Jorge Cham: Creating PhD Comics

By: IBioMagazine

My name is Sarah Goodwin, I'm a fifth year graduate student at UCSF and today I'm going to be interviewing Jorge Cham about PhD Comics, also known as Piled Higher and Deeper. And PhD Comics follows the life of several graduate students as they embark on the trials and tribulations of graduate school. and he writes about things like dealing with advisors, procrastination, and the endless search for free food.

I thought that maybe we could start off just by talking a little bit about how you got started drawing comics and how you drew from your own experience in graduate school. Yeah, well, thank you or having me here, Sarah. So the way it all started was, it was my first term in graduate school, I was in the PhD program at Stanford University studying mechanical engineering. So I did robotics for my PhD. And I was looking through the student newspaper there one day and there was an advertisement for, they were calling for comic submissions from students and I imagined they were probably asking for undergraduates cause, you know, most of the papers have comics from undergraduates But I was talking to some grad student friends of mine including my brother who had gone through grad school and we were just saying, like, don't they know, like all these undergrad comics they're always about how stressful it is to be an undergrad but don't they know grad school is when the real pain begins. And so, kind of this lightbulb kind of popped up in my head and somebody said Hey, yeah, there should be a comic strip about what its like to be a grad student. And so I thought, "Yeah there are a lot of stories kind of about this process of starting grad school; of what its like when you first get to campus, what its like to try to match with a professor, and trying to impress them and you know, kind feeling like you're just part of this really huge pack of really kind of talented and intelligent people and getting lost in that." I just thought there were a lot of stories that I hadn't seen before told anywhere else.

And so, just kind of on a whim, I just drew a few as a submission to the paper and that's how it all started. And when did it ascend beyond the Stanford newspaper? Well, early on, you know, I might date myself, but this was sort of back before even, at around the time Google started. So that might tell you how old I am.

But, back then you know, it was the Silicon Valley, and so everyone was having their own websites and putting everything they did on the web and so I just put these comics on the web and I reserved the name and some how they gave it to me. I don't think you could get away with that now. But I did that, and I put the comics up there and so, and then the ones that appeared in the newspaper, they would have the URL down on the bottom right corner. And so, I just put them up on the website and I think, you know, what kind of, what's happened is that, you know, people will read it there, then tell their friends who they knew from undergrad who were going to other grad schools about this website and then those people would tell their friends around them and their lab mates. And then those people would then tell their friends from undergrad at other universities and so its kinda spread out, kinda like a virus out into the world. And so, how many, how often did you draw from your own experiences in graduate school or your classmates' around you when you first started the comics? Yeah, its always been kind of drawn from real life comic strip Even if it wasn't my experience, at least somebody that I knew or that I had seen in somebody else. So I try to always kind of stay true to that, like, it has to be funny, but it has to bring some sort of emotion or some kind of situation that people can identify with.

Jorge Cham: Creating PhD Comics

That's what I try to do. So, are any of the characters that you follow based on any of your friends or yourself? No, so officially, its not based on anyone that I knew or worked for or dated, you know, but really, yeah, its all kind of based on people that I knew at the time. So, I like how the characters all kind of have their own personality and they really stay true to that personality throughout the strip. Well, thanks, yeah, at some point, yeah, its funny, at some point these characters, they were basically somebody that people can take a life on their own you know, its kind of funny, I don't really tell these characters what they're gonna do or what, what's going to happen to them, I just kind of think about them and try to catch up with them and they sort of tell me what they're doing and how they react and things like that. So when you started gradaute school, did you, were you aspiring to be an academic, was that kind of the..

Yeah, for sure, that was the plan and I mean, I knew that I wanted to be a professor, like my sophmore year of undergrad. So I had these pretty like, dynamic professor that I thought "Wow, that's really cool!" and that if I could do robotics for the rest of my life, then that's even cooler. So I was really set on the academic track for a long time, for over ten years. After I did my PhD, I applied to faculty positions, and I was kind of in a two-body problem with my then girlfriend at the time and so I ended up taking this kind of adjunct faculty/post-doc postion at CalTech. Yeah, where your ID says faculty but your paycheck says post-doc. And as an adjunct professor, did you kind of, has your attitude, or view of graduate students change at all? A little bit, it is kind of interesting when you step on the other side you know, I was sort of working with graduate students for this project that I was involved in and so that's kind of when I learned the difference between laziness and procrastination.

So there's kind of this distinction there. Laziness, that's when you don't want to do anything, and you don't do anything. You know, procratination, it just means you don't want to do it right now. And so if you eventually get it done, then its procrastination, if you fail to do it then its laziness. What made you decide to step away from being an adjunct professor and go onto writing the comic strip and touring fulltime? Well, it was kind of a difficult decision.

I kind of when through this kind of crisis of the ego. Cause, you know you spend so many years with this goal in mind to be this professor and its a very kind of prestigious goal and you tell everyone you know and you feel like everyone you know expects that from you, and so its really difficult kind of let go of that and persue something else But, the decision wasn't that hard for me, I guess. I was pretty lucky in that sense. I mean, I had been at CalTech for two years already and after two years, they kind of start, you know, drumming their fingers to see what else you're going to do.

So, your PhD kind of has a half-life. And that starts to decay after a couple of years So I saw that kind of decaying a little bit and at the same time I saw the traffic for the website go up and up and so I just kind of said, "Hey, I'll just switch curves" and so that's where I've been. You found a career where you're doing what you love and you get to kind of tour the world and meet all of these people.

I guess, what advice would you give to graduate students right now, who are trying to figure out what they want to do with their life? Whether its academia or something else that they might be passionate about. Sure, well, first, good luck. And second, don't do a comic strip about grad school because I don't need the competition.

But yeah, I mean, you know, I kind of tell people that, you know, you do need a job, at some point. And being a professor is just another job. I mean, its great if you enjoy it and you love it, and at the same time, you know, life is short as well, so if you're not happy doing what you're doing and you can do something else, and, you know, why not? Why not take that leap? I would like to thank you for coming speak with us today about your career and your comic strip And you can find Jorge's comics at

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