Posts Tagged ‘Creativity’


I know you like controversial topics, you little rascals, so here is one just for you. How familiar should you be with your supervisor (or with your student if you are a supervisor)? Very good question, I’m glad I asked.

A PhD Thesis is a heavy commitment with (at least) another person during a very significant proportion of your life. It is a journey into enthusiasm, elation, revelations, pride and joy but also into doubt, disappointments, discouragement, stress and exhaustion. It is a journey made of choices and it is built on trust. And it is a journey with a working partner. Neither the students nor the supervisors want to enter lightly into such a journey, with a working partner on whom one cannot depend fully, but also one you don’t like. However, you can like your supervisor/student without befriending him/her. So, should you keep strict neutral, professional relationships, or can you share beers and personal conversation about your brother or your favourite TV shows?

Opinions are not unanimous on this. Many colleagues keep their distances with their students. Many other treat them like a mix between good pals and offspring. I did not bond with my supervisor. Which does not mean that I didn’t like her or respect her. She was nice and she did good, but we seldom ate together or for that matter shared any social event. Same with my two postdoc supervisors. But I tend to bond with my students and postdocs.

I don’t think bonding with any of them has been a problem for either them or me, but it is true that it can be sometimes problematic when the time comes to say “no” or “work harder” or “this is crap”. And I’m sure my students find it hard sometimes for their own reasons. Of course, I can recognise students that would be uncomfortable with this, and I adapt. It takes two to bond. But otherwise, I always found that bonding had made it easier to overcome the unavoidable stressing times, to avoid or forget the resentment, and to enjoy more fully the happy times. In the long run, I think that to bond is globally better for me. And I’d be happy to hear your personal experience on this.

bondsAnyway, whether of not to bond with your student/supervisor is not really a choice, and this post is not about what you should choose to do, because it’s difficult to change the way people interact naturally. So this post is more about whether or not you should fight a natural tendency to bond at work, if you have one. If that’s the way you function better, and the other one seems to be that way too, just don’t feel guilty not to be entirely “professional”. Academia is a special world when it comes to hierarchical interactions. Just do what’s best for the working relationship. But hey, I only said bonding, easy tiger!

Do you have what it takes to do research? Not just the insane passion, the flawless motivation, the mind-numbing hard-working endurance, the monomaniac nerdiness and all the other hard-to-find qualities related to the amount of effort needed to achieve something in this ultra-competitive world. No, I’m talking about intellectual capacities. Do you have them up to a sufficient level? Do you? And do you think I will give you ways of knowing? No, that was just a mean trick to get you to read this post.

I don’t really know what it takes to be a good researcher. Clearly, one has to be intelligent, but that would need to define intelligence and all the definitions I agree with exceed by far the domain of research. Plus, I know a few very good researchers whose intelligence I would not bet my life on… So yes, clearly you have to be able to grasp complex concepts and link dots even when connexions are not obvious. But there are other things; over the years, I have come to think that there are two ways of doing good research, and that most researchers are positioned along a gradient linking two broad qualities: rigour and creativity.

My personal experience convinced me that most of the best researchers out there are one of these two types. There are those that I call the Rigorous, the very quantitative types, juggling with equations and five-syllable words that I can’t even remember for this post. And there are those of the Creative type, who have very original ideas and twist studies in innovative ways you always wish you had the idea first.

Of course, I’m not saying that creative researchers have no quantitative skills or that rigorous researchers have no ideas. But in general, some are better at digging deeper and faster while some other will contribute more to science by going wider and in new directions. And both are needed, obviously.

All this to say that – in answer to a question over my blog – it doesn’t really matter if you think you are not creative enough, especially at the early stage of your carrier. Creativity is not something that will be obvious at the very beginning, and it is anyway not compulsory for doing good research, or even to regularly come out with new findings.

 2Scientists At which extreme would you put Walter Bishop?

Yet, with this metaphor, moving towards one extreme of this gradient pushes you away from the other one, and you can’t really have the right set of mind to think outside the box if you are overly methodical and thorough, and vice versa. So are you close to an extreme? Which one, more Rigorous? More Creative? Or rather, well balanced between the two?

But of course, I know in ecology some geniuses who mysteriously marry the two qualities to make the most elegant, exciting studies. And those make this post totally meaningless, thank you very much.