Profile: Jorge Cham, Author of PHD Comics

Piled Higher and Deeper

To people who might wonder what three most important factors helped me navigate the rigors of higher education, I’d say passion, persistence, and good old-fashioned hard work. Yeah, right! More like coffee, my iPod and PHD Comics. Oh yes, three times a week, as I’d saunter to my graduate mausoleumoffice, serious decisions had to be weighed: pipette smelly bacteria or laugh along to a spot-on comic strip spoofing the ups and downs of all things academe? You know I made the right choice every time!

What is PHD Comics? Its official name, Piled Higher and Deeper, is derived from one the oldest inside puns about ascension on the ladder of knowledge: if a BS stands for bullshit (pardon my Swahili), MS means more of the same, and attaining a PhD means you’re piled higher and deeper. (Empirical observations have validated the veracity of these acronyms.) Often relegated to fringe sidelines in media and popular culture, the junior Ivory Tower set is composed of a bustling microcosm sporting its own culture, mores, axioms, and idiosyncrasies. Illustrated and composed by scientist Jorge Cham, PHD Comics celebrates, spoofs, but most importantly, spotlights, this world with remarkable humor and authenticity. I have had too many “Oh my gosh that is SO true!” moments reading this comic to count. But a few notables:

Graduate students’ love of free food, so true, so desperate, so universal.
Graduate students’ love of free food, so true, so desperate, so universal.
Ennui of the daily research grind (psst inside secret: yes, sometimes the days are very boring and graduate students waste time)
Ennui of the daily research grind (psst inside secret: yes, sometimes the days are very boring and graduate students waste time)
Frustrations with nonresponsive graduate “advisors” (we’ve all worked for or encountered a Professor “Smith”).
Frustrations with nonresponsive graduate “advisors” (we’ve all worked for or encountered a Professor “Smith”).
The writing of the thesis (basically the bane of any graduate student’s existence).
The writing of the thesis (basically the bane of any graduate student’s existence).

Jorge Cham got his undergraduate degree at Georgia Tech University He then completed doctoral studies in mechanical engineering at Stanford University with a research focus in Robotics. Jorge built robots that mimic natural biological functions in their technological design, resulting in some of the fastest running prototypes ever created. He also completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Caltech University, where his research specialized in the design of “smart” biomimetic neural implants. His impressive body of work includes 24 scholarly articles, invited talks at prestigious universities and leading corporations, as well as teaching experience as a lecturer at Caltech. Oh, yeah, and he can draw pretty well too!

PHD Comics embodies the notion of a mighty tree growing from a small acorn. Initially published as a black and white strip at the Stanford University Daily while Cham was a PhD student, it quickly built a devoted cult following. Especially popular among grad students, scientists, engineers and other tech-geeks, the strip eventually found its way into a plethora of college dailies and mainstream national publications, with the official site generating over 12 million monthly pageviews. To date, the comic has evolved into a full color publication, including posters, song parodies, and book collections that have sold over 60,000 copies. You can (and absolutely should!) catch the latest PHD Comics on the official website, follow along on Twitter or on Facebook.

A couple of standout hits hand-picked by the ScriptPhD:

“Who Will Grade Your Work?”, a song parody of Jewel’s “Who Will Save Your Soul?” (particularly appreciated by those of us who have had the…er…distinct pleasure of being Teaching Assistants). Click the link for the mp3.

“If TV Science Was More Like Real Science….” This strip was my favorite, and particularly apropos for our site, because we do cover the very best of science and technology in entertainment. Sometimes it’s really hard to ignore the worst! was extraordinarily fortunate to catch up with Dr. Cham, who graciously and generously lent us some time in-between updating his strip and promoting the new addition to the PHD Comics books on a campus tour.

To read our exclusive interview with Jorge Cham, illustrator of PHD Comics, please click “continue reading”.

10 Questions for Dr. Jorge Cham:

ScriptPhD: Lots of people have great ideas or a particular story they want to tell, but it takes a lot of hard work and imagination to make it happen! What was the tipping point that ultimately inspired you to start drawing PHD Comics?

