Saturday, June 18, 2011

Piled Higher and Deeper

In case you do not know, Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD, for short) is a web-comic which has become notoriously famous over the last 5 years and has recently been converted to a movie! It is one of my favorite comics and it should come as no surprise that when the creator of the comics Jorge Cham came to give a presentation at EPFL (on 17th June, 2011), I walked though rain and thunder to see him.

Well, actually it was more like a 5 minute walk though a drizzle, but heroic nevertheless.

The event was announced on the PhD mailing list, but not to the general public. I got to know of it via Twitter, when Nirbheek pointed it out the same morning!

The event started with aplomb, with the generic PhD student on the screen:
PhdComics at EPFL, 2011

and Jorge looking very much like how he looked the last time he came to EPFL:

Jorge Cham, EPFL (2011)
Jorge Cham (EPFL, 2008)

He first talked about his research in robotics, primarily because that is the only way people listen to what he did in his actual research. He then presented the outline of his talk:
Outline of Jorge Cham's presentation

After sampling how many in the crowd were PhDs, undergrads and Professors (conspicuously forgetting about PostDocs), he straight away jumped to the primary question:
Why PhD?

He compared (unfavorably) how much a graduate student earns to how much an burger flipper at MacDonalds earns and the unemployment benefits provided by the State of California and firmly established that PhD students are definitely not in it for the money.

However, most people are still stressed out doing PhD which they supposedly should like doing. The state of PhD students is pretty much summed up by saying that 67% of them have felt hopeless or depressed:
Mental health of PhD students

 One of the things which simultaneously builds and vents this stress is procrastination. However, with great procrastination, comes great guilt:
Guilty of procrastinating!
He also mentioned that a lot of PhD students suffer from the imposter syndrome. I could not help imagining how many people suffer from it despite knowing about it. I should add that it is just out of curiosity, no personal interest in it, of course.

He pointed out that this is because, as a graduate student, there always are things which one should be doing, unlike the case with other professions where a 9 to 5 workday is enough:
The "I should be doing ..." part of stress of PhD students
Then he talked about the various periods of troughs and peaks on the infamous motivat-o-meter, and gave hope to a multitude present there that it does get better (at least before going worse anyway):

Motivat-o-meter for PhD students

Finally, he ended with the wisest words I have heard about grad school:
"Grad school is a state of mind."
"... of perfect sleep."

This was followed by book signing!
Book signing by Jorge Cham at EPFL, 2011
Jorge Cham, signing books at EPFL 2011

And before you ask, yes, I got my own Academic Stimulus Package:
PhD comics: Academic Stimulus Package
Autographed by Jorge Cham!
(with a caricature of me!) :D

On a side-note, it was equally encouraging and discouraging to see so many people turn up for his presentation at 6:30 PM, Friday evening, in the midst of the heaviest showers Lausanne has seen thus far.
Multitude at EPFL, CO1, for Jorge Cham's Phd Comics presentation

As for me, he gave me a thumbs up and told me to make a well-informed decision about whether I wanted to do a PhD or not, and I can cite his comics as a reliable source.

Now, that I am done procrastinating, I should get back to some work. :)