“PhD Comics” comes to Waterloo!

Posted: April 25, 2011 in Thoughts
Tags: , , , , , , ,

For the last 4 or 5 years, I have been a loyal fan of Piled Higher and Deeper (a.k.a. PhD comics), which is an online comic strip about life (or the lack thereof) in grad school. The comics are done by Jorge Cham, who started them when he was a PhD student at Stanford.

Today, Jorge was at our own University of Waterloo, where he gave a very humourous talk – arguably one of the most interesting talks I’ve attended over my whole time in grad school. The comics have a huge fan base, and the hall where he gave the talk was packed. Of course most of the audience were grad students, with a few undergrads and professors (at whom he poked fun every now and then).

While the talk he gave was very light-hearted and funny, and outlined his own experience in grad school and how he started his comic, it did touch upon some good points regarding grad students and grad school, and why many grad students feel stressed out. Here are just a few of the points that I found interesting:

  • Unlike regular jobs, grad students can’t go home and leave work at the office. They constantly stress and worry about their research. Students feel that there is always something more (research-related) that they should be doing at any point in time rather than relaxing, having fun, sleeping, etc. And even though they still do these activities, this nagging feeling makes them unable to fully enjoy things that they used to enjoy before starting grad school.
  • Grad students procrastinate as much as they can! Even though they always feel that they should be doing research, they use any availably opportunity to check their email, chat with their colleagues, get involved in extra-curricular activities, or anything to avoid doing research.
  • So, if they feel guilty, why don’t they just do the research then? Well, because most likely they don’t want to! Because grad school is always controlled by deadlines – paper submissions, presentations to give, qualification exams, etc. – it always feels that research is being done because you’re being pushed to meet some deadline, not because you WANT to do it. People tend not to like doing things that are pushed down on them.
  • Grad students often start out with high hopes and high motivation. However, this motivation drops drastically with the feeling of being “average” among all other grad students. The feeling that you’re not the top of your class anymore.
  • The time needed to finish the degree is inversely proportional to the motivation.
  • It is ok to procrastinate! Many famous scientists were procrastinators (what do you think Newton was doing under the tree when that apple fell on his head?) More often than not, the time to graduate is determined by some external force, or one final deadline that the student absolutely cannot afford to miss (running out of funding, getting a job offer, having a baby…)
  • Most grad students who graduated were unhappy with their thesis, as they finally put everything together in a rush to graduate. Most researchers are not well known for the work they did as grad students, but for the work they did when they became professors (because they had grad students doing the work for them while they enjoyed their lives).

Jorge was very funny, and he nailed all the little things of what it feels like to be in grad school. He held a book signing after the talk, and I was not surprised by the long lineup for such an amazing and talented artist.

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