‘Piled Higher and Deeper’: The Comic Relief of Jorge Cham

Grad student woes find sweet repose in popular cartoon.

Twenty years ago, Jorge Cham — then a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, studying robotics — was seeking a creative outlet to deal with the stresses of student life.

“The graduate school journey is very isolating, intellectually and emotionally,” says Cham, MS ’99, PhD ’03. His response was Piled Higher and Deeper — PhD for short — a comic strip that depicts the solitary lives of overstressed, underpaid and at times procrastinating grad students and their demanding advisers.

After a few years as a postdoctoral researcher, Cham decided to draw cartoons full time. In recent years, PhD has seen its popularity soar, with a now-global reach and more than 6 million annual online visitors. The strip has run frequently in the Stanford Daily since 1997.

Cham has also illustrated two books, Scientific Paper Writing — A Survival Guide and We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe. The second, released in May, is a collaboration with particle physicist Daniel Whiteson to explore unanswered scientific questions.

Cham says the thrill of connecting to students motivates him. “People always say to me, ‘I thought I was the only person going through this, but then I found your comics, and it made me realize that I was not alone.’ ”•