Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham

What web community doesn’t long for one of its members to start up a webcomic to poke good-natured (or not so good-natured) fun at its trends, obsessions, idiocies, and painfully true stereotypes? Jorge Cham’s Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD) provides much needed humor for its target audience – an isolated group whose self-imposed cognitive dissonance is viewed as eccentric or downright incomprehensible by their families and friends. Rather like that last sentence, actually.

Their "calling" demands long hours of trial and error experiments and careful inquiries into others’ methodologies, all for results that have little value outside their narrow field of interest. Not only do they have more time than money, but they also have high speed access to the Internet – a perfect environment for free webcomic consumption. I’m speaking, of course, of graduate students.

PhD is a black-and-white cartoon strip about a bunch of Stanford engineering grad students, with an anthropology student thrown into the mix. Although they’re scientists in training and spend a great deal in the lab (or by their computers) you won’t find any wacky experiments or inventions. Cham focuses on the culture of grad school, its frustrations and idiocies. Amazingly, even seven years into the comic, he’s still coming up with new material.

A webcomic devoted to the ironies of trying to get a PhD runs the risk of being insular but Cham keeps his comic fairly accessible to the general public. He’s chosen characters with recognizable traits – while you might not be entirely sure what writing thesis entails, you can still laugh about Mike, the eternal grad student, and his very human attempts to avoid doing so. Cham also has a penchant for parodying popular songs, TV shows, and movies while illuminating various aspects of graduate school culture, such as Grad Student Documentary and Raiders of the Lost Dissertation. In a sense, it’s like Cham is offering a humorous primer to non-grad students on how grad life really is, using non-grad "material" to deliver grad situations and aspects in a language that anyone can understand.

If you are a grad student (or a recovering grad student), some of the punchlines will have you rolling on the floor, or they may give you nightmares. One comic finds Mike preparing to give his final defense – one of the last things done before graduating – and discovering that he has apparently forgotten to take the usually grueling "quals", or qualifying exams. Showing this particular comic to an actual grad student resulted in a visible shudder, with her saying, "That’s not even funny." (the comic was hung by the elevator of the floor where she works.)

PhD got its start as a campus newspaper strip back in 1997 (before Keenspace and php scripts). These early strips, all available on the site, are crudely drawn, with small hand lettering. In 1999 PhD made its move to the web, at which point the panels increased in size, and the lettering became much easier to read. The artwork has improved dramatically over the years as well. Cham’s characters are unique and very animated in their expressions and body posture. There are several experimental strips, including an .mp3 song, and a couple of animated installments.

The only real frustrating element of the strip is how interesting characters (such as Mariko the Japanese exchange student, or Cecilia’s boyfriends) simply fade away. However, Cham’s intent does not seem to be to write a longer story within the strip – heck, he still hasn’t given one of the main characters a name. Rather, the characters exist in a mostly static universe, where no one gets out of grad school. Cham seems more interested in making fun of the institution of grad school, and his characters are there to support these jokes.

One other aspect of PhD becomes more and more glaring as you read through the archives, however: Grad school, Cham seems to be saying, isn’t fun. In fact, it might be a serious mistake. One could interpret such strips as Life Plan vs. Life Reality as a cautionary tale to prospective graduate students. Or perhaps I just know too many bitter ex-grad students.

Overall, PhD is a highly enjoyable webcomic. Academics will laugh out loud at Cham’s comedic and insightful portrayal of life in the Ivory Tower. And for those who never had the – ahem – pleasure of attending graduate school, PhD will cast a humorous light on the individuals whose lives are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Grad students should count themselves lucky to have such great representation to the webcomic reading world.