The three PhD Comic strips that are actually good research advice

By Charles Sutton on February 18, 2019

If you’re reading this blog, then you already know about PhD Comics. If you really haven’t seen them before, click the link and read them now. They are more insightful and funnier than anything in this blog.

It goes without saying, however, that you should not model your own career on the characters in the PhD comics strip. For one thing, they’ve been in grad school for more than 20 years.

Amazingly, though, there are three PhD comic strips, and probably only three, that are actually good research advice:

  • Writing your thesis outline. A thesis is daunting. How do you write an entire book over five-plus years? Instead, I like to tell my students to think and plan at the level of individual papers. Basically, you have three content chapters of your thesis, and so if you have three strong papers that fit together thematically, then you set up one paper per each chapter, and there you are! No sweat. I call this the “PhD Comics Guide to Writing Your Thesis.”

  • Amount of time writing one email. I saw this comic when I was a junior professor, and I immediately realized: (a) this is so true, and (b) I needed to act more like the professor in the comic strip. This is how I learned that when you have many things to decide, you must decide quickly.

  • The evolution of intellectual freedom. Sometimes you have to take big risks in your work and follow your own star. Once you learn the basic technical skills needed for research, it is so easy to do only incremental work, follow what the cool people are doing, and focus on what’s likely to get you jobs and funding. There are good reasons to do some of this, but if this is all that you do, then why are you in research?