“This Is It”: How is baking a cake similar to doing a PhD

You might have heard thesis writing compared to marriage or even giving a birth. Ruth, winner of our he winner of our Great Research Bake Off, compared it to baking a cake. If you curious to learn what bakers and PhD students have in common, read on…

*younger PhDs with a sensitive disposition may want to look away now*

I am in the final stage of PhD writing gloom. I have heard this described in comparison with postnatal depression and heard even the most enthused of students referring to “the effort to continue writing when you no-longer care”.  It is indeed a far cry from the fresh-faced days of the first year.

I found myself reflecting on such things as on Thursday morning, icing a cake I made for the Great Research Bake Off. I had been planning it for weeks. I had intended to ice it the night before but got called back to the lab at 6pm for analysis and ended up staying until gone 10pm simultaneously drying a complex under vacuum, processing crystal structures and watching Bake Off. So here I was, at 8am, cream cheese icing dripping down my arm, fingers yellow as I had desperately cut off the end of the food colouring after a failed attempt to unblock it, considering chucking the lot in the bin and pretending it never happened, when I realised: I feel this way about my PhD ALL the damn time, therefore this cake is representative of my work in even more ways than my initial plans. I threw the ugly thing in a tin and composed a list to explain the unfortunate appearance of my cake.

Here it is, in all its glory:

Calix[10]arene for those who are interested

It’s a bit messy…which reminded me so much of my thesis that, much like a calixarene, brought me full circle. Here are a few comparisons that I have drawn, please tell me if you agree:

  1. It started out with grandiose ideas of what I would achieve;
  2. I quickly realised I didn’t have the time or the skill, so settled for something that vaguely gives the impression of the initial intension;
  3. It vaguely turned out as a calixarene with a metal over the cavity [want to define calixarene briefly?];
  4. I was aiming for a shiny yellow product but you can clearly see it’s got bits of brown in it;
  5. I thought about giving up on it at least once;
  6. It wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for copious amounts of booze and chocolate (it’s chocolate Guinness cake);
  7. I spent more time thinking about doing it than actually doing it;
  8. I am allowed to insult it but if you do I will defend it to the death;
  9. I don’t have much time to enjoy it as I should really focus on getting a job! (A careers appointment at 11am meant that I dropped off my cake, necked a cup of tea and ran)

How much changes over what you initially think will be three and a half years but realistically end up being four years with 4-6 months of poverty and stress at the end. I really DID love chemistry, I thought I’d get 3-4 papers out of results that made sense and worked, present at an international conference and that all academics were intellectual giants who would impress me with their knowledge and love of teaching. Realistically I have one paper, possibly a second by Christmas; I presented a flashtalk in St Andrews 5 months in (when I had NOTHING to talk about and it makes me cringe to remember); I have had to awkwardly correct academics when they made a statement that simply isn’t true and was only believed after I showed them a paper to prove it; I had a (small) fire, a student slice open his finger and firmly believe that my supervisor is the only person who is going to read my thesis ALL the way through.

On the bright side (yes there still is one!): I have very thick skin now, I can rage quit and go back the next day and try again, I can get a page full of red ink corrections on my work and know not to take it (too) personally, I know how to laugh my own work (see above cake). I can forge relationships with co-workers and technical staff so that they are happy to go out of their way to help me with my work. I know how to use EndNote. I am an expert Googler. The last few months I have spent in weird isolation writing, listening to the weirdly relaxing sounds of Walking Dead and obsessing about images and if that bond angle is exactly right or if the ‘.’ at the end of et al. is italics or not.

So I guess what I am trying to say is: sorry kids, you are VERY unlikely to publish in Nature, JACS or Science, that your PhD will go wrong, MORE than once, and in fact at the end you will probably think it’s a real piece of crap.

So while you can’t polish a turd, you can smother it in yellow cream cheese icing and people will eat it and very politely tell you how great it is, which is perhaps the greatest transferrable skill of all.1

  1. Except “Team Building in a Work Environment”, that was great.


How do you feel about the cake analogy, does it capture some aspects of your experience, too? Have you got any advice to share with final year students? 🙂

Text and image credits: Ruth Patchett.

Ruth (@RuthPatchett1) is a PhD candidate in the department of chemistry who has developed a dry sense of humour as a defence mechanism. Her research focuses on the synthesis and characterisation of calix[4]arene complexes.

3 thoughts on ““This Is It”: How is baking a cake similar to doing a PhD

  1. “How much changes over what you initially think will be three and a half years but realistically end up being four years with 4-6 months of poverty and stress at the end.”

    Love this statement. Probably so true for many people. I myself, am still in the phase where I believe 3.5 years is enough, even though I am rapidly approaching end of second year (2 weeks, oh god how did that happen??). And have yet to have a full chapter completed.

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