Tag Archives: thesis

Finding Creativity

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Isaac Asimov (1965), via Wikimedia Commons

The subject of creativity has been on my mind lately. As part of my dissertation research, I had to look at theories of policy entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are said to be many things — risk-takers, charismatic, disruptive.

But they are also said to be creative. They have insights on resources and constraints that lead them to act differently than their peers.

Diligence Contra Creativity?

We could say the same about scholars. Some scholars are like entrepreneurs, trying to revolutionize their discipline with bold new approaches. Some of these insights work, while others flare out.

Other scholars are less adventurous. They prefer to work within well-defined research traditions and grind out modest contributions. Even within this group of scholars, however, I often find that — at least in their own minds — they see themselves as creative.

But all researchers, no matter what field, soon find that diligence is the key to success. Without it, you get nowhere. Coding data, writing and rewriting, formatting bibliographies — without the ability to handle the minutiae of research and scholarship, you are nowhere. You have nothing.

And perhaps all this diligence does something to your creativity. Perhaps it makes you more guarded, less bold. You learn to write and think defensively. And perhaps these habits of mind inhibit your ability to make new breakthroughs.

Finding Creativity

I’ve been trying to rediscover my creative self. I’ve also been trying to write something meaningful on creativity. It’s hard. And perhaps it’s something I haven’t been attacking creatively enough (or shouldn’t be attacking at all).

Many things have been written on creativity (some of them not all that creative). But my favorite quotes on creativity come from an Isaac Asimov essay I was recently introduced to. The origin of the article itself is fairly interesting. It was the result of an official, government-sponsored project to think creatively about a very difficult problem. I encourage anyone reading this to check it out.

What’s interesting about the 1959 essay is its cynicism toward government-sponsored creativity sessions. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, there were all sorts of reports and media condemnations of the intelligence community’s failure to connect the dots — in a broad sense its failure to be creative. It’s bizarre to charge a government bureaucracy with a failure to be creative — as if creativity can be produced through a bureaucratic process. And in the aftermath of the attacks, the government sponsored a slew of workshops with “creative types” (novelist, actors, directors, and other eccentrics) in order to “red team” more possible scenarios.

Thinking about these sessions in light of the Asimov article is interesting because Asimov is skeptical that creativity can ever be the product of a governmental process. But he does have a few key sections where he suggests some ways that creative outputs may occur through government funding. Again, I encourage you to go right to the source material.

Eccentricity and its Limits

Here is one quote from the article that got me thinking:

“A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.”

My first thoughts on this quote have to do not with creativity but with the limits of rational judgment. Let’s say we are able to get a bunch of eccentric/genius types together. And let’s say one out of twelve has a very useful idea. Would we be able to pick out the one good idea successfully?

My answer: I don’t think so.

This is based on observation. We frequently see someone who is right about the next big event or who was warning us about some danger that was about to occur. They are usually columnists, commentators, think tank scholars, or something of the like. But typically we only find out who is right after the event has occurred.

So, not only can we not know which eccentric is the right eccentric, but we (or they) only benefit from their eccentricity if they are willing to put their ideas into practice or risk something they have to make their eccentric ideas work or to get noticed — as entrepreneurs do.

Since entrepreneurs often fail, they need to have either extraordinary insight or they need to be people of “considerable self-assurance” who take risks in spite of the consequences of being wrong.

Isolation and Unconscious Thought

Here is another quote that got me thinking:

“My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekulé working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)”

Isolation? I’m not sure isolation is necessary. Especially in my research on political entrepreneurship, the eccentric types need lots of exposure to their natural environment. Insights come from “continually working at it,” but usually in a social context. For some types of breakthroughs, isolation might be necessary, but for myself I prefer to work with others, especially when I’m stuck on a problem. Isolation might make people weird, but not necessarily in a way that provides useful insights about things in the world.

The part that rang most true for me was the idea of the mind shuffling information, even when “not conscious of it.” I’ve become a true believer in defocused concentration. N.N. Taleb, the famous thinker on antifragility, has talked about the benefits of walks. I find that menial tasks often have the same effect. When I am doing something that requires little thought, but involves lots of motion, I can often have a mental breakthrough. (There is actually an episode of the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon put this theory to work by trying to come up with a breakthrough by working as a busboy at Penny’s restaurant.)

For some reason, I get insights right before I go to sleep. Actually, I get them at the very moment where my mind begins to relax and slip into unconsciousness. This has become so annoying that I’ve just left a notebook by my bed so I don’t have to get up again and walk to my laptop.

Brainstorming Sessions — Real and Fake

A while ago, (I can’t say particularly where or when) I read about a certain government department holding brainstorming sessions. I tried to picture what this must have been like. My mental image was not of a real brainstorming session, but of a bunch of government bureaucrats sitting around, floating mildly interesting ideas with little risk, moments of uncomfortable silence, some obligatory back-slapping, and then calling it a day.

