Laughter is the Best Medicine for a Sluggish Dissertation

Julie Vick

The first thing I wrote for the Career Services blog was “’Makes ‘Em Laugh:’ A Comic a Day Gets the Dissertation Written.”

In that little piece my goal was to help current doctoral students take a break from their research and writing to laugh at Piled Higher and Deeper, a comic strip that documents the humorous, and not-so-humorous, aspects of grad school.

Now, more than two years later, Jorge Cham, the author who started writing the strip while working on his PhD at Stanford, has to his credit four published books, a movie (which was shown at Penn this past fall) entitled “The Power of Procrastination” and an online store full of T-shirts and mugs with such PhD-pithy sayings as “Grad School: It seemed better than getting a real job” and “The Origin of the Theses”.

Undergrads who are considering graduate education: Piled Higher and Deeper can help you get an interesting read on your possible future.  For first-time readers, there’s a page to check where you can learn about the characters and link to the most popular strips.

As I said last time, not only are the comics themselves great to read but so is the fan mail:

“Oh God, it hurts! It’s all so true, and so evil! I can’t tell whether I should be laughing or crying in sympathy” -Chemistry grad from Caltech

“Your comic strip rocks!  I’ve decided not to go to grad school.” -Electrical Engineering undergrad from Yale U.

“Everybody in my lab loves your work. The songs help soothe the hurt when my experiments fail and I think about the next 6 yrs here” -Microbiology grad from NYU

You can join a mailing list to be notified of new strips.  So once again, I advise, “Give yourself the gift of laughter and spend a little time with PHD!”

Get your own motivation fairy! They can come in handy when working on your PhD.

Dr. Joseph Barber

I’ll have to keep this blog short as I’ve got a new baby arriving within the week and all sorts of tasks to complete before she arrives. Trust me, it is a long, long, long, list of things to do and there seems like there is never enough time to get them done (and still be able to sleep, which I realize will be a luxury over the next few weeks).

Even if you don’t have a baby on the way, chances are that as a graduate student you regularly experience the age-old phenomenon of too much to do, and not enough time to do it. Why is that? Well…, the easy answer is the simplest one – there really is too much to do, and someone has made it so that time never stands still long enough to get them done (something to do with photons, neutrinos, dark matter, and other such mysterious things). The more complicated answer is that we sometimes sabotage our own best attempts to get things done. Most likely, this happens subconsciously, but it does happen. In fact, it could be happening right now – you are reading this blog rather than tackling some of those more pressing tasks, after all.

There is much to get done as part of a PhD, and many variables that you have to try to manage as part of this experience: your advisors, your thesis committee, your research topic (e.g., chickens, neutrinos, 18th century romantic poetry), your flat/lab mates, your social life, your family life, your finances, and so on. There are many reasons we might perform self-sabotage behaviours, and many different ways these can occur. Perhaps you do not have an effective way of communicating with your advisor, and so never get the feedback you are looking for to get a paper published. Perhaps you are trying to make the first chapter of your thesis perfect, and so end up deleting whatever you have written at the end of each day because you feel it does not live up to your high standards. Or perhaps you just get so caught up in checking emails and completing easy but unimportant tasks that you never get to the important ones. Take a look at your daily schedule and you might spot some patterns of behaviours that are not actually helping you achieve your goals. Of course, you also need to have some pretty concrete goals in the first place, or you won’t know what you should be doing on a day-to-day basis.

I have gathered together some resources that might help you to get back on track with your to-do list, and get you motivated to get some of those pesky tasks done (like writing your thesis!). Don’t use these as an excuse not to be constructive today, though! As for me, I have now written this article, and so I will consider this task totally and completely done! Here are the links to some interesting resources:

The care and maintenance of your adviser

Turbocharge your writing today

Waiting for the motivation fairy

The balanced researcher

Innovation in PhD completion: the hardy shall succeed (and be happy!)

