Books for PhDs

I believe having some good guide books at hand, is like having having good mentors. These help me gain some clarity and navigate through my PhD journey. I will share some of them, that are useful for different stages and aspects of PhD, and hope it could help other people who are also in this journey. This is not a comprehensive list, only the ones I have read myself and found helpful.

Before starting a PhD

Navigating through the PhD and the academia

Research motivation/inspiration








[Mathematical Analysis on Board Games] Lost Cities

Lost Cities is a 2-player board game where players decide which cities to explore by stacking their cards on a certain colour. The player with more total points after 3 rounds will win the game.

There are 5 cities to be explored corresponding to cards of 5 colours: white, blue, green, yellow and red. There are 12 cards for each colour; 9 number cards from 2 to 10, and 3 wager cards. In the end, the points from a column are (sum of numbers -20) ×(1+number of wager cards). The player who has 8 or more cards in one colour earns a 20 points bonus.

For each colour, there are in total (2+3+…+10)=54 points and the average point of a number card is 6. So on average, each player is expected to draw 4.5 number cards with 27 points and 1.5 wager cards. So you are expected to earn (27-20)×2.5 = 17.5 points from each column, although this is an ideal case assuming you can play all your cards in the right sequence. So in total, you are expected to earn 17.5×5 = 87.5 points. That doesn’t look too bad. Or is it true? The truth is that you may not be able to play all those cards before the game ends.

Each player starts with 8 cards and they either play or discard a card during their round and then draw a card from the deck or the discarded cards. The number of cards in their hands is 8 throughout the game. The game ends when the deck runs out. That means the maximum number of cards that are played is 60-16=44 cards, or 22 cards max for each player. So if you want to bet on all colour, you only have less than 5 cards for each colour, which is quite risky. So you need to think carefully about which colours to bet on.

How many colours should you bet on?

Consider the case when you play 22 cards from your hand and do not discard any of them, and you do not draw any of the cards discarded by your opponent. In this case, on average you draw 6 cards from each colour.

  • If you play on 5 colours, on average you can play min(22/5, 6) = 4.4 cards for each colour, 3.3 number cards and 1.1 wager cards. So the expected point is 2.1*(3.3*6-20)*5 = -2.1.
  • If you play on 4 colours, on average you can play min(22/4, 6) = 5.5 cards for each colour, 4.125 number cards and 1.375 wager cards. So the expected point is 2.375*(4.125*6-20)*4 = 45.125.
  • If you play on 3 colours, on average you have min(22/3, 6) = 6 cards for each colour, 4.5 number cards and 1.5 wager cards. So the expected point is 2.5*(4.5*6-20)*3 = 52.5.
  • If you bet on 2 colours, on average you have min(122/2, 6)=6 cards for each colour, 4.5 number cards and 1.5 wager cards. So the expected point is 2.5*(4.5*6-20)*2 =35.


From this result, it seems that the smartest choice is to bet on 3 colours. And although on average you draw 6 cards from each colour, sometimes you can pick up from your opponent. It is not very likely your opponent will give up a number 10 or 9 cards, they might well play it themselves. So you are more likely to get a smaller card, making the average point per card drawn from the discarded deck less than 6.

[Book] Deep work

Deep work is rare

  • Least law of resistance: people tend to find the easiest path to get things done. Instead of using deep thinking, instant email and message make their life easier to find the answer.
  • Measuring the productivity of knowledge worker is hard
  • Busyness is used as a proxy for productivity

[Book] How to be a Straight A student

Recently I have been reading the book How to be a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport. This is an old book published in 2006 and I remembered reading the Chinese version when I was in secondary school. I remember the red cover and the lively tone, and it was very inspiring to me. But now I can’t remember a word since that was more than 10 years ago.

I was reminded of this book by a Youtube video and I thought it’s a good time to review it. I just studied my postgraduate study, and unfortunately, since I have been working for a few years after my university, I have unlearned a lot of learning skill. The first year in PhD was not easy and I am constantly catching up with all assignments and deadlines. There are a few struggles for me: 1. emotionally it was hard since I am so far (7-8 hours time difference) away from my friends and family; 2. mathematics is hard, especially a physics graduate like me; 3. finding the rhythm in PhD life is hard. I have to admit that reading math notes is painstaking and I need a lot of effort to be in the flow. And I can’t focus for very long, maybe working has hindered my ability to focus and think deeply. For all these reasons, I feel it is necessary for me to re-read the book and re-learn how to learn.

