10 things to do differently when you realise academic research is a creative process.

by Santiago Ripoll, Research Officer at IDS and recent PHD graduate in Anthropology at Sussex University.

It took me a series of disappointments during my PHD until I realised that my mistake was thinking that creativity was confined to the arts and humanities and wasn’t required in the natural and social sciences. It turns out the process of designing research, carrying out your lab experiments or doing your fieldwork and writing it all up is as much a creative process as writing a novel.  Here are my ten tips to help you release your creativity and improve your research.

  1. Research is not a linear process – get over it!

In order to get from A to B, I need to do X, Y, Z. Well, it doesn’t end up working that way, does it? Things you took for granted at the start of your project are not so clear now, your research question changed after you did your fieldwork, or you had to take two steps back when your realised you had reached a dead end. Accept that there are many paths that lead you to your goal and unfortunately you can’t identify them in advance! Just work one step at a time. Remember the saying: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

  1. Be flexible and roll with the punches

Research is emergent: things change. An experiment might yield unexpected results, the development programme you were aiming to study might not be running anymore, or your theory just doesn’t fit your results… It’s all about Cheney’s ‘unknown unknowns’, isn’t it? The best way to deal with uncertainty and unpredictability is to go with the flow.

  1. You can’t fit creativity into a 9 to 5 schedule

You can sit on your desk 8 hours a day, yet it is unlikely you will be productive all of the time. Inspiration is a fleeting sensation, not a desk job. This may mean your ‘golden hours’ (as a colleague would call those productive hours – which are likely to be less than eight) can be at different times of the day (some people write better in mid-morning, others at midnight, it’s a personal thing) or even scattered along the day. Don’t force a schedule on your creativity. Research and write when it feels right.

  1. Take care of yourself

For your mind to be creative, your body needs to be active. From yoga to circuits, badminton to spinning, the Sports Centre offers a great variety of activities to keep the machine going. Your mind needs some care too. Find inner calm at the ‘Dont just do something, sit there!” mindfulness and relaxation sessions at the Meeting House. Coping with the pressures of academic life is often challenging. If you feel stressed, alone or unhappy contact Counselling Services, who will help you put things into perspective.

  1. Get peer support.

Find a small group of colleagues who you trust to share your work and ideas with, and get friendly and encouraging feedback. Create your own writing buddies group, or come to the Research Hive socials.

  1. You failed. Good! Try again.

Your cell culture is full of mould. The theoretical chapter you wrote is clunky and lifeless. Do it again – it will be better! Failure is an integral part of success. When Edison was asked how he felt after he failed 700 times to make a lightbulb before finally making it work, he answered “I didn’t fail, I learned 700 hundred ways NOT to make a lightbulb”.

  1. Remove the critics in your mind (at least temporarily.)

As Peter Elbow put it in his book ‘Writing with Power’, your audience – be that your supervisors, your peer reviewers, your perfectionist self – is your worst enemy when you are writing. Regardless if you are a biologist or an anthropologist, divide your creative process in two parts. The first part is where you write with no audience in mind, no judgement. Only at the second stage, bring the audience back in to edit your work. This will bring life into your work and make writing a more pleasurable experience. The doctoral school organises useful courses on creativity and academic writing. The Research Hive “shut up and write!” sessions are also useful to help you put pen to paper.

  1. Take ownership

Your research is your own project. Your supervisors are there to advise you – and do listen to them, they are likely to have very useful advice – but don’t forget it is your research – your creation – and not theirs.

  1. Play

Try different things in your research, write things from unexpected or different perspectives, goof around with your data: this is how new ideas emerge. Jung said “the creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves”.  If you want to explore your creative side and reclaim your ‘right to play’, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way gives you plenty of useful exercises.

  1. Walking and other ‘doing’ activities.

Great ideas do not come to you when you are squeezing your brain, but when you are doing something else: remember all those genius ideas you had in the shower? Lateral (creative) thinking is more likely to occur when you are doing certain repetitive activities such as walking (philosophers know the value of a good walk), swimming or even vacuuming!



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