April 2010

Going Deeper into the Pile

A Conversation with Jorge Cham


ASBMB: Has anyone ever written you or come up to you after a lecture and mentioned that PHD Comics was the reason he or she decided to go to graduate school?
Cham: Not really. The funny thing about the comics, I find, is that, although they resonate with almost any graduate student, they generally don’t translate to individuals outside of academia. However, I did get an e-mail from a high school student who decided to go to college in part due to PHD. He thought that universities were only meant for lofty people, but he read my comic and realized that academics were regular people too, so he decided to apply. That e-mail was memorable, because one of my big motivations in developing PHD was to use it to portray scientists in an accurate light and not the stereotypes they often are in popular culture.

ASBMB: What sort of questions do you get at your lectures? Has any question emerged as the most frequently asked?
Cham: One of the most common questions I get is, “What do you do for a living when you are not writing your comic?” I answer that I left research and do, indeed, do the comic full time. That generally leads to the very popular follow-up: “What did my professor think about my decision to draw comics full time?” So, I tell them that my postdoc adviser gave me very valuable advice. He said not to get caught up in artificial models of success; I could choose my own definition of success. That helped me make my choice to forgo my academic career.

ASBMB: Speaking of that, during the time when you were still looking to advance in academics, did you worry that your work with PHD might hinder your chances? For example, employers might think you didn’t like academia or couldn’t devote your full time to your duties.
Cham: Yeah, it might have influenced some people’s decisions, but I tried to look at it from the positive— that PHD would give people a chance to see my creative side. At the same time, I didn’t concern myself with it too much, because I felt very comfortable with my achievements, research and publications, which I believed should be the main considerations in finding a job.

ASBMB: Over 13 years, your characters have experienced a lot of growth, such as marriage, kids, even graduation. Do you have a big picture of how PHD will progress, or do you just take it one strip at a time?
Cham: It’s a little of both. I definitely do have a vision of where my characters are going and where they’ll end up in life, but, because I don’t have a planned ending date, it leads to a balancing act; I want to progress the story without ending the story. So, I frequently finish one strip and have no idea what the next one will say.

ASBMB: Of all your strips, do you have a personal favorite?
Cham: Oh, that’s like asking a parent to pick their favorite child. I think if I had a favorite comic strip I would have stopped writing long ago. So, that’s one thing that keeps me going— chasing that elusive favorite.

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

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