• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Seeing Our Name in Lights

A reflection on portrayals of grad students in popular culture.

October 20, 2015

Patrick Bigsby is a student, employee, and wrestling fan at the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.


Last season, Grey’s Anatomy averaged 8.22 million viewers weekly, though the number of active medical practitioners in the U.S. is only about one-tenth of that number. In the same season, How To Get Away With Murder pulled in an average of 9.76 million pairs of eyeballs each week. This viewership dwarfs the national population of 1.3 million attorneys. While plenty of people like to watch fictional versions of doctors and lawyers, far fewer lay claim to the titles.


USC journalism professor (and one of my personal heroes) Joe Saltzman created the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture Database in order to study how stage and screen portrayals of journalists impact the public perception of journalism. Although it’s impossible to sum up the findings of all of the IJPC Database’s studies, one thread unites them: the audience’s perception of the messenger shapes the message and, when the audience doesn’t have much hands-on experience, popular culture becomes the defining proxy.


Like the doctors, lawyers, and professors we’re studying to become, graduate students are few and far between within the general population. Given our tendency to be cloistered in libraries and labs, our pop culture proxies serve as our de facto public ambassadors. We’ve been lampooned (quite effectively) by the likes of 30 Rock and The Simpsons and appeared in films both serious and silly. Given how important these characters are to our collective public image, I thought I’d give some credit to my three favorite fictional graduate students.


3. Amy Wong celebrated Futurama’s sixth season by finally earning her Ph.D. in applied physics from Mars University - no small feat given that her advisor was a man whose brilliance was surpassed only by his senility. Amy has a reputation for being something of a klutz, but she deserves our admiration for finishing her degree while a parent (albeit to a few hundred Amphibiosan larva) and striking a blow for women in hard science.


2.  James Hart’s first day of class in The Paper Chase might be enough to trigger PTSD in some current first-year law students. Although Mr. Hart’s law school experience is probably too overblown to be considered a truly faithful adaption, his commitment to his studies, manifested in that infamous three-day study bender, shows why he should be considered a hero to young scholars everywhere.


1. My all-time favorite graduate student is Pony Merks, teaching assistant in the history department at the University of China, Illinois. There are many reasons to love Pony: she was willing to pay $500,000 to continue her education, she dominated her campus’ Dungeons & Dragons league, and she even earned tenure as a TA. In spite of these achievements, Pony’s greatest attribute is her verisimilitude; she’s the most realistic graduate student in all of popular culture. Pony is underpaid, overworked, and hamstrung by university bureaucracy. She struggles to maintain the elusive work-life balance and find a partner who can understand her commitment to her studies. Her best friends are professors and undergraduates, despite being unable to fully relate to either. Pony’s experience is one that any and all graduate students can identify with and, for that, I love her.


Our fictional counterparts may be wildly entertaining, but they also serve a more serious purpose: representing our small, isolated population to audiences worldwide. Unless you log a lot of hours on a college campus, it’s easy to go your whole life without meeting a real live graduate student. Fortunately, there are plenty of us to encounter in the books, movies, and television shows that fill our lives.


Who’s your favorite grad student in pop culture? Give them a shout-out in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Shinya Suzuki and used under Creative Commons Licensing]


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