Again, I don’t think a real brainstorming session can occur in a place like a government bureaucracy, or even a large corporation for that matter. Eccentricity in those kinds of contexts can be dangerous. (Maybe if it was a corporate advertising agency. Maybe.)

So here is my last quote:

“But how to persuade creative people to do so [get together for a creativity session]? First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness. The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome. The individuals must, therefore, have the feeling that the others won’t object.”

This is where academia often fails. Conferences, peer review, and other such academic conventions work against creativity. Usually, the only way around these inhibitors is to avoid them for a while. You have to find a context where genuine creativity is rewarded, and that can be difficult. An academic conference of like-minded individuals looking for a breakthrough might work better than some of the conferences I’ve been to (where scholars spend more time avoiding being wrong).

Like-minded scholarly communities help. Parties help. Talking with sympathetic friends helps. I’m also encouraged by the number of forums that have opened up for scholars to do “official bull-shitting” like blogs and web journals that have more flexible editorial requirements and allow speculative essays.

Another idea, keep a journal with ideas only you’ll ever read. (I guess isolation can be productive!) Then when something is ready to come out of the journal, let it out.

Creativity Finds You

Here is my simple definition of creativity: the mental state of childlike wonder.

If that is the case, then you need to find ways to put yourself in mental states where it’s okay to be odd, unique, experimental — and just plain wrong. It’s difficult to find those spaces as an adult, but not impossible. The problem is that many places within the university are not such spaces. Many places in public life are not such places. They are places of adulthood and consequences. They are places of diligence.

Creativity is what happens when you stop trying so hard.

Some Advice on Writing Your Dissertation

Dan Drezner has written a compelling article on the reasons why and why not to pursue a graduate degree in IR. This article is a must read for anyone considering a PhD in the social sciences. Perhaps it’s sufficient for me to say that I didn’t know much about the completion rates of PhD students in the social sciences (about 41 percent finish within 7 years) when I decided to enter my program.

There are many “facts of (IR) life” that need to be explained to beginning graduate students–those regarding professional development, comprehensive exams, publishing, etc. But I don’t think I’m alone when I write that the biggest hurdle to finishing the degree is the dissertation.

What (meaningful) advice can I give graduate students about the dissertation stage? By no means am I an expert on the dissertation process, but listed here are a few things I wish I could have told myself early on.

Continue reading Some Advice on Writing Your Dissertation

Impostor Syndrome as a PhD Student

When I talk to fellow PhD students, many express a rather negative outlook on their own work and/or future perspectives. Of course this is not the case for all people, and there’s a huge continuum between self-deprecatory humor and existential crisis. But still, I see a lot of self-criticism and skepticism, and it doesn’t necessarily get more light-hearted over the course of a night at the bar. (And of course I am writing about myself here, too. Who am I kidding.)

The reason, I think, might be that academics are particularly prone to the impostor syndrome. In case you haven’t heard of it, let me quote Wikipedia:

The impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

Here is a great link list on dealing with the phenomenon in the context of grad school and academia. Again, I want to reiterate that not all PhD students show this behavior, and that I am not trying to make light of a serious psychological problem. So what I should probably say is this: I have the feeling that young academics, including my circle of friends, have a tendency to be very self-critical and at the same time easily impressed by others. Based on my own experience, that mindset is neither very productive nor good for your mood.

So, here’s my unsolicited piece of advice in case you, too, feel like a fraud from time to time (to some degree, and more or less self-ironically).

  1. Be arrogant. You’re pretty awesome! There is a reason you got into grad school while many others were rejected. And keep in mind, between what the top people in your field are doing and your work there is a difference of degree, not kind. (In fact, I bet that most aren’t doing much better than you are, at least not all of the time.)
  2. Be grateful. Maybe the last two days, weeks or months weren’t the most straightforward, successful ones on your way to the PhD. But you still got to be in grad school, which is a far to cool to take it for granted. Probably you get to be around interesting people  and are at least approximately doing what you like …  that’s more than many other people can say about their line of work.

I just stumbled upon this great blog post on “levels of excellence”. The author uses material on mathematicians and professional swimmers, but there are many interesting thoughts in that piece on reaching different levels of excellence at what you do. So, let me close my little advice column with the idea of the “mundanity of excellence”:

[A] dissertation is a mundane piece of work, nothing more than some words which one person writes and a few other people read. (…) [T]he real exams, the true tests (such as the dissertation requirement) in graduate school are really designed to discover whether at some point one is willing just to turn the damn thing in.

