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The Webcomic Overlook #150: Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD)

A long, long time ago in a college far, far away, young El Santo went to college. It was a small technical school, one that had a lot of math stuff but not much on the humanities or the liberal arts. El Santo really loved comics, tough, and he never gave up his childhood dreams about drawing for a living. So he hung around whatever awful in-school art exhibits he could and took all the arts courses he could find in non-affiliated arts schools. He also drew some doodles on paper and managed to get them printed in the college newspaper.

I have a certain nostalgia for the pre-internet days, when the most you could hope for was getting a comic published in the college rag. There were both benefits and drawbacks. The audience was smaller… but there was also a very good chance you’d be running into your readers when you were headed off to class, which meant immediate feedback.

I remember browsing through other college-published strips, and I noticed a lot of them had to do specifically with college life. That made sense, really. In a way, these strips were a more honest about life in college in than pretty much any other media. Movies and TV shows are primarily interested in grabbing viewers, especially the lucrative 18-34 demographic. So that means selling teenagers on the idea of college an endless fantasy Bacchanalia.

Most college strips I’ve seen, though, paint a less rosy picture. They touch on money struggles, study groups, and the constant feeling of tiredness. Which, frankly is how I remember college. When was the last time anyone in a movie college studied, anyway?

Which brings me to Jorge Cham’s Piled Higher and Deeper (or PHD for short) the quintessential college comic strip that made the jump to the internet. Mr. Cham began PHD when he entered grad school at Stanford in 1997, which means PHD has been going on for a remarkable 13 years.

Man, shouldn’t the characters have graduated by now?

The answer, of course, is that the students attend a comic strip school, where time is endless and things never change. You know the type. It’s the same world where Luann goes on summer break but returns to class every year until eternity, Charlie Brown plays an infinite number of baseball seasons, and Les Moore has to retake gym class just to get up the rope in Funky Winker-….

No, wait. They actually flash-forwarded that strip a couple of times. Scratch that.

This may not be all that apparent from the archives, which separates PHD strips into quarterly semesters. It’s clever, and it perhaps one of the most user-friendly archives you’ll ever find. However, it gives you the impression that things are supposed to change. Oh, sure, there are some shake-ups to the status quo. In one fun plot development, the incredibly lazy idiot savant Michael Slackenerny actually buckles down, finishes his thesis, and receives his diploma (all while taking care of his pregnant wife, and later, his newborn … which doesn’t make him that much a slacker when all things are considered, does it?) In another story arc, Tajel, follows a season-long character arc that ends with her marriage to one of the professors.

These are exceptions though.

For the most part, PHD sticks to the familiar rhythms of a gag-a-day comic. Character development is not a must, and consistency is a virtue. After all, most of these are headed to the premium spaces on cubicles and workstations, or perhaps forwarded in a chain e-mail to appreciative doctorate students, or perhaps put on a professor’s Powerpoint presention to show he’s totally “hip” and “with it.” It’s Dilbert for post-grads… but, you know, with art that doesn’t look like it was drawn by a six-year-old monkey. (Apologies to Scott Adams. Love you!)

As a result, many of the comics feel very familiar, especially if you take a bunch of strips in one sitting. You don’t even have to go deep; after two strips, you’ll start to sense a pattern. Half are about our nameless hero (probably a stand in for Jorge Cham) having unproductive meetings with his professor. Half the comics are about Cecilia totally totally stressing over everyday failures. Half are about how gross and insular doctorate students are. And half are about the characters munching down on free food.

Yes, I know that doesn’t add up! What do I look like, a doctorate student?

You can pick up PHD at any point and never feel lost. I picked up PHD for the first time a year ago, when I was considering it for my milestone 100th review a year ago. (The honor went to xkcd. PHD had to wait for the sesquicentenniariffic 150th review.) I’d read the archives from 1999 to 2004, but dropped it when I decided to do xkcd instead. I picked it up again a couple weeks ago, starting with the 2009 archives going forward, then skipped around the remaining years for more background. You’re honestly not missing anything by picking up a strip at random. (It’s probably best to stick to the post-2004 comics anyway. The PHD is much better once the comic establishes its familiar routine.)

From time to time, Mr. Cham switches things up a bit with various flights of whimsy. Maybe he’ll do a re-enactment of Grease (which doesn’t work; musical parodies rarely work in printed form), or recast Cecilia as Alice from Alice in Wonderland, or do an homage to Frankenstein or Indiana Jones. Because everything is geared toward the whole doctorate experience, the words “thesis,” “grad,” and “dissertation” will eventually show up with the same regularity as how often the tiny blue men with white hats use the word “smurf.”

