Creativity in Research

Csikszentmihalyi (2014) [1] interviewed a number of successful, creative individuals, for his book Creativity, to better understand how their process had helped them to become successful. Among the people he interviewed were a number of researchers in a variety of fields, including medical science, who demonstrated very clearly that creativity was very large part of their work.

We often don’t think about the process of conducting research as creative. With its controlled methodological approach, it seems very far away from how we often imagine creative artists. However, what Csikszentmihalyi’s work shows is that all successful creative individuals (those who actually produce valuable work) follow very similar processes. Understanding these processes can help you to think about the process of your own work and to better understand some of the phenomenon you will encounter. 

For instance, many students experience a point in their research when they feel lost; they have so many ideas and have read so much of other people’s research that they aren’t sure what they think any more and what they should do. It is easy at this point to assume that this means there is something wrong with you or with your project. In fact, it is a perfectly normal part of a creative process.

 A staple theory of creativity is that it involves two consecutive processes – divergence and convergence [2].

Illustration of creative process - divergence and convergence
Divergence and convergence diagram

Divergence (or divergent thinking) involves expanding thoughts and ideas, making new connections and opening up multiple possible areas for exploration. During divergence, individuals explore many options and may consider unlikely connections between previously unconnected ideas to generate new thoughts and possibilities. 

Convergent thinking is the process that follows divergent thinking, as possibilities are evaluated and then pared down, weaker ideas eliminated and problem-solving is refined. It is the process that turns ideas into substance.

The moment described above, when a student feels lost and uncertain of the way forward, is simply a moment of maximum divergence. You can view it as the point when your brain is telling you that you’ve done enough information gathering for now and you should now concentrate on winnowing down your options, eliminating weaker ideas and deciding on your next steps forward. This may take time – convergence is a process; you should not expect to be able to do it in a single moment. This is a piece of work that is part of the process of producing research.

In fact, you should expect to go through this process a number of times. Sometimes, the path you choose won’t lead to where you want to go, in which case you will need to rethink and enter the divergent stage again. You will probably find that your research will undergo a series of diverge/converge phases, as you can see in the figure below. 

Research Process

Research process diagram
The research process

Remember when these moments happen – this is normal. Plan for your research to move through these phases, and you will have more control, be better able to respond to setbacks and feel more comfortable and confident as you move through your degree.



Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Society, Culture, and Person: A Systems View of Creativity. In The Systems Model of Creativity (pp. 47–61).


Mednick, M. T. (1963). Research creativity in psychology graduate students. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 27(3), 265–266.