Webcomic / PHD


PHD (Piled Higher & Deeper) is a webcomic by Jorge Cham that has been running since 1997.

The characters are a bunch of graduate students at Stanford University. They obsess about ever getting their theses completed, struggle to make ends meet with their meager stipends, wonder why life is passing them by, and slack off while their supervisors aren't looking.

The main characters are:


The unnamed protagonist who serves as the typical go-to representative of a graduate student. He majors in engineering and sees grad school as a good way to postpone the real world. Prof. Smith is his adviser. Has an older brother (who Mike knows) and a younger sister named Dee.


An engineering grad and Only Sane Man of the bunch who just recently came to crushing realization that she is, in fact, a geek. Almost always seen in the same bright red shirt. Prof. Jones is her adviser.

Mike Slackenerny

The Slacker, who has been at grad school longer than any other character. He has a surprising amount of luck in his quest to obtain free food, though this has not endeared him to the faculty. The only one who actually graduated. Now a post-doc. Prof. Smith was his adviser.


A humanities- er, Social Science student, she is constantly finding causes to rally protests. A Granola Girl and proud of it. Prof. Rivera is her adviser.

Professor Smith

A Sadist Teacher whose past accomplishments are spoken of in whispers by grad students. Wears a mix of Cool Shades, Scary Shiny Glasses, and Opaque Nerd Glasses.

Contains examples of:

