‘Life is tough, and then you graduate’
Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD) Comics has been an essential part of academic life for over 14 years now, providing support and guidance to generations of despairing grad students. Finally, after increasing demand to do so, Jorge Cham’s grad school brainchild has taken the leap onto the big screen in The PhD Movie.
The most amazing feature of this production, which is presented as a series of chapters akin to those in a PhD thesis, is its ability to be both uncomfortably close to the truth and fantastically hilarious at the same time. The original PhD Comic concepts have also generally survived the transition to live action filming well. This is aided by the casting of real academics in all of the roles: the only way to truly capture the emotional rollercoaster that is pre-doctoral training. Although not all of these acting academics will be up for Oscar nominations, the major roles of Cecilia (Alex Lockwood) and The Nameless Grad Student (Raj Katti) were portrayed exceptionally well and it was very easy to associate with them and understand their state of mind.
The movie was filmed on campus at Caltech, California and I had been concerned that certain aspects of the US PhD system would not translate well to a UK audience. Particularly, a PhD in the US can be twice as long as is permitted here in Britain and it can include a much more extensive and demanding teaching load. Although some of these practical details differ across the Atlantic, the main message of the PhD Movie is that of shared emotional experience, which any academic anywhere can identify with, strongly. Particularly here in Cambridge, where many PhD students will have at least some experience of teaching undergraduates, the plight of Cecilia, using progressively more desperate and insane methods to engage with her students, can be well understood.
PhD Comics will find that they recognise many of the key scenes in the movie from the original comic strips, however Cham has done an excellent job of integrating these recognisable moments seamlessly into the wider plot development. This is much more than just a compendium of standalone one-liners. It is a flowing and engaging narrative which incorporates all of the different stages of PhD life, from the young, eager new graduate desperate for funding and a lab to work in to the older and more jaded final year students hoping every day to finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The film also carries a strong moral about the importance of life balance: during graduate study, it is far too easy for research to take over your life. Yet in the PhD Movie the students are shown engaging in other activities and even venturing into the ‘outside world’, whilst also working some crazy hours in the lab. Admittedly, it is easy to see why grad students prefer to hide away on campus when the real world is filled with all of those old friends from school, who already have high paying jobs, partners, children and several cars or houses whilst you’re still living off pizza, alone, in your university accommodation.
It is true that Cham portrays a rather caricatured view of academic research, and undergraduates thinking about research careers should try not to be discouraged by this vision, but should take it as the entertaining fun and light relief for which PhD comics were originally intended. Cham has provided PhD students the world over with a simple piece of comforting reassurance. No matter how insane your colleagues are, how demanding your supervisor or how pointless the experiments, you are not alone. But when it really comes down to it there is only one question you can really ask yourself; “Would I rather be doing anything else?”
Following the screening, there was a Q&A session, hosted by Robin Ince, with the creator Jorge Cham and the lead actress Alex Lockwood. Jorge spoke about how he had created PhD comics during grad school as a way to reach out to others, providing support and comfort through sharing of experiences. His hope had always been to make people laugh through his sketches not to discourage undergraduates from applying to grad school. For both Jorge and Alex, involvement in the project began as a means of procrastination from their research, further highlighting that having a balance is always important, and can have a significant outcome. Jorge also spoke of the possibility of a second movie in the future, as well as promising a DVD release in the coming year. The Q&A session also touched on the importance of avoiding the classic academic career cycle and being aware that there are other options open to PhD graduates, other than Post-Doc.
The PhD Movie will be coming to Cambridge on 25th November (CRUK CRI lecture theatre, open to Addenbrookes site staff only) and on 2nd December (Babbage Lecture Theatre, New Museums Site). More information can be found on Facebook here. The PhD Movie promises to provide an hysterically funny evening for any and every member of the university, with tickets selling for just £1.50.
Written by Jonathan Lawson