Jorge Cham of PHD Comics

March 1st, 2009 by Potato

I just got back from seeing Jorge (interestingly, it doesn’t rhyme with “George”) Cham of PHD comics give a talk on the Power of Procrastination here at UWO. It was quite a good talk — funny, entertaining, and maybe a little bit inspirational too. If he’s coming by your school, I recommend you stop by (this means you, UBC readers!). There was a bit of time for questions-and-answers at the end, which was to my surprise a little slow (not many questions), so I stuck up my hand and asked if there was an update to the economy and grad school enrollment graph to reflect the recent economic troubles. I got dissed for daring to ask a question of the PHD comics guy while wearing an XKCD T-shirt. It was fun.

Note that this is not the question I had burning in my mind going in, but rather “Who writes Cecilia’s blog if she’s a fictional character?”

Anyhow, take-home points:

-Powerpoint is cool.

-Bulleted lists are cool.

-Those are probably the 2 most useful real-world skills you will learn in grad school.

-Grad student mental health is not good: 95% report being overwhelmed (what about the other 5%?), 67% feel depressed, 10% contemplate suicide, 0.5% attempt it.

-In the US, the average grad student makes $15 more per year than a minimum-wage worker at a California McDonald’s. Based on the new $9.50 minimum wage (next week!), at 48 weeks/year an Ontario McDonald’s worker could take home $17100 pre-tax; a PhD student in our department without an external scholarship gets $15050 to live off of.

-Guilt is a big problem for grad students. Even though we have the freedom to mosey on in to the lab at the crack of noon and run experiments all through the weekend (depending on equipment availability and our own inclinations — or to even blog while running experiments on the weekend — I have someone in the MRI right now, BWAHAHAHAHAHA), the flip side to that is that there’s never a point where you shouldn’t do work, so you always feel guilty when doing something else. At least people with real jobs often get to leave it behind at the office.

-Procrastination is needed since people are less creative when stressed or forced to do something, etc. Procrastination is what you do when you’re doing what you want to be doing (or what your OCD demands you do), so you need those breaks.

-Procrastination is not laziness. Laziness is when you don’t want to so something. Procrastination just means you don’t want to do it now. And of course the whole concept of grad school is one of procrastination: the process of putting off joining the real world. Laziness is something you need to watch out for.

-Eventually something will come along that will spur you to finish: a job offer, a family issue (wife moving, kid on the way, parents’ disappointment), or just getting sick of being a grad student. At that point your motivation will come back and you’ll rush to finish.

-Everyone is eventually in a rush to finish. No one is 100% happy with their thesis. Git ‘er done.

Jorge has a great understated comedy delivery method. He makes good use of his powerpoint slides, but doesn’t rely on them like a crutch; they’re more like a good team. He has good comedic timing and likes to let the audience fill in the blanks sometimes (sometimes we’d yell it out, sometimes just think it and cry). It was a lot of fun. It may seem like I may have stolen some of the better points that stuck out in my mind here, and so now have spoiled it so you don’t need to go… but it was an hour long lecture, so there’s lots more in there and well worth the price of admission. Be sure to wear an XKCD shirt.

The Western Research Forum that preceeded it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It’s sort of a mini conference on campus where grad student showcase their research. I figured there would be undergrads and junior grad students in attendance as well as members of the public to see what kind of research was going on (and for undergrads, who to apply to for summer research positions/volunteer positions)… but there was nobody there who wasn’t speaking as far as I could tell. In fact, they didn’t even seem to pretend that other people would come, since the rooms we were in were barely big enough to hold the speakers of each session. Since it was a non-specific conference all the presentations were kept quite general so that a non-specialist could follow, and everyone in my session at least gave a quite good, enjoyable talk.

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