Damn the Gods

The Comic That Gets PhD Students Through the Day

By Vincent Bongers

“Jorge Cham manages it to sum up our little world precisely, wittily and in slightly painful way”, say PhD students. His popular comics have now been brought to life in a movie.

Scruffy colleagues, rotten professors and work a monkey could do just as well: the life of a PhD student is so awful all you can do is laugh about it - at least, according to American student Jorge Cham it is. In 1997, when he started on his Master’s, he decided to immortalise - the rather peculiar - life at Stanford University in comic form and call it Piled Higher and Deeper. When he went on to do PhD research, he kept on drawing them. Not surprisingly, the cartoons have touched a sensitive nerve in academia, and not just in the United States.
The popular comics have been brought to life in a live action film that will be showing at the LUMC tonight, the third of November. But don’t expect a slick Hollywood production:  the lives of the PhD students are portrayed by Caltech’s own doctoral students. After all, they don’t need great acting skills to play their parts well.
Rudolf Talens has nearly finished his research for his PhD in Medicine and helping to organise the movie’s viewing. “I started my research in 2007 and quickly became acquainted with the comic”, says Talens. “From then on, the comic fostered procrastination because I then read all of them.”
Talens’ favourite is the Scooped series. One of the recurrent characters in the comic is the Nameless Hero, a PhD student who discovers that a rival is publishing a paper on the same research as he has been doing for the past three years. “He is completely panic-stricken and starts yelling hysterically.”
He manages to keep up the screaming for one and a half strips. Mike Slackenerny, a character with a great talent for laziness as his name implies, drops by and manages to appease his worries. “Slackenerny  says something like ‘Don’t fret, you’ll find a way of presenting your data to make your research look relevant.’” Slackenerny also gives the nameless hero some advice: publish on something that no one is interested in.
“I like the fact that two types of PhD students are shown here: the relaxed character and the stressed-out one”, says the PhD student. “That’s what makes it realistic. You also get quite good at putting things into perspective. Cham manages it to sum up our little world precisely, wittily and in slightly painful way. “Sometimes you just want to damn the gods, but we have a lot of fun too.”
“I recently read one of the strips where there’s a paper dripping with red correction ink”, recalls fellow-organiser and PhD medical student, Cheryl Dambrot. “That’s happened to me too. I sent a paper to my supervisor and was shocked when I got it back – she had only read the first paragraph, but all of that was dark red. I think that about two words of my own text had survived and at the bottom she had written ‘Don’t worry Cheryl, this is normal for a first attempt.’”
The comic really forges a bond between PhD students: “You soon realise that you’re facing the same problems”, explains Dambrot.
“In one of the comics, a PhD student sends a very lengthy, well-written text to the professor”, says Kasia Celler, a Canadian who is on the Board of the Leiden PhD Association and doing PhD research into bacteria. “The professor either responds with a sentence full of typos or with a single word: ‘No’. That happens.”
Talens adds: “As a PhD student, you are often unsure of yourself. What happens if I make a mistake? What should I actually say to this hotshot? Your professor has earned the right to send extremely concise emails. He is probably achieving amazing research results while you’re writing that long email that no one’s going to read anyway.” 
The troubled interaction between the professor and the students is a recurring theme in Cham’s comic. “I’m from America”, says Dambrot. “And the relationships with the supervisors are generally more detached over there. There’s no gulf between them here in the Netherlands.”
And some rather seedy colleagues appear in the cartoons too. “One of funniest is the grad student who takes less and less care of himself”, observes Linda Wammes, who is doing PhD research into parasites in Indonesia. “It’s quite conceivable that a researcher who works on his own day in day out in the lab might become a bit unkempt. Of course, that doesn’t apply to me.”
“Some cartoons are very American”, says Frank Takes, who is working on his PhD at the Leiden Institute for Advanced Computer Sciences. “They’re about the hunt for free food. That doesn’t translate to the Dutch situation, as we’re paid, thank goodness. The hunt only applies to students – some of them go to all the receptions just to get try and find some food. But maybe PhD students will have to start doing that again if the fellowship system is introduced.”

PHD the movie is showing tonight, on 3 November, at 17:30 p.m. in the LUMC, Building 1, lecture hall 1. Admission is free, but please register first at: phdmeeting@lumc.nl.

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