Most of my friends would tell you that I am a keen baker, but unfortunately I have to limit how many treats I bake because I seem to lack self-control when it comes to the final product. However, I have come to think that in some ways baking and undertaking PhD research seem to have more in common than you might think (and not just because both seem to make my waist thicker!)
When baking – as in research – you need to have that initial idea or bolt of inspiration, like yesterday when I decided to bake a pudding for my friend who came to stay last night. However, you also need to consider whether this idea is achievable, for example I wouldn’t have been able to bake a croquembouche after work, as I wouldn’t be able to undertake a national multi-centre RCT during my three year PhD. I knew that I had a new brownie baking tin, most of the ingredients and basic baking skills and therefore I decided upon chocolate brownies. Baking, like research, requires early forward planning, and therefore I considered what ingredients I had at home and considered that I would probably need to buy cocoa powder and additional butter on the way home. As I don’t have a specific recipe for chocolate brownies with cocoa powder (I have a brownie recipe that uses 350g chocolate, but that seemed excessive) I undertook an internet search to see how others made their brownies and how successful these had been, just as a research student would review the literature and see how other researchers designed their studies. When I found a recipe that I felt was suitable for my skills, time and ingredients, I set to work.
More preparation was then required, such as switching on the oven, assembling equipment and checking the ingredients, as in a similar way you wouldn’t plough into the data collection phase without carefully recruiting participants and ensuring that your audio recorder works (or importantly without ethical approval). I then carefully began work, measuring and beating ingredients in the order required. However, I found that despite my best efforts, I was lacking enough caster sugar. As in research, baking requires an element of creativity, and while in my research I decided the best way to capture my participants homes (without photographs) was to draw and annotate diagrams, I decided to improvise here with the sugar. Baking requires self-confidence and I was pretty certain that I could substitute caster sugar for brown sugar (after all, brown sugar and chocolate go together well). Once all the ingredients were in the bowl, or all the research data collected, the hard work of beating together the ingredients, or analysing the data, commenced. This took longer than anticipated and patience was required. Finally, once I had greased the baking tin, as you might prepare the final thesis, the brownies were ready for the oven.
The oven baking period, like the viva examination, is a concerning time for any conscientious cook. You cannot leave the house and leave the brownies to it, as you cannot expect your completed thesis to stand in the viva alone. However, when the oven period is over and the batch of glorious brownies emerges from the oven, the sense of pride and anticipation is wonderful – as I sincerely hope I feel after my viva. Any good brownies, like a good thesis, should leave a legacy afterwards – you just hope they don’t flop.