Writing book reviews during your PhD: is honesty the best policy?

Steph Wright wonders if it is better to speak your mind or to hold your tongue

May 17, 2016
Source: iStock

Very early on in my PhD, I was told by a senior academic that if I ever hoped to pursue a career in academia, I should publish a book review in my first year. Needless to say, I did not publish a book review in my first year.

I eventually got around to it in my second year, and realised I’d stepped into an unexpected minefield. I’ve always quite enjoyed reading book reviews: not only can they save you a lot of time, but the academic fist fights that take place in the reviews sections of journals are a great way of getting the lie of the land. In the field I work in – as, I imagine, in most others – this can get pretty catty (if you’re looking for a good read, reviews of work by Michael Seidman or Julius Ruiz are usually pretty entertaining).

Unfortunately, this can be a tricky environment for the inexperienced scholar. I still change my mind about my thesis, and historiographical debates more generally, approximately every three days. Indecision in the early stages of your PhD and career isn’t necessarily a bad thing – as doctoral students, that’s kind of what we’re meant to do. Ask a few questions, then take three/four/eight years to have a good think.

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In light of this, when it comes to giving your opinion on someone else’s work in published form, it can be difficult to know which approach to take. On the one hand, you want to show off to the world your capacity for critical thought. On the other, you don’t want to be too critical and risk alienating yourself from potential future employers, colleagues or audiences.

After all, if pinning down the precise nature of your contribution to academia is still a couple of years off, it seems foolish to potentially burn bridges with those who might end up being your allies – particularly when finding a job in academia is like searching for a decent cup of tea on the Iberian Peninsula.

I told a fellow student that I was writing a book review and got this response: “Well, it’s got to be a good one. It can’t be anything else, not at this stage.” But what if you didn’t enjoy the book? It is probably equally inadvisable to praise a piece of work that you don’t rate. So how wise is it to write a negative review in the early days of your PhD?

To judge by the hundreds of relatively benign reviews out there, it seems a lot of people, particularly at the beginning of their careers, are reluctant to throw their hats into the ring. Many reviews seem to consist largely of a chapter summary followed by a cryptic sentence or two at the end on the work’s academic significance.

Not that summaries don’t have their uses. They can certainly save you time and money otherwise spent hunting down books that in the end turn out to be useless. The act of writing a summary can also be a helpful exercise in itself. But is that really the point?

The book review is an important self-regulating mechanism in academia, so in that sense self-censorship among junior academics is actually pretty worrying. One wonders to what extent this is linked to increasing pressure, given the current job market, to “network”. Although outspoken reviews have to some degree probably always been the preserve of the securely employed, reduced numbers of vacancies combined with increased numbers of PhD students are bound to increase anxieties over the making and nurturing of “contacts”.

Perhaps I’m overthinking things. Putting your academic cards on the table early on might not be such a bad thing: indeed, in the cut-throat world of academia, being an arsehole can work to your advantage. Anyway, surely academics are used to people critiquing their work…and the chances that they will even read a review by a lowly PhD student, penned from their dank cat-infested hovel, are pretty low.

Yet many PhD students do feel uneasy about writing negative reviews. And although the UK hasn’t quite reached the dizzyingly depressing heights of countries such as Spain, where nepotism is a serious problem, I would hazard a guess that many (most?) doctoral students in Britain would rather tread carefully when writing reviews – at least until they reach the safety of a permanent post.

Steph Wright is currently in her second year of a WRoCAH-funded PhD at the University of Sheffield, where she researches the experiences of Francoist disabled veterans of the Spanish Civil War. This post originally appeared on Pubs and Publications, a blog about the PhD experience.

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