The guy that I’m profiling for the blog today isn’t a chemist. At all. But he’s Jorge Cham, so does it matter?
In case you’ve been living under something inorganic and heavy (or not a grad student), Cham is the creator of Piled Higher & Deeper, a comic strip about the…uniqueness… of graduate student life. He gave his “Power of Procrastination” talk at ACS last week, and I managed to drag him into a quiet corner for an interview about his cartoony career and how he got there. What follows has been edited slightly for length and flow.
LKB: So. How does it feel to be the patron saint of grad students?
JC: (laughs) A little weird, sometimes. Well, if you’ve seen my talk, the point of the talk is that there’s nothing that you should do. So I feel a little uncomfortable when people ask for advice and what to do.
LKB: Okay, but to someone looking at you and thinking, ‘hey, I want to be a cartoonist,’ erm, what would your advice be?
JC: My advice would be do not do it.
LKB: Why not?
JC: I don’t need the competition.
LKB: (laughs) Well, okay, not about graduate students, but maybe about chemistry or some other type of subject.
JC: I guess I would tell them my story, which is the best I can do. I did it as a hobby free for about 5-7 years. 7 years just for fun, a hobby on the website. Then I came out with the first book, and there was income from that. And then things kind of built up from there….I think that something that you should expect if you go on your own is to not really do it for an income for several years at least. And that’s sort of the experience I get from a lot of artists and independent people.
LKB: So your background is in engineering and post-doced as well, right?
JC: The post-doc I got was officially an instructor at Cal-Tech. So I was teaching classes, my ID said faculty, but really I was just a post-doc.
LKB: So you started that comic as a grad student at Stanford. But then about 5 years ago, you realized it could be a career?
JC: About 5 years ago, I saw the academic half-life of my degree start to decrease. At the same time, I saw the traffic on the website start to increase. So I just switched careers.
LKB: So you tour now, is that what you do most of the time?
JC: During the academic year, yeah I do a lot of touring. My primary thing is to come up with three comics a week. And then there’s the lectures and this running a publishing business, and then the website.
LKB: Are you worried that you’re going to run out of ideas eventually?
JC: (laughs) You mean how deep are the scars? You know, I don’t really worry about that, I just take it as it comes. I say that if I write a comic strip for every day I was in grad school, I’m only about halfway through. (laughs)
LKB: Really. Woah, you have a lot of material.
JC: And the other thing is that a long time ago, I realized that this comic strip was not really about me, about my experiences, it’s kind of about THE experience, all those people out there go through it.
LKB: How did you first first start? How did you get the idea of, ‘hey, I’m going to write a comic strip about grad school?’
JC: When I was very little, I got into comics. So I would naturally draw, try to copy the drawings that I saw in the comics, so I’ve always been doodling all my life. I made a t-shirt here and there for college. In grad school I was talking to my brother, who had already gone through grad school, and he had the idea of doing a comic about grad students, because all the ones in the Stanford newspaper were about undergrads. And don’t they know grad school is where the real pain begins? So he brought that up, and there was an ad in the newspaper calling for comics by students. And he thought, hey there should be one about graduate students. At the time I had been reading this book on Doonesbury, a perspective on Doonesbury, and the impact it had had over the years. Not so much now but back in the 80s and 90s, it was part of the culture. And so I don’t know, just to procrastinate really, I started doing it.
LKB: At least you got something productive out of your procrastination. The rest of us just read your website.
JC: (laughs) It’s worked out for me, well. But only after 12 years. (laughs)
LKB: What did your adviser think of the whole thing?
JC: He actually doesn’t know.
LKB: Oh really?
JC: So if you can keep that out of the…
LKB: Well, I’m not going to ask who your adviser is!
JC: (laughs, a lot) No, I’m just kidding. He knew from day one. He was a fan of the comic.
LKB: (I laughed too, I can’t believe I fell for that) So he never said, “don’t put this in the comic”?
JC: No, he never asked me not to put anything in there. Recently somebody interviewed him about me. The quote from him was, ‘yeah, Jorge’s comic is often funny.’ (laughs) That was a pretty good description.
LKB: So, advice for newly starting out cartoonists–expect to not get paid for awhile and have to wait a long time before getting anything back from it?
JC: I guess the message is to have low expectations. My motto is always aim high, but have low expectations.
LKB: So prepare for the best and expect the worst?
JC: Yeah. There you go. You probably stole that from somebody, didn’t you?