PhD Movie 2: your life on film?

A post from Dr Ross English, University Lead on PhD Development

If you are a PhD student and not aware of the Piled Higher and Deeper comic strip  you should take a moment to have a look.

Jorge Cham – creator of those comic strips – was in the UK last week promoting his latest film PhD Movie 2 and came to London to show the film and talk to graduate students from King’s, UCL, Queen Mary and LSE.

The film was very entertaining, Jorge’s Q&A was funny – and that was the whole point of the event – but it also raised some interesting issues. Most obvious were the differences between the US and UK PhD processes.

Jorge Cham film

Piled Higher and Deeper Publishing (phdmovie.com)

We are familiar with the pressures on UK PhD students from their university and the research councils to complete within four years (or seven for part-time); in the US with no such strict deadline the pressure to complete in a reasonable time-frame more often comes from the student themselves. In the film one of the story-lines centred on a doctoral student writing-up and preparing for her thesis defence (similar to our viva, though not exactly the same). For her, the question was whether the committee would decide that she needed to stay on for another year to conduct more research or not. In another scene a student joked that his PhD supervisor liked him so much that she had told him that she wanted him to be her student for ever.

The challenges for a UK student that come from having a fixed end-point to the PhD are substantial, especially given all the other things that a doctoral researcher is expected to do in that time. However, while the US system has other advantages over the UK one – particularly in the breadth of knowledge that that a student is expected to gain – I am not sure if the open ended nature of the process is one of them. With the length of some US PhDs exceeding eight years, the cost implications alone can become a very serious issue. Having a shorter, and stricter, time limit in the UK brings pressure but does have its benefits.

It was also noted in the film that completion rates for US PhDs was only around the 50 per cent mark; a issue that must be related to the uncertain nature of the finishing line. For all the flaws of the UK system, completion rates are a great deal higher. Institutions tend to be geared up to ensure students are on-track to submit within the four year limit.

If you get the chance, go and see PhD Movie 2; it is a good film and an interesting insight into the life of a doctoral student in the USA.