Why you need creativity as a scientist
Updated: Oct 20, 2021
When you think about creativity, the image of a bohemian artist creating a big painting in her studio with an industrial look may come to your head. Or maybe that composer that is trying to come up with a new song. If you stretch it, maybe that writer trying to finish his book, in a house isolated in the middle of nowhere surrounded by just nature. Those are indeed creative professions. But as a scientist, you are a creative professional too.
I’ve always been terrible at drawing. You should have seen the drawings of insects I made during my entomology courses...although taxonomically they were very accurate! During my Ph.D. I never defined my work as “creative”. Ph.Ds have enough with learning all that Statistics! One day, being a postdoc, I was in my car driving to work (it was a good 50 minutes to Wageningen University), and I started listening to a brief podcast by Elisabeth Gilbert. It was about her book “Big Magic: creative living beyond fear”. And I was shocked. All the struggles I was having around blocks, insecurities, procrastination…are common among creatives. And I had a creative profession too! How didn’t I realized all these years?
Since that day in my car, some things have changed. First, I am a fan of this woman and I read everything she publishes. Two, I then started approaching science as the creative process that it is. And three, it has become one of the core values of what I do now in “I focus and write”. Here I’d like to share with you why you should also embrace creativity and its process in your scientific work. You need creativity:
To generate new ideas
And you need new ideas throughout your entire research project. To solve problems that arise along the way. To come up with novel research questions. To have hypotheses that can explain your results, often connecting apparently disconnected topics. The good news is that creativity is a skill. One that in science, you mainly learn during your Ph.D. But there is also a problem...your mindset blocks that keep that negative talk inside your head are inhibiting your creativity. And those mindset blocks (think of the fear of failure, perfectionism, or imposter syndrome) are extremely common among scientists!
If you have been reading me for some time, you’ll know that I don’t see scientific writing as a boring type of writing ;) As I teach my students of the online course “Mindful Scientific Writing”. You need and you should put creativity into it, especially in your introduction and discussion sections. Which are also the most difficult to write for most scientists. Do you see any connection here? You need creativity to build your argument, to come up with strong sentences, and to have the famous “flow” in your text. And my favorite...you need creativity to build the story of your science. If you want more tips on how to approach your scientific writing more mindfully, don't miss this free PDF guide!
For the analytical part of your science
Even the statistical analyses you’ll do often involve creativity. Coming up with the experimental design. Choosing the best analysis for your data. And then, presenting the results! There you can become very creative with the graphs you choose, but also with schemes, diagrams, and figures! Graphical abstracts are becoming a common requirement, and creativity is again key to compellingly summarizing your work.
To connect your research with the broader context
In this previous post about science communication, I highlight how important is to connect your work with the broad challenges that society is facing. This may not be very straightforward for you. It may be difficult when your work is a very specific metabolic pathway in, for example, a model that has no apparent use. But you need to think further. Definitely to communicate your work to the general public, but also to publish your work in higher impact journals. And also to explain your research to your mother ;)
Creativity is everywhere in the life of a scientist, and I hope you feel more after reading this post. Now the question is, what will you do to boost your creativity? This is a topic for several pages, and I have already spoken of several practical tips in this blog. From those, at the microlevel, my number one strategy is to practice mindfulness and meditation. In this post, you can find some inspiration, and here you can grab some audios and a guide. If meditation is not your thing, my second favorite against those creative blocks you may sometimes feel, is to move your body: yoga, dance, mindful walks! And the last one, and a strategy that has changed the way I work: to plan my work and the creativity need with your menstrual cycle. You can read more about it in this post, one of the big hits over here! As a core value of “I focus and write”, creativity in the context of science, is a topic that fascinates me. At a macrolevel, there are three aspects I strongly think we need to do more, as individuals and as institutions: control stress, foster diversity, and understand the creative cycle. Stay tuned for more to come!