What So Funny About Graduate School? Jorge Cham Knows.
A great irony to Jorge Cham's cartooning is that it is all produced and distributed digitally, yet it is seen by many in the most old school of ways - printed out and taped to doors, walls, and desks.
Cham is the creator of a strip called Piled Higher and Deeper - PhD for short. The strip satirizes the graduate school experience, bringing to life the contrast between how grad students see the world and the world sees them. It's become popular enough that it has spawned Tedx Talks, five books and two movies.
For Cham, who speaks at the Milwaukee Public Museum on September 8th, the comic emerged from his own days as an overwhelmed graduate student. "I was a pretty good student at Georgia Tech," he says, "and then I went to graduate school, and it was kind of like moving into the big leagues. Suddenly, you find out that classes [are filled with] all the other top students from everywhere else." Everyone was as smart - or smarter than him, he says, which was a difficult adjustment.
But as he started feeling these emotions, Cham says he realized many of his peers were dealing with the same issues, regardless of their academic program. "They were all sharing these same stories - about their professors, about publishing, writing, doing research," he says. "It struck me as a universal experience."
Growing up in Panama, Cham never had formal art training, but he did have one key experience in his background, as a result of his father's work for the Panama Canal. "One day he was driving home through the American Zone," Cham recalls, "and there was an American family leaving and they were selling all their stuff." Among the stuff his dad bought: a huge box of comic books - Peanuts, Andy Capp, Archie comics, and others.
"And so from an early age," Cham says, "I read a lot of comics, and that made we want to start doodling." He he kept it up, even as his tastes changed to include strips like Doonesbury and others.
Even as he drew his comics, Cham says he initially remained serious about a career in engineering, and academia. He finished his Ph.D, landed a job at Cal Tech and set about a life in researching, writing proposals, and teaching classes. "But at some point," he says, "I just sort of realized that what I was doing with this comic strip was just a lot more popular than the research I was working on."
And in the end, Cham believes he's accomplished something all researchers can identify with. "One of the things you do in academia is to find the things that are missing in the world and try to dedicate yourself to them," he says. "And so for me, it seemed like this comic strip and writing about this world seemed to be more needed in the world."