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PhD (Playful, hilarious, Daring) Memoir: A Humorous Lens on Contemporary Doctoral Development

Humour theories can be linked to discussions about the development of doctoral students because they offer a valuable tool for coping with the challenges of the doctoral journey. As doctoral candidates often grapple with a complex mix of achievement and anxiety in the later stages of their studies (van Rooij et al., 2021; Clohessy, 2021; Scoones, 2021), humour can serve as a cognitive and emotional ally. This article draws from personal experiences and presents three illustrative vignettes to demonstrate how humour theories can help students and faculty member reframe perspectives and mitigate the cognitive dissonance experienced during the pursuit of a PhD.

Figure 1 An amusing portrayal of how postgraduates’ appreciation for PhD comics evolves over time. This satire aims to capture the humour of pursuing a PhD, juxtaposing it with the often-unfunny reality in the later stages of the journey. The boundary between humour and seriousness is sometimes remarkably thin.

Note. From How funny you find PHD Comics, by PHD Comics, 2015 (

Amid rising demand for mental health support in higher education (Mackie & Bates, 2019; van Rooij et al., 2021), I will investigate why doctoral students face stress due to unclear expectations in research and professional development, often leading to anxiety:

In my PhD journey, one specific publication dominates my thoughts. I’m currently in the third round of reviews, facing the stress of deciding whether to revise further or withdraw it. While I understand the importance of publications for an academic career, I also acknowledge the need to focus on my PhD writing.

I recommend using the benign violation theory (BVT) to cope with PhD stress. BVT suggests humour arises when situations seem improper or unexpected but not actually harmful. Applying BVT, navigating PhD publication feels like solving a Rubik’s cube blindfolded, symbolising its challenges. Ironically, embracing this complexity might lead to academic success. Finding humour in the absurdity can maintain a positive outlook. I’m determined to revise my manuscript with optimism, seeing it as just another twist in the academic labyrinth.

To address these concerns, set clear, attainable goals in the PhD programme to reduce stress. Faculty member should guide task prioritisation and time management. Many students feel isolated (Obradović-Ratković et al., 2022; Rutledge-Prior & Casey, 2023). To support their well-being and academic success, faculty member should acknowledge their experiences, foster optimism, and build a sense of community.

Figure 2 The theory of superiority in humour research suggests that jokes and forms of humour are based on a perceived sense of superiority over others. In other words, humour often arises when people feel they are in a position of intellectual, moral, or social advantage compared to someone else or a situation.

Note. From Theories of humor - public speaking skills, by Manu Melwin Joy (

Humour often arises from highlighting imperfections or shortcomings (Gruner, 1997; Meyer, 2000). The theory of superiority (ToS) can help students view their challenges and stress differently. ToS suggests that humour allows individuals to feel superior to others or to their past selves. I will share a personal example of shifting from overwhelm to empowerment:

I faced research challenges beyond my supervisor and adviser’s expertise. Seeking help, I contacted the graduate office, where faculty member offered guidance on securing research grants, funding, and workshops. They praised my ambition and ideas, boosting my confidence. Their support shaped my academic and personal growth, enabling me to conquer challenges, form collaborations, and explore new research avenues.

The higher education faculty member boosted my confidence by highlighting my strengths and resources. This shift in perspective improved my confidence in presenting research and engaging with fellow scholars. ToS embodies a form of “comedic amusement” (Lintott, 2016, p. 348), and I suggest incorporating ToS into one’s thinking as a tool for resilience and self-motivation.

Balancing academic commitments with personal and professional responsibilities poses a significant challenge for postgraduate students during the dissertation process (Bal et al., 2020; Yusuf et al., 2020). This challenge can be exacerbated when there is a disconnect between a student’s real-life experiences and the expectations set by others. In my third story, I’ll illustrate one such conflict:

While browsing Twitter, I stumbled upon a tweet from Dr Lies Lanckman, the founder of NoRMMA Network. Dr Lanckman tweeted: ‘PhD students: PLEASE WATCH TV IN THE EVENINGS. Play video games! Write fanfiction! See friends!’ It was a reminder that we don’t always need to be academically dedicated. However, the reality is different for us as PhD students. Apart from our research, we juggle various responsibilities within our research groups, like teaching and administrative tasks. We also have daily chores, external commitments like counselling or dyslexia support, and the added need for international students to stay connected with their families. With these demands, it’s almost impossible to avoid multitasking or working in the evenings.

