Research Lessons from MasterChef

Posted 28 Dec 2014

Recent guilty pleasure: binge watching Master Chef (and Master Chef Canada). It’s drama to the highest degree. What really draws me in is the kind of happiness and gratitude the participants feel when the judges express approval. That kind of validation, and the confidence it instills (for context, Christine is blind) is very touching.

MasterChef and the academic world share a lot of similarities. The MasterChef version is somewhat more dramatized, of course, but the basic lessons still apply. To “prove” this, I’ve linked to clips from the show.

On Paper Writing

  • Get to the point. When paper writing, it’s all about getting to the essence of your message quickly. A big part of this is actually knowing your message. As a chef, apparently, this is one of things you want to be able to do, too. For some reason, coming out of undergrad, we seem to all want to write epics to relate our life stories. It turns out, no one wants to hear about all the nitty gritty… no one needs to, or wants to hear your life story. It looked like this was one of the mistakes in this clip — you can see the judges getting bored.
  • Write for your audience. Remember the audience that you are writing for — what are their interests, what do they care about hearing about, where do you need to put the polish on your paper? I think this example is a bit too ingratiating, but it was pretty funny.
  • Presentation matters. On MasterChef, presentation absolutely matters. This sounds ridiculous, but when writing papers, make sure to keep to the format and template, and keep it to what people expect in terms of the presentation. The paper itself should look good.
  • Even more important than presentation, flavour matters. Of course, on MasterChef, flavour profiles matter even more than presentation. In the same way, you can’t just put lipstick on a pig — the work of research needs to be solid. You need to be proud of what you submit — you should never submit something you are embarassed about. (There is a bit of a corollary to this, of course — it doesn’t mean making it perfect, it means making it good or excellent. Finding this balance takes experience.)

On Reviewers and Getting Reviews

  • Reviewers take offence to poorly constructed manuscripts. I’ve definitely seen this (and experienced it before as a reviewer): when a paper comes in that looks sloppy and lacks polish (e.g. references left as [REF], typos, etc.), it can be off-putting — don’t you as an author value your reviewers’ time? Here’s one of the judges going off on contestants after having seen multiple poor dishes in a row: [1] [2].
  • It doesn’t really matter what you think. At the end of the day, reviewers are the ones that are making judgements on your paper, making the decision of whether it is in or not. Even where they get it wrong, it is up to you as you put your paper together to make sure they don’t get it wrong. On MasterChef, talking back/disagreeing is not only gauche, it is downright weird.
  • Judgement is harsh. Obviously, getting your work judged by experts (a.k.a. reviewers, judges, etc.) can be harsh. It crushes the soul. MasterChef is filled with people crying left and right. I feel bad for these people, and it reminds me a lot of my experiences early on in my PhD. It never stops feeling bad to be negatively judged; though I think the immediate sting isn’t quite as bad any more.
  • Negative feedback as opportunities. The contestants you feel will do well in life are the ones that welcome the feedback (even the harsh stuff) as opportunities to improve. As Randy Pausch pointed out, people who give you feedback think you’re worth enough and still care enough to do so — take it, and use it.

Other Thoughts

I also thought as an academic, there were some really clever ideas in MasterChef that we could appropriate (or, if we could appropriate, it would be awesome).

  • Recruitment. Toward the later stages of the competition, the judges will often offer ousted contestants jobs at their own restaurants. This is a great idea, since the judges (who are also business owners) have now had a chance to assess ability and tempermant, etc. [1][2][3] I also think the idea of having a MasterHCIResearcher competition drawn from all the amateur HCIResearchers out there across the country is friggin’ hilarious.
  • Reproduction. The “pressure test” is a common challenge where contestants will prepare a standard dish (i.e. reproduce a standard recipe) in a given amount of time (usually 60 minutes). The focus is therefore on mastering, applying and executing a well-known set of techniques. This is a good idea, and makes sense for HCI, too — that is, reproducing prototypes, designs, or studies as a method to understand the techniques and challenges that are involved.
  • Creativity on the clock. Another common challenge is the “mystery box” challenge, where contestants will need to create a dish given a surprise ingredient, or a limited set of ingredients. Needing to be creative on the clock is not a skill that researchers commonly need to execute great research; however, it is useful to exercise these “thinking outside the box” skills — particularly for students that still need to do a defense. In these situations, you will be put on the spot to defend/justify your choices, and/or to speculate on how to move forward. One way to practice this, I think, is to practice generating questions for every talk that you attend. This requires attending carefully to the details of the talk, thinking beyond the specific content of the talk, and articulating new ways of thinking about the research.

Coda

This was a pretty fun exercise. I totally feel like I have justified my binge watching this show. Totally.

Oh, also the other thing that I really like is that MasterChef mostly seems like a meritocracy: usually, the best chefs stay on right to the end. You only get kicked off when you don’t cook well. As an academic, I love that–this is, being judged by the quality of your work.