Thursday, June 28, 2007

Career Choice: Science or Acting?

Have you been discouraged by the worst jobs in science? On Monday, I spent a day as an extra on a TV movie filming in Ottawa (keep your eyes open for "Custody of the Heart") and it struck me that there were a number of similarities to grad school, mostly the long hours and lack of respect but here's a head-to-head comparison:

1) Hours - We all know that working in the lab can often mean strange hours, weekend work and late nights. This was no different. After coming in to take care of some work before my 10:30am call time, I spent over 15 hours on set, never being allowed to stray too far in case we were needed.

Advantage: Grad school. We may work long hours, but we have more say in the matter, and can spend down time as we wish.

2) Food - A large part of the grad student lifestyle scavenging for free food, whether it's leftovers from a meeting or some kind soul leaving cookies in the lunch room. Free food was moderately abundant on set, but the good stuff wasn't for us. A salad at noon, a box lunch at 4pm, gyros when it was clear we going to be working late and chicken wings towards the end of the shoot. Of course, with the exception of the box lunch, most of this food was only available once cast and crew had been fed, but we did get the leftovers of their hot lunch to supplement the sandwich and apple we were given.

Advantage: Film Extra. While we get free food fairly often at the lab, it's unpredictable and the variety and reliability was better on set.

3) Hierarchy - There was a definite order to things at the shoot. Cast and crew were the big shots, obviously - the PIs and techs of the set. Better food, better pay, more perks. Union extras are next in line. Like postdocs, they get to sit at the big table, eat the hot lunch and hobnob with the big shots. Better pay, but no authority, just trying to impart what little wisdom they've gained to the little people. Which brings us to the grad students of the set - non-union extras. In the background, doing what you're told, when you're told, looking to everyone else for guidance and just hoping that your work makes the final cut for the manuscript scene

Advantage: None. Either way you're scraping the bottom of the barrel.

4) Monotony - Repetition, repetition, repetition. Whether it's an experiment or a film shot, both jobs require double, triple even quadruple takes to get a usable end result and timing and precision to get you there. The film set is a bit more forgiving but grad school is far more intellectually stimulating.

Advantage: Grad School. Sure there are a lot of 'do-overs', but figuring out what went wrong is half the fun. And there's no feeling in the world better than reproduceable results.

5) Pay - For an extra not in the union: $10/hour. For a graduate student without outside funding: $17,500/year. As an extra, you get paid for every minute you're on set, but the con is that the number of minutes can vary. On the flipside is that no matter how many hours you put in as a grad student - 8 or 18 - at the end of the day you're still only getting $50.

Advantage: Film Extra. A studentship is more steady, and there are opportunities for bonus funding, but the $150 I made for one day's work is almost a quarter of what you would make in 2 weeks in the lab. Of course we're not in it for the money.

6) Wardrobe - Bring your own clothes, but no whites, blacks, reds or anything with a logo. At least three sets of casual and three of more formal wear. And be ready to hear why your jeans and "University of Ottawa" t-shirt don't look 'student' enough. (I didn't know about the 3 sets of clothing rule, but luckily the clothes I brought met approval). Everything has to be nicely ironed and look presentable. And be ready to have to wear a sweater over a button-up shirt on the hottest day of June since the scene is really taking place in the fall. In grad school, you're out of place if your (free) shirt DOESN'T have the logo of a lab supplier, formalwear is never required but safety standards must be met.

Advantage: Grad School. It's all unstylish lab coats, gloves and closed-toed shoes, but who really enforces those rules anyway?

7) Fun factor - Where else can I mime a conversation while sharing a fake cup of coffee with a real professional model? (and yes, it was captured on film so I can prove it). Plenty of waiting meant plenty of goofing with the other extras, and the crew was pretty cool too. On the other hand, weekend parties, volleyball teams and miscellaneous other fun with the lab is nothing to complain about.

Advantage: Grad School. OK, this was a close one but the amount of sitting around waiting for cameras and lights to be set up is what killed it for the acting job. That and a real conversation beats a pretend one any day.

Overall: Grad school. My day on set was a pretty good experience, I met a lot of cool people, and it was interesting to see what goes into a film production first hand. I'd definitely do it again, but until I'm cast as a real star I'm going to stay the course. Plus I've sunk too much time and money into this to run off for Hollywood now.


The Key Question said...

Being a big star is not the only way into Hollywood... Paul Verhoeven was a Physics PhD and made documentaries before entering Hollywood as a director of kickass ultraviolent blockbusters.


Kamel said...

Another alternative is becoming a science technical advisor on set, as discussed in this post.

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