I found the book very honest and practical. The ideas are simple and solutions are easy to execute. They are very helpful advice to build good study habits.

Here are some takeaways:

  1. Compress work into focused bursts. Work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus. Work hard when you work, and you will have plenty of time to play hard.

  2. Use 5 min to plan your day
    • Collect things to do during the day
    • Schedule the tasks during the morning
    • Keep it flexible and feasible
  3. Declare war with procrastination
    • Write a work journal to keep track of progress
    • Eat healthily and hydrate to maximise the energy level
    • Turn something you don’t want to do into an event
    • Build weekly work routine
    • Choose your hard day and relax before and after to minimise their impact
  4. Choose When, Where and How long
    • From morning to dinner
    • Isolated
    • Take a break every hour

Reflections from my personal experience:

  1. Focused session instead of pseudo work. Sometimes even I am not doing any useful work, I try to fill the hours. Sometimes it is because I demand myself to work for enough hours, sometimes it’s because I don’t want to be seen as a slacker. More often it is because I have a daunting task, so I allocated a lot of time for it, pushing back all other stuff, but I never had the mental energy to start it either because of being afraid of failure or time pressure. So I keep dragging until the deadline is near. In this case, I definitely need to allocate more focused burst session and also advance the ‘hard day’ to avoid procrastination.
  2. Make a feasible plan and check the tasks you have done. I tried to make a feasible plan that tells me roughly when to do what step and tick the boxes when I am done. I found a feasible plan itself is a reward once you accomplish it. It gives you a boost of confidence and self-trust.
  3. Advance your hard day. This is a habit I really want to form. I often get pressure from the deadline and submit last hour. Submitting last hour is stressful. And I also have no choice but to study long hours until the deadline. This may lead to exhaustion and low efficiency. I would like to advance the deadline and schedule the hard day in advance. Put that hard day on the calendar, not too late.
  4. Find focus during the day. This is essential to get what you planned done. This could be done by hydrate, eat healthily, and take a break every hour.


Bibliography management using Endnote

Do you need a bibliography management tool?

If you find yourself

  • Struggling with a growing list of references
  • Couldn’t remember where is that important paper you want to cite
  • Having a headache with citing the paper correctly in your paper

you might find bibliography management useful.


Who doesn’t need a bibliography management tool?

If you only have a few papers to cite and working on a short-term project, you may not need it that much. It is not the most user-friendly software, and it still requires some manual work.


Why you need bibliography management?

  1. This helps you set up a personal library of all the references and enable you to look them up more easily. You can also annotate the item to make it easier to recall what the paper is about.
  2. EndNote is able to generate citations and save your time editing the citation style manually.
  3. Even when you don’t have the paper by your hand, you can access your bibliography on EndNote online as long as you have an internet connection.

What is EndNote?

EndNote is an application that helps arrange all your references in a catalogue. You could think of it as a bookshelf, where you can put your papers in various category so that you can retrieve them easily when you want to refer to them.

How to start using EndNote?

  1. Download the software or request it from your school. If you are a student or staff in a university or research institute, check with IT if you could request a copy.
  2. Register an EndNote account so that you could sync your local library online. This enables you to access it anywhere as long as you could connect to the internet.
  3. YouTube tutorials provided by the EndNote official account is a very good place to start learning it. Most videos are less than 10mins and will help you start using them right away. For example, this video helps you start using EndNote X9 in 6 minutes!
  4. Practice it right now. Try to find some references you want to archive and add them to your library.


… and you may encounter some common question

How to import a citation?

Importing the .ris file into EndNote is easier. You only need to download the .ris file, double click to open it and choose the library it belongs to. Importing a BibTex citation is not that straightforward. But luckily most source will provide a .ris format.


I couldn’t find the paper in the search box

When this happens, you could search the paper in the university library and export the citation into EndNote. You add a few manual steps but at least you got the paper you need.




Literature Review

Why we write a literature review?

  • To convince people that the research needs to be done
  • To establish the connection of the current research and previous research
  • To identify the research gap in previous work
  • To emphasise the importance and impact of the current research

How to begin to write a literature review?

  • Do an overview of the history of the field
  • Build of bibliography of the field
  • Find the key thinker in the field and follow their recent work
  • Read recent survey paper




  1. LinkedIn Learning (2017) Purpose of a literature reviewAvailable at: (Accessed: 18 April 2020).
  2. LinkedIn Learning (2017) How to develop a literature reviewAvailable at: (Accessed: 18 April 2020).