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Webcomic / PHD

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

The comics depict the typical life of graduate students in Stanford University: how 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.

Now has a character page.

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.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Cecelia's advisor Professor Jones is named Professor Chu in the movies.
  • 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 look at the art change over the years. (Compare the first strip and one from 2012.)
  • Ascended Extra: In the comics, Sangeeta Singh was only seen in one of Professor Smith's flashbacks. In the second movie, she is a major character and is revealed to have become a rival professor.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comparison: Occupy Wall Street.
  • Batman Gambit: During Cecelia's thesis defense in the second film, her advisor Professor Chu gets an adversarial committee member to endorse her thesis by agreeing with him that an additional year of work is needed, knowing that he will change his mind to be Commander Contrarian.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Not something the strip does all the time, but Cecilia has had occasion to.
  • 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.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Early in the second movie, Allison points out Dr. Dukosky as the founder of their field, but the latter is surrounded by other conference attendees at the time and cannot be seen. Later during conference presentations, the Nameless Hero has a casual conversation with an old lady who turns out to be Dr. Dukosky, and she provides him with helpful advice in a subsequent scene.
  • Child Prodigy: Professor Jones's daughter is only a first year in 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.
  • Cool Old Lady: The second movie has Dr. Dukosky, the highly respected founder of the Nameless Hero's field of study, who takes the time to strike up a friendly conversation with him and offers him advice.
  • 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.
  • Creative Closing Credits: The first film overlays the credits on top of academic paperwork, accompanied by sketches of the cast and crew in the art style of the comics.
  • 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, Sophy. He exploits this to distract them while he steals food from associations he doesn't belong to.
  • Demoted to Extra: In the first film, Mike and Tajel were important supporting characters who gave guidance to the Nameless Hero and Cecelia respectively. In the second film, their roles are diminished, only getting some token lines and scenes that for most part don't directly affect the main plot.
  • 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.
  • 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 years of procrastination and graduate, but stays anyway as a member of the teaching staff.
  • Fourth-Wall Observer: Tajel takes this role in the movies. She addresses the audience at the end of both films, and refers to herself as a "secondary character" in the first movie.
  • 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 go for more detailed plot and character development, some readers actually complain.
  • Ignored Aesop: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Misplaced Kindergarten Teacher: Cecelia's teaching style has shades of this in the first movie; she prepares baked goods for her students and comes up with an interpretive dance (complete with props and rhymes) to introduce the course material to them. She is eventually discouraged from doing this by the undergrads' seeming apathy, but returns to it enthusiastically once she gets out of her funk.
  • 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."
  • The Movie: Yes, there is one. In fact, there are two.
  • Named by the Adaptation: In the movies, the Nameless Grad Student's name is given as Winston.
  • 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?"
    *He actually said this.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Promoted to Love Interest: The second film pairs up Cecelia and Winston (the Nameless Grad Student), though this is only revealed to the audience at the end.
  • 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
  • Relationship Reveal: Throughout the second film, Cecelia and Winston (the Nameless Grad Student) are both shown receiving texts from an unrevealed party. It is revealed at the end that they had been texting each other and are romantically involved, following a Ship Tease at the end of the first film.
  • 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.
  • Rhyming Title: Several strips have titles such as "Webcam Labcam" and "What is... a Thesis?"
  • 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
  • Sequel Hook: Near the end of the first film, Mike learns that his wife is pregnant. A sketch of their baby daughter is shown in the end credits, with "Sequel!" written next to her. She does end up appearing in the second film, though only for a brief moment in the opening montage.
  • Shout-Out: I see post-docs!
  • 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 takes 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 live off instant ramen, and spend 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!:
  • Two Scenes, One Dialogue: In both films, there's a scene in which Cecelia and the Nameless Grad Student receive the same advice simultaneously from different parties at a pivotal moment. In the first film, the advice is respectively given by Tajel and Mike. In the second, it's given by the emeritus professor on Cecelia's thesis committee and Dr. Dukosky.
  • 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.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: During the credits of the second movie, a montage is shown of Mike's attempts to land an industry job during the conference. He is eventually offered a position... only for the employer to retract the offer when Mike starts gratuitously celebrating on the spot.
  • Yet Another Christmas Carol: One holiday arc features the classic Christmas Carol parody, casting the inattentive advisor Dr. Smith as Scrooge, his own old advisor as Marley, the Ghost of Winter Break Past who shows him his own days as a grad student, the Ghost of Winter Break Present who tries to get him to remember who his current students are, and the Ghost of Winter Break Future who shows him a possible tomorrow where he's relegated to administration duties with no time for research. Smith comes out of it having learned absolutely nothing.

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