This blog is part of the series ‘From Zero to Hero: Anecdotal Tales in Pursuit of the Elusive Doctorate’. Click on the links to read part 1 (the introduction), and part 2 (‘Having a critical friend’).
In our previous blog (17 August 2018), Dave and I discussed the importance of having a ‘critical friend’ to accompany you on your doctoral journey. In this blog we will look at the second key factor to success: taking a MasterChef approach to writing your thesis. Throughout the course of our doctorates, food and analogies to cooking were a frequent vehicle for feedback or discussion about each other’s writing. For example, we might comment that in a particular section or chapter there was a need for a further pinch or two of LeFevre, or that a lighter sprinkling of Bourdieu would help improve and lift the flavour of a particular paragraph or page.
Reaching for a culinary analogy to explain, exemplify or advise on the process of doctoral writing appears to be common, and the internet is awash with blog posts demonstrating this (see for example Farkas 2016; Irvine 2015; Seigal 2005; Spencer 2015), as well as with books and journal articles concerning doctoral and postgraduate writing contextualised in relation to food (see Bégin and Gérard 2013; Bui 2014; Kelly 2011). We suggest exploring these sources – if not so much for advice as for the humour some of them contain. You may not cook yourself, but the ability to think and work like a chef when constructing and writing your thesis will, we believe, stand you in good stead.
Our culinary idol is the late Keith Floyd, and much of what he had to say about cooking helped us to produce well-written theses. His advice was to keep it simple: the language used in doctoral writing needs to be as clear as it can be, and should be written so that a layperson will understand what is being said. In doctoral writing, as in cookery, the aim is to achieve satisfaction and contentment from the consumer. If the writing is over-complicated, with long sentences and obscure or unintelligible words, then the reader will be lost and confused (Gowers 1973). In Floyd-speak, this translates as:
‘Frankly I would prefer a fresh cauliflower cheese with a smooth, creamy sauce and hunks of good bread and butter, or a wonderful beef stew any day, to a more exotic dish that was ill conceived and fell short of its promise.’
Floyd’s philosophy on cooking is the same as ours on doctoral writing: ‘to mix a metaphor – you mustn’t overegg the omelette’ (ibid: 59). If you have to read a passage of writing more than twice to get the meaning, that’s not a good sign. The writing must flow, with ideas developed coherently.
To achieve this cohesion, it can help to think about the thesis outline or contents page as being the recipe, and the thesis as being the final dish – but this involves informed planning around ‘the bake’ or proposed writing (Seigal 2005), as you need to know what you’re going to cook/write in advance. To return to our first blog, this could also be informed by your background, your experiences or the passion that informed your thesis in the first place. In the US version of the MasterChef TV programme, Gordon Ramsay and the other judges often praise and single out candidates who produce signature dishes that show both flair and mastery of their indigenous or culinary roots. This should be your inspiration.
To conclude, you need to keep your writing simple. However, although ‘simplicity is the key to good cooking… beware though, of confusing simplicity with mediocrity’ (Floyd 2017: 8). Therefore, the emphasis is on how you write and draft your work, but be confident in the knowledge that
‘every cook has his own secret ingredient that makes his concoction uniquely his own. Writers work that way, too, except with writers it is more a question of style than anything else’.
In our next blog, we will be looking at the third key factor to success: having a handle on time, and the sacrifice and resilience that involved. Meanwhile, keep calm and don’t get yourself in a pickle!
Bégin C and Gérard L (2013) ‘The Role of Supervisors in Light of the Experience of Doctoral Students Policy’, Futures in Education 11(3): 267–276
Bui Y N (2014) How to Write a Master’s Thesis, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE
Farkas D (2016) ‘Cooking Lessons to Help You Finish Your Thesis’, blog post, FinishYourThesis.com, 19 January 2016. https://finishyourthesis.com/cooking-finish-your-thesis/
Floyd K (2017) A Feast of Floyd, London: HarperCollins
Gowers E (1973) The Complete Plain Words. London: Pelican
Irvine A (2015) ‘Manuscript March: If My Thesis Were a…. Recipe!’, blog, Thesislink, 20 March 2015. https://thesislink.aut.ac.nz/?p=3893
Kelly F (2011) ‘“Cooking together disparate things”: The role of metaphor in thesis writing’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International 48(4): 429–438
Seigal J (2005) ‘Writing Analogies’, webpage, Dr. J’s Illustrated Guide to the Classical World. http://people.hsc.edu/drjclassics/syllabi/IH/analogies.shtm
Spencer P (2015) ‘The Cook, the Chef and the Thesis’, blog, the Digital Doctorate: Reflections on researcher development, 9 September 2015. https://thedigitaldoctorate.com/2015/09/09/the-cook-the-chef-and-the-thesis/