April 2010

A Graduate Student Experience, In Four Panels


Thesis comicMany people probably have sat through a less-than-thrilling class, lecture or seminar and found themselves doodling in their notebooks. For most, it provides a way to pass the time; for Jorge Cham, it paved the way to a new career— one that graduate students across the world appreciate.

For, as the man behind PHD Comics (PHD stands for Piled Higher and Deeper), Cham has helped codify the foibles and frustrations of academia as seen through the eyes of a group of hopeful, though at times hopeless, graduate students— workaholic and chocoholic Cecilia, the exceedingly clever yet exceptionally lazy Mike Slackenerny, the activist anthropologist Tajel and the perhaps autobiographical “nameless hero.”

Over the years, this former university comic strip has grown into a cult favorite in academic circles, letting students laugh at the eccentric world in which they work, but also giving them some perspective and helping them realize that they are not alone.

The beauty and appeal of the strip, which began running in October 1997, is that, although it’s ostensibly centered on engineering students (Tajel being the exception), the comic focuses on general situations to which any current or former graduate student— from anthropology to zoology— can relate. These include the joys of being a teaching assistant, how to scam free food, dating, explaining your project to your parents, trying to find a job and, of course, trying to write that pesky dissertation.

These, and other day-to-day experiences, are quite familiar to Cham. He spent many years producing PHD Comics while living the life of an academic, first as a graduate student at Stanford University, where he designed better robotic legs, and later as a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology, where he studied neural prosthetics.

But, shortly after he arrived at Stanford in 1997, he happened to read that the student newspaper was looking to run a new comic strip; over dinner that night with his older brother, who was also a Stanford graduate student, and some of his friends, PHD Comics was born.

“We all thought a strip about graduate school would work, because it was an untapped area in pop culture,” Cham says. “And, even though I had only been in graduate school for a few weeks, the stories I heard from my brother and his friends told me that there was a lot of material to work with.”

Of course, Cham soon would learn that “material” firsthand, and those battle scars are reflected in PHD Comics’ incisively accurate portrayal of academic life.

Of all the “funny-because-it’s-true” elements in the comic strip, the most enduring, and the one that most resonates with readers, is the 600-pound gorilla known as the dissertation.

“Graduate school is a unique beast, because the dissertation process— which adviser to pick, what project to work on— is something students begin to cope with at Day 1, and yet, the end product is years away,” says Cham. “In between, you have this very flexible and open-ended schedule that can lead to students carrying around this sense of guilt. They think: Am I being productive enough? Should I go to lab this weekend? What else can I do?”

And, with all that uncertainty, adds Cham, often comes procrastination.

The dreaded P-word takes many humorous forms in the comic, whether its Cecilia’s overstressing to the point of becoming unproductive or Slackenerny’s seemingly deliberate efforts to become the eternal graduate student.

Beneath the witty exterior, though, Cham hopes to show that such worries about finishing, which sometimes can even lead to thoughts of leaving graduate school altogether, are common and should be taken in stride as part of the long and winding doctoral-degree path.

“I always thought that was an important message, because, while the graduate-student life appears very social, with plenty of labmates and classmates around you, at the same time, trying to get a Ph.D. can be a very isolating experience, especially in the context of your dissertation,” he says. “Because it comes down to just you and your adviser, and, if something goes wrong, it feels like it’s just you. But, in truth, it’s not.”

In 2005, Cham also began taking his message directly to the people, embarking on the first of what would become a series of lectures across the globe. Combining stories about his comic with some general thoughts about life as a graduate student, the “Power of Procrastination” tour discusses the role of procrastination in the graduate-school process.

Cham’s general belief is that procrastination is neither good nor evil; although, he certainly does not advocate that students procrastinate. “The message I try to convey is that there’s nothing that you should feel you have to do in terms of your progress, like, I have to spend so many hours a week in lab or get these results by the next lab meeting. Because, the truth is, discovery cannot be forced.”

That truism can apply to both research findings and personal discovery, as it did for Cham. Although he has been an avid reader and collector of comic books his whole life, and he dabbled in sketching growing up, Cham never imagined a career as a cartoonist: Becoming an engineer, in fact, was his childhood dream.

Although Cham has been out of academia for a few years now— the growing success of PHD Comics, combined with increased travel due to his speaking engagements, eventually led Cham to forgo his research career, though with no regrets— fans have no reason to worry; not only does he still have plenty of his own personal graduate school experiences to draw from, but stories told on his Web site’s forum page or by attendees at his lectures give him a continual supply of fresh ideas. And, Cham promises to keep going until he can’t go anymore.

For the countless PHD Comics fans who can relate to the misadventures of these overworked and underpaid students, that’s joyous news, even if each new comic gives them a way to procrastinate.


Nick Zagorski (nzagorski@asbmb.org) is a science writer at ASBMB.



Comic Contest

Want to try your hand at writing a comic? Come up with a new caption for this PHD Comics panel and submit it in the comments section below. The winner will receive an ASBMB T-shirt.

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