Last night Denise, my boss, sent me a link to a New York Times article about two new reality TV shows starting up in Malaysia:  “Solehah” (pious female in Arabic), and “Ustazah Pilihan” (ideal female preacher in Malay). In these shows, Muslim women compete to be the best Islamic preacher. I’m imagining a Malaysian Islamic X factor vs Malaysia’s got (Islamic) talent, or something. I think you’d be hard put to think up a more extreme cultural mash up.

As Denise remarked: what an amazing world we live in.

Anyway, it got me thinking (again) about the similarities between doing a PhD and taking part in a reality TV show. I have an unhealthy obsession with reality TV, which I have accepted as part of the brain damage I suffered while doing my PhD. While I’m selective about which ones I watch, I find the whole genre endlessly fascinating for the way it portrays learning as a process of self discovery and transformation. Bear with me here, I think I’m onto something and want to throw these ideas past you in the form of an academic mash up of my own before I go all academic and write a paper on it.

Image: courier mail

Some years ago I picked up a book at the local library called “Makeover Television: realities remodelled” which contained a bunch of essays on reality TV shows that – well – do make overs on the participants (what fun those cultural theorists have). These are shows like “What not to Wear” where the fashionable Trinny and Susannah ambush unsuspecting women, convince them they have horrible taste in clothes and take them shopping. In the process of undergoing a wardrobe transformation, the women seem to be transformed too; from shy retiring dowdies to confident, take charge women.

At least that’s how the show portrays it.

In Australia, the reality cooking show ‘Masterchef’ is something of a national obsession (at least for some of us). Our version of the show, as distinct from the version in the UK, has a group of 24 amateur chefs who live in a house together and compete for the grand prize, week by week, through a series of challenges. The challenges are designed to test their cheffy abilities, usually under some kind of insane time pressure. If the contestant fails the challenge they must go into an elimination round; in this way two people leave the show each week until the final two have to battle it out for the title of Masterchef. I love it because, as an amateur cook myself, it’s kind of like watching sports; I get involved in the contestants failures and successes.

What’s interesting for me is that the participants on the show talk endlessly about learning. The learning shown to the viewer seems to be full of failure. The price of failure is high, potentially being sent home in disgrace and having your foibles taken apart by the news media for the entertainment of the whole nation for the next week or so. The learning is obviously painful, with many a sweating brow as the participant tries to make a baked alaska in an hour, or re-create some insanely fiddly French sauce with no recipe. At certain times professional chefs will come in to compete head to head with the hapless amateurs, usually demolishing them in a dazzling display of virtuosity. Over time you can see the people who have the ability to hold their nerve and learn from their mistakes beat those who might have superior natural talent.

What’s clever about the Australian Masterchef is the role of the hosts, who are all professional chefs themselves. The hosts judge the dishes each contestant makes by looking at and tasting them. I think this is the best part of the show; as each judge chews the food the contestant looks at them hopefully, trying to guess from the expression on their face (which the audience on Twitter calls ‘tasting face’) what the verdict will be. The judges are often brutal in the words they use to describe a failed dish, but will generally deliver constructive criticism and comments which are meant to help the participants learn and improve. The show is on every night (yes, we love it that much) and the Friday night slot is dedicated to a ‘Master class’ where time is set aside to learn a particular technique through demonstration from the hosts and invited others.

The parallels with doing a PhD are obvious, but worth reflecting on. Most of us start the degree with some skills in writing or researching, but we are likely to be amateurs. We are asked to perform tasks we might only partially understand, often with little instruction, and all with a looming deadline. Sometimes these tasks are more than we can handle and we fail – sometimes spectacularly. The price of failure is high here too; most of us have commitments to others who will be disappointed if we fail. Some of us will end up in debt or worse because of the time we have taken out of our professional careers.

Like professional chefs, professional academics have a whole bunch of tricks up their sleeve, which makes doing the ‘grunt work’ of things link data analysis and writing quicker or easier. A good supervisor is like a good host: they will taste your work and give you their constructive criticism. If you are lucky they will take time to share these skills with you, but often you are just left to watch the displays of virtuosity and try to learn from them as best you can. For example, many supervisors (including myself at times) can make the mistake of thinking teaching someone to write is best achieved by rewriting the paper for them, rather than taking the time to explain the principles or good writing and help the student put them into action. In fact, many supervisors could learn a thing or two from Masterchef and set aside some time to run a masterclass!

Here’s what I think is the key insight from this academic mashup I am trying to perform here. Masterchef and other make over reality shows are about learning which leads to a transformation of the self. Transforming the self takes work, dedication and time; it can also be uncomfortable and risky. We may fail to achieve our aims or end up somewhere we didn’t expect to be. But I take heart from the knowledge that, when it comes to PhD study, as on Masterchef, it’s not the best cooks who last right to the end. It’s the cooks who have the most resilience and ability to learn from their mistakes who go home with the prize.

What do you think? If your PhD was a reality TV show, which one would it be? How can you develop the necessary resilience to go all the way to the end?

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