Openness, creativity, and reflections on my PhD process

In recent weeks, I’ve made a major shift to my PhD process. After 2.5 years of exploration, I’ve moved into a period of consolidation. In other words, I’ve started writing in a far more formal capacity, with the hope of finishing my dissertation early next year.

Following this change in approach, there has been a certain fallowness here on the blog. I have struggled to find inspiration of the kind that has come so easily until now. It has been harder to pull myself out of the PhD in order to write on tangential subjects. It is not exactly that I am lacking in ideas. It is just that all of those ideas now seem to weave in and out of my other writing, and I don’t know exactly how to parse each into their own space.

This change in my writing habit has prompted me to reflect on my creativity, and its relationship to openness. From my amateur reading of psychology papers, I know that openness to experience is one of the Big Five personality traits, and that there has been a correlation found between openness and creativity. But what I hadn’t realised is that there are interesting qualifications to that correlation. One of them, as discussed in Kaufman and Sternberg (p121) is that:

‘creative behavior was highest if very open participants were given tasks that were open and somewhat undefined. In other words, highly open people are not creative in all work environments. They are most creative when the situation and task is ambiguous and not well defined.’

People high in openness are more creative in unstructured environments. The kind of writing and thinking that takes place when in an exploratory phase of research and open to new ideas is different from that which occurs when trying to close down avenues, and stabilise an argument. The shift in my PhD working process is forcing me to push some of my ideas, to develop those that are or were only lightly sketched in my mind. There is a sense of maturation, both in my ideas, and in my self-concept of what it means to be a researcher. But there has also been a drop in my externalising of problems. I have been looking in more, and out less.

The process of the PhD has involved much more personal change than I imagined from the outset. Research necessarily involves a lot of time spent inside your own head. There are many times that it’s just you and the screen, and nothing else to distract from that reality. There have been times when I’ve noticed my thinking patterns changing; when I’ve discovered a greater capacity for focus than I’d once had, or learned to have faith in my capacity to be creative. There have been times when I have felt so entirely at sea I never imagined making it back to land. I am sure there will be many more such times between now and the end.

This blog has given me a much-needed sense of connection to the ‘outside’ many times. As I move further into this next phase of research, I am going to try to remember that, in order to keep producing and pushing myself here. In the meantime, a short note of thanks to all of you who read, who comment, who participate. It matters more than you’d likely suspect.

As my blogging diverges in this more personal direction for a moment, I’d love to know if you’ve ever taken on a project (research or otherwise) that changed you. What was it, and what did you learn in the process?

11 thoughts on “Openness, creativity, and reflections on my PhD process

  1. Thanks for this post, as someone who have literally just embarked on this journey (2 weeks in) I’m interested in how it impacts people. I’m already finding it a very different experience to my previous study and employment.

    1. Kim, it is so lovely to hear from someone just starting the PhD process. I’ve really been loving my PhD, even though it can be challenging some days 🙂 And even though I’m now a few years into it, I’m still curious about how it impacts people. It seems to be such a defining process for many people who have gone through it, but in many different ways.

      One piece I’ve found useful from time to time, when I’m stuck and uncertain about how to proceed, is this piece by Gideon Haigh. The central idea, ‘You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on’, can feel familiar, and it can be useful to remember that other people also feel stuck sometimes. And that you will be able to keep going again soon enough.

      1. Kim… be prepared for that to become a familiar feeling. You will need to push through it and ignore it often enough. But if you are prepared to just keep going, even when sometimes the going is sideways or backwards, you will make progress. Send me an email through the contact page on the blog if you’re ever really lost and needing someone just to stay in touch with.

  2. I can relate to so much of what you’ve written here. Although I’ve written a blog for years, as my research has taken up more time and head space, I too have found it more difficult to come up with blog posts. It is difficult to even articulate what has happened and therefore I really found your post interesting.
    I think I am of an open temperament since I enjoy ambiguous projects and uncertain outcomes, and that has been a part of my creative energy for years. I wish you luck in your consolidation phase. I’ve rarely commented on your posts but always enjoy them.

    1. Ingrid, I am so glad to hear that it isn’t just me who has trouble separating the different mental spaces required for different/overlapping projects! I think that blogging during the PhD has been simultaneously a lifeline, and at times a burden. It is mostly the former. But there are times when knowing that I was overdue to post and feeling no sense of inspiration has also added to the pressure of research. It is all a learning experience, one way or another 🙂

      Thank you for this comment.

  3. Hi Suse – Thanks for this thoughtful post. I haven’t, nor do I plan to do a PhD, but I’ve had other kinds of projects take over and change me in unexpected ways. When I first started printmaking, I finally discovered what being in the flow meant. I could focus, and create, and lose all track of time. Ideas and connections came together in totally unexpected ways. That experience gave me confidence in other areas, confidence in my skills, vision, creativity. I trusted the process and learned to trust myself more, and that has transferred over to my professional life. There have been other moments that I can point to that altered my direction, but that longer learning experience seems the closest to what you are experiencing.

    Also, yay you!

    1. Jenn, I had the same experience with photography, and (in particular) being in the darkroom. Doing my BFine Art, I lost hours and hours in the photo labs. Strangely enough I came out of that degree a theorist, rather than a photographer, but I’m sure that capacity to find flow was so important.

  4. Hie!,
    I am happy to have landed on your blog, looking forward to reading all your posts. I am anticipating lots of fun and drama for myself at blogging while pursuing my PhD. Fingers crossed 🙂

  5. huge fan of your blog and listen to your museopunks podcasts most morning on the way to work at my museum. 🙂 thank you for all your reflections, love of museums, and humor.

    1. Brinker, thank you so much. It is so lovely to get this kind of feedback. Right now, this blogspace feels much neglected, but hopefully soon I can turn my attention back to it, and all the questions that I have in the sector. I miss the conversations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s