Book Review

Alejandra Manjarrez

Vahe Gabuchian (director), Written by Jorge Cham:
The PHD Movie.

Format: NTSC, Widescreen
Region: All Regions
Number of discs: 1
Studio: Piled Higher and Deeper Publishing, LLC
DVD Release Date: April 15, 2012
Run Time: 67 minutes
Price: 20.00 $

Voluntary Slavery

Are you one of those Nameless Heroes who spend the best years of their lives – at all unsociable hours – in the lab? Yes? Well, Jorge Cham has made a film about you.

Films about student life are ten a penny. There are famous musicals such as Grease, dramas like Dead Poets’ Society, horror movies including Carrie and at least one million comedy productions in the tradition of American Pie. Generally, these “college movies” portray teenagers of high school age and focus on what happens outside school time. But what about the drama, the horror and the comedy of being a grad student?

Even though the topic has not been completely ignored, it is not very well represented in popular culture. PHD (Piled Higher and Deeper) comics, which inspired the film reviewed here, is indeed one of the first informal depictions of life in graduate school. Jorge Cham, creator of both the comics and the movie, has shared in an interview for iBioMagazine that it all started when he saw an advertisement in the Stanford University student newspaper, “calling for comic submissions from students”. Cham himself was starting a PhD in mechanical engineering at Stanford University and thought that something was missing in this type of newspaper comic strip: the perspective of graduate students. Fame was yet to come.

Getting the comic strip up and running

The Nameless Grad Student (at the front) tackles an experiment as his labmates look on. Photos (2): The PHD Movie

Cham started his comic strip project as a grad student in the autumn of 1997. Early on, Piled Higher and Deeper became famous amongst the academic graduate community in the USA and soon became a phenomenon all over the world. For instance, the site statistics for March 2010 – the latest available – register more than 14 million monthly page views. It is not surprising then that PHD comics fans eventually asked Jorge Cham to bring the drawings to life in a movie.

Cham decided to give it a try and, for this, he approached the Theater Arts group at Caltech (TACIT) community. The PHD Movie is, therefore, witty enough, and mainly stars Caltech grad science students. The four main roles are played by three graduate alumni (planetary sciences, neurobiology and chemistry) and a sophomore in physics. Even the producer, Meg Rosenburg, and the director, Vahe Gabuchian, have gone through the pain and glory of doing a PhD – in planetary sciences the former and aeronautics the latter.

This quirky cast might have not been the best choice for delivering great performances. It is clearly obvious that none of the actors are professionals. However, that is really no reason to criticise Cham’s decision to get scientists on board. The movie feels more honest and is even funnier. Who better to depict a role than those who understand it?

The daily habit of procrastination

The Nameless Grad Student discovers the excitement of research.

John Travolta’s role of high school student Danny Zuko in Grease and the perturbing scenes in Carrie may be entertaining but are far removed from reality. The PHD Movie hits the academic nail on the head far better. Dealing with the same situations as the PHD comics do, the plot follows the life of four students who are going through experiences that every Lab Times reader knows well. They plough stoically through the daily grind at the lab, struggle to get results, and even deal with undergrads (the latter better applies to US graduate alumni).

One (or possibly the) main theme of the movie is something all students will know from their own daily routine. It’s that annoying but often necessary daily habit of procrastinating. Jorge Cham has a clear position on it; he thinks that procrastination is a healthy way to deal with work at the lab.

And that’s one of the lessons from the movie: As working in science requires the devotion of a lot of time, it’s always a good idea to take a break from research. Relaxation might even encourage the formulation of new ideas. It works – at least for some characters in the movie.

Not a grad student? Don’t watch it!

Expect neither an Oscar-winning opus nor a silly teen romcom. If you are one of those Nameless Heroes in a lab somewhere out there, look forward to laughing about an authentic look at the inmates of 2012’s graduate schools. However, if you aren’t a grad student or have never been, better not watch it. You probably won’t find any reason to laugh.

Piled Higher and Deeper The Movie (The PHD Movie) is a live-action adaptation of the online comic strip by Jorge Cham (­ It was filmed on location at and was produced in partnership with the California Institute of Technology. Screenings on a certain campus, research centre or institute around the world can be arranged by contacting More info and screening schedule at

Letzte Änderungen: 29.07.2013