How to become more creative in your academic work
What to focus on for long-term change, plus helpful tips you can use now
Academic research requires creativity. Whether it’s putting together an original research topic, applying a novel methodological approach, or making a truly humanity-changing discovery, such as finding a cure for cancer, innovation is expected, and it is what pushes your field further. Coming up with new ideas and then realizing them in some way (written or in the world) is your raison d’etre as a researcher.
It should come as no surprise, then, that creative aptitude also contributes to your success in graduate school and beyond. In her focus group study of PhD advisors from top universities in a variety of disciplines, Barbara Lovitts (2008) found that the advisors characterized distinguished completers of the PhD as having a high amount of both practical and creative intelligence, and that these two types of intelligence were even more important than analytical intelligence (p. 319). Students who struggled with the transition to doing independent research or who quit were less likely to have these abilities.
Creativity is important, but little is written about it
Blog posts and books abound on how to do other research tasks in graduate school, but to learn creativity there’s a lot less out there. Why is that? In her post “Where do good ideas come from”, Inger Mewburn, the author of The Thesis Whisperer blog, puts it this way “The reason why so many books avoid this topic, perhaps rightly so, is that creativity is assumed to be a disciplinary issue or an individual matter. Either you know enough about your subject to see the way to produce novel ideas, or you are naturally a creative person who will come up with them anyway”.
A team of researchers at the University of Stanford wasn’t dissuaded by this assumption, however. In fact, they believe that academics – rather than having to rely on intrinsic ability or building up their subject knowledge – can actively improve their creative abilities. They’ve seen the evidence firsthand, too, having developed and led design-thinking based-workshops for academics over the past ten years. Their experience is distilled in the practical book Creativity in Research: Cultivate Clarity, Be Innovative, and Make Progress in your Research Journey.
Below I’ll share some of my takeaways from this book and other resources combined with some concrete tips you can try.
What is meant by creativity in research?
First, it’s helpful to take a look at what the authors mean when they talk about creativity. They define creativity as “the ability to produce new ideas or solutions.” (Ulibarri et al., 2019, p. 3) For them, creativity is both important for what we think of when we think of an original contribution to knowledge and for everyday problem solving, such as being able to find a solution if you’ve been stymied by a bout of writer’s block:
Every day you make small decisions, for instance whether to spend the next hour revising a manuscript, reading a paper, synthesizing a new lab sample, or getting a snack. And you make big decisions, like who to collaborate with or what topic to study for a research project. Each of these decisions forces your brain into problem-solving mode, and the same creativity skills used to generate new ideas can help you work through these decisions in a more innovative and effective way. (p. 4)
Ulibarri et al. also emphasize that the book’s focus is on redirecting attention to the processes involved in academic work rather than the outcomes. In academic work, we often focus on final products (getting a PhD, publishing a journal article, etc.) without considering the winding path and our own personal habits and practices that get us there.
Takeaways and tips for how to be more creative.
With their focus on the process of research, the authors invite academics to reflect and work on changing their scholarly practices. Here are some of my takeaways from the book and tips that I found most helpful.
- Develop self-awareness
In most research, it’s important to be objective, but for many academics their relationship to their research is often emotional. These emotions, the thoughts that stem from them, and the stories they lead scholars to tell themselves can have a big impact on creativity. For example, if you’re anxious that you’re not a good writer, you may find it difficult to come up with words to put on the page.
So, the first step to being more creative is to check in with yourself about what you’re thinking and feeling during your academic work. Only by recognizing that you feel afraid to start a paper, for example, can you begin to find strategies to deal with that fear. You should make yourself aware of what you’re doing and reflect on those behaviors. Another important aspect is noticing and reflecting on what times of day you feel most energetic, since energy impacts thoughts and emotions.
Obviously, becoming mindful of your thoughts and emotions is a lifelong task. But still, any step towards more awareness can help. You can then work to find strategies for thoughts and emotions that aren’t supporting your work, such as changing environmental factors that can affect your energy and mood.
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During a week, set a timer to go off randomly during the day and then note what you’re currently doing, what you’re thinking, how much energy you have and any emotions you’re feeling. At the end of the week look at your notes and see if any patterns emerge.
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Manage your energy. If you did the previous exercise, you should now be better able to see when you had more and less energy each day. For example, if after lunch you can barely think straight, move the activities that require the most thought to the morning or later in the afternoon. If you find you hate answering emails and tend to put them off in the afternoon, move them to the morning when your willpower isn’t yet depleted.
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Change your environment. Where you work can have a big impact on your mood and energy levels. Even during this time when most of us are working at home, you might be able to counteract a mid-afternoon slump by moving out of a dark office room and working from the couch next to a sunny window for a while. Simple changes, such as standing up some of the time you are working, can also help.
- Alter your perspective
Especially when involved with a research topic for a long time, academics often are subject to assumptions, which can blind them to alternative ideas. The authors recommend actively questioning what you’ve taken for granted and trying out different viewpoints. For example, if your topic is food fraud, you could consider it from a very high up, global perspective or you could focus on what a local grocery store was doing to combat it. You can also use a change of perspective not just for the research itself but also for your own beliefs about your capabilities. For example, you can start examining the assumptions you have or the stories you tell yourself (such as “I’m just not a good writer”), which you can then work to challenge and re-frame.
The authors also point out that ambiguity generally makes people uncomfortable, so many of us want to find an answer to our problem quickly. Academics should resist this urge for complex problems, since the first solution to a problem may not be the best, and after you’ve chosen a solution, you may be inadvertently shutting out others.