Now, I have it on good authority that most readers of The Webcomic Overlook are not, in fact, doctorate students. (It’s not a slam on your intelligence, you smart, sexy readers. Alexa.com, though, tells me my readership is woefully bereft of post-grads.) Is PHD‘s humor for you? I’d say “yes.” While no doubt doctorate students will probably get a bigger kick out of this comic than anyone else, I think the college experience is universal enough that it’s easy to identify with a lot of situations. The title references getting piled high in work but getting deeper in debt with graduation slipping farther and farther away. Who can’t relate? It doesn’t matter if your an undergrad student in engineering or liberal arts or even if you’re an MBA! Higher education is a pain for everyone! (Incidentally, PHD gets a kick out of taking a swipe or two at MBAs. B-school students are depicted as dudebros who say things like “Fo’ shizzle!” Now, speaking as a person who does have a Masters of Business Administration … Cham is correct, yo. Fo’ shizzle.)

Beyond the gags, PHD acts as an invaluable resource for people who entertain thoughts of pursuing such degrees. Heck, if you’re not paying close attention, this webcomic might be the very thing to click on the site of your local state college, pull up the enrollment form, and click on, “Yes! Sign me up for the knowledge.”

“What are you talking about, El Santo?” you say, flabbergasted. “From what you’ve told me about this comic, it’s all about jokes how it sucks to be a Ph.D.! How could it possibly ever make me want to go through all that?”

This is where PHD gains its extra star. It goes from being a “easy-going, cute, funny, but ultimately corny and typically average 4-star webcomic” to being one of the best webcomics I have ever read. PHD has made Jorge Cham popular with doctorate students. Some have invited him to lecture at their college. But best of all, Mr. Cham drew comics about his experiences in his “Tales from the Road” series.

In one, Mr. Cham tells the story of a former college dropout turned biomedical science grad student who weathered Hurricane Katrina. In another, he illustrates his experiences at the San Diego Comic-Con and tagging along with a sociologist. There’s a very touching one where Mr. Cham meets a Ph.D student in cancer research who unfortunately becomes a patient.

There’s one “strip” that pitches itself as a video comic. Don’t be fooled. There’s nothing vaguely comic about it. It’s a Youtube video. And it’s about doctorate students talking about their research into chili peppers. There’s stuff about DNA sequencing and developing resistance to disease and stuff. Dry stuff. And yet … here I was, engrossed, mainly because of the interviewee’s enthusiasm about how to grow the a better chili pepper.

It’s a great that Mr. Cham chose cartoons as his storytelling medium when relating his real-life tales. I imagine that if the anecdotes related in “Tales from the Road” instead typed out as a blog entry, they would probably not be half as interesting. Fortunately, Mr. Cham’s cartooning and his goofy sense of humor transform stories that might sound dry and read-for-NPR into something funny, heart-felt, and fascinating.

Beyond that, Mr. Cham often takes a break to lay down cold, hard stats about education. And boy, are they eye-openers. A joke about government grants is followed immediately by a chart showing how little of the government budget is spent on research; there are others about the salaries of professors and post-grads vs. football coaches, and the rising cost of public education. Some are less sobering and are, instead, fairly amusing, such as the positive correlation between the unemployment rate and people going to grad school. Of course, some of the charts are just plain goofy, in case you thought PHD was starting to take itself too seriously. The latter is highly reminiscent of the more popular xckd, only less on the smug and snarky side and things and more on the endearing and self-deprecating level.

Despite having a readership between 100K and 300K, it tends to slip under the radar in webcomic discussions. For 13 years, PHD has remained consistently funny and incredibly informative. It’s also old school and rather inoffensive … but dang it, where is it written that webcomics gotta be edgy?

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on January 31, 2011, in 5 Stars, all ages webcomic, comedy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I added it to my RSS subscriptions. I don’t know how I never stumbled upon it before now.

  2. Oh, PhD… I have no idea if I had any business reading it as an undergrad with at most vague plans of post-graduation, but I know I could relate to it… somehow.

    Well, so maybe I had no business in it. Eh. It’s still mostly a fun read. I am mostly bothered by the heavy handed strip templates that, as you said, appear in a pattern. I was actually relieved to see Slackenery and Tajel moving on with their lives(and Slack’s family is a nice addition to the strip), but the fleeting feeling that the male protagonist(I do not even know if he has a name…) and Cecilia will probably be stuck in a spiral of never graduating for the sake of this comic’s potentially eternal run.

    …Okay, hammishness aside, my favorite features are the “Tales from the Road” comics. I think they’re engaging in that they’re real accounts from a real person, and usually pretty amusing.

    But it earned your five stars, surely. Lovely feature for the 150 landmark.

  3. I got bored with it to be honesttt but it’s probs because I’m an art student and can’t really relate to the liberal arts and science research aspects of the strip.

  4. As a person who is currently applying for a grad degree (although a non-academic one), this comic greatly affected me as well as making me scared as heck thinking about whether I would ever score a seat in this year’s program or not.

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