginning language students to try out!
4. Reading makes you a better writer
Graduate school is all about writing. You have term papers, exams, and, of course, the thesis or dissertation. It might be a truism, but to be a good writer you must be a reader and an avid reader at that. I take my cue from William Faulkner: “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”
Academic writing is a beast of its own. As Joshua Rothman writes in the New Yorker, academic writing is “knotty and strange, remote and insular, technical and specialized, forbidding and clannish.” While in many cases this is out of necessity (the job market and tenure committees are cruel judges), not all academic writing must be this way. But, if we academic only read other academic writing, then we will be doomed, as Faulkner says, to absorb and replicate it.
This is why it is so important to read widely, to learn various styles, syntax, narrative arcs, literary techniques, and engaging story-telling. In the long run, I believe it will also help us reach a wider audience with our writing than the few specialists in our field.
5. Non-academic reading can help you academically.
I struggle sometimes with keeping engaged in my research and especially in field adjacent to my specialty. A lot of topics covered in classes or in exams are just not something I’m personally interested in. One way I’ve been able to reinvigorate my approach to these topics is by finding a well-reviewed non-academic book on the topic, whether fiction or non-fiction. Authors (and their publishers) have a lot at stake in making books marketable, entertaining, and well-written. Utilize this resource!
When I couldn’t stand to read one more word of ancient Greek mythology, I turned to the Percy Jackson series. It’s much easier to get a handle on the topic at Camp Half-blood than in dreary academic tomes. When I was burnt out on Roman history, I turned to fictionalized historical accounts by the likes of Robert Harris and Colleen McCullough. No, you cannot read Percy Jackson to study for your exams, but you can use it as a building block to reinvigorate your excitement for a topic.
There are also wonderful non-fiction books geared to non-specialists that are often avoided by academics. I’ve found that these can be great resources to break the ice on a new-to-you topic or a quick review. So many academic books are written only for a small handful of specialists, and there are only so many things you can specialize in. You can’t possibly be prepared to handle every sub-specialty!
I’ve also found it really helpful to turn to non-fiction books for children or young adults as well as coffee table style books for adult readers. These usually will boil down concepts to the basics, include clear and easy to understand introductions to topics, are full of illustrations, and are often really fun to read. This might sound silly, but many books (and magazines!) geared towards children and teenagers are great first steps to more complex topics, and some of them can be very specific and full of delightful storytelling. It’s certainly an overlooked resource!
While nothing can replace reading academic books and articles and serious study, you can make graduate school much easier on yourself if you engage your brain and build up your knowledge and engagement from different non-academic book sources.
As Dr. Seuss says, “Be awesome! Be a book nut!” Reading is a pleasure that deserves a place in every person’s life, especially graduate students. I hope these five reasons to read non-academic books encourages you to find time to spend diving into a good book.
Graduate students! What non-academic books are you reading right now? Let me know on social media and in the comments below!