(Pleasure) Reading in Graduate School

This is a guest post from Linh Anh Cat. Linh Anh Cat is a scientist who loves reading so much she does it for work and fun. She likes to read while solo traveling, on hikes, and in between serious board games. She is passionate about diversity and representation in science and when recommending books. You can find her on Twitter at @LinhAnhCat.


One mark of a seasoned graduate student is the ability to consume large amounts of peer-reviewed journal articles and books in a relatively short time. The second mark is the constant refrain, “I should be reading or writing for my dissertation!” Followed by “I no longer have time to read for fun.” Though it seems unintuitive, reading for pleasure in graduate school is actually incredibly helpful to both your happiness and productivity.

The last few years, I’ve been pleasure reading around 40 books a year while also working on my PhD in biology. I have a couple tips on how to successfully read for pleasure in grad school, followed by the benefits I’ve noticed so you can read for fun guilt-free!

How to read for pleasure in grad school

1. Make your books as accessible as Instagram and other social media

AKA make sure you can start reading anytime you have a free moment, whether that’s in between experiments or while waiting for your dinner to finish cooking. Also, reading for cheap or free is a huge advantage on a grad student budget.

I’ve found, like many others, that huge advantage of having a Kindle is being able to carry basically an unlimited number of books around. Moreover, most local libraries allow you to check out books on Kindle via Overdrive, so it’s a very cheap habit (with the bonus of avoiding extra errands to return your books on time). As for the Kindle itself, try buying a refurbished one or wait for an Amazon sale.

You can also take a page from social media and read using apps on your phone. Alternatively, carry a paperback around the old fashioned way. Approximately 99% of grad students still wear backpacks like we’re undergrads, so it’s no problem for us! Finally, for those of you that like audiobooks, have them pre-loaded for your work commute or walking around between seminars and meetings.

2. Be wise in what book you invest energy in

Grad students are studious about finding a worthwhile research topic, and we can and should apply these skills to our free time. Do some initial research and choose books that are have great reviews or get recommendations from trusted reading buddies. I recommend browsing Goodreads reviews on books you are interested in. I personally don’t read a book unless it has at least 4 stars in a genre I’m interested in. I’ve read some 4+ star books in genres I’m not usually into and they have still been hard to get through. There are so many books out there to be read and the choice can occasionally overwhelm some of us. I’ve found this strategy to be the most time-efficient with the most reward.

And finally, some benefits of pleasure-reading on your dissertation work (so you don’t have to feel so bad that you should be working on it right now)

1. Reading for pleasure prevents you from getting stuck in the peer-review writing rut

“I already read scientific papers for work” is a common refrain I hear when reading comes up in conversation with other grad students. Fiction and nonfiction books read totally differently than a scientific paper. If you are only reading and writing scientific papers, you may find out later that your normal writing style becomes very formulaic. And not necessarily in a way that brings more clarity, especially when read by non-scientists. It’s very likely that you will need to write for work and/or personal purposes in the future. Continuing to read for pleasure exposes you to new words and writing styles, which can feed back into your scientific and professional writing. Even reading nonfiction for fun is helpful because it provides a way for you to think about how you would describe your own research. This is 100% necessary during the holidays when speaking to friends and family about what you spend your life doing in grad school.

2. You will be refreshed and actually have more energy by reading for fun

Reading for pleasure carries none of the guilt of flipping on Netflix and re-watching your favorite show for the seventh time while sitting on your phone (those days are nice every once in a while, though). Immersing yourself in a book is very relaxing and takes you out of your day-to-day life. It’s a form of mental self care, in the same way that doing puzzles or playing board games can be a form of unwinding.

Moreover, reading allows us to experience situations we normally wouldn’t encounter in daily life. And even nonfiction books can teach us a lot about the world and prevent us from being that stereotype of an academic up in an ivory tower. Reading for fun exposes you to new conversation starters. I hate small talk, but reading gives me many more topics that I can bring up, which is handy when networking to find your first job after grad school or chatting with a visiting faculty member.

I’ve read over 150 books since starting graduate school four years ago and I’m on track to finish! What other tips have helped you keep up with pleasure reading while successfully finishing your thesis?

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