On How to Survive Grad School, Learn to Tell Jokes and Cure Malaria

Oct 25, 2011

If you attend Johns Hopkins University, you can learn to be funny - it's as easy as taking an intersession class. If you're a grad student who feels crushed by pressure, you can make it through - it's as easy as reading a book. Molecular biologist and stand-up comedian Dr. Adam J. Ruben has got your back! Education Insider News Blog caught up with Ruben to explore his fascinating career and the ways it might prove beneficial to you, our readers.

by Eric Garneau

adam ruben

Published author, comedian, father, teacher, molecular biologist - with such a diverse resume, Dr. Adam J. Ruben might strike you as something of a modern renaissance man. In 2010 he published his first book, Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School, a humorous look at the more trying aspects of earning an advanced degree. To complement the book, he wrote and recorded a video entitled 'The Grad Student Rap,' which has been covered in outlets like The New York Times. And then there's Ruben's comedy career to consider - since he started performing as an undergraduate in college, he's shared the stage with notables like Greg Giraldo and John Pinette; he also had a recurring role on the Food Detectives television program. Since 2005 he's taught a class on performing stand-up comedy at Johns Hopkins University, and he's also currently working on developing a vaccine for malaria. How could Education Insider News Blog resist such a fascinating subject?

Study.com: What inspired you to write your book about grad school? Was it a difficult sell to publishers, or did it find a home pretty quickly?

Adam Ruben: I spent seven years in grad school, and I found that the things grad students complained and joked about - low stipends, long hours, poor hygiene, whiny or cheating undergrads, inscrutable advisors - were pretty universal. But though there are lots of humorous college survival guides telling people how to, say, build a bong out of beer cans, no such book existed for grad students.

Because of its niche audience, the idea was definitely difficult to pitch to publishers. The book was rejected by dozens of literary agents (probably at least 50, though I stopped keeping track), then several publishers, all of whom said the same thing: 'It's funny! I like it! But I don't want it! Grad students are poor, and why would we want to publish a book to sell to a demographic that can't afford to buy books?' Luckily, one agent and one publisher were interested - and that's all it takes (and they're a great agent and a great publisher).

Study.com How about the 'Grad Student Rap?' Was that conceived of as promotion for your book, or did the idea arise independently? How long did the whole process of writing, recording and shooting the video take?

AR: I came up with the idea for the Grad Student Rap as kind of a companion to the book, but also because unlikely raps seemed to be rising in popularity ('Lazy Sunday' on SNL, Weird Al's 'White and Nerdy,' etc.). I wrote it over the course of a month or two, and we recorded all of the audio in an afternoon, then left Derek Young to do the audio editing on his own. The videotaping ended up taking a while - six or seven independent sessions, generating two or three hours' worth of tape. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that Chuck Na (the videographer) and Mike Freeman (the other rapper) and I all lived in different places. If we were still in grad school, we could have simply walked over to the campus and shot everything - but we had all graduated, which was stupid of us, so we had to schedule filming on the weekends. We also had the deadline of Mike moving to Germany, where he now lives, so all of his scenes had to be finished before his flight. Chuck Na then edited the video, which took half a year - he'd release a version, send it around for comments, and make changes based on the comments. So all in all, I think I wrote the rap in February 2010, and the video went on YouTube in January 2011.

I'm often asked how I got my advisor to agree to appear in the video. The answer is, I didn't. My 'advisor' in the video is actually Bob Koestler, my father-in-law. I thought he looked advisor-ish.

Study.com Despite the title of your book and your take on the life of a grad student in general, do you still recommend that people pursue advanced degrees? What can prospective students do to prepare for the less glamorous aspects of a grad student's existence?

AR: The first question is the one I get most often at book events. People want to know whether I'm advocating skipping or dropping out of grad school, and I'm not. I went, and I'm glad I went - but that doesn't mean there aren't aspects of grad school that couldn't be improved. Grad school provides a lot to complain about, but just because you complain about something doesn't mean you won't be ultimately glad you did it. I was just complaining yesterday about how my 5-month-old daughter woke up several times overnight, so I was tired, but that doesn't mean I'm not happy to have her.

To prepare for the less glamorous aspects of grad school, prospective students should make absolutely sure that they love the subject they intend to study, because only love of that subject will make the sleeplessness and poverty bearable.

Study.com Changing gears, how long have you been interested in comedy? Has it always been attached to your academic career?

