My thesis is a cupcake, not a dragon

My twin sister, Anitra Nottingham, finished her masters by research in the Faculty of education at the University of Melbourne last year. She sent me this post when she was towards the end of her project in a moment of clarity…

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 1.56.39 pmMy friend Kevin has a Ph.D. His dissertation is about folklore, which means knows a lot about the power of analogy and metaphor. Just recently he gave me the most apt description of how it feels to write a thesis.

“Oh, it’s like a raven on your shoulder” he said over drinks “squawking at you every time you try to have a life.”

Then he told me a story of when he was where I am now (almost finished but not quite). He was wrestling with his conclusion and he went to see a sympathetic faculty member. “It’s a dragon breathing fire on me” he told her “but  you know, I am fighting, I have my sword…”

At which point she interrupted.

“Oh honey” she said “why don’t you ever talk about your dissertation like you talk about the things you like to do?” Then she asked him, “What do you actually like to do?”

To which he replied that he likes cooking, and when prompted further, that actually he loves to cook soup in particular. That he loves everything about making soup. The chopping, the frying and the mixing, the smell, the way the ingredients all came together to make something more than themselves, something delicious. He especially liked, he told her, to share soup he made with friends. Most of all, he enjoyed seeing them eat his soup.

“Isn’t that a nicer way of talking about a thesis?” Kevin asked me. Then he told me how this conversation changed everything for him. He stopped thinking of his thesis as a dragon that he had to slay, and more like a beautiful bowl of soup that he was meticulously preparing and serving to his readers.

Me? I like to make elaborate birthday cakes for my children. There’s the space shuttle with 36 candles on one side (so it was “taking off”) the failed, but ambitious, greek temple, the giraffe, the penguin, the pyramid, the… well… you get the picture.

I like the challenge of a novelty birthday cake, it requires creativity, patience, a steady hand, and usually involves some kind of equipment. Sure, you can get burned, sometimes cakes look amazing, sometimes less so but however they turn out I like watching my kids blow the candles out. I like that they will (hopefully) remember one day that I made that cake just for them. I know I put my best effort, my best self really, into making those cakes.

So from now on my thesis isn’t a raven, it’s not a dragon, and it’s not a pain in my a** (actually, it was, but that’s a story for another day).

No, from now on, it’s a cupcake.

A lovely, beautifully decorated (maybe slightly imperfect, like all homemade things are) cupcake. A cupcake that someone is going to (hopefully) admire while they read it, and (hopefully) remember, and enjoy. One day, when I am ready, I shall do my Ph.D—and it shall be a cake. A great big, probably fruit-filled, substantial, cake.

So how about you? Is your thesis a dragon, or a cupcake? What do you like to do? Does this help you think your thesis as something you like to do.

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37 thoughts on “My thesis is a cupcake, not a dragon

  1. Nico says:

    Lovely post! I recently finished my PhD, and as you will soon learn, a Master is not comparable to the level of stress and mental pressure that a PhD demands. I commend the husband in this story for having the ability to deal with all the stress while his well intentioned spouse is lecturing him on how to deal. While my master provided a nice taste of the challenges of research and other mental buggers involved, it is absolutely not the same. Now having finished, I only remember the positive and left my team with mutual love and respect for everyone. I get the whole “attitude is everything” philosophy, but do not under estimate the difficulty of a PhD, it is not a cake or a cupcake, and if it is, imagine it more like a cake in a three star Michelin restuarant that will be examined and judged. That may or may not take all the fun out of cooking, but it will be stressful and this stress and pressure will push your limits to tap into intellectual resources you never knew existed. Good luck and thanks for a well written post.

    • Sophia says:

      Considering the cup cake is a metaphor, I think it is very apt. Once we change our mindsets and put our passion and love in anything we do, it gets easier and more enjoyble. While baking a cup cake even though it is a small chore we somtimes get stressed out but we are doing it out of love and we like to do it. Reading your blog brought tears into my eyes as my own PhD journey flashed before my eyes. I miss it and would do anthing to be a PhD student again. What a challenging but enjoybale journey it is.

      • Anitra says:

        I agree, I kind of miss it, despite the pain, it’s a creative challenge which is to be savoured really.

        And yes, I agree, a masters is a cupcake compared to the cake of a Ph.D!

  2. michelleareeve says:

    Thats a beautiful way of looking at it! I too like baking but I’m not so great at it, so perhaps my thesis shouldn’t be a cake. I’ll have to have a think about what my thesis should be. Thanks for a wonderfully different perspective on the pain of the thesis!

  3. Sandra Fordyce-Voorham says:

    I am a home economics teacher..I love teaching kids how to plan, make and enjoy eating delicious healthy snacks and meals. My PhD thesis titled ‘Food Skills in Secondary Schools” was my cup cake! I talked a lot about food …the knowledge, the skills acquisition, the creating and the eating! The bottom line …you have to have 200% passion for your subject …that you always need to keep in mind. What has driven you to undertake a thesis in the first place. Good luck. …keep on going (took me 8 years to complete with a full time job) …a Inger said …shovelling one load of mess at a time ( Herculean stable clean out)
    And thanks thesis whisperer ..your anecdotes and resources helped me through. Sandra

  4. Ann Shoebridge says:

    Perfectly timed post, thank you! My doctorate has just transmogrified into a topsy turvy cake like this one I made for my daughter’s 21st. There is hope yet!

