Thoughts on Systems

Emil Sit

May 2, 2006 - 3 minute read - Personal academia television

Grad School Television

What’s on prime time television these days? Looking at the dramas, offhand there are crime dramas (Law and Order, CSI), medical dramas (House, Grey’s Anatomy), mystery thrillers (24, Alias), family stories (Gilmore Girls, 7th Heaven), and people having sex (The OC, One Tree Hill). Maybe there’s something missing.

How about a drama about the lives of graduate students and professors? After all, Jorge Cham has shown there’s plenty of interesting material there with a hit comic strip about the highs and lows of academic life. But, while grad school has an obvious parallel to the world of hot, up-and-coming doctors, the life of a typical grad student lacks the same kind of fast-paced and will-the-patient-die scenarios that these fictional doctors see. What then might make a good format?

Maybe try to identify a high excitement event: a major paper deadline, structured into a 24-style show. Errors in data or experimental method discovered hours or days before the deadline, frantic re-runs of experiments, re-plotting of graphs, adviser re-writes of major sections of text, and running pdflatex up until the last minute. Unfortunately, there’s not a really satisfying conclusion there. You don’t find out what happens for a few months, and by then it’s just Season 2: do the same thing all over to address all the reviewer comments and submit the camera-ready.

What about a more crime dramas approach? In most crime dramas, each episode compresses the weeks or months of real time needed to catch the bad guy into a neat 42 minute story. Shows like CSI and Bones have shown that the science science approach is just as appealing as the traditional detective oriented approach (like Columbo). Each episode could focus on a particular scientific result and the ups and downs in validating it.

A more Veronica Mars-style approach might also work well. Each season of our hypothetical academia drama could focus on the study of an important research question. As the series opens, hypothetical lab at hypothetical top school has just won a major grant to investigate some this question; we follow the progress of a few new students in the group, and their interactions with older students and faculty. As the seasons progress, individual experiments are completed, hypotheses created and tested, papers are submitted, rejected, re-submitted, published, theses are signed, tenure is granted, and the series can end with the heros and heroines going off to top academic and industry jobs with their fresh new PhDs.

From X-Files to Alias, long-running mysteries can work if done right. That Numb3rs was renewed for a second season shows that complex technical material can be explained in a way that’s accessible enough for the public to understand and find cool.

Character development is also important in any show. Fortunately, academia is full of interesting, quirky people. They do interesting things on the side: they bike, do yoga, play ultimate, dance, travel, take photographs, do pottery, and even automatically generate research papers. PhdComics demonstrates ample opportunity for developing such characters. Developing the characters’ personal lives would help give a show depth and realism (and of course, allow for the opportunity for sex on TV).

This is looking more promising. There are numerous spin-off and cross-over potentials, each with their own unique flavor: imagine the “Grad School: CS” spinning off “Grad School: Biology” or “Grad School: Astrophysics”. Combine the excitement of each discipline with a mystery driven plot and interesting characters and we could get a fun, high-energy show about the lives of professors and grad students. On a serious note, such a show might demystify grad school and academia and make it more accessible, just as CSI has done for forensics.

What do you think?

Update: The May 2nd re-print of PhD Comics in The Tech reveals that this idea has already been explored.