Jorge Cham: Like most things, I think it was a combination of circumstance, opportunity and inspiration. My first term in graduate school, I noticed an ad in the student newspaper calling for comics. At the same time, I had just read a book about Doonesbury and the impact it had in politics and culture during the 70’s and 80’s. Then, during a dinner conversation with my brother and some friends, the idea of PHD Comics came up and it seemed like something that was begging to be done.

SPhD: You’re obviously a very talented scientist with some incredible accomplishments in the field of mechanical engineering. Have you also always had a propensity for drawing and the arts growing up?

JC: Thanks for the compliment! I grew up doodling a lot. One day my father brought home a huge box of Archie and Peanuts comic books that he found at a garage sale and that got me and my brother interested in comics. My mother was a computer scientist for the Panama Canal, and every week she would bring home stacks of over-sized hole-punched dot-matrix printouts that we would flip over and draw on the back of, so there was never a shortage of drawing supplies.

SPhD: One of my favorite aspects of the strip is its serialized nature with recurring characters. I felt like I was going to grad school with my pals Cecilia, Mariko, Dee, etc and the professors resembled a lot of faculty that I worked with. Was the idea always to have a recurring set of characters and a continuing storyline?

JC: The initial idea I think was just to document the funny things that happen in academia. The decision to add storylines and things that happen to the characters I think came from my love of regular comics and certainly the Doonesbury model was something I aspired to, with characters that changed over the years.

SPhD: What’s harder to you—lecturing at Caltech or satisfying your fan base with new ideas?

JC: Well, the undergrads at Caltech are pretty sharp and easily bored, so lecturing was definitely a challenge. Coming up with comic ideas is hard, but I don’t really consider it work.

SPhD: The comic intersperses lots of fun ironic references to pop culture, TV and movies (a bit like Family Guy). What comics and/or films and TV shows did you enjoy the most growing up and did they have an influence in your style?

JC: I’m a bit of a pop culture addict in addition to having a technical academic background. I guess that’s what made it possible for me to start the comic. Most academics probably don’t waste time on this stuff. Growing up, I read a lot of Archive comics and watched a lot of the Flintstones. I think the family-friendly tone of PHD comes from that.

SPhD: I know that you are a big fan of procrastination. In fact, you went on a US tour promoting a talk called “The Power of Procrastination.” I could literally win a Nobel Prize in procrastination. And while I always view it as somewhat of a handicap, it’s also fueled some of my best work (i.e. my PhD thesis). Tell me why you think that in some instances it can actually be helpful.

JC: Well, there are several reasons. First, I think creative ideas don’t always come when you want them to. Insight doesn’t always come by forcing yourself to do something. The mind probably needs a certain amount of breathing space in order to make connections that are not obvious. Second, Procrastination often reveals what it really is that you WANT to do. If you find yourself not working on something you are supposed to work on, then perhaps you need to examine if it’s something you really want to do. Conversely if you find yourself doing something you don’t think you should be doing, it probably means a lot more to you than you think it does.

SPhD: Without divulging too many details that would land you in trouble ?, how much of the characters and situations are based on people or happenings that you’ve come across in your own studies and research (or anecdotes thereof) and how much of it are manufactured situations?

JC: Most of what I write is based on situations that I went through or that I know someone has gone through. That said, officially none of the characters are based on anyone I may have known, worked for, or dated. Officially.

SPhD: Your strip brilliantly chronicles the day to day life of an academic, a part of which is insane work hours and less-than-scrupulous bosses in some instances. How do you feel about the rising movement of postdocs forming unions to regulate abusive work hours and/or practices?

JC: I think it’s my job to see both sides of all the issues. In some situations, unions are justified, in others I am not sure they are


SPhD: Besides day-to-day duties at PHD Comic, any fun upcoming projects that you’d like to tell us about? Any chance for a graphic novel in the future?

JC: At some point, I decided to make PHD my primary focus. I realized it’s the thing I am most passionate about and so I should make sure I don’t do a mediocre job at it. A fun side-project I have right now are comics about the brain that I collaborate on with a neuroscientist. Those have appeared in a magazine called Ambidextrous and will soon appear in Scientific American Mind.

SPhD: And just for fun, since we are a science blog, if you could have a one-on-one dinner with any scientist, dead or living, who would you choose?

JC: Einstein, I think that’s a no brainer.

SPhD: Thanks so much for your time!

JC: Thank you!


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