8 Campus Novels Set in Grad School

These protagonists come of age and lurk in libraries while pursuing degrees

Brown University campus main green
Photo by Keming Tan on Unsplash

The fictional characters in most campus novels are almost always undergraduates between the tender ages of eighteen and twenty-two. (Think of novels such as The Secret History, The Idiot, On Beauty, The Marriage Plot, A Separate Peace, The Incendiaries, Normal People, etc.) These revelatory stories, underscored by a character’s long-awaited independence mixed with terrible homesickness, retain their beauty and their reserved places in our hearts… But where are the campus novels about graduate students? These older academic scholars attain their own moments of discovery and wondrous breakthroughs and crippling finals’ weeks too, yet seem overlooked in the literary canon and sphere of bildungsromans. 

After scouring syllabi, peer recommendations, and my own reading history, I’ve gathered eight stories about Master’s and PhD-seeking academics with characters pursuing advanced degrees in various fields from Biochemistry to Comparative Literature to Neuroscience to Spanish Poetry. These postgrads—who quietly haunt the same libraries, apply for the same scarce resources, and lurk around the same quad as undergrads (although are probably rolling their eyes at yet another freshman’s first tailgate)—often get forsaken, but they take the spotlight here as they tackle life’s biggest questions and find themselves over and over again. The following eight novels promise to immerse you in the esoteric bubble of graduate programs, the “dark academia” mood, and that hazy, never-ending desire for “purpose.” 

Bunny by Mona Awad

Samantha Mackey, an introverted scholarship student, is pursuing an MFA degree in Creative Writing at one of New England’s most elite universities in Mona Awad’s seductively endearing second novel, Bunny. When first beginning the graduate program, Samantha mocks the circle of obnoxiously rich, twee girls who call each other “Bunny,” frequent a café only serving miniature food, dismiss her submissions in class, and supposedly hold ritualistic, exclusive off-campus workshops that sound more like a cult than extra credit. But once she gets the invitation to join the “Smut Salon,” she realizes that first impressions aren’t what they seem, and that reality may not be clearly defined for some as much as others. 

On top of all that, the prose is dazzling and intoxicating enough to make you want a glass of whatever Samantha Mackey is drinking:

“I pour myself and Ava more free champagne in the far corner of the tented green, where I lean against a white Doric pillar bedecked with billowing tulle. September. Warren University. The Narrative Arts department’s annual welcome back Demitasse, because this school is too Ivy and New England to call a party a party.”

— Bunny, Mona Awad

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

On the surface, Wallace is studying Biochemistry at a midwestern university, but truly in Real Life, the postgrad protagonist learns about the chemical compositions and DNA that binds friendship, loneliness, volatile relationships, grief, and coming into one’s own sexuality. This brilliant and evocative novel begins one Friday evening as Wallace attends a get-together with some of the students from his (predominantly white) PhD program. This is a shock to them, and possibly even to Wallace himself, as he’s usually introverted and averse to any group events. But trying to distract his mind from the failing genetic experiment he’s devoted years to, or perhaps from his father’s recent funeral in which he was absent, Wallace shows up, and a series of complications—as well as confrontations—ensues.

Chemistry by Weike Wang

In Chemistry, an unnamed, ambitious, quirky narrator pursuing a PhD in Chemistry at Boston University, faces a life-changing decision when her boyfriend, Eric, proposes to her. She answers ambivalently, to Eric’s confusion and disappointment, who then considers taking a job in Ohio. Throughout this state of limbo, the narrator’s seemingly perfect life begins to fall apart. Amidst a mental breakdown, she throws beakers, quits her PhD program, begins drinking, stays out at night, and reimagines her life. Tracing back to her youth, as the only child of Chinese immigrants, the narrator realizes her upbringing hadn’t trained her to accept love as much as it trained her to look at the world with the lens of the scientific method. And throughout the rest of Chemistry, the aimless narrator crawls back to stability and just maybe learns how to finally let love in, or at the very least, which path to pursue next. 

The Possessed by Elif Batuman

Alright, fine. Technically, this book isn’t a novel. But it is by Elif Batuman—the author who wrote The Idiot, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—and, besides, the narrator in The Possessed seems to maintain the voice of someone who’s been writing novels for years. If you didn’t know that it was based on Batuman’s real experiences studying Comparative Literature at Stanford University, you might even think that this Russian-adventure-filled, stuffy-and-pretentious-academic-character-filled, Tolstoy-obsessed, hilarious-and-eye-opening book couldn’t possibly be true. But the reality of it is what makes this nonfiction debut even more enthralling. 

My Education by Susan Choi

Combining academics with obsession, this novel by Susan Choi ponders what happens when a graduate student/TA falls for her enigmatic, problematic poetry professor. This is the point where most stories would end. But Choi takes it one step further in My Education as the narrator, Regina Gottlieb, finds her sexual attraction widening and encompassing the inner circle of her graduate program, eventually leading to the professor’s wife. However, it doesn’t end there. The surprises and twists of this luminous novel are delightful as much as they are seducing. And, it’s greatly impacted by the way Regina tells her story in reminiscences from a later age, once she is fifteen years older but, perhaps, still not the wiser. 

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, follows a family of Ghanaian immigrants while focusing on Gifty, the narrator in her fifth year of graduate school, studying Neuroscience at the Stanford School of Medicine. Gifty specifically researches the neural patterns of reward-seeking mice with the hopes of unlocking a secret cure to both addiction and depression. After her brother, Nana, passes away from an overdose and her mother retreats to Gifty’s bed in bouts of suicidal thoughts, Gifty retreats into her studies and searches endlessly for answers. This is a novel that can be read, or it can be experienced—through spiritual and religious exploration, scientific explanation, and the overarching goal of transformation, Gyasi outdoes herself yet again with a phenomenal 264 pages of intellectual expansion. 

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Adam Gordon is in his mid-twenties, on a graduate fellowship in Madrid, and an “intellectual” tourist who has a passing gravitation towards Spanish poetry. It is the spring of 2004, and our narrator is most definitely not sober. Preceding the infamous bombing of the Atocha Station, Adam wanders aimlessly around the city, observing landmarks and museum paintings and women—then attending parties in which he makes “meaningless” but thoughtful remarks on the state of his generation. Adam simultaneously meanders through Madrid’s plazas, exhibitions, and bars as much as he runs through thoughts on the lack of his expected transformation derived from art. 

“Although I claimed to be a poet, although my supposed talent as a writer had earned me my fellowship in Spain, I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.”

— Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner

And then, the tragedy occurs. So, should he write a poem about it, or something with poetic possibility? 

Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar

From Delhi, Kailash moves to New York City to attend graduate school, and there, learns about love and lust as much as philosophy, literature, or politics. Throughout this novel that details a sentimental education and an Indian immigrant’s experience, Kailash adjusts and confronts the mistreatment and prejudice he encounters in the US, but at the same time, tries to find his purpose in life. While pursuing an advanced degree, Kailash also pursues three women, each changing him and teaching him more about himself and the languages of desire than he thought possible. Told retrospectively, Immigrant, Montana ultimately revolves around middle-aged Kailash, who looks back on his first years of living in America to trace the evolution of how he became a writer. 

“For so many years, the idea of writing has meant recognizing and even addressing a division in my life: the gap between India, the land of my birth, and the United States, where I arrived as a young adult… The two places are connected, not only by those histories that cultural organizations celebrate through endlessly dull annual gatherings but by millions of individual yearnings, all those stories of consummated or thwarted desire.”

— Immigrant, Montana, Amitava Kumar

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