Eva Lantsoght is a PhD Candidate in Structural Engineering at Delft University of Technology and blogs about academia and concrete research on PhD Talk. You can follow her on twitter at @evalantsoght.
Research is a creative activity. In essence, to solve your research question, you will need to take a step outside of the boundaries of the current knowledge. If you are expected to develop a new theory as part of your research, you certainly need to get your creative juices flowing.
When we read the work of great scientists, it sometimes seems as if they possess of some extraordinary tweak in their brain that makes them capable of taking a visionary leap and pushing their field to new advances.
In reality however, all creative solutions are simply the result of a long process of trying, researching and chewing at the end of pencils. No one simply wakes up one morning, having found The Solution without doing any previous work or effort.
Now that we got that misconception out of the way, let's look at a few more other misunderstandings amongst scientists with regard to research creativity.
You need a lot of time for creative research
Creative research is a long-term process, so in that perspective this idea is correct. However, this does not mean that you need to block 6 entire weeks of time in which you swat off all undergrads, write no conference paper and live like a hermit.
We all work differently, but solving a problem with the weight of a doctoral research question simply takes time and a lot of sleeping on it. It's advisable to start exploring possibilities for your theoretical work as early as possible in your PhD program – and explore them at the size of nuggets here and there.
Homework: If you are at the very beginning of your PhD, and you are working on your literature review, try to find 10 to 20 minutes to play around with the ideas of every paper after reading it. Try out the formulas on another dataset, try to see if all important variables are included, or try to find where the formula or theory reaches its bounds.
You should not be influenced by anyone
Creative research is not the result of one genius who comes up with a brilliant idea. Research is progress in a field, and it is important to have a good overview of your field of study.
Reading research papers is one of the most important sources for your own creativity. The state of the art, and the continuous stream of publications and conference presentations should be the water and bread that nurture your research.
Homework: Try to note down a few questions or possibilities for future research on every paper that you read.
You should devote all your time to solving your research question
Deeply creative work is rather exhausting, especially if you are not used to think out of the box. Therefore, it is important to grow creativity like a muscle in your mind. The more you practice creative thinking in your life, the easier it becomes to see the unexpected connections in your research.
Homework: Pick a creative skill: writing fiction, painting, gardening, drawing or dancing and pick your planning. Carve out 20 minutes of time at least 4 times a week to work on your creative skill. It doesn't matter how good or bad you are at it, all that matters is that you are consistently working on improving and cultivating your creative habit.
You should have a sense of where you are going before you start
The beauty of research is that you are doing something that no one has ever done before. Trying to work towards an outcome is virtually impossible.
I challenge you to completely rid yourself of all ideas you or your supervisor might have when you start the development of new and original theoretical work. What you should do is the following: start asking yourself as many questions as possible. Ask yourself questions to map the situation, and to identify the major issues that you need to solve, step by step.
Homework: If you haven't started with your theoretical research yet, start asking yourself questions about the current knowledge. What do we know about X and Y? And where can we go from there?
Does your research require the development of theoretical work in a creative way? How do you develop and improve the skill of creative thinking in research?
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