Adam Ruben finds humor in the lives of grad students

Comedian Adam Ruben

On Monday night, I attended the stand-up routine and book reading of Adam Ruben, author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School (excerpt). Ruben was able to tap into the universal experiences of graduate students to garner laughs from an audience all too familiar with being “exhausted, overworked, underappreciated, and buried in shit.”

Self-titled “recovering graduate student” Adam Ruben received his Ph.D. in molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University after spending seven years in the program. He left academia to pursue comedy in such ventures as the Food Detective, The National Lampoon, NPR, and opening for Dane Cook; he also works as a microbiologist at a start-up biotechnology company.

Ruben read three sections from the book, which has been acclaimed by the graduate students who have been able to both afford it and have time to read it. (Finding a publisher is difficult when your target market has no money or time.) On the topic of grad school, Ruben said “I went to grad school in the sciences because, like many of you, I was lied to.”

When discussing advisors, he highlighted that most issues come from the fact that scientists are not good communicators. Some advisors are too hands on, some are too hands off; both are ultimately ineffective. He told the story of a meeting in graduate school where faculty met with the entire 6th year class, not a single member of which had graduated yet. The graduate students were wondering why they hadn’t graduated. The faculty members were wondering why the students were still there. The faculty members were waiting for the students to take initiative. The students were waiting for the faculty members to give them direction. This discussion took six years to happen. When an audience member asked Ruben for advice on graduate school, he replied, “take initiative that [your advisors] don’t expect.”

Another big issue that most audience members had not faced yet was figuring out their post-graduate lives. The hardest part was not knowing definitively when they would graduate and not being able to plan their lives accordingly. Many found maintaining their relationships and the “two-body” problem to be a much bigger issue than if graduation dates were immutable.

The biggest surprise for me is that Ruben said that he didn’t hate grad school. He didn’t even dislike it. Sure, he had regrets, like he could have done some things faster and taken more initiative, but he said “we secretly kind of like this.” All grad students that don’t quit somewhere secretly like sighing and complaining about the fifteen-hour days, grading, and instrumentation failures. He just likes to complain about it more vocally and in a more humorous way than others.

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  1. E.

    This guy isn’t funny. He enjoys pitting humanities PhDs against science PhDs for a cheap laugh. In a recent piece in Science he expressed that humanities PhDs only wind up putting blankets on couches in their mothers’ basements. Ironically, Ruben made this crack in the context of how frustrated science PhDs feel when no one understands what they do. Too bad Ruben didn’t bother to understand what humanities PhDs actually do other than work in academia. No, instead he made himself feel better by making the lie that humanities PhDs are losers who sleep in their parents’ basements.

    That’s not all. On the website Post-Academic he made the crack that humanities PhDs either succeed on the tenure-track or wind up working at Arby’s. He’s got a lot of nerve to say such awful lies for a laugh. A cheap laugh at that.

    I cannot believe that reputable universities–Johns Hopkins no less–invite this guy to speak to undergraduates and graduate students. Anyone who denigrates the students of the humanities, or the sciences for that matter (let’s not forget that these are the bedrocks of a college education), should not be invited to speak at colleges and universities.

    For that matter, was Ruben lied to or did he simply fail to investigate what graduate school would be like? His routine depends on an incredible degree of emotional immaturity. Being a graduate student is hard, but it’s also an incredible privilege. It’s not like Ruben’s life was as difficult as that of a factory worker, a marine on the front lines, or a homeless person trying to get by. No, all he had to do was scientific research and track down his advisor once in a great while. He should be grateful. But no, he thumbs his nose at his own advantages and expects us to empathize with him. This PhD refuses to that.

  2. gradstudent

    Yea i agree with you; however a stand-up routine is a stand-up routine.. no matter how vulgar, deceptive etc. It is as long as people enjoy it it’s his floor! Chill man, fellow humanities phd