How to Draw Inspiration In the “Publish Or Perish” Field of Academia

How to Draw Inspiration In the “Publish Or Perish” Field of Academia

Education August 13, 2012 / By Christine Lee
How to Draw Inspiration In the “Publish Or Perish” Field of Academia

Drawing from psychological research to explain the combination of hard work and time “off” that supports creativity in graduate school.

“Creativity lies at the heart of the scientific process… true progress requires an act of discovery.” – Langley and Jones (1988)

We are in the midst of a research-for-publication movement in post-secondary education institutions which is stifling the channels of creative thinking. It may be ironic then, that embedded in the mission statements of universities and business sectors across the nation, calls for innovative, original, and creative individuals are inescapable. Unfortunately, the external demands of graduate school (e.g., meeting deadlines, producing a flow of publishable work) risk quashing the powerful intrinsic motivators that lead to creative output.

Popular ideas surrounding the construct of creativity often isolate creativity to the arts (e.g., painting, dance, culinary), and being creative is often not a characteristic attributed to academic scholars. By contrast, the psychology of creativity literature presents a broader definition of creativity as a blend of personal and environmental factors that result in something new and of practical use. Further, creativity is argued to be an ability that can be expressed by any individual in a wide range of domains, and the realization of creative potential is believed to be a result of complex interactions between forces of nature and nurture. In sum, research supports the view that creative potential exists in everyone. In the following section, a blueprint for promoting the manifestation of creativity during graduate school is presented.

1. What makes you curious and why? Invest the time and energy into developing robust research questions
“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science” - Einstein and Infeld (1938)

Creative products begin with creative questions. In a lecture entitled Originality, Norman Mackworth argued that finding worthwhile problems to solve lies at the heart of creative thinking, and he challenged scientific researchers to “define the unexpected problems.” These initial question generating steps are critical to the creative process, as they set the stage for the problem-solving efforts to follow. When embarking on a research project, you should ask yourself, at the very least, the following questions about each of your research questions:

· “Has my question already been answered?”

· And if not, “Why hasn’t it been answered?”

· Finally, “What makes my research question worthwhile to pursue- how will answering this question contribute to my field?”

The outcome of this problem formulation stage will shape the nature of the study and also serve as the point of reference to which you can return to refine your research process. In addition, being able to describe a well thought out, solid rationale behind the purpose of your work is the story that sells in defense meetings, grant reviews, and job interviews.

2. Reject the genius view: Become well-versed in your topic

Developing a robust theoretical rationale for pursuing a research study takes time. A common stereotype surrounding creativity is the “genius view,” based on the belief that creative thought processes and acts are carried out by exceptional individuals who are granted unexplainable sparks of insight. Stories of eminent individuals, such as Friedrich August von Kekule’s dream of a snake eating its own tail that led to the discovery of the ring structure of benzene, or the proverbial apple that fell on Isaac Newton’s head, perpetuate this belief. Recent advances in creativity research, including studies of expertise, problem-solving, and creative cognition suggest otherwise. Contemporary creativity researchers propose that creative endeavors follow the same principles and processes of everyday cognitive activities. They argue that rather than a spark of insight, these “Aha!” moments are rooted in past experiences and pre-existing schemes that have been accumulated, practiced, and developed over time. While unconscious activities are likely to also be a part of the creative process, research shows that a thorough knowledge base in a specific domain acquired through committed, deliberate practice is the foundation from which creative ideas will flourish.

3. Make time for your hobbies

Creative individuals are not characterized by the presence of a single dichotomous “creative” characteristic; rather they embody a broad spectrum of dimensions and interests (e. g., introversion and extraversion, mathematics and music). Research shows that creative scientists tend to alternate between leisure activities that support the development of new creations while also practicing within their fields of expertise. This oscillation between activities that provide different mediums in which to evaluate, organize, and combine new ideas is believed to contribute to the creativity of scientists who make significant contributions in their respective fields. Furthermore, studies show that cognitive flexibility associated with applying the creative process across disciplines has shown to reap benefits for an individual’s overall creative capacity. These findings suggest that it is important to achieve a balance between the traditional duties of graduate school and the activities outside of school. Hobbies, community service, and leisure activities that graduate students often brush off as “stuff I don’t have time for” may actually complement rather than impede your creative productivity in graduate school.

4. Branch out: Collaborate with others who share your drive but who do not necessarily share your identical research interests.

Creativity is often referred to as “thinking outside of the box,” which arguably requires the creative individual to also live outside of the box. Being too deeply entrenched in the knowledge and practices of a single field can lead to functional fixedness and block alternative (and very possibly more creative) approaches to problems. Graduate students should take the initiative to build relationships with students, faculty, and practitioners from other fields. National professional conferences, as well as on-campus forums and research, are ripe for opportunities to meet peers and mentors from closely and/or distally related fields. In addition, graduate students should read outside of their field. Unexpected sources of inspiration from which remote associations are developed are more likely to occur when an individual has a broad range of information and multiple conceptual frameworks to draw from. Collaborating with individuals who have different perspectives, knowledge bases, and approaches to learning will support the generation and synthesis of novel ideas that will be reflected in your graduate work.

5. Maintaining your motivation: Embrace the creative tensions

The creative process involves solving ambiguous problems, and having the motivation to overcome these periods of uncertainty is crucial to making substantial creative contributions. Eminent creative achievements come from individuals who are motivated and compelled by underlying goals that have broader impacts on the world. It is the passion and commitment towards a greater cause that push graduate students through the countless hours spent in the lab completing tasks that are often far removed from the overarching goals of the research project. As social scientists, it is important to be reminded of the responsibility to not only conduct and publish research, but to also boldly step out into uncharted territory with novel problems that have yet to be tested.

Adapted from an article originally published at Association for Psychological Science Observer, 25(4), 51-52. Also available at

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