PhD the Movie: Piled Higher and Deeper

29 09 2011

‘Piled Higher and Deeper’ brings to life the popular ‘PhD Comics’ series published by Jorge Cham, which satirises the journey of graduate students as they try to forge a career in academia.

The film itself follows the journey of two main characters from the comics: the young, fresh-faced, naive ‘Nameless hero’ (whose name is revealed at the end of the movie) striving to impress the infamous Professor Brian Smith; and Cecilia the grad student juggling TA responsibilities with her doctoral work.

The 67min film is divided into chapters that follow the typical structure of a academic thesis. In the ‘Introduction’ we see the nameless hero attending interviews at various prestigious universities as he battles other A-grade students and the busy schedules of potential supervisors to try to win a place in grad school. The rest of the film follows his progress as he is taken on by Professor Brian Smith as one of his ‘lab rats’, forced to work long hours with ancient equipment for little to no recognition. Mike Slackernerny is appointed as the hero’s mentor and throughout the film introduces him to some of the golden rules of graduate research, namely: stock up on free food at every opportunity; be prepared for all technical equipment to cease working when your supervisor comes within a 5m radius; and, never, NEVER, ask anyone how their research is going. The scene is also set for Cecilia who is coming towards the end of her doctoral work and is finding herself ‘waiting for someone to die’ so that a faculty position becomes available. She struggles to balance her teaching responsibilities, which include listening to undergraduate excuses for extension requests, and ensuring their grades fit a Gaussian distribution with a mean of 61.871 to her supervisors satisfaction.

Hats off to whoever was in charge of casting as the likeness of some of the actors to their graphic counterparts is uncanny! In particular Professor Brian Smith who comes complete with obligatory beard and really brings to life that insensitive glare from the other side of the desk. Mike Slackernerny’s hairdo is similarly well cast. One continuity issue that I noticed was the nameless hero’s haircut – it seemed to differ in every scene. I’m not sure if this was purposeful in order to represent the passing of significant amounts of time or is just representative of the order in which the scenes were filmed, but it certainly stood out.

One question that I left the screening with, is how much actual PhD students identify and agree with the stereotypes portrayed in both comic and movie. Speaking to people after the screening, all of them admitted while they could relate to small things like being poorly paid and pulling  the occasional all-nighter, the majority actually have very good relationships with their supervisors and thoroughly enjoy their research.

This is something that stood out to me long before this film came out. When I learned that I had got scholarship for my PhD I immediately began reading postgraduate blogs and advice online and was struck by the severe lack of anyone saying how much they enjoyed their time spent doing doctoral research. I know people who have bad experiences are more likely to vocalise them, but for any undergraduates keen to continue in academia, a quick Google search of ‘life as a PhD student’ will soon have them filling out industry job applications. Perhaps Jorge Cham could produce the odd comic strip that portrays the joy of winning a research grant for example, or at least postgrad bloggers could be a bit more vocal about such things, no?

Overall, the film is very enjoyable with many laugh out loud moments – usually those taken straight from the original comic strips and is probably best enjoyed in the company of other grad students, while enjoying some free pizza (thanks Postgraduate Student Assoc!). Using the Powers Roundness rating scheme I’ll award this film a rating of Sub-Rounded.

Anyone else seen it? Let us know what you think below…

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Greenland – The Times Atlas vs Scientists

28 09 2011

There has been a big furore over the past few weeks regarding the publication of the new, 13th Edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World.  Specifically, the depiction of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS), and the associated press release, which said that the GIS had lost 15% of its permanent ice cover.

Different in the permanent ice cover in Greenland between 1999 (left) and 2011 (right)

This figure is a gross over-exagerration (Greenland has actually lost about 0.1% over the last decade), and was picked up by a number of scientists almost immediately.  Emails were being fired around mailing lists rapidly, as glaciologists attempted to find the best way to remove this figure from the mass media, before it became public knowledge and damaged the reputation of glaciologists working in Greenland (of which there are a lot).  The Times Atlas publishers (Harper Collins) initially refuted the claims, saying  that they:

“are the best there is … Our data shows that it has reduced by 15%. That’s categorical.”

Initially it was unclear where the “15%” figure had appeared from, but it soon emerged that the new map bared a striking resemblance to an online map of the GIS on the National Snow and Ice Data Centre’s website.  Those working on Greenland for the Times Atlas had clearly misinterpreted this map, and taken it to be an absolute measure of all ice cover in Greenland, when it actually represented something else.

The reason that this cartographer’s error spiralled out of control is simple – scientists were not consulted.  Had consultation taken place, the error on the map, and the consequent ice loss figure of 15% would have been immediately spotted and corrected.  The error, if left uncorrected would have discredited what a number of scientists from institutions across American and Europe have been working on for a number of years.  The actual picture of what is happening to the GIS is extremely complex, and remains poorly understood in areas.  It is a story of variability, with extreme thinning and increased in melting in areas, counterpoised with slight thickening in other areas.

The details are too complex to do justice in this post, but maybe another time….

The main issue that arose from this “crisis” was not the actual error made by the cartographers, this was relatively easily rectified in the end, but the ease at which this information got into the public domain with no input from scientific experts.  Such experts, who have built their career working on monitoring changes of the GIS, are subject to the rigorous peer-review system when disseminating their work to the wider scientific community. The problem with this however, is that this information is largely only available to the academic community, whose institutions provide paid subscriptions to the content. ‘Scientific’ information reaching the public through popular media is subject to no such scrutiny and due to the far greater reach of such outlets, errors can propagate much further much more quickly. With recent “fiascos” tarnishing science’s reputation (Climategate, the IPCC), science needs all the help it can get to stay favouring in the public’s eyes.  Thankfully this episode was resolved quickly, and if anything, demonstrated the ability of scientists to quash rumours with scientific evidence quickly.

At no point did the writers think to contact any scientists over the alarmingly large 15% ice loss Greenland had experienced.  Instead they simply put it to print and made a fool of themselves as a result.  They have now agreed to work with scientists in the future to correct this issue, and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Hopefully this will be the standard position for those publishing material that should (and does) have a grounding in scientific work.

For an interesting alternative visualisation of melting in Greenland visit Cryocity.