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Grad Student Life, In Cartoon

Last night, just before the Graduate Student & Postdoc Reception and the alcohol-fueled fun of Sci-Mix, ACS national meeting attendees were treated to a truly imaginative lecture. Jorge Cham, who has been referred to as “the Dilbert of academia,” gave a presentation to somewhere between 500 and 600 fanboys and girls. Cham, the creator of the online comic-strip phenomenon PHD (Piled Higher and Deeper), talked about “The Power of Procrastination” and where it can get you.

Cham talks to his adoring (mostly) grad student fans. Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

Having toiled away in robotics labs at Stanford University, where he obtained his Ph.D., Cham is no stranger to the drudgery of graduate school. During his years there, he began drawing comic strips about his experiences. “By far more popular than the research I spent years working on is what I was doing when I SHOULD have been doing research—what I was doing while I was procrastinating,” he said.

During Cham’s first term of graduate school, an ad appeared in the campus paper calling for comics from students. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘You know, there are all these stories about grad students that you really don’t hear anywhere else,’ ” Cham said. So he submitted an academia-themed comic and eventually posted his strips online. PHD went viral and over the course of a few years became a favorite website among graduate students the world over. “Apparently, it’s a global misery phenomenon,” Cham said.

Students could commiserate over their experiences through the comic strip. “The subtext” of PHD, Cham said, “is about asking the big questions about grad school … WHY? Why do we put up with all of this? I’m pretty sure nobody here does it for the money.”

But despite the hardship, students still hang in there, Cham said. They get phone calls from family and friends checking in. “You know that phone call,” Cham joked. “The one from your friend—that friend of yours that didn’t go to grad school? The one where he’s telling you about the beautiful family he has. He just bought a house. Meanwhile, you’re on the other line all by yourself. Alone at night. Still in the lab. … Eating Ramen noodles.”

That’s when fear sets in, Cham said. “Fear of failure, fear of getting a real job,” he added. Graduate school institutionalizes students. “It’s kind of like what happens to prison inmates,” he dead-panned. “When ACS says ‘Chemistry for Life,’ they aren’t kidding.”

Cham signs copies of his PHD comic books during the graduate student reception. Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

Cham has received countless comments from readers over the years, but none warms his heart as much as the one that goes something like, “Your comic is probably responsible for keeping many of us sane.” It is this response that keeps him going. “Maybe this isn’t just a waste of time for humanity,” he joked.

I think most of us can agree that it’s not.

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