PhD Comics Movie Review

Piled Higher and Deeper – the popular PhD comic – has been made into a movie. The movie is touring campuses around the world. Find a screening near you, or watch the trailer:

Imperial College Union‘s Graduate Student Association hosted a screening on Wednesday last week. In true Graduate School fashion, free food was provided…

…and this incentive, combined with an two-for-a-bargain ticket pricing structure (“buy one, bring a friend for free”), meant that the movie played to a sold-out (lecture) theatre.

You can read about the genesis of the movie here in the THES. Jorge Cham (PhD comics’ creator) describes how both casting and filming took place on location at Caltech:

Almost everyone else in the cast and crew is either a real doctoral student or somehow connected to one.

The closing credits charmingly detail each of the cast and crew’s real-life roles as well as their cinematic contributions.

The film draws heavily on the comic strip, from the physical resemblance of the cast to their comic counterparts to the scenes with recreate strips from the comic verbatim. Cham mentions in his interview that he used the comic strip archives as elements of the plot, and there is a sense in which this is to the detriment of this piece of work as a movie. The characters’ actions, hopes and dreams take the form of set pieces and one-liners, and I was a little distracted by playing “spot the comic strip” among the jokes.

Perhaps intentionally, the film itself has something of the feel of a student production. However, in the same way you don’t look at xkcd for the artistry, or follow buttersafe for the engrossing plotlines (although either may contain elements of both), the real value in this movie comes from the shared experience of viewing it with about 200 likeminded souls. When the nameless grad student (and star of the movie) laments

I’m not working on a problem, I’m working on a subproblem of a subproblem of a subproblem

and the entire auditorium erupts with laughter, as a graduate student, you feel a little less alone.
(Another blogger agrees.)

Whilst someone who has not endured experienced grad school will be able to laugh at the slapstick, smile at the thwarted romance, and hark back to the idealism of youth, it is PhD students themselves who will be touched most deeply by the exasperation, frustration, triumph and mention of a diet of caffine and ramen noodles.

The screening was also chance to catch up with fellow PhD students from across the campus (for example, those whom we worked with during the Research Development Course and had not seen since). Our conversations over free food and drinks resulted in essentially a re-enactment of the below comic (which also features in the movie). Those of you who are thinking of attending a screening would be wise to be wary of what topic of conversation you choose for your post-movie chat.

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15 Responses to PhD Comics Movie Review

  1. Eva says:

    You saw it! I’m jealous! But only for another week, then I get to see it myself 🙂 Going to the public screening at UCL on the 14th.

    • Erika Cule says:

      I will be interested to find out whether you have a different perspective now that you are no longer a grad student…

  2. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » PhD Comics Movie Review

  3. Glad you enjoyed the movie too! Unfortunately, there was no free food at our screening 🙁

  4. ricardipus says:

    Hm. Too bad the “more info” links on the map of the screenings all lead to a Facebook page that I can’t see. Fail.

    • Erika Cule says:

      That’s not quite true (see the link to the Imperial screening for example). The UCL one links to a public event (you don’t have to be logged in to FB to see it). I think that the ones you can’t see, are because the screenings are organised by the respective students unions of the various institutions. If you were keen to go to a screening you could always google for more information or for the contact details of the union of the institution in question to see if they would sell you a ticket? Some of the screenings are reserved for students only.

      • ricardipus says:

        Ah, I see, thanks for that. I should have typed “all the links to local screenings anywhere in Toronto…”

        Still a fail though. If they’re going to provide a map of screening listings, and they expect people to actually show up, it would make sense to ensure that secondary Googling or other faffling around to find out about it wouldn’t be necessary. It’s not like it’s a budget issue.

        It would also make sense if the two pins on the map for the Toronto screenings were in the right place, of course. I know it’s an essentially student/amateur production, but honestly now.

  5. K9 says:

    Not everyone lives where the film is being shown. For those who want to buy a copy and watch it (hand raised), it would be nice if Cham offered it on DVD or for paid download. But it’s not offered on the site’s store, and nobody bothers answering emails (three emails in three months) if the address works at all.

    • Erika Cule says:

      It is a shame that you haven’t had a response to your emails. As both Mr Epidemiology and I mentioned, part of the value of this movie is the shared experience of watching it with other grad students. With that in mind, would you be able to look into organising a screening where you are? If there is not a screening already planned in your area, the chances are there are other students who would appreciate one being arranged.

      I agree that a DVD/download release would be appreciated too – or a “virtual screening” for those who cannot make it to a physical one.

  6. Erika Cule says:


    I dunno, having been involved in student union events when I was an undergrad. If an event can be sold out by advertising on Facebook alone, why expend any more effort? (I agree that it doesn’t help you though.)

    • ricardipus says:

      Hm, yes… some investigation is warranted. I wonder if it’s sold out? I could go and lurk about the doors, counting people I suppose.

      Or… I could get in touch with the organizers and ask. Oh, wait…

  7. cromercrox says:

    I don’t think I’d find it funny, leaving aside the fact that I finished my PhD a zillion years ago. The reason is that I was in a research group of one, and the graduate students with whom I shared an office were doing different projects, with different people. So there wasn’t really much of a community spirit. I still feel that keenly. Even now I get really envious of PhD students, working on related projects in one lab, who can hang out as a gang. I really, really missed that aspect.

    The only thing that reminds me forcibly of my student days (and by that I mean as an undergraduate) is The Young Ones. There is an episode in which the inhabitants of the scruffy shared house come downstairs and find Motorhead playing in their sitting room. My house was exactly like that.

    Maybe this film doesn’t relate to me because I spent much of my student years – graduate and undergraduate – hanging around with musicians. When my girlfriend and I sat down to watch This Is Spinal Tap together for the first time, her immediate reaction was that all the characters reminded her of my friends. (Reader, she married me.)

    Another factor that militates against the PhD film – at least for me – is that if the trailer is anything to go by the actors and actresses are far too attractive and have much nicer complexions than a diet of junk food would indicate.

  8. Anthea says:

    I really want to see this film despite the fact that I’ve finished my PhD since it kept me sane while I was doing a PhD. I even had a subscription to it so that I could read the strip when it came out. It was actually good to see every new issue since I could relate to everything that was happening since my thesis write up wasn’t easy – I had to reorganise my chapters and their contents. Urgh…

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