My thesis is a cupcake, not a dragon



My 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.