Jorge Cham's PhD Comics takes a wry look at the vagaries of life in academia, mostly from the point of view of a handful of long-suffering graduate students. He also has a feature, "Two Minute Thesis," in which he summarizes real research in a comic or video; it's sort of the comics equivalent of a TED Talk. It has built quite a following over the years (as a former grad student, and the wife, daughter and sister of college professors, I find it irresistible), so it's big news that Cham is bringing PhD Comics to the webcomics site Tapastic. Or, part of it: PhD Comics will continue to run on its regular schedule on its original site, and Tapastic will carry a curated selection of Cham's strips. I talked to Cham about PhD Comics, and the Tapastic move, and he drew a special cartoon just for us as well!
Robot 6: How long have you been drawing PhD Comics, and how did you get started with it?
Jorge Cham: I've been drawing PhD now for almost 16 years (!). It started as a hobby at first, as a way to procrastinate from my studies. I saw an ad in the student newspaper at Stanford University, where I was going for grad school, calling for submissions for their comics page. My brother suggested there should be a comic about grad school because they are usually ignored on campus, so on a lark I sent in some samples. At the time, I had a full course load and was working two jobs teaching and doing research, but it really seemed like something that needed to be done. Grad school had been a really intense, often bizarre, ego-crushing experience for me, and I had found it really useful to learn that others were going through the same thing, so it seemed important to record it and share it with the world.
Sometimes you write about the general travails of student life, but you also are up to date on things like the decline in research funding. How do you stay current with what’s going on in academia?
Well, I joke that if I wrote a comic strip for every day that I worked in academia, I'm still only halfway done. But generally, I think it was clear to me from the beginning that these comics were more than just about me, that it was kind of a community effort and I was just the conduit that put it in comic form. So a lot of the ideas and stories come from the people I knew there, from the people that email me, and from the people I meet when I tour campuses.
I really enjoy your “Two Minute Thesis” pieces (comics and videos) and your other works that break out of the four-panel gag format. What led you to start doing that kind of comic? It’s a very different type of comic, turning factual information into visual form; how do you approach it?
Thanks, I'm really glad you like them! I think after about a year into the comics, I started to realize that my job was not to draw a comic, but to fill a space with something interesting. It could be a comic, or a graph, or a flowchart or eventually videos and animation.
When I started touring a lot of campuses, I drew a journal series about the people I met on the road, mostly other grad students, and about their research, which I found interesting. After a while I would even record our conversations as a way to keep notes. On one occasion, during a commissioned piece, I was inspired by some online videos, and I proposed doing an animation set to the edited interview and it was a big hit. After making The PhD Movie, I still wanted to work with the people who helped me make it, and we started PhD TV as a home for all the animation and videos.
I guess what I try to bring to the table is the story telling. I usually ask the researchers a lot of questions until I fully understand it myself, and I think visually, so by the end I usually know what image I'm going to use. Then it's a matter of putting the comics hat on and making it visually surprising and fun to read.
What sort of reaction do you get from folks in academia? I realize that’s a broad question, but maybe you can pick out one or two high or low points?
The most common reaction is probably "Is his name pronounced 'George' or 'Hor-hey' or 'Yor-geh'?" Kidding aside, I've been lucky that it's almost a 100 percent positive reaction in academia. I think people appreciate that I went through the experience myself, and that it comes from a place of respect and truthfulness. My favorite quote about comic strips is something Bill Watterson wrote in the introduction of one of his books. He wrote, "Surprise is the essence of humor, and nothing is more surprising than the truth."
A common satisfying reaction I get is to hear from people that they feel less alone when they read my comics, or that the comics helped them get through a difficult time in their journey of going through grad school. Some people even tell me the comics inspired them to go to grad school, because it made it seem more accessible and human.
I love the comics about your 3-year-old. How has being a father changed your work?
I don't think the work itself has changed much, but it's definitely changed the rest of my life a whole lot. I sleep and work a lot less than I used to.
Why are you moving the comic to Tapastic? Will you continue to have it on your own site as well? If so, how will the two be different?
I'm not technically moving the comic to Tapastic. We're posting a curated feed of some of the best PhD strips and storylines from the 16 year archive, as well as maybe some new exclusive content. There's sort of no easy way for new people to discover the best of what the strip has to offer, so this is a great way for new audiences to get introduced to it. A lot of people have tried to create webcomic hubs over the years, but I think Tapastic has done a lot of right things with their interface and terms with artists.
Do you make a living from your comic? And if so, how do you monetize it?
I do make a comfortable living, but I also think I've been lucky to have a supportive fan base and to have found additional sources of revenue besides books and merchandise that match well with my general audience, like the speaking tours and The PhD Movie and the animations.
If you weren’t drawing this webcomic, what would you be doing instead?
I'm pretty sure I'd be a stressed-out professor in some university somewhere, living the life of one of my comic-strip characters.