Content warning: The following piece includes reference to sexual assault.
Sometimes, I take a break from journal articles and dusty, jackettless Firestone tomes and read fiction. However, as an occupational hazard of being a social scientist, I stumble upon my research — which is focused on the transition to adulthood, marriage — everywhere in fiction. As much as I find themes that relate to me, it’s surprising how often there are characters who live my lifestyle — graduate students. This Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to put down the dissertation, thesis, or p-set and pick up one of these romance novels featuring an academic protagonist.
My first foray into this micro-genre was “The Kiss Quotient” by Helen Hoang. This novel follows Stella, who got her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and finished her postdoc by the age of 25. She should be on the tenure track; instead, she is five years into a middle management role at a marketing firm, approaching thirty with a mother who wants her to get married. It’s okay, Stella — I am also approaching thirty and live in a dorm. Stella, like many real-life PhD students, has invested in her education and delayed marriage. As a result, she is worried she is only good at one thing, research, and has fallen behind in other aspects of her life, like romance. So, she hires an escort, Michael, to help her gain confidence, and eventually the two fall in love. Stella and Michael remind us that it is never too late to branch out, that sometimes things do not go according to plan, and that love can come from unexpected places.
Next up is “Take A Hint, Dani Brown” by Talia Hibbert. Dani, an English Ph.D. student, is devoting herself to her dream of being on the same panel as her academic inspiration. With her busy schedule, she just wants a friends-with-benefits situation. Zafir, an ex-rugby player who runs a non-profit to teach young men about the dangers of toxic masculinity, awkwardly rescues her from an elevator during a fire drill. It is caught on video, and the hashtag #DrRugbae goes viral. A beautiful relationship is born in the ensuing chaos. I love this book because it is the reversal of the hypergamy trope where women couple up with men with higher educational attainment. At one point, Zafir essentially Google Scholars Dani’s articles, so he can better understand her research. Swoon. This novel is an important reminder that communication and support are the foundation of a healthy relationship.
No piece on academia-themed romance novels would be complete without “The Love Hypothesis” by Ali Hazelwood. Opinions on this book seem polarizing: On Goodreads, “The Love Hypothesis” has a 4.2, but all my friends in academia detested it. Lesson one of academic life: read sources before you cite them. I needed to unearth the truth for myself.
This book follows Olive, a third-year Ph.D. student in biology at Stanford. To prove that she is in fact capable of having fun, she lies to her best friend she is on a date. In actuality, she’s in the lab. Relatable. When her friend almost discovers the truth, Olive responds by grabbing a random man and kissing him. Turns out, he is the professor in her department who everyone hates. They agree to fake-date because ~reasons~. This book feels like it should be a PSA about why rules about professors dating grad students exist, but somehow the novel’s characters are onboard with the romance. Suspension of disbelief is important in romance novels, but while I had no problem rooting for Dani and Stella, I could not do it for Olive, since the novel’s characters behaved in truly incomprehensible ways. For example, at one point Olive sits on the professor’s lap...during seminar.
I wondered if this book is a satirical take on the trope that PhD students can be brilliant but socially incompetent. I felt insulted. Furthermore, consent and power dynamics are treated as an afterthought at best and played up for laughs at worst. Hazelwood has a series, but I will not be reading the rest.
The next book, “Never Tell,” is a romantic thriller by Selena Montgomery, the pen name of politician and activist Stacey Abrams. This book follows a PhD student turned criminal profiler, Erin Abbott, and journalist Gabriel Moss, who reluctantly team up to track down a serial killer in New Orleans. This book contains the most outrageous archetypes of an abusive academic advisor and evil teaching assistants. It serves as a reminder that you, like Stacey Abrams and our protagonist, can build an identity out of more than just your primary profession.
If you have read any list of the top books of 2022, you have probably seen “Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus. This is barely a romance, but it is on this list because it appealed to my interests: family demography and food. This book follows chemist Elizabeth Knott as she struggles to prove to the patriarchy that she is a scientist, and yes, can still wear a dress. The only person who seems to understand her brilliance is her coworker Calvin Evans. They eventually move in together but do not get married, which was considered scandalous in the 1960s California. “Lessons in Chemistry” is marketed as “laugh out loud funny,” but it deals with serious issues that are still prevalent in academia, such as sexism and sexual harassment. Knott does not pursue a PhD because her master’s thesis advisor sexually assaults her. She gets called horrible names, her ideas are stolen by her lab manager, and she does not appear as an author on papers she wrote. It’s a visceral look at some of the real problems in academia.
The last book I read was “Honey Girl” by Morgan Rogers, which features astronomer Grace Porter, who has spent the last 11 years trying to become “the best.” Now, she is Dr. Porter, and she is in the throes of searching for a job. She is constantly belittled and questioned about her Black and queer identity in a field that is very much neither Black nor queer. Porter’s experience reminds us that it is important to understand the intersectionality of identities to better understand the systemic forces that affect outcomes and life trajectories. Porter’s romance enters the picture after a particularly bad interview, when Porter makes her way to Vegas, gets drunk, and marries a woman whose name she does not know or remember. Porter decides she needs a break and goes to New York City to spend time with her new wife. A quarter-life crisis hits; Porter then finds a therapist and begins to discover what being the best actually means. This book speaks to the challenges of wrapping your identity with your research, finding a grand plan for life and career, and dealing with your family’s high expectations.
These books in one way or another reflect themes not only in my work but also in my time thus far in academia. I enjoy reading about characters with similar doubts, banter, journeys, and questions as me. For some, these books might be too close to home — especially at this time of year — but I like to lean in and appreciate the connection and ultimate triumph, even if it is fictional.
Emily Miller is a staff writer for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.