The ontic-epistemic theory of the comic (OETC) proposes that humour emerges from disruptions to our understanding of the world or cognitive contradictions. In doctoral studies, the tension between students’ belief that constant dedication is necessary and faculty member’s recommendations to take breaks creates a contradiction. The OETC suggests that the comic effect arises from perceiving this contradiction in social reality (Marteinson, 2005).

Recognising and understanding the conflicting messages perceived by doctoral students can help higher education faculty member create a supportive environment. Encouraging a healthy work-life balance, promoting non-academic activities, and facilitating open communication can contribute to overall well-being and academic success. Providing resources like time management workshops and stress management training is crucial. Higher education faculty member can also foster a positive and lighthearted atmosphere by embracing appropriate humour and laughter to reduce stress and enhance social connections. Drawing from concepts in BVT, ToS, and OETC, these perspectives can help reframe stressful experiences for doctoral candidates.

In the same way that “failure to recognise humorous intent leads to confusion” (Attardo & Raskin, 2020, p. 100), I suggest that humour can make students more resilient, allowing faculty member to better assist them in overcoming challenges on their path to completing their doctoral requirements.


This article is an abridged version of the publication in Compass: Journal of Learning and Teaching, Volume 16, Issue 2, pages 30-35. To access the complete article, please follow this link:



Attardo, S., & Raskin, V. (Eds.). (2020). Script-Based Semantics: Foundations and Applications, Essays in Honor of Victor Raskin. De Gruyter Mouton.


Bal, I. A., Arslan, O., Budhrani, K., Mao, Z., Novak, K., & Muljana, P. S. (2020). The Balance of Roles: Graduate Student Perspectives during the COVID-19 Pandemic. TechTrends, 64(6), 796-798.


Clohessy, S. (2021, March 3). Throwback Post! Transitioning from second to third year: Reflections and advice. PhDLife Blog: Sharing PhD Experiences across the University of Warwick and Beyond.


Gruner, C. R. (1997). The game of humor: A comprehensive theory of why we laugh. Transaction Publishers.


Lintott, S. (2016). Superiority in Humor Theory: Superiority in Humor Theory. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 74(4), 347-358.


Mackie, S. A., & Bates, G. W. (2019). Contribution of the doctoral education environment to PhD candidates’ mental health problems: A scoping review. Higher Education Research & Development, 38(3), 565–578.


Marteinson, P. G. (2005). On the Problem of the Comic: A Philosophical Study on the Origins of Laughter. LEGAS.


Meyer, J. C. (2000). Humor as a Double-Edged Sword: Four Functions of Humor in Communication. Communication Theory, 10(3), 310-331.


Obradović-Ratković, S., Bajovic, M., Pinar Sen, A., Woloshyn. V., & Savage, M. (Eds.). (2022). Supporting student and faculty wellbeing in graduate education: Teaching, learning, policy, and praxis. Routledge.


Rutledge-Prior, S., & Casey, D. (2023). “An Isolating Experience Aggravated by COVID”: Exploring Disconnections Between Political Science PhD Candidates and Supervisors. PS: Political Science & Politics, 56(3), 357-364.


Scoones, A. (2021, June 18). What’s the third year of a PhD like? Tips for navigating your PhD. Earlham Institute: PhD Blog.


van Rooij, E., Fokkens-Bruinsma, M., & Jansen, E. (2021). Factors that influence PhD candidates’ success: The importance of PhD project characteristics. Studies in Continuing Education, 43(1), 48-67.


Yusuf, J.-E. (Wie), Saitgalina, M., & Chapman, D. W. (2020). Work-life balance and well-being of graduate students. Journal of Public Affairs Education, 26(4), 458-483.


Citation (APA 7 format):

Sheng-Hsiang Lance Peng (2023, November 14). PhD (Playful, hilarious, Daring) Memoir: A Humorous Lens on Contemporary Doctoral Development. Global education linkages: discovering novel trends from the world.



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