AR: I've been doing stand-up since college, and I've typically kept it separate from academics. That's partially because it's just not related to my real work (molecular biology), but it's also because I'm trying to avoid 'Oh, you do stand-up? Tell me a joke! Perform at work! I'd better watch what I say, or I'll end up in one of your routines! Ha ha!'

Study.com Tell us about your Johns Hopkins class, The Stand-Up Comic in Society. Where did you get the idea for this course, and how long have you been teaching it?

AR: When I was a grad student at Hopkins, I applied for something called the Dean's Teaching Fellowship, in which grad students are allowed to teach a class of their own devising. I thought an academic class analyzing the role of stand-up comics in society would be fascinating and fun - but apparently the administration thought otherwise. After the application and interview process, I was told that Hopkins would never approve an academic class about stand-up because they just didn't believe it could be done in an educational way.

Then Hopkins revamped their 'Intersession' classes, the 3-week-long classes taught every January. They were looking for more fun classes for that time period, so I proposed a shortened version of the stand-up course, omitting all of the analysis, paper-writing, article-reading, etc., and just focusing on having students craft their own stand-up routines. I taught the class for the first time in 2005, so this coming January's class will be the eighth one.

I also learned, that first year, that the final show in which the students perform their stand-up routines happened to be scheduled exactly perfectly - on a night when most students have returned to campus, but nothing much else is going on. We had around 300 students attend the performance in 2005, and it's grown every year. Last year we had 800 or 900.

Study.com How do your students take to having to craft their own stand-up routines? That seems like a pretty unusual assignment for college students, and one that could end up being especially difficult - it requires a whole different skill set than almost anything else in academia.

AR: Here's what I love about stand-up: It's difficult for everyone. All students, no matter what their major, no matter how smart they are, or how popular, or how socially adept, find stand-up tremendously challenging. The idea that these students could enter the classroom having never done stand-up before - and then emerge 18 days later and perform in front of an audience of hundreds - is scary. But as I tell them, the goal of the class is not to become a professional working comic. The goal is to write a good 2-5 minutes of material and perform it once. That's hard, and it takes hard work, and it takes courage, but it's completely doable.

And sometimes, of course, students get cold feet and drop the class halfway through. Not often, but sometimes.

Study.com Who are some of the comics that influence you personally and professionally, and what do you think it is about comedy that makes it such a unique and important force in all walks of life?

AR: Besides the luminaries that every comic lists when asked this question - George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Lenny Bruce - the comics that influence me most are the local comedians I've been performing with for years. When you see a phenomenal performance by, say, Eddie Izzard, you're struck by how funny it is and how you could never do what he does. That's impressive to a comic, but not influential. But watching the local guys, the great undiscovered comics who are still becoming awesome, you get a real sense of how they're assembling their routines and learn how you might do the same. Here, I'll name a few, in the hopes that they'll send this interview to their friends if they've turned on Google Alerts for their own names: Erik Myers, Bob Somerby, Jared Stern, Herbie Gill, Justin Schlegel, Keith Purnell, Chris White, Rob Maher.

Study.com Outside of your comedy career, you still keep active with academic pursuits. What are you currently working on?

AR: I'm a molecular biologist at a small biotech company in Rockville, Maryland called Sanaria Inc. We're working on a vaccine for malaria, which will be really exciting, especially if it works. Right now we're about to begin a bunch of clinical trials that will tell us a great deal about our vaccine. I guess you could call it an academic pursuit, though the word 'academic' sometimes has connotations of 'impractical but neat.' This vaccine is both practical and neat.

Outside the lab, I've been busy lately performing my first one-man show, 'Please Don't Beat Me Up: Stories and Artifacts from Adolescence.' The show is a collection of true, embarrassing childhood stories, interspersed with old video clips and readings from diary entries. There's a strong anti-bullying component, and now that I've done the show in two different Fringe festivals, I'm looking to perform it in schools for kids who might find its message useful.

I've also been traveling to various grad schools to do a performance/reading/signing related to my book; it's been great to meet students suffering through grad school across the country.

And, of course, the pursuit that occupies most of my time is now child-rearing. My daughter was born in April, and apparently fatherhood requires a big time investment - I mean, if you're trying to be a good father. If I weren't, this would be easy.

Study.com Is there anything further you'd like to say to our readers about grad school, stand-up comedy or anything else?

AR: Hire me to perform on your campus. Having a baby is expensive.

Check out our interview with another prize-winning author and teacher, Brad Watson.


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