First: I pray to God she did not also have an acting/modeling career. The idea of Leia being the James Franco of the Star Wars universe is too much for this fanboy to bear.
Second: What was her PhD in? My money is on either mathematics or Alderaan literature. While the social sciences were her métier, I doubt she would have pursued such a course of study in the authoritarian state that was the Galactic Empire. It would have sent up too many red flags. I have no doubt that Leia could have handled any of the physical or life sciences. As implausible as finishing a dissertation at age 19 is, however, finishing one involving experimental protocols sounds even more implausible. My hunch is that she completed her doctorate on a topic she could have studied while in Alderaan. Pure maths or literature would have done it.
Third, and most important: Can Leia’s arc in the original trilogy now be interpreted as the traditional arc of a newly minted PhD? Why yes, yes, I believe it can.
One of the standard criticisms of the original trilogy is how Leia starts off being this badass, in-charge political leader in the first film and winds up spending parts of the third film in a metal bikini or as an Endorian nature goddess. It would be safe to say that some feminists in my personal circle saw this as a disempowering arc.
But here’s another way to think of it. The Leia in “A New Hope” displays all the traits of a newly minted PhD. She acts like she knows everything in that film. She literally deconstructs her rescue from the Death Star in real time — you can’t do that without the critical chops developed in grad school. She tries to affect a cultured accent, but it does not quite take. So many newly minted PhDs often feel like they have pretty much figured out the entire universe. Leia’s behavior in Star Wars is perfectly consistent with all these tropes.
Now fast forward to “The Empire Strikes Back.” The Leia in this film displays all the markers of the frustrated postdoc thwarted in her pursuit of a tenure-track job. Oh, sure, she is still authoritative in her way. But Leia also sometimes seems to act as if she was expecting a nice tenure-track position at Coruscant State rather than spending her time in the hinterlands of Hoth (to be fair, civil wars are hell on the academic job market). And while she gets irked when Han calls her variations of “Princess,” she saves her real ire for the sentence “I am not a committee!” Only someone who has had to navigate the dark side of academic bureaucracy could say that sentence with that amount of conviction.
What about “Return of the Jedi”? Let me suggest that by the last film in the original trilogy, Leia has finally come to terms with the idea that she will not be pursuing a traditional academic career. The rebellion, the nasty academic politics in Coruscant, her relationship with Han, her appreciation of new talents that she did not know she possessed — these are all in keeping with many a PhD who realized that there are other things in life besides a tenure-track job.
Indeed, interpreted in this way, “Return of the Jedi” is the most radical film of the original trilogy. Leia’s choices, and her contentment with those choices, offers some valuable career advice for PhDs who have been socialized to within an inch of their lives that the only thing worth pursuing is a tenure-track job. A PhD is a wonderful thing, but there are many ways one can use it in life beyond being a stodgy academic. The original trilogy is about rebellion, but if you think about it, it’s a particular story of academic rebellion against the impossible expectations set up at all the best graduate schools.
George Lucas is also correct that Leia’s more mature arc contrasts strongly with that of her twin. Luke’s narrative journey in the original trilogy is about starting off as a cocky kid who thinks he should not be afraid of studying a discipline. Only at the end of “Return of the Jedi” does Luke arrive at where Leia was at the beginning of “A New Hope.”
The deeper conclusion to draw is the growing importance of academia in popular culture. Samwell Tarly’s training in Oldtown in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” might be the most realistic depiction of grad student life ever put on the small screen. The true heroes of the Harry Potter books were also the ones most likely to get doctorates. With news of Princess Leia’s doctorate, however, we now can see that the greatest pop culture story of the last century is, in part, about a young academic trying to find herself in a harsh galaxy.