By Yan-Yi Lee, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
For me, happiness is made of sugar, butter, and everything made of flour. Yes, you guessed it— I love baking! People often assume I’m “procrasti-baking”, but little do they know that baking has trained me to develop mental stamina as a doctoral student. I believe there is a common underlying philosophy between baking and the pursuit of a PhD. That is, lessons learned from baking apply ever-so-perfectly to the world of academics.
No One Really Understands the Amount of Effort You Invest in Your Work, But That’s Okay
As an amateur cake artist, I can confidently say that making a decent piece of cake is anything but, as the idiom goes, a “piece of cake.” Six flower cupcakes required two hours just for tool hunting—rummaging through dozens of piping nozzles online before deciding which ones would create the exact type of petal and leaf I had in mind. Another eight hours were required to actually bake the sponge cake and create the decorative flowers—an unexpectedly long process that demanded utmost attention to detail (with heaps of failed samples along the way!). Ultimately, it took only one minute for people to gobble them down, and of course, no one guessed it took that much effort to make.
Sounds familiar? This speaks to often-told PhD woes that perhaps some of us can relate to. We feel the frustration that comes with the question: “what’s taking so long to finish that thesis?” We spare no brainpower to critically select and read thirty-five articles, just so that we can cite three articles in one short paragraph (if those references are helpful at all…). We continuously work on the wording and rewording of our questionnaires. We patiently re-structure sections that turned out to make no sense. We spend hours and hours to construct that perfect combination of phrases, just to highlight the very soul of our arguments. It’s not inefficiency, it’s a commitment to the quality performance we promised to deliver. And if others don’t understand, that’s okay, because what truly matters is that we try our best to live up to our self-set intellectual legacy.
Expectations Don’t Always Turn into Reality, And That’s Also Okay
There were countless times when I struggled to replicate a beautiful cake model by an expert artist, and this happened more often than not when experimenting with new ingredients. The most nightmarish memory of this sort was when I tried to replicate renowned artist Rose Macefield’s dragon cake with Saracino sugar paste, something I had never heard of before in East Asia. Fast forward nine hours of crying inside, I couldn’t really get used to sculpting with an ingredient as dense as Saracino and I ended up producing something I didn’t envisage, something I certainly wasn’t even remotely proud of. I was too embarrassed to present the cake at my friend’s birthday party the next day and I just curled up in bed instead (no judging…in my defense, the dragon gave me an awful neck pain 😭).
I’m sure many of us can relate to this expectation vs. reality dilemma in our scholarly endeavors. We pick a methodology we appreciate, perhaps touted by a famous scholar that we admire, but with the process of adopting the methodology comes an unplanned mess. We often carelessly forget that it’s perfectly acceptable to take time getting used to new methods, and that we shouldn’t compare our first-time research efforts to senior scholars who have been replicating the same methodologies for decades. It also slips our mind that flawless research does not exist, and we shouldn’t lose passion for research because of temporary failures. Contextual restraints may also get in the way of implementing a research proposal, but that’s natural, and everything will be okay with a realistic plan B down the line (hopefully)!
Balancing “Making it Perfect” and “Getting it Done”
Creating fondant cakes is a true blessing because seriously, what’s better than edible art? It necessitates evolving observation of worldly objects, operational skills sharpened over time, and a brave touch of originality—a trilogy also needed to succeed in academia. What’s truly at stake here, however, is the race against time in both cases, the frustrating struggle to prioritise “getting things done” over “making things (methodologically, theoretically, and conceptually) perfect.” But the transfer effects are amazing: with repeated practice of creating fondant cakes under mad time constraints, I’ve come to form strategies for delivering satisfactory PhD writing while developing hyper-sensitive consciousness of time when working. I stubbornly believe that the simple, old saying “practice makes perfect” may be the sole key to delivering good work under unavoidable time pressure.
Just Like Baking, the PhD Process is about Growth
While I’ve had a fair share of painful experiences with cake artistry, I still have to admit that deep down, I truly love this hobby. And that’s because in the process of baking and decorating pastries, I have come to understand that it’s alright to bravely experiment with new ideas/techniques and make mistakes. With this attitude, I have honed delicate technical skills and unspooled huge mental potential that a once-very-clumsy-me never knew I could have. The same philosophy applies well to many of us pursuing a doctoral degree. Amidst sleepless nights, harsh critique, and journal rejections, we should always bear in mind that the bumps we hit during the PhD may turn out to be great opportunities to grow. What’s important is that we keep trying, and perhaps ultimately we may come to discover a remarkable intellectual capacity that we never grew up expecting.
Yan-Yi Lee is a first-year PhD student at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Aside from baking, she shares a deep passion for oriental music, educational journalism, and languages. Her current research focuses on the strategic learning and teaching of linguistically distant languages.