When a high distinction isn’t good enough: a review of perfectionism and self-handicapping


A Day in the Life: Postdoctoral Scholar

Starting the week of September 26th, the Grad & Postdoc team kicked off their annual event, the Academic Career Conference, for the graduate students and postdocs here at Penn.  The whole week, we have been highlighting resources through our social media channels on the academic job market.  To shed additional light on life in academia, we’re excited to have alum Stephen Schueller, Ph.D, contribute to @PennCareerDay on Twitter on Thursday, October 6th.   To learn more about Stephen, please read his bio below, and remember to follow him on the 6th!

Stephen Schueller (Ph.D. in Psychology, Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences ’11) is currently a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco in the Department of Psychiatry.  He started his graduate work at Penn in 2005 after receiving his bachelor’s in psychology from the University of California, Riverside. During his undergraduate, he worked as a research assistant studying happiness from a psychological perspective. At Penn, he trained as a researcher and clinician while working towards a doctorate in clinical psychology.

Through his research and clinical experiences, he became convinced that psychological treatments reach far too few and that expanding the reach of psychology would involve not just training more psychologists but creating innovative interventions. These interests brought him to UCSF Medical School. As a clinical researcher at UCSF, he has the opportunity to conduct research in an applied setting. He provides individual and group therapy in the public sector at San Francisco General Hospital. His current research studies the use of the Internet and health information technology to provide interventions that promote psychological health and behavior change.

Lingua Franca

by Julie Vick


Are you applying to a doctoral program because you feel teaching students and doing research would be an exciting career?  Perhaps you are already in a doctoral program and preparing to write your dissertation or maybe finishing it up.   Regardless of your stage, you are probably aware of the importance of learning the language of your discipline but did you also know that when you look for a job you need to learn the professional language of higher education?

Every occupation, whether it’s in an academic discipline or a professional field, has its own language and higher education is no exception.   An example you have probably come across is a “CV” as opposed to “resume.”

A CV, which stands for curriculum vitae, meaning “course of life” in Latin, is used by candidates seeking college and university teaching positions as well as by those applying for other research jobs and for fellowships.  A CV (which is also referred to as a “vita”) includes details about one’s academic work, including publications and presentations and is usually much lengthier than a résumé which should be tailored for a specific kind of job.  Of course, the purpose in preparing either is to interest a prospective employer enough to invite you for a personal interview.

As a career advisor who works with doctoral students, I co-author a column every 4-6 weeks for the Chronicle of Higher Education, a daily news website/weekly newspaper devoted to all aspects of higher education.  Because many Penn doctoral students and postdocs ask questions about terms and abbreviations used in the job search process I, with my co-writers have written three columns on the language of higher education that is important to master while applying for faculty jobs: If you want to find out the meaning of chalk talk, SLAC, soft money, ABD and degree in hand, as well as other terms, check out these articles: Learning the Lingo, Learning the Lingo, Part 2 and Learning the Lingo, Part 3.  And be sure to learn the language of your own field!

“Makes ‘Em Laugh:” A Comic Strip a Day Gets the Dissertation Written

by Julie Vick

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham
"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

Are you deep in the middle of writing your dissertation and feel you are far removed from normal life?   Or might you be an undergrad wondering what graduate school is really like (or at least want to appreciate the funny side of academic endeavors)?  If so, take a break and have a laugh with Piled Higher and Deeper, a comic strip written about life in the trenches of graduate student-hood.  Jorge Cham, the author of Piled Higher and Deeper got his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, and was a full-time Instructor and researcher at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) from 2003-2005.    His strips have been collected into three published books and a fourth is due out soon.  Jorge spoke at Penn last year to an overflowing room of more than 200 people.

If you’re a first-time reader, there’s a page to check where you can find out about the characters and link to the most popular strips.

Not only are the comics themselves great to read but so is the fan mail:

“Oh God, it hurts! It’s all so true, and so evil! I can’t tell whether I should be laughing or crying in sympathy” -Chemistry grad from Caltech

“Your comic strip rocks. I’ve decided not to go to grad school.” -Elect. Eng. undergrad from Yale U.

“Everybody in my lab loves your work. The songs help soothe the hurt when my experiments fail and I think about the next 6 yrs here” -Microbiology grad from NYU

Give yourself the gift of laughter and spend a little time with PHD!