PHD Movie Trailer from PHD Comics on Vimeo.

PhD comics has been a staple of my grad student life. Ever since I got into graduate school, the PhD Comics series has been both a humourous look, and a startlingly accurate reflection, of my graduate student career. The feeling of being overwhelmed, the “what am I doing here,” the constant grind, PhD Comics captures it all well. Especially when it comes to grad students and free food. But I’ll get to the movie later.

The joy for me came not from the movie itself, but the joy of watching it with my peers. Let’s start at the beginning.

Movie still - Prof. Smith (Zachary Abbott) explains how research works to the Nameless Grad Student (Raj Katti).

The movie was held in a lecture theatre on campus – one that many of those watching had likely lectured in as part of the graduate training. I’d presented there myself for the Queen’s Health Science Research Trainees day (protip: always remember when your microphone is on, and don’t talk to yourself if it is). It was a fitting location for a movie about our graduate student lives.

The movie began to a packed house. The opening scene set the tone for the rest of the movie – Professor Smith was almost an exact duplicate of his comic self, down the green sweater vest. It was wonderful.

However, disaster struck about 10 minutes in, as the DVD started to skip, and eventually froze! How would the organizing committee resolve this issue!! They had an auditorium full of tired graduate students who were excited for the movie!

They did what anyone would do to occupy graduate students. The Google’d a solution and when that didn’t work, then they put on a video of cats doing funny things to distract us while they fixed it. It was genius.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not going to give away any large plot points, but if you want to avoid all plot details, skip the paragraph below and come back after the giant picture.

The movie started again. We are introduced to “The Nameless Graduate Student” from the comics, portrayed by Raj Katti as he enters Dr Smith’s lab to try and do his PhD. The casting is spot on here, and Raj captures the hope and despair that TNGS brings across in the comics. Him meeting Mike Slackerny (Evans Boney) for the first time cracked me up, and Evans is the perfect combination of Yoda crossed with the “learned helplessness” that Mike has in the comics. Meanwhile, we are introduced to Tajel and Cecilia (Crystal Dilworth and Alexandra Lockwood). Cecilia is a bright graduate student, who is questioning her decision to pursue higher education. She wants to make a difference, but in trying to be successful academically, she is sacrificing her personal life. Work-life balance is tough, and it’s something that I’ll be blogging about over the month of November, so stay tuned!

The atmosphere was awesome. Part of the appeal for PhD Comics is that you know the punchline because it’s such an accurate representation of the Grad Student life. Walking into a classroom of students, and all of them being on Facebook? Been there. Holding office hours, only to have to verbally spar with a student who obviously hasn’t done the work, but is trying to get you to explain how to do the answer? Yup. The guy in your lab who knows where the best free food is on campus and how to sneak in and out ninja style to get it? THIS IS VITAL INFORMATION.

The Nameless Grad Student (Raj Katti) tackles an experiment as his labmates look on.

Welcome back to all those who didn’t want any spoilers.

One enjoyable feature from the movie was knowing that all the actors and actresses were PhD or graduate students. It was polished, but these could potentially be your colleagues and peers (if you were at Caltech).

I’m not going to get into whether this is a good movie or not in terms of storytelling, plot and pacing. I don’t expect it to compete with shows like Community or The Big Bang Theory or others that are targeting a similar audience. This is about bringing a web comic to life, and adapting 3-4 panel punchlines to work on camera. For those who love the comic, there are a few scenes that are directly lifted from certain panels (one of which was my Facebook profile picture for a few months) and the movie rewards those who have read the comics and “know” the characters. Yes, you fill in a lot of the blanks yourself, but that’s part of the appeal. These are characters we know and love, and to varying degrees, can project onto ourselves and our peers.

At the end of the day, graduate school is a tough grind. Collecting and interpreting data, synthesizing it all into a coherent narrative and then putting it down on paper is a tough, albeit rewarding, experience. But that isn’t why we’re here. We’re here because we’re passionate about what we do – some passionate enough to act in a movie about it in their spare time. And, in that spirit, you have to laugh about graduate school and the ridiculous things we do in the name of research. For example: I had a buddy go out with us one night, and after shutting down the bar, he went into the lab because he needed to make some agar plates. So he went into the lab to set them up at 3am; that way they’d be ready when he came in later that day. Those are the memories that stick with you and you laugh at how ridiculous this whole experience is. But those memories are what make it all worthwhile.

And sometimes, when you can’t see the humour in your life and need a little push, PhD Comics can help you out.