Cutthroat Competition : Doctoral Students on Prime Time Crime Procedurals

Curator's Note

With the exception of the medical residents on Grey's Anatomy, the "squinterns" on Bones, or as the butt of a joke in 30 Rock, representations of doctoral students on prime time television shows are rare. How does this general lack of representation of doctoral students shape perceptions of those students and their work? Kathy Newman argues that the generally negative representation of graduate students in popular media sources influences their problematic representation on campuses in labor negotiations and organizing. The representation of graduate students seems especially relevant as people are continuing to enroll in graduate programs in large numbers.

The one genre stories about doctoral students appear in with any regularity are prime time crime procedurals. When doctoral students appear in the narratives of these shows, they are generally dead, committing murder, or engaged in unprofessional relationships with professors. For example, two episodes illustrate a common theme; Castle (2010), “The Mistress Always Spanks Twice” and The Mentalist (2013), “Red in Tooth and Claw.” Both episodes feature plot points in which a male academic is suspected of killing a fellow female doctoral student in part because of funding for fellowships. In Castle it seems like the male doctoral student, Matt, killed Jessica, a doctoral student investigating the sociology of S&M, because she was in the running for the fellowship prize. But it’s revealed that Matt only blackmailed Jessica - by stealing copies of her research - to get to her drop out of the fellowship application. In The Mentalist a doctoral student, Linda, is murdered by an Adjunct Professor, Paul because she discovered a new moth species. In his confession he offers the following explanation: “I’d just had a paper rejected, peer review threw it back at me...My job was on the line, my future. I needed it to survive.”

Granted, it’s not altogether unsurprising that characters depicted in these procedural shows would be murdered, or be murderers - it’s all grist for the procedural mill. But these representations are especially shocking because there are no counter narratives of representation.  


I really enjoyed your post as it is something that I have noticed with interest. For this reason, I am very excited to see what HBO's Girls will do with Hannah going to grad school in the next season. In the show it is treated as a life changing positive but we know from the show's tone that Hannah may not be the best avatar for a likable grad student. I am interested to hear about your thoughts on the potential of this show taking on this world?

Thanks Ethan! I too am interested to see this next season of Girls. I wonder if they will use Hannah's time away from the City as a time for her personal growth, but then again, knowing what we know about Hannah, that seems in part unlikely. It seems unlikely, for instance, that Hannah would respond well to criticism of her writing, even from people she respects. I also interested to see the Iowa story line develop given that Iowa has denied them the chance to film on campus, meaning the majority of their shooting will perhaps be non-classroom related.

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