Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Tao of Grad School part 7

Part 7: Managing Creativity
As a Ph.D. student you're expected to come up with original research ideas. Sure; your advisor is there to help you along and you've got the project description and milestone descriptions to aid you in the search for ideas, but it's also very much up to you. At the end of the rainbow you're supposed to be an independent researcher, and so the ability to come up with ideas is one of your most valuable assets. In other words you need to be and stay creative if scientific research is for you.

If you thought taking a Ph.D. was a great idea, then you've got some indication that you're a creative individual. Assuming this fits, here are some (hopefully) helpful hints to rnhance and preserve your creativity:

See the whole board.
This goes back to the fact that you have to know your topic well, and that you need to be conscious of the big picture and detail-oriented science involved. Consider the overall goal of the project, and observe how the data you've already collected fits into this scheme. What's the next logical step? Same thing goes for the smaller milestones - compare the collected data to the goal and extrapolate based on the methods you've got available. A hyooge part of being a scientist is the ability to identify trends. This is simply putting this ability into a system which extends beyond the singular study where it's usually applied.

Keep up with literature.
No kiddin'; pick the most relevant journals and follow every issue for articles of interest. Don't slow down the reading after you're up to speed following your acceptance into the Ph.D. program. Your reference library is supposed to be growing steadily.

Keep a journal of research ideas.
Every now and then - or hopefully frequently - you come up with really cool ideas for research. It could be ideas which are possible to implement immediately, or ideas you plan to pursue one sunny day. These ideas don't necessarily come to you exclusively when you are ready to put them into some context, and so you should store them somewhere they can be retrieved when they're needed. Sometimes these ideas come to you while you read a paper which complements your work. Other times these ideas emerge when you work up the data for a publication, when you're in a meeting or whenever. Write that stuff down. Some of those ideas might in retrospect be awful, poorly thought-out and downright moronic, but it doesn't matter. That journal is for your eyes only, so write that stuff down if it was important enough to make you stop and think about it for a while.

Creativity isn't first-order linear with respect to time.
Don't get me wrong; as a Ph.D. student you're supposed to work more than the national average. Still; if you're writing a manuscript late in the afternoon and you've been staring into the screen for two hours without a single sentence being commited to file - what exactly do you think you're gonna accomplish by sitting in that same position for another two hours? Creativity isn't like unloading boxes from a truck - there isn't necessarily a direct correlation between the hours you put in and the creative output. Keep that in mind.

Also, don't equate hours spent at the lab with work getting done. Sure; there are aspects of the Ph.D. study where time continuously spent correlates very well with desired output - like many forms of labwork - but don't think this is a universal law. You also have to consider the efficiency of your hours spent. Nobody cares whether you've spent fifteen hours in the lab every day of last week if you also had two-hour lunch breaks, five coffee breaks and you spent three hours surfing your favorite websites. Moreover, you could have taken some of that time and deposited it towards an actual life where you could recharge your batteries. Try to work efficiently, don't just clock the hours.

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