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Five Tips for Brainstorming Your PhD

The main goal of a PhD is to produce a thesis – essentially an in-depth analysis of original research. But coming up with ideas for original research can be hard, and once you’ve found a topic to research, writer’s block can kill productivity. That’s where brainstorming can help. Here are some great tips for brainstorming that will give you exciting research ideas and help you escape the pitfalls of writer’s block for good.

Feb 22, 2016
  • Student Tips
Five Tips for Brainstorming Your PhD

If you’re a PhD student, you’ve probably done some brainstorming along the way. But brainstorming isn’t just for group projects or planning committees. Whether you’re just starting your doctoral studies and need to come up with new and innovative research ideas, or you’ve started writing and are stuck with a bad case of writer’s block, brainstorming can help you generate new ideas or exciting insight into old problems. Here are five brainstorming tips to for PhD students who need inspiration.

1. Don’t restrain yourself


We tend to think that quality is better than quantity, but when it comes to brainstorming it’s a case of ‘the more the merrier.’ Brainstorming isn’t about coming up with good ideas – brainstorming is a way of simply generating ideas both good and bad. You can sort through the ideas later, but lots of ideas are the first step to coming up with a research topic or breaking through writer’s block. So start big and grand – come up with ideas that are impossible or fantastical or just plain silly and use them as a jumping-off point for more usable and practical ideas. Experts often warn that brainstorming is an inefficient technique for groups because people tend to hold back for fear of criticism or ridicule, but if you’re working as an independent researcher, it doesn’t matter if your ideas are ridiculous. Brainstorming can be useful for research teams as well – just make sure to establish that all ideas are good ideas at the start – that way people will feel freer to suggest ideas that might seem a bit out there.

2. Have a goal


Obviously, you’re not going to start brainstorming your inorganic chemistry research questions with ideas about Ancient Greek religion or the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution (well, who knows…maybe you will.) Start your brainstorming session with a main idea or a goal – what it is that you hope to accomplish. Keep the goal big and broad but make sure to come back to it as you brainstorm. If you’re designing an experiment, focus on your main hypothesis. Searching for primary sources for a historical research project but aren’t sure where to look? Choose a geographical location or a specific time period as a brainstorming goal. It doesn’t matter if your hypothesis is reasonable or whether your questions can be answered – brainstorming your way into the impossible can help you identify what is possible.

3. Compete

Whether you’re working alone or in a group, competition can spark creativity. For group research projects, challenge the other members of your team to come up with a certain number of ideas or solutions to a set of problems independently and then meet up to compare your brainstorming activity. You’ll either discover a wealth of ideas to explore or find that you’ve all had the same, very useful idea. Either way, you’ve succeeded. Independent research can often feel very lonely and isolated, so brainstorming with a group of your peers can help to expand your knowledge base. Arrange a monthly consortium or seminar for all the researchers in your area – even if you’re all working on unrelated projects. You’ll be surprised to find that insight from a different perspective could be just the element you’ve been missing.

4. Experiment

geschäftsleute schauen gemeinsam auf ideen am whiteboard

Maybe you were taught to mind-map as an undergraduate and have been using that technique ever since. Or perhaps your go-to brainstorming technique is word association. Even if you have a tried-and-true method, branching out and trying a new brainstorming technique could help you see the problem for a new angle or lead you to questions (and solutions) you may never have considered. And remember that in brainstorming, there’s no such thing as bad ideas, so even techniques that don’t ‘work’ for you can lead you to questions or methods that do. Check online for brainstorming ideas and tools, or ask your advisers and peers about their brainstorming techniques.

5. Sleep on it

Sleepy businessman

Once you’ve come up with a good idea, or a series of possible ideas, you might be tempted to jump right into research or writing. But it’s a good idea to take some time and let the ideas develop. Set aside time to brainstorm – experts recommend short, intense periods – and then let the ideas you’ve generated sit for a day or two. When you come back to them, you might find that the ideas you thought good or plausible are not the same ones that appeal now. Or you may have subconsciously expanded the scope of the ideas you did choose. And sleeping on the ideas isn’t just a figure of speech – your brain doesn’t keep normal working hours, and you might find that some of your greatest ideas come just as you’re drifting off to sleep or when you first wake. Keep a pen and paper by your bedside and quickly jot down anything that comes to mind.