Ph.D.s get comic book relief

(Download Image) Jorge Cham
Jorge Cham spent four years at Stanford studying for his doctorate degree in mechanical engineering. He then became a full-time instructor and researcher at Caltech where he built a swift six-legged robot that resembles a cockroach.

But these accomplishments are not what gave Cham his celebrity status among graduate students -- it's his "day-in-the-life of a Ph.D." inspired comic strip that has become so popular on university campuses across the country and is now syndicated internationally.

Cham visited the Lab last week to talk about his series, "Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD)." The comic strip spawned "The PHD Movie," a live-action adaptation that was shown prior to his LLNL presentation. More than 600 employees watched the film.

In 1997, with a love for drawing and sketching characters, and noticing a scarcity of story lines about grad students, Cham answered an ad in The Stanford Daily, which called for a new comic strip. The editors liked his idea and "Piled Higher and Deeper" was born.

During his talk, Cham used his low-key manner and dry wit to address some of the challenges facing graduate students: low pay (a job at McDonalds pays only $15 less a year than the average graduate student stipend); feelings of hopelessness and depression (surveys show 95 percent of grad students are overwhelmed); and procrastination -- one of Cham's most discussed topics.

The power of procrastination was the focus of his viewgraph presentation that featured characters from the comic strip. To explain the pros and cons of postponing, he went on to point out famous scientists in history and probable procrastinators, like Isaac Asimov, who spent 10 years obtaining his Ph.D., Albert Einstein, and Isaac Newton. "What was Newton doing sitting under the tree?" Cham quipped.

Cham also shared his "Unified Theory of Procrastination in Academia (UTOPIA)," and "Motivate-O-Meter," to investigate the likely reasons for motivation or lack of it.

In the end, Cham claims his analysis proves that procrastination is OK. "Procrastination is what you're doing when you are doing what you want to be doing," he said.

The talk closed with a question and answer session. Many in the audience wanted to know more about the movie and the screenwriting process. "I wrote it in about two months," he said. "I cut out the comics and categorized them."

When asked if Hollywood has knocked on his door, he answered, "No, not yet. I guess they are procrastinating."

The presentation was sponsored by the LLNL WorkLife programs in coordination with the Institutional Postdoc Program Board.