I was talking with a PhD student yesterday (not one of my students) about her research. She's well into her second year here and things are generally going fine, but she feels she's a bit stuck. What should she do next? She's happy to do her experiments, and work through the analyses of the results, and look at what they might mean, but then deciding on what route to take from that point on isn't clear. In particular, she wanted to be more creative but her imagination isn't imaginative enough. She reads research articles and marvels at how the authors thought of the idea in the first place*. But she feels stuck doing variations on the same old thing. How can she learn to be creative?
Before you think that 'creativity' isn't something that a scientist should have, let me clarify that it's not about 'being creative with one's results' (i.e. making them up) or abandoing scientific rigour in one's method, but rather it's about thinking what to look at. What would make a good experiment to try? What would be an interesting method?
That isn't an easy thing to answer, particularly since I go through the same feelings sometimes that I'm doing the 'same old thing' all the time. But at least I have the advantage of severals years' worth of research behind me, and I can look back at the times when there has been real creativity and ask what has driven it. There is a common theme – pretty well every time I've come up with something that I'm pleased with, it's been because I've been discussing my work with someone else – often not terribly familiar with my field. Going to conferences is a great help here (so why are conference budgets cut so readily?) – simply talking to people about your work leads to questions along the lines of "Have you tried this?", "Do you know about Smith and Jones' work on this?", "How do you think your work might impact on such-and-such a topic?", "We have this problem – do you think your research can help us here?" and so forth. It's those kind of questions that are often difficult to ask of yourself and come from a broader knowledge of the area. Likewise, having the opportunity of seeing the work of other people and asking them such questions can lead to ideas. Occasionally, it can lead to really successful collaborations. I have one that's with a group of neurophysiologists. Their physics is patchy, and my neurophysiology is no better than their physics, but as a team there are a lot of problems we can tackle.
Reading widely around the topic is also something I've found helpful. Certainly, a lot of the things I read aren't terribly inspiring and I put them in a file and rarely look at them again, but occasionally I find an article that is really helpful in getting me to ask myself questions of my research. And that's when things start getting a bit more creative.
So, my answer to the PhD student is: go forth and talk to people (and don't worry if they don't know your area terribly well.) Use conference opportunites, use your fellow students, write a paper on what you've done and read the reviewers' comments. The more interaction, the more creative the subsequent work is likely to be.
*Often, research papers don't report on the most interesting thing of all – how they came up with the idea. Cases I've heard from brutally honest speakers at conferences include "We didn't calibrate the equipment properly and that meant that we measured something we didn't intend to and found what we got to be really interesting" and "Because health and safety were going to shut us down if we didn't hurry up and find a new method". You seldom find such honesty carries over into the journal article.