Many 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.”