  • Absent-Minded Professor: Almost all of the Research Advisors introduced. They can barely remember the students' name, and hardly ever bother to read their thesis draft.
  • Acceptable Targets: invoked Since the comics are drawn from the perspective of grad students, it frequently makes fun of research advisers and undergrads.
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: Publish and/or Perish!
  • All Issues Are Political Issues: Tajel often carries protest signboards for various causes.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Dee's friend has a dark skin, but he has no name or distinctive features to determine his actual race (unlike Tajel, who we know is half-Indian from her mother).
  • Art Evolution: Obviously, considering the sheer length of time its been running. Still, just compare the art change over the years. Still, just look at the difference between the first strip and a recent one.
  • Audience Surrogate: The protagonist has no name or any distinctive personality, and could represent just about any Grad Student.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comparison: Occupy Wall Street.
  • Big Eater:
    • Whenever he's not sleeping, Mike would likely by sneaking around association meets trying to steal food.
    • Dee, the main character's younger sister, is almost always eating, and at one point left in the middle of an exam to buy food.
  • Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs: The "How You Spend Your Time" pie chart has a Sports & Leisure section which consist of surfing the internet, doing sports, and reading about sports while surfing the Internet.
  • Brick Joke: The protagonist's travel reimbursement form, which shows up again over a year later.
  • Call Back: Mike teaches the protagonist how to distract with graphs, which unfortunately doesn't work too well for him. Mike himself does it over a year later, with more success.
  • Characterization Marches On:
    • When we see Tajel interact with Prof. Rivera for the first time, he was lamenting her lack of apparent seriousness in her studies, especially when she chose to write about "The Grad student of Academia" for her research topic. Nowadays, their dynamics are reversed, as Rivera becomes the most egregious example of Absent-Minded Professor who never reads Tajel's draft and gives her useless advice, while Tajel desperately tries to get his support in writing her thesis.
    • Professor Smith changed too. Originally he was The Faceless, then started to become more of an Absent-Minded Professor who tries to blend in with the students despite being clueless of their trends. Later, he just became a professor with a serious Lack of Empathy.
  • Child Prodigy: Professor Jones's daughter is only first year elementary school, but is intelligent enough to fix Mike's research data.
  • Class Reunion: Cecilia goes to her 10-year high school reunion in this story arc.
  • Comic-Book Time: Every year, the strip features the characters celebrating birthdays, summer vacations and various holidays, but despite their constant complains that they're never graduating, they never seem to actually age. Cecelia lampshades this in one of her birthday strips, in which she decided that the time she spends in grad school doesn't count to her age, because it's basically living in a vacuum.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome:
    • Scott all but disappeared from the storyline after he broke up with Cecilia.
    • Played for Laughs with Gerard, the token Humanities student, who was told by the PHD Comics management that he should either change his major or leave the comics altogether. He was then forced to attend a hearing to justify his existence, and had not appeared ever since.
  • Cue the Flying Pigs: An actual flock of flying pigs were seen over the campus, while Hell freezes over when it was revealed that Mike might actually graduate.
  • Cuteness Overload: Most of the campus faculty practically melts at the sight of Mike's baby daughter, Sophie. He exploits this to distract them while he steals food from associations he doesn't belong to.
  • Divergent Character Evolution: In the earlier strips, all the University professors were portrayed as a collective group of sinister, faceless Hive Mind who goes out their way to make the students' lives more difficult, especially during Quals. Now, they're mostly given distinct appearance and personalities: Professor Smith is still the mean Stern Teacher, Professor Jones tries to be helpful but is often scatterbrained, Professor Rivera is very flippant and easygoing, but doesn't really pay attention to what his students are doing.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Tajel sometimes, as part of her Granola Girl personality.
  • Eating Lunch Alone: Doing it at the campus cafeteria makes Cecilia feel unbearably self-conscious.
  • Education Through Pyrotechnics: The machines used for experimental research frequently blow up in people's faces.
  • The Faceless: Most of the research advisors don't get drawn in the comic panels, at least in the earlier strips. No longer the case since the 2003 strips.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: To keep going, the series needs the characters to remain grad students, meaning they have to postpone the completion of their respective theses indefinitely. Mike ultimately subverts this; having been the oldest grad student for several years, he finally manages to finish his dissertation after of procrastination and graduate, but stays anyway as a member of the teaching staff.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Of course, the strip title (though that itself is an old joke). And this strip has a how-to guide!
  • Gag Series: The main point of the strips are to make jokes about the life (or lack thereof) of a grad student, and make fun of the research advisors and Academia in general. When the strips briefly went for a more detailed plot and character development, some readers actually complain.
  • Happily Married: Mike and his wife Jennifer have a happy, stable relationship, even though she does occasionally get exasperated with his laziness. Pretty surprising, considering how he only knew her for a week before eloping with her in Las Vegas.
  • Heavy Sleeper:
    • When Mike is not trying to mooch free food, he'd most likely be sleeping.
    • To a lesser extent, Dee. She could barely wake up on time to attend an 11 o'clock class, and would fall asleep in class anyway. She doesn't even have the justificiation of staying up too late.
  • I Can't Believe a Guy Like You Would Notice Me: Cecilia with her secret high school crush. She finds out ten years later that he had noticed her all right.
  • Ignored Epiphany: A Smithmas Carol ends with Smith reflecting on his life's journey and concluding with this:
    Prof. Smith: Eh, who cares? I've got tenure.
  • In Vino Veritas: Played with. The shy and reclusive Cecilia turns into the Life of the Party not because of drunkenness, but from a chocolate high.
  • Limited Wardrobe: Probably justified considering how cash-strapped the characters are. In any case, they are almost always depicted in the same outfits.
  • Living Prop: Discussed in-universe regarding the status of grad students. Apparently, the faculty would be more likely to notice an actual missing furniture than they would a missing student.
  • Meaningful Name: The resident Ridiculous Procrastinator is creatively named Mike Slackenerny.
  • Meta Guy: Gerard, the Humanities student Recurring Character, only exists to represent another Grad School department apart from engineering. He's definitely aware of this, and most of his appearances have him address the readers in some way.
