Image: Bookshelves, by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, 1725 (Web Gallery of Art)
In a continuing series, Vitae asks academics, administrators, and Ph.D.s to pick the five books that most influenced them in some aspect of their work, professional life, and career — and why. Next up: Ariel Sophia Bardi, a Ph.D. who has left academe to pursue a writing and consulting career, recommends five books to read once you're finally done writing your thesis.
The word "anticlimax" may as well have been invented to describe submitting a doctoral dissertation. Just like that, multiple years of monomaniacal research and writing end in a whimper (or, more realistically, a sob). I expected no fanfare when I finished my dissertation, back in 2015. Still, there was something a little heartbreaking about the dining-hall muffins laid out in the submission office to congratulate submitters. One by one, we limped in, dazedly tendering our bulky manuscripts and looking completely bludgeoned. Was this it?
During the two-month lull between submission and graduation — and with the dissertation finally and forever off my back — finding my next project was easy. My most urgent goal, after all, was rehabilitation. I emerged from the isolation chamber of thesis writing needing to process an academic environment that had frequently felt toxic. A resolute post-ac, I also had to confront mounting panic about my professional future. Basically, I needed a total sorting out. So while I was loathe to read even one more word of anything, I immediately made time for the following five books.
Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion, and Pure Madness
By Gail Tredwell
Tredwell was a 19-year-old Australian backpacker when she joined an ashram in southern India. She would go on to spend the next two decades in service of Amma, a world-famous spiritual leader known to most people as "the Hugging Saint." Eventually, Tredwell's ideals were crushed as she uncovered abuse and hypocrisy in the high ranks of the ashram. Miserable and penniless, she stayed on because spiritual life was the only world she knew. Escape seemed near-impossible. It's hard not to cheer for Gail — better known as "Gayatri" — when she finally bolts at the end. Perhaps my post-Ph.D. angst rendered me completely solipsistic, but I identified with Tredwell's harrowing defection. The struggle to deprogram herself and build a new life outside of the ashram should especially ring true for any academics looking to leave their own hermetic institutions behind. Sure, no one cared whether I left academia or not (Tredwell, on the other hand, escaped in a getaway car). But my eventual departure certainly felt high-stakes to me. And reading a parallel journey, albeit far more extreme, makes for unlikely inspiration.
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
By Pema Chödrön
After submitting my dissertation, I fell asleep most nights reading this book. Its thoughtful, gentle prose was the perfect antidote to my years-long diet of thorny, scholarly tomes about 20th-century atrocities. Pema Chödrön (née Deidre Bloomfield-Brown), was born in New York City to a Catholic family in 1936. She had her first experience of "groundlessness" in her mid-20s, when her husband of four years shocked her by confessing to an affair and filing for divorce. Working with Tibetan Buddhist spiritual traditions over many subsequent years, she learned not to resist or try to gain control over negative emotions, but rather to let them be. In 1974, Pema was ordained as a Buddhist nun: This book represents a compilation of her talks and writings since then, and serves as a great practical primer for Buddhist thought and practice. As for my uncertainty about my own future? Lines like these were a much-needed salve to my fears, and, as I pressed on, they became my personal rallying cry: "To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. ... To live is to be willing to die over and over again."
A Song of Ice and Fire
By George R. R. Martin
Speaking of dying over and over, that brings me to Game of Thrones. I have to confess I've never been a fan of either the books or the TV show — too violent and depraved for my liking. But sometimes, the best thing you can give yourself is a little escapism. There is nothing like pages and pages of beheadings, torture, and perpetual misery to put your own problems into perspective. I read the first three or four books in Martin's series, complaining the entire time that they were terrible and I hated them. Yet, I still found myself tearing through thousands of pages to get to the end. Sure, I would have to get on with my life eventually. And yes, there are certainly plenty of healthier distractions. But I was thankful for my lengthy escape into Martin's bleak, alternate universe — and equally ready to get back to my own life once it had thoroughly worn me out. Your diversion does not have to be Game of Thrones. Any fantasy series will do.
This books was my post-Ph.D. bible — instrumental in helping me to scrap the academic track and process the emotional intensity of my seven-year degree. After years of deadlines, external pressures, and a constant, low-level hum of busyness, Radical Acceptance taught me how to appreciate doing absolutely nothing (which was good, because I suddenly had nothing to do). Tara Brach, with her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, is perhaps the consummate post-ac. Founder of Insight Meditation, a Washington-based meditation community, she leads retreats on emotional healing and spiritual awakening all over the world. Her philosophy, grounded in Buddhist practice but drawing on ecumenical poets, thinkers, and traditions across ages and continents, hinges on what Brach calls "loving awareness," a mindfulness technique. Rather than a career how-to or a self-help manual, Radical Acceptance is a surprisingly hopeful and refreshing guide to simply being human. After finishing graduate school, what I needed most of all was to feel human again.
If you've made it through the first four books on this list, then this Martha Beck classic should be your reward. Although she dabbles in New Age philosophy, Beck falls more squarely into the "self-help" category, and has a chattier, more down-to-earth tone than the dreamy, ponderous Brach or the wry and wise Chödrön (no saints or medieval butchery, either). Part guide, part workbook, Finding Your Own North Star, focuses on helping you to silence the voices of peers, professors, and families — or anyone else who may have a stake in your career — and tune into your own unique calling (your "North Star"). Be prepared, though. You may soon find yourself dusting off dormant childhood dreams and becoming a beekeeper. It's that powerful.
Got a booklist to share? Send it to editorial_at_chroniclevitae_dot_com. List your 5 favorite books in your field or in some other category — and tell us in a few sentences why you would recommend them — and we will consider your booklist for publication.