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More tools and techniques for creativity in research

A previous page explains why creative thinking is important in research and another suggests a batch of creative thinking techniques. This page gives a second batch of techniques.

Viewing the problem from the perspective of another discipline

Pushing back the frontiers of knowledge in a single discipline can be a rather formidable way of achieving original and significant work. Often a simpler alternative is to see what can be done by bringing different disciplines together. A technique is to talk the problem or issue over with people from other disciplines to see how they would approach it. If you happen to have a sound grounding in another discipline yourself, perhaps from your undergraduate work, or if you would feel stimulated to learn more about that discipline, you could try viewing the problem yourself from the perspective of that discipline. You may not need to have any great expertise in it. The book contains anecdotes on how this has been done successfully.

There is considerable emphasis on multi-disciplinary research, and funding bodies look on it particularly favourably.

‘The solution looking for the problem': serendipity

General information

A good creative technique is to keep one's eyes and ears constantly open, to question anything and everything to see if it might be used to provide a creative leap forward. The book contains anecdotes on how this has been done successfully.

Talking things over

Talking things over with other people does more than provide the benefit of their views and ideas. The very act of talking seems to stimulate one's own thinking.

Whether or not the other person needs to be an expert in the field must depend on the nature of the problem. Although one would, for example, go to an expert for expert information, that is not at all the same as going to someone in order to facilitate one's own creativity. This merely requires someone of sound judgement who can supply time and commitment. You might choose other students. Members of your family are ideal if they have the time and inclination to help.

Keeping an open mind should be fundamental to all research. So you may not appreciate that it can be a technique for creative thinking. It involves identifying all the unlikely or seemingly implausible interpretations and then considering them carefully to see if they might have any validity. Keeping an open mind is particularly important when talking to others; without it, one is liable to 'hear', i.e. 'take in' only what one already knows.

Sections from The Research Student's Guide to Success in the chapter on creative thinking

The importance of creative thinking in research

How intellectual creativity works

Techniques to facilitate creative thinking

Talking things over

Keeping an open mind


Negative brainstorming

Viewing a problem from imaginative perspectives

Concentrating on anomalies

Focusing on by-products

Interrogating imaginary experts

Viewing the problem from the perspective of another discipline

Using ‘the solution looking for the problem’: serendipity

Using mind maps

Creativity and free time

Testing out the techniques

Creativity and routine work

Creativity and planning


Brainstorming is a well-known problem-solving technique, particularly for groups. It is included here for completeness, although it seems to be the least useful technique for the sorts of problem and issue that students have to address in research.

Brainstorming consists of listing as many ways forward as possible, however improbable, without pausing to evaluate them. Only when the list is complete may the value and feasibility of the possibilities be considered.

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.