Openness, creativity, and reflections on my PhD process

Posted on August 8, 2013

11


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?

Posted in: Personal, PhD