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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