Unless you are or recently were a graduate student, you may not be familiar with “Piled Higher and Deeper,” Jorge Cham’s comic strip about the ups, downs, and absurdities of grad school life that commonly goes by the much more grad student friendly name, Ph.D. Comics. Think of it as “Dilbert” for the dissertation set. Cham’s strip, which originated when he was a graduate student at Stanford, has been running in student papers and on the Internet since 1997. In 2011, it spawned the first film version, The Ph.D. Movie, which the Chronicle of Higher Education called “hilarious.” This fall a sequel, The Ph.D. Movie 2, funded in large part by a Kickstarter campaign, has been shown at Princeton and other campuses around the world. As in the original, several of the actors in the film are actual Ph.D. students.
In another installment of our periodic feature PAW Goes to the Movies, senior writer Mark F. Bernstein ’83 attended The Ph.D. Movie 2 at Frist Theater, and then asked four current graduate students — Alta Fang (fourth year, mechanical engineering), Daniel Vitek (second year, mathematics), Congling Qiu (first year, mathematics), and Florian Sprung, a mathematics postdoc — whether the film held a mirror up to their real lives.
MFB: I heard a lot of laughter during the movie, but I couldn’t tell if it was nervous or sincere. Did it hit home?
AF: I think there were many things that were quite realistic, for example when they had trouble scheduling meetings because the professors were so busy, and the students just having a lot of work.
FS: All the bad jokes in the film are like the ones you hear in graduate school — you know, “Are you writing something novel or writing a novel?” That sort of thing.
CQ: It was very similar to Chinese universities. I understood all the jokes, too.
MFB: Florian, you’re the only one here who has actually written a dissertation. Did the film bring back stressful memories?
FS: The experience isn’t quite as isolating as they made it out to be. You talk to your adviser constantly. But the procrastination, they depicted that very well. Like in the movie, you work at your desk, you move to the floor, you decide to clean your apartment, you go back to the desk. It all happens. One paragraph down, only 399 more to go.
DV: They say that a thesis is a paper written by an academic under great duress.
MFB: How about the isolation and obsession of grad school life?
DV: The day after my general exams at the end of last year, I got into the gym for the first time in weeks.
AF: Work/life balance is definitely a struggle and something that grad students can relate to. Sometimes it’s easier just to work all the time. What I try to do is do work at work and then when I’m home I don’t force myself to work if I don’t feel like working.
MFB: How close are you to your faculty adviser?
AF: The relationship between the graduate student and your adviser is a very close.
DV: I think it’s a bit like your relationship with a parent. At first you’re terrified and frustrated because you can’t understand what you’re supposed to do but eventually you come to understand what they’re trying to tell you.
At least in mathematics, too, there is a fairly interconnected genealogy. My adviser may not be your adviser but there is a good chance that my adviser’s adviser was your adviser’s adviser.
MFB: A lot of Ph.D. students work as teaching assistants and the movie made fun of undergraduates. How was that?
AF: I’m a TA for an undergraduate course in solid mechanics taught by my adviser, Mikko Haataja. We have a very good relationship with the undergrads but it can be demanding because there is so much going on.
FS: I am a TA for algebra and I thought the movie exaggerated the extent to which undergraduates just want someone to give them the answer. The students here are more motivated.
MFB: Much of the movie is set at an academic conference. Have any of you been to one?
AF: Yes, they got that part right. All the handouts, everyone is drinking a lot of coffee, stressing out about giving a presentation if you have to give one, trying to figure out which talks to go to. My boyfriend has to give one soon at a conference and we sympathized with the character in the movie and that feeling that this is going to make or break your career.
MFB: How about the technical glitches during the presentation?
AF: That definitely happens.
DV: And the crowd of people trying to fix the problem.
FS: Also the five-minutes-left warning. You’re supposed to be giving a 30-minute talk and you look up at the clock and suddenly there’s five minutes left.
MFB: Granted that the movie is a parody, but did it misrepresent anything?
AF: I don’t think the professors are that un-tech savvy. One professor in the movie couldn’t figure out how to change the font in a document. That was taking it too far.
MFB: Would you recommend the movie to undergrads who are considering applying to a Ph.D. program?
FS: Oh yeah, why not? You’ll at least get a good vibe.
AF: Yes, but I wouldn’t say that Ph.D. life is only about the things portrayed in the movie. It can be a positive experience. The students are passionate about what they are doing. You have a flexible schedule and a good work environment. Everyone is there to learn. Often people are quite collaborative and supportive.
DV: One of the things that is harder to convey in a movie like this is that you do get frustrated by the details and to-do list and whatnot. But you’re here because you enjoy it. If you didn’t enjoy it you probably wouldn’t be here and you shouldn’t be here. And that does make up for a lot of little things.