Jorge Cham and his <i>PHD</i> comic characters

Jorge Cham and his PHD comic characters

Jorge Cham

Piling it even higher and deeper: Grad school woes earn film sequel

Four years ago, after more than a decade of drawing the popular online comic Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD for short), former engineer Jorge Cham jumped to the big screen, enlisting an ensemble of California Institute of Technology in Pasadena researchers to produce and star in a movie version of his cartoon depicting the trials and tribulation of being a graduate student in the sciences. Now, a follow-up film is coming out next month. In an email exchange, Science caught up with Cham and learned a few details about the sequel. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Why go through the insanity of a making a film again?

A: As hard and risky as it is to pull off these kinds of projects, it's also very gratifying artistically to work with so many people and create something together. I just didn't think it was possible, or that there was enough demand for it. I think the main catalyst was the increasing number of PHD comics fans who would approach me at events and ask if there was going to be a sequel. Then, when one of the stars of the movie, Alex Lockwood, told me she was graduating and leaving the country, it dawned on me that this would be the last chance to do any kind of followup.

Q: In Hollywood, sequels are typically bigger and louder. Are there more characters and explosions in your sequel?

A: There aren't any explosions, but there are definitely more characters. My approach to writing this movie was to progress the characters and put them in new and interesting situations. For both of the main characters in the movie, that meant going out and interacting with a larger part of the world of academia. So, one of the characters goes to a conference and the other has to defend her thesis to her committee, which meant lots of new characters. Our cast list for this movie had over 50 characters!

Q: Does the sequel tackle any newly emerging career issues?

A: I tried to incorporate a lot of the things that people are talking about these days: how hard it is to get funding, the lack of representation of women in academia, the limited number of academic jobs available, ethical boundaries in research, among others. I think mostly I tried to reflect the general feeling of self-assessment that I'm sensing from grad students and administrators about what is a Ph.D., and what is it for, and what it entails.

Q: You’re juggling fatherhood now, right? What’s the toughest career: scientist, cartoonist, director, parent?

A: Well, being a parent doesn't really pay -- in fact it's substantially the opposite!  Having kids definitely flips your priorities around. Raising kids and producing a movie are really hard, but I would say that in the first (kids) the joy far outweighs the work, and in the second (movie) the work at some point ends. With cartooning, you're dealing with writer's block on a daily basis for years on end, so I would still say it's the hardest one.

The PHD Movie 2

Q: What lessons did you learn from film one?

A: The first movie was a big experiment to see what academics, and their secret passions, could accomplish. So, the first movie was produced, directed and acted by mostly all grad students and academics. One of the themes of the second movie is collaboration, and working with people outside your comfort zone, so we brought in a professional director (Iram Parveen Bilal), crew, and also professional actors to up the game. It was an extremely interesting experience for everyone, I think. I think most people watching the movie will have a hard time telling who is a professional actor and who is a full-time academic. We even had a Nobel Prize–winner saying a few lines in the movie, and he's great at it.

Q: Trilogies are big now—any plans for a third movie? What’s the plotline?

A: Let's see how this one does first! If there is enough demand and good will to make another one, I think it would be interesting to see where these characters end up. For sure, one of them would go through the process of applying and interviewing for a faculty position. I could probably write a whole movie just based on that experience!