One of the great lessons of sociology is the power of shared experience, whether positive or negative, to create deep and lasting human bonds. From the horror and misery of war and abduction (Stockholm syndrome) through the fun and excitement of athletic camaraderie and competition to the caffeine and adrenalin fueled pressure of a "ship or die" venture-funded startup, shared experiences can define one's life. This even extends to pursuing a Ph.D., where the long, sometimes strange and unpredictable journey can create its own ethos and breed a certain gallows humor.
This is why I am enjoying the great comic strip, Piled Higher and Deeper, also known as PhDComics, drawn by Jorge Cham. As an aside, the phrase "piled higher and deeper," of course, is an old and hoary wordplay on the progression from B.S. through "more of the same" (M.S.) to – all together now – "piled higher and deeper." (Ph.D.) If you ever spent Saturday night working in the lab, and every graduate student has, you understand the stable cleaning analogy.
The first time I saw the PhDComics strip, I knew that Jorge must have been a Ph.D. student, because only someone who has experienced graduate school and faculty life, particularly in a technical discipline, could have that much insight regarding the joy and misery of graduate student life and the trials and foibles of faculty members. I spent thirty years in that world, and I recognize myself, my friends and my colleagues in the strip. (No, not thirty as a graduate student, though it certainly seemed so at the time!) Perhaps the following anecdotes will trigger some memories of your own.
As a graduate student, you live in a netherworld, not quite a student nor a faculty member either. The undergraduate students see you as faculty, especially if you are a teaching assistant, and the faculty members see you as a student, especially if you have not yet crossed the River Styx, otherwise known as the Ph.D. qualifying examination. From the university's bureaucratic perspective, you are a chameleon, classified as either a student (see parking privileges and health benefits) or staff (see student discounts and athletic tickets) when convenient.
One of my Illinois Ph.D. students came to our weekly group meeting absolutely furious. He'd driven to the Digital Computer Laboratory (DCL) about 3 A.M. that morning to check on the progress of some research simulations. When he returned to his car about 15 minutes later, he found a ticket on his windshield. My student was absolutely adamant that it was unfair and that he would not pay the fine. It looked like a mano-a-mano smackdown – irate graduate student versus implacable bureaucracy.
I was sympathetic; after all, Urbana at 3 A.M. has a surfeit of parking places. I asked him on which of the streets near DCL he'd parked his car. He asked why it mattered. I patiently explained that some of the streets were within the jurisdiction of the university police, whereas others were within the jurisdiction of the city of Urbana. The city – and by extension, the U.S. government – might have the power to fine him, jail him or even deport him, but the university wielded a far more important power over his fate and future. It could prevent him from graduating by simply encumbering his records for failure to pay a parking ticket. Because he had parked on a university street, he had no choice; he wanted a Ph.D.; he paid the fine. Final score: university 1; graduate student 0.
The Weekly Meetings
If you have been a graduate student or a faculty member, you remember the weekly meetings with your advisor (advisees) and the group meetings and seminars. Each brings certain perspectives, and they become conjoined over time, whether it be foraging for free seminar food, trying to impress people by asking questions or simply staying awake and trying to look interested.
One my first Ph.D. students, a truly fantastic researcher who is now a very successful computer science faculty member himself, once asked me at a professional conference if there had ever been intervals where I had wondered if he were doing anything useful in the lab. After confessing that it had crossed my mind a time or two, he laughed and said he understood, as he now wondered the same about his own students.
How Many Years?
At some point during my graduate career at Purdue, I was having dinner with the parents of a friend of mine. Her mother asked when I expected to graduate, and I said, "In a year or so, I think." She replied, "That's what you said last year." In fact, I had said the same thing the year before, and both times I had been hoping it was true. Of course, she didn't know that asking a graduate student when they will finish their thesis is a bit like asking someone about their weight or their income. As the PhDComics strip notes, it's best not discussed in polite company.
In that spirit, I also distinctly remember leaving a Friday night, midnight campus showing of The Deer Hunter, thinking the odds were high that my tombstone would list me as an A.B.D. graduate student with the epitaph, "Felled by one last thesis revision." That one sentence captures so many elements of the graduate experience. First, I left the movie alone and on foot, because I had no date and no car. Second, I was attending a midnight $1 movie because I living on rather miniscule graduate fellowship stipend with little discretionary money. (See my previous comment about having no date and no car.) Third, it was The Deer Hunter, a great movie but a truly depressing moral meditation on war and death, perhaps not the best choice for a midnight screening, especially for a graduate student. Without hesitation, I walked directly back to my office in the Purdue Mathematical Sciences building and worked all night on my dissertation. I had to graduate, and I did!
Crazy Thesis Topics
My dissertation was on a wild and crazy idea – building parallel computers using large numbers of microprocessors and programming them via message passing. Like most dissertations, nothing came of it, because we all recognized the importance of purpose-built parallel systems that balanced computation, communication and I/O and that were programmed using new languages and tools that focused on human productivity. A long-term, industry-government-academic partnership in the early 1990s produced the balanced, highly productive, near-exascale systems we use today for breakthrough computational science and national defense.
What's that you say? You mean we are using commodity microprocessors and message passing for parallel computing? Bummer! I must have confused this reality with a parallel earth in a many worlds quantum interpretation.
Like most humor, the rueful elements of truth are what make PhDComics fun. I formed some of my most intense, lifelong friendships in graduate school, both with my fellow students and with faculty, especially my thesis advisor. (Yes, we called him Herb, and he was a great guy) The highs and lows, the parties, the late nights in the lab, the uncertainty and the satisfaction – they are what make research in academia a special place.
PhDComics captures all of this. It's a smash hit in the academic community, with appearances in Science, Nature and a host of other places. Here's to Jorge and continued success. (Hint, buy the books and read the strip.)