Creativity – probably the best PI skill in the world, says John Tregoning
What is the most important skill to become a PI? An eye for numbers, an ability to perform repetitive tasks accurately, optimism in the face of relentless failure, the ability to play nicely with others, sheer bloody mindedness, self-belief? All of these skills will strap you into the driving seat but once there, you’ll need to press the pedals yourselves. The most vital skill is creativity; the ability to see new connections — linking old data in new ways and using what we do know to interpret what we don’t.
Creativity is the most nebulous, ephemeral, and elusive of qualities and often feels at odds to the scientific process, but without creativity, you ain’t going nowhere.
In my experience there’s an arc to developing an idea. It starts with staring in despair at a steaming pile of mismatched data that has recently been deposited onto your desk. After the initial shock, you might begin to see strands of a story coalescing. You start to sew it together, ambitiously demanding new datasets and proposing experiments that will never be undertaken.
Finally, you pull all of the ideas into a shining gem of scientific writing, polished to perfection for your dream journal, only to have it crushed by some faceless, nameless, and possibly soulless reviewer and have to begin again. However, these steps are extremely tricky and involve a lot of tea, pacing round the office and crumpled sheets of paper. Here are some things that may help you to have, and then develop your ideas.
Ideas come at the most inconvenient of times — at 4 in the morning or when you have no access to pen/paper/internet. Accept this and provide yourself with tools to mitigate it: keep a pen besides your bed; use the notes feature on your phone; carry a notebook everywhere.
Stand on the shoulders of giants: read
There are no new ideas. Everything is a development from something else: this makes it both easier and harder. Easier because you can read around and adapt ideas from other disciplines; harder because someone else has no doubt had the same idea, reducing its novelty, impact and therefore marketability.
Follow your dreams
Allow yourself periods of not actively thinking about an idea — when you come back to it the problem will often be clearer. A lot of the heavy lifting can be done by your subconscious; give it time to do the groundwork and feed it by reading around the topic. But try to keep it focussed, as it is prone to drift off to the land of chocolate (mmmm. Chocolate).
Work the problem
“My subconscious is working on my grant” is a great excuse, but doesn’t get you funded — you do actually have to do something. Even if all you have to show for it is a bin full of crumpled paper; sitting, thinking and writing are all needed to add substance to any idea. I’ve spent many mornings going round in circles stuck on a particular issue, but you need to put in those miles in order to achieve breakthroughs. The trickiest part is knowing when to push and when to stop.
Take a break
Even short breaks can help. Archimedes had his Eureka moment in the bath, Newton was chillin’ by a tree when he got beaned by the apple good, and programmers have been communing with rubber ducks for 17 years. The first two probably didn’t happen (and the third, bizarrely, does) but that’s beside the point — stepping away from your desk can often lead to moments of clarity.
Don’t overthink it
Ideas are strange ephemeral things and in their earliest stages, they are staggeringly easy to destroy: direct scrutiny is the death of creativity. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, the brain just edits out them out, like a blind spot: your only hope is to catch them by surprise out of the corner of your eye. There is a difference between coming up with an idea, when you need to be creative, imaginative and think of the big picture; and developing an idea, when you need to be critical, analytical and focussed on the details.
It’s good to talk (but only sometimes)
It can help to discuss your idea with someone else as advice is always valuable, but you need to find the right person. Some people are good at giving unstructured support. Others are more critical, which can make your ideas stronger, but it can also kill them stone dead. Be clear with what you need when approaching someone for advice.
The timing of the discussion is critical. At their inception, when I can’t even find the words to describe the ideas to myself, there is no point trying to describe them to others; I get tongue-tied and frustrated while the person I am talking to just stares, bewildered. As the ideas become more formed, my excitement increases, but they are no less fragile.
When they’re developing, but not complete, the ideas (and I) both need unconditional praise to develop further: detailed questioning can make me doubt my idea, lose enthusiasm and bin the whole thing, including the good bits. Finally, only when fully mature, do I feel robust enough for ‘instant feedback.’
The single best thing about academia is that you get to have ideas and test them, no matter how crazy they are. But you must feed the beast: it takes more than one good idea to sustain a career. Yes, a “break-in” idea might get you your first PI job, but maintain a stream of ideas at various stages of development from half-baked plan devised in the pub to rejected grant. So get out there and start thinking.
John Tregoning is a Senior Lecturer at Imperial College studying the immune response to respiratory viral infections. In spite of everything, he remains relentlessly optimistic: you can read more of his writing here.