Vol 6. Issue 8 / March 6, 2006

Cartoonist Draws on Humor and Insight

By Mika Ono

Who says graduate school and postdoctoral studies are a serious business? Not Jorge Cham, creator of the comic strip "Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD)."

In a presentation last month sponsored by the Postdoctoral Services Office, Graduate Program, and Society of Fellows of The Scripps Research Institute, Cham spoke on "The Power of Procrastination." In the talk, which was held on the institute's La Jolla campus, Cham poked fun at some of the pressures of academia and how people cope.

"Procrastination gets a bad rap," he said, "because it gets confused with laziness. Laziness is when you don't want to do anything. Procrastination is… when you just don't want to do it now."

Cham's comic strip was first created when he was a graduate student in robotics at Stanford University. After seeing an ad in the Stanford newspaper for comic strip writers, he decided to create a series addressing what he saw as a gap in popular culture. "How many television shows are there about graduate students?" he asked. "Doctors, lawyers, policemen, yes. Graduate students, no."

Deftly depicting a caricatured cast of characters in a research lab—from the hypermotivated superachiever to the Ph.D. candidate who seems never to be able to graduate—the comic strip soon became a phenomenon. Its web site now receives 2.7 million page views per month from more than 1,000 institutions worldwide.

From Cham's point of view, though, the best feedback he gets is readers telling him, "You make me feel less alone."

While Cham speaks tongue-in-cheek about the academic experience, there is a message accompanying the humor. Not only are graduate students and postdocs in good company, sometimes it is healthier—and even more productive—to take a break.

"People are less creative under pressure," he noted. "Problem-solving flourishes with low-grade brain activity—so focusing too hard on something can be detrimental."

According to Cham, famous procrastinators include:

  • Albert Einstein, whose mother, Cham quips, "probably wanted him to work hard in the patent office to make it to middle management";
  • Poincaré, who liked to take walks outside when he got stuck on a mathematical problem because that was when solutions would suddenly come to him;
  • Isaac Asimov, who took 10 years to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry from Columbia University and whose advisor told him he couldn't write;
  • The founders of Yahoo (Jerry Yang and David Filo) and Google (Sergey Brin and Larry Page), who came up with the idea for the phenomenally successful companies when in graduate school.

Cham's own career is another case in point. While Cham currently holds a research associate/instructor position at the California Institute of Technology, he says he has had to come to terms with the fact that he will probably be best remembered for his comic strip, not his work in robotics, even though the comics were initially created when he was "supposed" to be doing something else.

"Relax," he advised. "Enjoy. Listen to your inner procrastinator."

Life Is Tough and Then You Graduate, Cham's second collection of PHD comics, was published in April 2005. For more information on the book and the comics, see http://www.phdcomics.com/. For more information on groups sponsoring the event, see the web sites of the Postdoctoral Services Office, the Kellogg School of Science and Technology, and the Society of Fellows.


Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu



Scientist and humorist Jorge Cham speaks on "The Power of Procrastination."



The comic strip "Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD)" portrays experiences common among graduate students and postdocs.