  5. Tracy Stanley says:

    What a lovely story with charming metaphors! So relevant for where I am in my research.

    I initially chastised myself for opening this link while I am wrestling with the development of different matrices to illuminate the results from my research. I am so easily distracted. So pleased that I didn’t, even though the noisy raven on my shoulder is telling me that it was a naughty thing to do as I should be working on my data.

    So thank you so much for your story. It made me smile.

    I have actually written a short blog in Linked in a while back about the power of metaphors which you might appreciate. Here’s the link if you are interested.

    Kind regards


  6. Jenny-Lynn Potter says:

    I completed my PhD thesis six months ago, and I aligned the process of undertaking such a vast project with the process of making ‘a frock’. This approach was ably assited by the fact I was researching the work of women who sewed clothing for other women within their homes in mid-century Australian society. Having a (long past) background in the fashion field, but an ongoing interest in sewing, I found there were lovely synergies between the steps involved in creating a garment, and in creating a thesis.
    I found this to be a much larger undertaking however than sewing a dress. Needless to say I could have had a complete new wardrobe many times over if I had stuck to the dressmaking!

  7. aunnielauren says:

    Entirely lovely!!! It’s a glorious invitation to freely express our love for, well, what we love. Fun and pleasure are sometimes perceived as frivolous, even selfish, and griping about hard work suddenly makes it sound worthy and responsible. Not only does this inspire me to revel in the joyous part of my endeavors, it cautions me to avoid making others feel as though they need to make dragons out of cupcakes to feel validated.

  8. elainecampbellclinic says:

    I am about to embark on the doctoral journey. Sadly, much of what I have read has made my eyes open wide in comedy-style “it’s going to be like…what?!” I have taken to closing my eyes and skipping quickly past any blog posts telling me how hard it’s going to be and how I can wave goodbye to any sort of personal life. This piece is a breath of fresh air. Thank you.

    At the moment (but I suspect it will change as it progresses) I see my thesis as a spinning class. I love spinning. I love the way it makes me feel: all conquering, free and fearless. But it’s also sweaty, uncomfortable and frankly a bit grim on occasion. Yes, there are times when I think about reducing my gears without my instructor noticing. And I don’t always hit 100RPM when called upon to do so. However, at no point do I ever want to stop. Because the all conquering, free and fearless me is still there, buzzing along in the background. Although there are many others pedalling beside me, it is my own personal journey…

  9. Anitra says:

    Frankly, I think a bit of “la la la I am not listening” is required to get started, because if you only knew… etc etc.

    (Actually that reminds me of pregnancy. Used to be most books didn’t tell you the bad stuff. But over the past 15 years or so, it’s become all about the bad stuff. So much so that some poor mother who wrote a “hey, I am kind of loving this mothering thing and it’s not so hard watcha all talking about?” post the other day got hounded to the four corners of the Internet! there’s room for both sides!)

  10. Frances says:

    🙂 I am a few months from submitting. My PhD is like one of my geldings – challenging but absolutely worth the time spent and I have grown enormously in the process of coming to terms with it, and have never once considered giving up, even during the bumpy bits.

  11. Kerstine says:

    A very inspiring and motivating post.
    I just found out that my thesis is a mountain.
    I love hiking. It’s exhausting and there’s a challenge in climbing a mountain top. It can take you learn, you sometimes have to take lots of turns, motivate yourself to get going and pause sometimes to catch your breath. That’s how I feel about my thesis.
    Thanks for this great post.

  12. ginger megs says:

    My thesis is like my knitting – bringing in many different threads, each of which require different techniques and bring their own tensions, to knit together to produce what will hopefully be a shimmering fabric of great beauty. In reality I’m juggling dropped stitches, a mis-read pattern, sometimes stuffing up the basics and hoping the end product doesn’t have too many visible holes.
    A thesis-writing friend posts lovely pictures of her intricate and delicate knitting on Facebook, and her writing is similarly graceful and elegant. She also frets that her finished garments won’t be warm enough or won’t fit their intended recipients.
    The point of this rambling? Whatever analogies we use to demystify the writing process, or calm the beast, or make the damn thing less terrifying, the finished product will never be perfect, it will have holes, the cupcake won’t always rise, and the raven on your shoulder will crap all over your clean shirt. Theses are hard, and the way to get through is not with a dragon that eats cupcakes while sitting on your shoulder making holes in your knitted jumper, but with a little faith in our own abilities (and a touch of fairy dust).

  13. Jenny says:

    Such an inspiring story… I am on the cusp of submission myself but have begun to really detest everything about my thesis. Your post gives me inspiration..Thanks for sharing 🙂

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