Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The PHD Movie

Full of sarcastic, witty one-liners that accurately capture the over-whelmed feelings of over-worked graduate students, "Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD)" The Movie is a fantastic 75 min. experience.  The movie was screened at the Washington University campus on September 26th in front of an audience of approximately 450 to 475 – most of whom were graduate students – followed by a Q&A and book signing with Jorge Cham, its writer and creator of the online "PhD" comic strip that the movie is based on. 

The clever editing and polished sound of the movie is amazingly the product of a cast and crew of graduate students, researchers, and others with connections to science.  Even the series of professors who show up at the beginning are real faculty.  The storylines sound familiar to many in the Ph.D. track.  Cecilia is embarking on a Teaching Assistant position in hopes that this will strengthen her C.V. for a faculty position.  She optimistically expects her students to be full of excitement and eager to learn.  To her dismay, they aren't.  Additionally, she is frustrated by not yet meeting her life goals of marriage and graduation.  The movie also features "The Nameless Grad Student," the popular protagonist of the comic strip, who starts off the movie approaching many professors in hopes of joining their labs.  He ends up doing a rotation of sorts in Professor Smith's lab and experiences incidents common to all graduate students – struggles with outdated machinery (as Prof. Smith would say, why spend money buying new equipment when you can waste countless graduate student hours?), pressures to produce data, and disheartening encounters with the formidable Prof. Smith who doesn't remember his name and responds to attempts at friendly conversation with comments like "Small talk is for small minds."  Overall, the movie is just as funny and relatable as the comic strip; not a scene went by without at least a few appreciative chuckles from the audience. 

Afterwards, Jorge Cham took questions from the audience and revealed many insights about the movie and his online comic strip.  We learned that he went over his comics (first one written in 1997), found common themes that resonated through them (lab meetings, graduate students' love for free food, etc.), and compiled them together to make scenes for the movie.  When asked how making a movie was different from producing the comic strips, Jorge responded that there are different expectations for a movie – audiences anticipate a developed narrative and perhaps surprises along the way, which is why he even revealed the name of "The Nameless Grad Student" in the movie, generating quite a bit of buzz among his fans.  Interestingly, the name he chose for his protagonist is his father's name.  During the Q&A and book signing, Jorge appeared to be very personable, chatting amiably with fans and staying late into the night to listen to many students' own stories of grad school when he must have been exhausted from traveling all day.  He was very sarcastic and self-deprecating; his humor certainly translates to his strip.  While introducing his film and asking members of the audience to raise their hands if they were undergrads or graduate students, he quipped that he wouldn't ask how many post-docs are in the crowd since they were already used to being ignored.  However, when Jorge reflects on graduate school and his experiences traveling around the world speaking to graduate students – as well as the optimistic ending to his movie – it is clear that "Piled Higher and Deeper" is, above all else, meant to empathize and inspire hope.  It allows us to laugh (and not cry) at the stressful situations encountered during graduate school and makes us realize that we are not going through the tough times alone. 

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