  • Misery Poker: A humorous variation took place during the PhD widows meeting between Scott and Jenny as they ranted on their respective partners, Cecelia and Mike.
    Scott: Cecelia seems to have lost her way... She has a lot of work ethic but lacks purpose.
    Jennifer: My husband, on the other hand, has a baby on the way, but his work is pathetic and slacks on purpose.
  • Mood Whiplash: Tales from the Road - MD Anderson Cancer Center. It starts off as a typical lighthearted 'Tales From The Road', then in the last section, turns into depressing stories about cancer, ending with a former grad student who was diagnosed thanking him for making them laugh, with the reply "I guess we all do what we can."
  • Monochrome Casting: Averted. The main character is Asian/Hispanic, Tajel is non-American and has an East Indian mother, and Prof. Khumalo is African.
  • The Movie: Yes, there is one.
  • Nerd Glasses: The main character is the embodiment of a stereotypical, dorky grad student. Naturally, he wears a pair of glasses.
  • Not That Kind of Doctor: No one is studying to become physicians.
    • Truth in Television: In this strip the author recounts a time when he was detained by British border agents on the grounds that he didn't qualify as an academic visitor.
    Jorge Cham: "But I have a Ph.D.! I'm giving lectures at universities! I have a Ph.D.!"
    Border Agent: "Sorry. The rules say doctors are allowed in, but you're not a real doctor, are you?"
  • No Name Given: The main character of the strip is never referred to by name. Jorge uses him to depict himself in his "Tales from the Road", where he visits other universities. In the movie, his name is revealed to be Winston.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Faced by Mike when submitting his thesis (he has to come back because the layout isn't in perfect conformity with university rules), by Tajel when applying for a visa, and by the main character when trying to get reimbursed for travel.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: Everyone is freaked out to see Mike actually working. When he was about to submit his thesis to finally graduate, he actually have a whole crowd of grad students watching him, as though it was a parade.
  • Out of Focus: The main character briefly got shafted out of the limelight when he decided to quit his PhD, with the subsequent strips focusing more on Mike, Cecelia, Tajel and Dee.
  • Overly Long Scream: The main character managed to scream for "one week and counting" after he discovered that someone else had written about his research topic.
  • Percussive Maintenance: For the cutting-edge lab equipment.
  • Perpetual Frowner: Prof. Smith's default expression is that of a stern glare, and it remains so, even as his mood changes. Also true of his film persona.
  • Platonic Life Partners: Dee is always hanging out with this one guy, and laments at the prospect of not getting in the same grad school as him. Even the guy is surprised that they're "just friends".
  • Professional Slacker: Inverted with Mike, who would much rather do household chores and take care of his kid rather than work on his research/thesis.
  • Recurring Character: Scott. He's Cecelia's boyfriend, but since he's not a Stanford student, he is actually featured less frequently than the nameless Living Props that are the Engineering Grad students. Lampshaded by Tajel when he suddenly shows up after a long absence.
    "Scott? I feel I haven't seen him in years
  • Rhymes on a Dime: A lot of the comics' punchlines come from characters bantering with each other in rhymes. One example is the Misery Poker mentioned earlier, and another is the following exchange between Cecelia and her advisor.
    Cecelia: I have to reference... without deference?
    Prof. Jones: That's the preference.
  • Ridiculous Procrastinator: Mike has started procrastination journey from the moment he was born.
  • Right in Front of Me: Upon meeting Khumalo, Tajel starts chatting him up without realizing that he's her new professor.
  • Running Gag: π/2
  • Sadist Teacher: Smith clearly enjoys overworking the grad students and post-docs, and spoiling their holidays for them.
    "Turning holiday cheer into sheer panic is my favorite part of the season."
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: Whenever Prof. Smith is being depicted as a Sadist Teacher who makes the grad students' life hell, his spectacles become opaque. Otherwise, it's a normal glasses.
  • Shout-Out: I see post-docs!
  • Shrouded in Myth: There are many rumours about Prof. Smith's past floating around the campus. How many of them are acttually true is up to debate.
  • Skewed Priorities: Mike can remember "important stuffs" like who is the colorist for a particular X-Men issue, but forgets to take Quals, which he needed to graduate.
  • The Slacker: While several characters are slackers to some extent, Mike Slackenerny stands head and shoulders above the rest in this regard. An eternal student, he's the PhD answer to Doonesbury's Zonker Harris.
  • Spit Take: Cecilia is prone to do this.
    • When Tajel tells her she's getting married, she deliberately took a gulp from her drink so that she can spray it out in surprise.
    • She also accidentally spurts her drink on Scott when the latter mentioned that he had a job offer in London.
  • Starving Student: All of the students, who lives off instant ramen, and spends a lot of their time scavenging for free food.
  • Status Quo Is God: No matter what happened over the events of the comics, nothing about the characters' dynamic and troubles would really change.
    • Mike finally graduated from his Ph.D, but he continues to stick around the campus as a Post-Doc whose activities mostly involve sleeping, napping and scavenging for free food.
    • Prof. Rivera left Stanford for a position in another University, but continues to serve as Tajel's adviser. Since he barely communicate with his student or give her useful advice anyway, his departure has no virtually effect to her thesis.
  • Still Got It: Prof. Smith when he finds out he can still take a nap balanced on a chair, as he used to do as a grad student.
  • Take That:
  • Teacher/Student Romance: Tajel dated one of her faculty Professors, Khumalo, and eventually married him. In an interesting variation of the trope, the teacher is actually younger than the student because Tajel is another one of those eternal grad students who would probably never graduate.
  • Terse Talker: Prof. Smith's email tends to be very short and takes only about a second to write.
  • Trademark Favourite Food: Cecilia has an addiction for chocolate and cookies (except raisin ones).
  • Vague Age: No one really knows how old any of the characters are, since most of them are grad students who have spent countless of years in their program and not showing any signs of graduating soon, despite their constant lament that they're getting older and older as the years goes by. And given that Mike's baby daughter visibly ages over time, the setting probably doesn't run on Comic-Book Time.
  • Walking Techbane: As shown in this strip, research advisors have the uncanny ability to make any project malfunction in their close vicinity.
  • Whole Plot Reference: A couple of the 1999 strips were parodies of several movies that came out that year.
  • Wedding Day: Tajel and Khumalo's wedding.
  • Workaholic: Professor Smith doesn't believe in holidays, and would rather stay at the campus to continue his research, than go on a vacation with his family. Even when he's forced to go anyway, he'll be bringing his laptop and continue to monitor his grad students and postdocs through emails while being away.

Alternative Title(s): Piled Higher And Deeper, Piled High And Deeper