Whether you’d like to know more about the personal experiences graduate students have lived through via documentaries or you prefer to watch fictionalized accounts of graduate school tales inspired by real people (but given the Hollywood treatment), there are plenty of options available to you. In fact, staff at the University of Louisiana Graduate School Academic Affairs Division recommended 5 films to their entire student body on the department’s website, declaring all of them “5 Times Hollywood Really Nailed the Grad School Experience”! Other graduate schools recommend the same 5 and many cited 10. Each deserves your time and attention.
Table of Contents
Must-See Grad School Movies
1. The Graduate (1967)
It is hard to believe that it’s been 55 years since this Academy Award-winning film debuted to rave reviews that included one by Roger Ebert who waxed poetic about Director Mike Nichols’ dynamic directorial debut. Time may have passed, but the conundrums recently graduated students confront today is no less petrifying. Dustin Hoffman stars as the guy trying to decide between a job and graduate school who falls into a relationship with an older woman. This relationship leaves him, in a more conflicted state when he falls in love with her daughter. Wrote Ebert: “The Graduate” is a success and Benjamin’s acute honesty and embarrassment are so accurately drawn that we hardly know whether to laugh or to look inside ourselves.”
Duration: 1h 45 min
2. The Paper Chase (1973)
It would be an understatement to downplay the importance of every law student’s quest for favorable treatment, but in the case of one Harvard Law School student played by Timothy Bottoms, he’s willing to go all out to curry favor with one influential professor. Hart truly “cares about the law,” wrote Roger Ebert about Hart’s need to be acknowledged, “he breaks into the library archives to examine the master’s very own undergraduate notes.” There’s a love story woven into this movie, but it takes a back seat to the pivotal relationship between Hart and his mentor played to perfection by John Houseman who climbs into an academic skin impeccably. “What’s best about the movie,” notes Ebert, “is that it considers interesting adults–young and old–in an intelligent manner. We hardly ever get movies about people who seem engaging enough to spend half an hour talking with. Here’s one that works.”
Duration: 1h 51 min
3. Flatliners (1990)
“Flatliners” is an original, intelligent thriller, well-directed by Joel Schumacher in 1990 that was remade in 2017 to less than flattering reviews. The original tale delves into the complexity of medical school students who want to find out for themselves how it feels to die and return to life. Using equipment at their disposal to accomplish this experiment, the small group of med students are both scared and yet fearless as they put their trust into fellow students on the premise that they’ll be revived. To add texture to the production, filming was done in and around the University of Chicago where gothic architecture adds to the ominous mood. You don’t have to be a medical student to understand the curiosity that drives these students given the unfathomable pressure that pervades their lives, but you may never again look at hospital interns in the same way.
Duration: 1h 55 min
4. Good Will Hunting (1997)
The list of awards this film garnered is staggering –8 Oscar nominations alone. Matt Damon’s Will Hunting is a mathematics wunderkind working as a janitor who stops sweeping classroom floors long enough to solve the complex mathematics equation that has been eluding the department’s brightest students. Stellan Skarsgard, the professor, is stunned to learn that Will has no formal schooling. Upon learning about his troubled past, he offers to get him into the program in mathematics if he gets counseling. Robin Williams shines as the therapist willing to help Will and the bond they form is palpable. Intuitive moviegoers leave theaters understanding that “sometimes, the only thing holding us back from success is our own self-doubt.” “Watch this one when you feel like you can’t do anything right,” say reviewers who marveled at fledgling actors’ Damon and Ben Affleck performances and the brilliant writing collaboration that snagged an Oscar for best screenplay.
Duration: 2h 6 min
5. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
For decades, scientists have sought to understand why creative people suffer from mental disorders in numbers that are far greater than the general population. And since a disproportionate number of brilliant minds wind up in grad school, internal conflicts can be especially debilitating. Based on the life of mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. who was awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1994, A Beautiful Mind depicts Nash’s battle that was so debilitating, even the smallest tasks proved impossible. Nash is portrayed with sensitivity by Russell Crowe and the film took the Academy Award for Best Picture. Academicians reviewing this movie advise grad students to “Watch this one when you feel that your studies may have pulled you a bit too far down the rabbit hole.”
Duration: 2h 15 min
6. Legally Blonde (2001)
For moviegoers willing to experiment with multiple viewpoints on life in the grad school lane, #5 pick may seem far afield, but Legally Blond is just plain fun – a radical departure from the angst that is on display in most of the films on our list. Viewers learn about a woman whose fashion sense and style dominates her persona until admittance to Harvard Law School (to follow her boyfriend) proves the woman has more brains, common sense, and savvy than her Harvard cohorts. Reese Witherspoon is Elle Woods, and we can’t imagine anyone else in this role. You don’t have to watch the two sequels; this one is the best. In fact, anyone who doesn’t get a kick out of this movie isn’t someone you want to hang out with in grad school or any other place for that matter.
Duration: 1h 36 min
7. Dark Matter (2007)
U.S. graduate programs attract an inordinate number of foreign students seeking to enhance their credentials by earning PhDs in America. Dark Matter addresses the complicated issues foreign students confront as they try to adjust — not just to classes but oftentimes to confusing new cultural norms. Based on real-life events, Dark Matter focuses on brilliant cosmology student Liu Xing (Ye Liu) whose isolation, confusion, and culture shock compete for attention as he attempts to communicate and churn out superior work, while watching his chance for a Nobel Prize dashed by school politics. The result is tragic and won’t buoy the spirits of international or domestic grad students, but it could put movie viewers’ struggles into perspective.
Duration: 1h 28 min
8. The PhD Movie 1 (2011)
For a quintessential peek into the world of students striving to complete the ultimate degree, look no further than this classic film. It’s impossible not to identify with Winston or Cecelia as each tries valiantly to balance their personal lives with demands placed upon them by professors. These beleaguered candidates remind viewers who have survived grad school that no matter which discipline they pursue, all of them “have some things in common,” say critics writing for The Times Higher Education website. By “tapping adeptly into that shared culture… [this film] should be required viewing for professors” who may even learn a thing or two about student fortitude.
Duration: 1h 7 min
9. The Theory of Everything (2014)
Science and Humanity majors especially won’t want to miss Eddie Redmayne’s star-turn as Stephen Hawkings, one of the greatest scientific minds of our time. A carefree student with a brilliant future, Hawkings was forced to grapple with the onset of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) just as he was starting to distinguish himself from ordinary Cambridge graduate students. Hawkings defied all odds, becoming one of the great mathematical and scientific geniuses to produce significant advancements in the 20th and 21st centuries. Yes, there’s a love story to flavor this award-winning film, but for grad students who don’t think they can stand one more day of being unappreciated and overworked, The Theory of Everything has no equal.
Duration: 2h 13 min
10. Irrational Man (2015)
This Woody Allen movie is both entertaining and thought-provoking. As Professor Abe Lucas, played to perfection by Joaquin Phoenix, arrives on campus to inspire and mentor students, his past catches up to him as damaging rumors begin to make the rounds of faculty, students, and townsfolk. His despair is intense and viewers feel it. During a serendipitous café stop, Lucas overhears information that diverts his mind from whether he’ll be fired, setting him off on what academic reviewers call “an existential quest.” If the documentaries on this list aren’t your cup of tea, this film won’t disappoint. You’ll get lost in the intriguing plot and that’s exactly what quirky filmmaker Allen intended.
Duration: 1h 36 min
Movie Review: The PhD Movie!