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.