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The power of comics

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend some of the past couple of days with a comic-writer who studies the academic experience, and who might well have a greater aggregate impact on science than almost anyone else I’ve ever met.

This week has been the SICSA graduate student conference, giving SICSA‘s  PhD students to share their ideas in front of a friendly audience. As well as the science, one of the goals of the event was to improve the student experience in social ways, letting them find new collaborators and share their experiences and worries. And what better way facilitate this than by inviting the writer of PhD Comics, one off the most popular internet comic strips, to come and talk?

The man behind PhD Comics is Jorge Cham, whom I have to say is one of the nicest guys you could want to hang out with.

Jorge has a PhD himself, of course. His research topic was robotics, specifically small, fast robots mimicking cockroach locomotion to move over uneven surfaces. These sorts of systems have huge potential applications, from space missions and environmental rovers to accident-victim location and disaster recovery. However, his main passion even during his PhD was cartooning, reflecting on and responding to the graduate student experience. It started as a print comic in a Stanford newspaper and predictably did well in a place where the student density is so high.

But it was only when he put it onto the internet that it really took off. Like many things on the internet, there’s a law-of-large-numbers effect that can come unexpectedly into play. The number of graduate students in any particular place is usually small, but integrated over the world you have a respectable audience — and PhD Comics now sustains around half a million hits per day.

The goal of PhD Comics is to act as an encouragement to graduate students. For anyone who’s been through it  — as I have — it’s overall an extremely rewarding, liberating intellectual, social and life experience; it’s also a lonely, frustrating, depressing, isolating and self-critical one. It takes an effort of will to believe that you’re making a contribution, making discoveries that others will find interesting and worthwhile. Even those with unbounded self-confidence — which most certainly does not include me, not now and certainly not then — will find themselves questioning their motivations and capabilities over the course of their PhD.

Often the most sobering part of the whole experience is the realisation of how smart other people are. Most graduate students come from being top or near-top of their undergraduaate class. They then land in an environment where everyone was top of their class: the average suddenly lurches upwards, which can be disorienting. Not only that, but graduate students generally mix, on fairly equal terms, with postdocs and staff who have enormously more experience and who may in some cases be quite famous within the limited bounds of their fields, putting further strain on self-confidence.

I have a quite visceral memory of going to my first graduate-level presentation on a topic (type theory) that I thought I understood well — as indeed I did, at an undergraduate level. Three slides into the talk, I realised that I knew absolutely nothing about type theory as it actually is, its important concepts, challenges and uses. It was quite wrenching to realise the extent of my own ignorance. Conversely, though, when I now talk about my own work I’m conscious of the gap that exists between people with a reasonable (in every sense) knowledge of a field and those with an expert knowledge, and try to pitch the material accordingly.

Which brings us back to PHD Comics. Every individual graduate student will feel overwhelmed at some point, and may not be able to reach out locally to find support. But they can reach out to the shared experience that is the comic and its archive and see how others feel about the same situations and challenges that they face — and do so in a way that’s far more entertaining than talking to a counsellor. I suspect this is an incredibly valuable service, and one that I’d’ve welcomed when doing my own PhD.

Does this help with the process of doing science? The completion rates for PhDs is high –over 99% for Scottish computer science, for example — but the time taken, and stress endured, in that process varies widely. Anything that helps mitigate the strain, helping students cement their self-confidence and deal with the challenges, is very much to be welcomed.

This got me thinking. Robotics is an important field, and it’s impossible to say what we lost in terms of research and innovation when Jorge followed his passion. But it’s almost certain that he’s influenced more scientific activity, more widely, as a cartoonist than he ever would have done as a researcher or an academic. Not everyone can be a researcher, but even fewer can provide insight and entertainment as cartoonists, and even fewer can spot and take the opportunity to become the voice of graduate students worldwide.

Following this logic a little further, I suspect that bringing Jorge over to SICSA may have been the single most effective “soft spend” in the whole programme to date. We don’t have a problem with completion, but we do, like all universities, have issues with confidence and motivation, and anything we can do to improve those is money well spent. I wish I could think of a way to confirm that value empirically, but I can’t: but that’s not going to stop me recommending Jorge as a speaker to anyone wanting to improve their research environment.


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