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When you’re trying to define your research question, use the Powers of Ten Start by thinking about your research as it relates to your department, then think about how it affects the university, the region you live in, your country, and the world. Or, if your topic is already broad in scope, go the opposite way. This can be an especially helpful technique when deciding on the scope of a research topic and formulating the research question.
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Take a beginner’s mind approach in which you question assumptions and try to look at your research as someone completely new to the field might. Some tips for using the beginner’s mind approach can be found in one of our past blog posts.
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To really get at a unique perspective, view the research from a different angle by asking yourself what another person would have to say. Using the food fraud example above, you could ask yourself what a townsperson affected by this issue have to say about this topic? What about the president of a country in which food fraud was rampant? How would Disney make a movie about food fraud?
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You can also actively re-frame your perspectives on yourself and your work if you find them unhelpful. The following example doesn’t come from the book but fits here nicely: if the pressure to create original groundbreaking research is too great, professor and academic blogger Patrick Dunleavy recommends reframing your goal as creating value-added research instead.
- Generate ideas, then select and test
The authors reiterate something that long-time readers of this blog will know: both divergent and convergent thinking are necessary for creativity and these types of thinking should be done separately. Divergent thinking is when you aren’t thinking linearly and your brain can make connections between disparate ideas. It often occurs when you’re not focused on the problem at hand but are busy in some other activity, such as taking a shower or going for a walk. It’s the type of thinking you’d be involved in when you have a Eureka moment and is naturally the best type of thinking for generating ideas.
Of course, just coming up with ideas is only part of the equation. To evaluate ideas and decide which ones are best to put into practice, you need your more analytical mode, or convergent thinking. Convergent thinking is also helpful for putting ideas into practice, something the authors are a big proponent of. They firmly believe in “prototyping” new ideas, in other words testing the ideas in some way, whether asking for feedback on a few different ideas, checking if a paper structure works by visualizing it on paper, or creating a physical model of an architectural design. Many academics fear failure, so by prototyping during the early stages of your research you can set your expectations low and any rejection won’t be as devastating as it could be if you received the same criticism during your dissertation defense.
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Divergent thinking is likely to occur after you’ve just woken up from a nap or a night’s sleep. Keep a notebook by your bed and write down what you were thinking of as you were waking up.
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If you’re at a point where you’re stuck when trying to come up with new ideas, introduce constraints. One way to do this is with the Oblique Strategies method we wrote about in a previous blog post.
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When you have several promising ideas, instead of continuing to think about them, test them all out in some way. For example, try writing sample abstracts for each or visually map out what you hope to find during your research.
- Involve other people
Every skill related to improving creativity can benefit from incorporating a social aspect. This makes sense – each person in a group will have been exposed to many different inputs and have different perspectives. So, another person might think of an angle you never would have come up with. In addition, other people can form a support network for you during your research.
For creativity, it’s important that your network doesn’t just consist of the people in your department. For example, use your friendships with graduate students in other disciplines to your advantage. Don’t forget to also get insight from family members and friends outside academia, either.
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Involve people in your prototyping efforts. For example, when testing out ideas, ask for feedback from your advisor, other graduate students, and even family members. Make sure to ask them for the type of feedback you need at a given stage of the process. For example, if you’re just testing out ideas, you don’t need someone to nitpick your spelling and grammar. Instead, they should give you feedback on the idea as a whole.
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Perspectives, methods or theories from people in other disciplines could potentially be applied to the research problem you’re working on. One workplace study showed that logistics workers who regularly talked with those outside their area had more innovative ideas. Patrick Dunleavy, an academic blogger we already mentioned above, recommends a cross-pollination strategy and stresses that sometimes an original contribution to a field can mean taking ideas from other disciplines and applying them where they hadn’t been applied before.
Remember the study about PhD students we mentioned at the beginning of this post? Lovitts listed these creativity traits of graduate students as being especially important for success:
…they are independent and practical in their approach to their research, are good problem solvers, and are bubbling with ideas. […] They display intense intellectual curiosity, are willing to work hard, take the initiative, and have the power to persevere in the face of apparent failure. They are motivated by a strong intrinsic interest in their research and are passionately committed to their projects. (319-320).
If you follow some of the tips above, you’ll be on your way to developing these abilities and being a creative researcher yourself.
Let us know what you thought of this post. Is creativity something you actively try to develop? Do you think it’s important for your research? Or is creativity less highly valued in your field? Let us know on Facebook or by writing to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the first part of a three-part series on creativity. Our next post will look at tools you can use (including reference management software) to increase your creativity. In our third post Jana and I will share our process of coming up with ideas for the blog and then developing them through the research and writing stages.
For Further Reading
Burt, R. (2002). Social origins of good ideas [Draft manuscript]. Chicago. http://www.analytictech.com/mb709/readings/burt_SOGI.pdf
Dunleavy, P. (2015, November 27). Originality and innovation can be achieved by moving an ‘obvious’ idea from one context and applying it in another [Blog post]. Medium. https://medium.com/advice-and-help-in-authoring-a-phd-or-non-fiction/originality-and-innovation-can-be-achieved-by-moving-an-obvious-idea-from-one-context-and-a09387615201#.tp825povh
Lovitts, B. E. (2008). The transition to independent research: who makes it, who doesn't, and why. The Journal of Higher Education, 79(3), 296–325. https://doi.org/10.1353/jhe.0.0006
The Thesis Whisperer. (2010). Where do good ideas come from? [Blog post]. The Thesis Whisperer. https://thesiswhisperer.com/2010/06/23/where-do-good-ideas-come-from/
Ulibarri, N., Cravens, A. E., Nabergoj, A. S., Kernbach, S., & Royalty, A. W. (2019). Creativity in research: Cultivate clarity, be innovative, and make progress in your research journey. Cambridge University Press.