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Film Screening and Q&A: Piled Higher & Deeper

By Ruth Howells, on 16 November 2011

If you know anyone currently studying towards a PhD, chances are they’ll know and probably be a fan of the cult PhD (“Piled Higher & Deeper”) comics, which chronicle the life (or lack thereof) of the graduate student.

The comics, created by Stanford PhD student Jorge Cham, have a significant following – so much so that a film of the comic strip has now been made and is being screened at universities across the globe.

UCLU Postgraduate Association hosted the first UK screening of the film, sponsored by Times Higher Education, on Monday 14 November in a packed Logan Hall at the Institute of Education. The film showing was followed by a Q&A with Jorge and one of the film’s stars, Alexandra Lockwood.

As the audience waited for the film to start, the hall buzzed with the sound of a multitude of accents – reflecting the acutely international mix of graduate students who live, study and work in London.

Introducing the film, Jorge and Alex asked how many of the audience were graduate students, prompting most of the room to raise their hand. The odd academic and undergraduate made themselves known and were greeted with comedy boos from Jorge and the audience – a nod to how these groups are regarded in the comic strip.

The film was all shot over 17 days at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). It stars real PhD students and researchers, as well as being produced and directed by them.

It feels true to the spirit of the very successful comic, which follows four graduate students (Cecilia, Mike, Tajel and “Nameless Grad Student”) as they deal with the weird world of academia, take procrastination to the level of art form, and constantly struggle to find a balance between research, teaching and their personal lives.

Although the film’s limited budget and short schedule was at times a little obvious, the audience still appeared to adore it and laughed uproariously at certain jokes – such as when an undergraduate student asks Cecilia for a work extension purely because he is “very, very, very hungry” and a Professor directs a job applicant to his website that prominently features a photo of him that is a good 30 years old.

In a Robin Ince hosted Q&A at the end of the film, a jetlagged but jovial Jorge and Alex answered questions from the audience ranging from what their own PhD supervisors thought of the film to how they financed it. Jorge, who left research to write the comic full time five years ago, quoted Bill Watterson, creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic books, to explain the comic’s appeal: “Surprise is the base of all humour, and nothing is more surprising than truth.”

By tapping into their shared experience, Jorge’s comics make past and present graduate students realise that – thankfully – they’re not alone.

Ruth Howells is News Editor in UCL Communications & Marketing.

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