How creative are research studies?

What is the effect on doctoral students’ creativity when they are forced into the academic straightjacket of research studies? What obstacles do they have to cross in order to reach their full potential? According to creativity researcher Eva Brodin, there are many examples of research environments where doctoral students do not have an opportunity to be really creative in their research.

Eva Brodin

Eva Brodin (left) conducts research on academic creativity at the Department of Psychology. A research seminar should be characterised by enjoyment and acceptance, but she has found that this is not always the case.

Eva Brodin is a reader in educational science, but nowadays conducts research on research creativity at the Department of Psychology.

“If you ask doctoral students at the start of their studies whether they think research studies are creative, the answer is often no”, says Eva Brodin. “In the best case scenario, doctoral students have changed their opinion towards the end of their studies.”

It is perhaps not that strange that doctoral students feel little creativity at the start of their PhD. Before you can become creative in a way that is useful to their discipline, you have to know where the forefront of research lies. Otherwise, there is obviously a risk that you will end up reinventing the wheel. It is first when you have understood your field that you can be creative in it, according to Eva Brodin.

The real problem is when doctoral students still feel that there is a lack of creativity towards the end of their studies. Without pointing the finger at specific disciplines, Eva Brodin mentions a few particular circumstances that can have a negative impact on the creativity of doctoral students. For instance, an industry-employed doctoral student may experience difficulty being creative if the industry that is financing the PhD thinks that the student’s research is unfavourable to its interests. It can also be difficult to be really creative if you have a supervisor who is overly controlling.

However, the most significant factor that hinders creativity is a strict department culture. Sometimes, a supportive supervisor is not enough if the entire academic staff is against you.

“The seminar culture is extremely important”, says Eva Brodin. “It is at seminars that hypotheses are supposed to be tested and new ideas born, but this is not always the case. In some places, it can be unpleasant to have your work strongly criticised. This leads to doctoral students not presenting anything if it isn’t ‘watertight’. Their goal becomes simply to present something that cannot be criticised. Instead of using the seminars to test ideas, doctoral students talk over ideas one-on-one with a person they trust.”

A doctoral student who reasons in this manner is clearly not part of a creative seminar culture, in the view of Eva Brodin:

“There should be enjoyment and acceptance at a research seminar. Once you have understood the framework of the discipline, there must be scope for ideas that are not fully worked out.”

Another problem with seminars that Eva Brodin has encountered in her research is that, at certain departments, senior researchers are conspicuous by their absence. The doctoral students turn up, but if the established researchers are not there, they miss out on important input.

When Eva Brodin is not doing research on critical and creative thinking among doctoral students, she trains supervisors at CED, the University’s Centre for Educational Development. There is a lot of interest in the courses, but the actual field of ‘research on research studies’ is not particularly well established in Sweden. In order to find more colleagues and establish the field in Sweden, she has travelled beyond Sweden’s borders and has recently begun a part-time post at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

“Sweden is several years behind the international research forefront in research studies. Just like the doctoral students I study, I need to find a forum to test ideas in order to develop as a researcher.”

Text: Ulrika Oredsson

Photo: Gunnar Menander

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