Over the last few years, I’ve written several posts on surviving graduate school, including dealing with expectations, managing your finances, coping with failure, and some more general advice. During that process, I’ve also come up with some small, helpful tips that just don’t fit into a broader theme. It seems a shame to let those tips disappear, so, for the next week I’ll be posting Andrew’s Quick Tips for Surviving Graduate School.
Tip #4: Write a book review
This is especially useful for new gradate students, because it helps you gain experience with the manuscript writing and submission process, gets your name in print in an appropriate journal, puts another line on your CV during a time when every line is statistically significant.
Most major scientific journals publish book reviews. I wrote one for Trends in Ecology and Evolution during my third year (and just published another, just for fun, in Biological Conservation this year). Find a journal you like (in your field, of course) and see if they do book reviews. If they do, the editor usually has a pretty decent slush pile of books to be reviewed, so find out who is in charge and send them an e-mail letting them know your research area and ask if they have any books in the backlog that would be appropriate.
Writing a book review is challenging, especially for a scientific journal. You have to do some research. You need to understand the author’s conclusions, and you need to read broadly within the field to place the book in the appropriate context. It’s an excellent exercise in research and writing. When you submit it, it will usually go through the same channels as a formal manuscript (though instead of full peer review, it will probably just be the editor who reviews it before publication).
Remember, though, a book review is not a book report. You’re not just giving a summary. A good book review should provide critical analysis, place the significance of the work in it’s proper context, and evaluate the quality of the book. Which brings up one final point: It’s probably diplomatically unwise to trash another scientist’s book early in your career. If you do a book review, review a book that you think adds value to the community. That being said, don’t shy away from being thorough and critical when warranted.