PhDs in the funny pages

It's 4 AM. Two grad students sit across the table from each other hunched over textbooks, looking bleary-eyed. One boy asks the other, "Why are we doing this?" His friend looks up and responds through a haze of exhaustion and self-pity: "You mean, why are we submitting ourselves to grad school instead of working out there, getting rich, getting enough sleep and actually enjoying life?" "No," the first boy replies. "I mean why are we doing the problems from the wrong chapter?" This scene fro

Victoria Stern
Aug 20, 2009
It's 4 AM. Two grad students sit across the table from each other hunched over textbooks, looking bleary-eyed. One boy asks the other, "Why are we doing this?" His friend looks up and responds through a haze of exhaustion and self-pity: "You mean, why are we submitting ourselves to grad school instead of working out there, getting rich, getting enough sleep and actually enjoying life?" "No," the first boy replies. "I mean why are we doing the problems from the wrong chapter?" This scene from the comic strip linkurl:"Piled Higher and Deeper";http://www.phdcomics.com/ (PhD) by creator linkurl:Jorge Cham;http://www-cdr.stanford.edu/%7Ejgcham/ highlights the struggles and frustrations many science graduate students experience. Cham should know. He was once in the trenches himself. "Cham captures very accurately and in a very witty way what it's like to be a graduate student in science," said linkurl:Mark Cutkosky,;http://www-cdr.stanford.edu/%7Ecutkosky/ a mechanical engineer and Cham's PhD advisor at Stanford University....
ng this?" His friend looks up and responds through a haze of exhaustion and self-pity: "You mean, why are we submitting ourselves to grad school instead of working out there, getting rich, getting enough sleep and actually enjoying life?" "No," the first boy replies. "I mean why are we doing the problems from the wrong chapter?" This scene from the comic strip linkurl:"Piled Higher and Deeper";http://www.phdcomics.com/ (PhD) by creator linkurl:Jorge Cham;http://www-cdr.stanford.edu/%7Ejgcham/ highlights the struggles and frustrations many science graduate students experience. Cham should know. He was once in the trenches himself. "Cham captures very accurately and in a very witty way what it's like to be a graduate student in science," said linkurl:Mark Cutkosky,;http://www-cdr.stanford.edu/%7Ecutkosky/ a mechanical engineer and Cham's PhD advisor at Stanford University. "That's why his comic is very popular at universities around the country and the world. He depicts how life is." Here is a taste of "PhD":
Through recurring characters and wide-ranging scenarios (like a series relating graduate school to __Star Wars__ and another comparing TV science to real science), Cham has been able to explore important grad school issues while also poking fun at them. His inspiration stemmed in part from his personal trials, but mostly from other students' experiences. Readers often send him ideas or approach him after his lectures to share their stories, Cham says. In 1997, Cham started the cartoon as a hobby during his first semester of graduate school at Stanford. Cham's first strips arose from what he calls "a combination of circumstance, inspiration and procrastination." During this first semester, the student newspaper The Daily put out a call for student-drawn comics. The Daily was accustomed to receiving cartoons from undergraduates who complained of the stresses of college life. "My brother pointed out that graduate school is really where all the pain begins," Cham said. Around that time, Cham was reading "Doonesbury," a cartoon published in Slate magazine, and had become inspired by the potential for comic strips to address real world issues. Although he was already swamped with research assistant duties and a full class load, Cham decided to exorcise his artistic abilities and express his frustrations as a graduate student by submitting his first five cartoons to The Daily in 1997. "Being in academia is very isolating," Cham told The Scientist. "At the same time, people are hesitant to discuss difficulties with colleagues because they think that no one else is having the same problems they are. After reading my comic, however, people tell me they feel like they're not alone anymore." While developing his artistic skills, Cham remained focused on his PhD research. His project was to create a robot that could navigate rugged terrain after a natural disaster or roam the irregular surface of Mars. His group in Cutkosky's lab modeled their bots on how cockroaches move and successfully created some of the fastest running six-legged robots out there. As Cham continued to balance research with drawing "PhD," the comic's popularity grew steadily by word of mouth. Cutkosky admitted he had no idea about it until he discovered the column in the Stanford paper. Cham started including a link to the comic on his lab webpage, and colleagues at Stanford began following the link and reading his cartoon in the print version of The Daily. Soon, buzz spread throughout Stanford and to different universities in the US and abroad. linkurl:Andrew Lampert,;http://www.ict.csiro.au/staff/andrew.lampert/ a graduate student in computational linguistics from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, is an avid reader of Cham's "PhD" comics. "The comics are considered 'required reading' (perhaps, 'required procrastination'?!) for all the computational linguistics PhD students in my research group," Lampert told The Scientist in an email. "There's definitely a compelling authenticity about the way he presents the highs and lows of life as a PhD student." After Cham graduated from Stanford in 2003, he went on to teach mechanical engineering at Caltech for a few years. Despite his success as a scientist, Cham could not resist the pull of the comic artist's life. By 2005, Cham had not only switched from black and white to color drawings, but he also decided to leave his teaching job at Caltech to focus completely on his comic. "I am surprised at where I ended up. My goal of ten years was to be a professor. But after some soul-searching, I let go of that dream so I could do comics full time," Cham said. "The comics became more popular than my research." Twelve years later, "PhD" has appeared or been featured in the journal Nature, the Chronicle of Higher Education, IEEE Potentials magazine, and has been linked to by USA Today's and The Washington Post's websites. These days, the "PhD" website receives over 800,000 unique visitors every month and over 5 million every year. Perhaps Cham's cartoon has become too popular among beleaguered grad students. Cham includes a warning to his core audience on the archives page of his site: "READING THIS ENTIRE ARCHIVE CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR RESEARCH. PROCEED WITH CAUTION AND ONLY USE IN MODERATION."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Pass the comics -- No, the science ones;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/home/53479/
[10th August 2007]*linkurl:Cartooning science misuses;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/53452/
[31st July 2007]

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