Books with PhD students as main characters

Chemistry by Weike Wang

At first glance, the quirky, overworked narrator [of this] novel seems to be on the cusp of a perfect life: she is studying for a prestigious PhD in chemistry that will make her Chinese parents proud (or at least satisfied), and her successful, supportive boyfriend has just proposed to her. But instead of feeling hopeful, she is wracked with ambivalence: the long demanding hours at the lab have created an exquisite pressure cooker, and she doesn’t know how to answer the marriage question. When is all becomes too much and her life plan veers off course, she finds herself on a new path of discoveries about everything she thought she knew.

You Must Be Very Intelligent: The PhD Delusion by Karin Bodewits

You Must be Very Intelligent is the author’s account of studying for a PhD in a modern, successful university. Part-memoir and part-expose, this book is highly entertaining and unusually revealing about the dubious morality and desperate behaviour which underpins competition in twenty-first century academia.

This witty, warts-and-all account of Bodewits years as a PhD student in the august University of Edinburgh is full of success and failure, passion and pathos, insight, farce and warm-hearted disillusionment. She describes a world of collaboration and backstabbing; nefarious financing and wasted genius; cosmopolitan dreamers and discoveries that might just change the world… Is this a smart people’s world or a drip can of weird species? Modern academia is certainly darker and stranger than one might suspect…

Real Life: A Novel by Brandon TaylorKevin R. Free

Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.

The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsay Stern

Meet Ivan and Prue: a married couple – both experts in language and communication – who nevertheless cannot seem to communicate with each other

Ivan is a tightly wound philosophy professor whose reverence for logic and order governs not only his academic interests, but also his closest relationships. His wife, Prue, is quite the opposite: a pioneer in the emerging field of biolinguistics, she is bold and vibrant, full of life and feeling. Thus far, they have managed to weather their differences. But lately, an odd distance has settled in between them. Might it have something to do with the arrival of the college’s dashing but insufferable new writer-in-residence, whose novel Prue always seems to be reading?

Into this delicate moment barrels Ivan’s unstable father-in-law, Frank, in town to hear Prue deliver a lecture on birdsong that is set to cement her tenure application. But the talk doesn’t go as planned, unleashing a series of crises that force Ivan to finally confront the problems in his marriage, and to begin to fight – at last – for what he holds dear.

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