Trying to Get Creative in my Work as a PhD Student

I don’t consider myself a very creative person. I used to think creativity didn’t really factor into my PhD journey. I’ve recently realised how untrue that is. In fact, one of the things I’ve learned is the need to be flexible and adaptable. At some point in my early career researcher life, it was necessary that I could be more than just logical, but also creative in my investigations and critical thinking processes. There have been many circumstances when I needed to be able to do things differently and learn new ways of solving problems.

I guess, essentially, that is a big part of what creativity is all about: being able to do things differently, and see things differently. I struggle with this sometimes. It’s very hard to be creative when day-in and day-out I am sitting in my office. It truly helps going for a walk, or even working from the library and the many other areas around the university to be able to tap into the different sections of my brain.

I am now halfway through my PhD degree and in the real crux and meat of my data and analysis. There is also plenty of writing that is happening now. I am producing journal article manuscripts and also writing different chapters that will make up my doctoral thesis. How am I ever going to get to 80,000 words or produce about 160 pages? More importantly, how do I go about writing in a way that is scientific, rational, and easily understood but also engaging? How do I get my readers to care about my topic? After all, the work that I am doing is something I hope doesn’t get locked away gathering dust in the deep recesses of the library, but actually contributes to the work that others have done before me progresses social psychological issues.

Over the past several months, I’ve looked up a few strategies that could support some new and alternative ways of writing up my manuscripts and thesis chapters. One of my favorite ones is ‘idea mapping’ or ‘concept mapping’ as a simple, yet effective way to get my writing started. It’s basically a mind map that has nodes and links connecting ideas and concepts together. Generally, the outcome of this concept map is really just for myself and not for anyone else to see. It helps improve my writing, which tends to be quite linear, passive, and boring.

I’ve used this tool in writing one of my first journal manuscripts for this degree. It helped put some structure into several drafts and helped me to write fast and keep editing as I go. The first draft is best described as a brain dump and had very little structure and did not include any references. The focus was getting the main concepts down in a massive piece of paper to then create nodes and links. The second draft is still pretty old-school, where I sit outside and write down longer sentences in a notebook while I ensure I paraphrase. The third draft is then created on my computer and written down in the required structure. The final draft is where I refine sources and proofread my manuscript before sending it to my supervisors to review.

I truly enjoy writing out the first two drafts. It allows me to temporarily shut off the critical part of my brain and just write down ideas and concepts I’ve learned or discovered in my research. The following drafts are when I start engaging the critical and analytical part of my researcher brain.

“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” — Linus Carl Pauling

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