IR Journals Off the Beaten Track

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Whenever you write an acacemic paper – no matter whether it is for school, for a journal or as part of your thesis – you are in need of literature. You need to find other papers or books to read and to cite to show that you know what you and others are talking about. But where do you look for this literature? No matter whether you start your search at Google Scholar, your local university library or the Web of Knowledge (WoK), you often end up following a beaten track. And that track most oftenly leads through US publishing houses, authors, and journals.

If your are interested in some alternative views, here are some links to journals that might help you leave that path at least once in a while:

Some of these journals are actually listed in the Social Science Citation Index and you might want (or have) to access it through the Web of Knowledge (given that your institution has access to the WoK).

This list is probably not exaustive and it ignores non-US journals from Europe and Canada. But it introduces publications of IR communuties that are probably farest off the beaten  track and it represents what I have collected over the years as part of my own research on post-Western IR. If you know of other journals or good alternative databases, please share these with us!

Links: Big Topics in IR; International Currencies; The Middle Class Is Not What It Used to Be

braumoeller

Phil Arena recommends Bear Braumoeller’s new book Great Powers and the International System. Not just because it’s good, but as a role model for grad students in IR:

[This book] offers a great example of a dissertation (or a project that began its life as one, at any rate) that speaks to questions lying at the center of the field. Yes, you can write Bad Pun: The Thing That’s Happening Now and How None of The Big Names Have Anything to Say About It, 1990–2008. But you could also think a little bigger.

 

Dan Drezner wonders if the recent almost-shutdown of the U.S. government will trigger financial counter-balancing, as IPE realists have been predicting for quite some time:

The question is whether it’s worth being dependent on a growing economy that’s so politically unreliable.  So now we’re gonna see whether incipient U.S. rivals will start making the necessary down payments to act on their increasingly justified complaints.

As Benjamin J. Cohen suggested in a talk here at Freie Universität a couple of months ago, what keeps the dollar strong might be the lack of alternatives (rather than the inherent qualities of the global key currency #1). Drezner says we’ll see soon enough which side is right, but I have the feeling that in the absence of clear predictions or thresholds (how do we know “the end of the dollar” when we see it?), this dicussion will drag on for decades.

 

Speaking of money, and considering that this is a blog written by relatively young people, allow me to point to a non-IR topic: “We’ll never have it so good again.”

Well, in August 2011, [my parents’] former home was placed on the market. The asking price was £2,475,000. So a house that had once been affordable by a young, middle-class couple was now being aimed at buyers who were, by any normal standards, very rich indeed. (…) A similar process of exclusion has taken place in education. (…) So my father went to Eton. I went to Eton. And my son goes to Bishop Luffa Church of England comprehensive.

Of cource, these are still nice problems to have compared to most people, and many aspects of social life are certainly better than a couple of decades ago. Yet the overall trends regarding income and wealth in the rich parts of the world, which I’ve covered here earlier, look worrisome basically for everyone below of the very top of the pyramid.

PhD Pitch #4: Anti-Corruption, using only 1000 basic words

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My dissertation project (on international efforts to fight corruption) in 5 questions & answers… but to make things interesting, I’ve used a text editor that limits you to the 1000 most-used English words. The idea is based on a comic by xkcd, and please check out “ten hundred words of science” for many great examples.

So, what is this thing about?

What do states do if they want to stop people who pay or accept money or presents although they should not? That is my question, and I look at many places in the world where states make plans with each other. In the end I want to explain why they decide the way they do.

Why should we care?

Continue reading PhD Pitch #4: Anti-Corruption, using only 1000 basic words

Paper Stacks vs. Android Apps

copy paper
According to Wikimedia, this is what a typical stack of paper looks like… (CC-BY-SA) Jonathan Joseph Bondhus

A couple of weeks ago, I got frustrated by the various stacks of papers in my apartment and on my desk in the office. That’s when I decided to give the “paperless office” a new shot. This post is a progress report on my revival of that early 2000’s buzz word. Apologies for the nerdy technical details …

Discovering & filing

When new information enters my “academic workflow”, it is often in the form of digital journal articles. Avoiding paper is obviously easy in this case: just don’t print that stuff! The same goes for working papers sent to me by email.

But what about books? My solution so far is to scan the relevant sections and then run a simple OCR software (in my case: ABBYY PDF Transformer). This way, I end up with PDFs that allow for full-text search. Archive material? Don’t bother with making hard copies to carry home. Instead, I take pictures with my smartphone, which I can later run through the same PDF routine. From my limited experience, it seems that specialized apps for your phone (to help with contrast and straighten the image) are unnecessary, but ask me again after 1,000 pages…

No matter what files we’re talking about, they all go to my Dropbox folder – but you could of course use any of the many competitors. The crucial things is to have all data synchronized on all devices, so I never need to think about how to access it. For sensitive information and for my Citavi database (which according to the publisher might get corrupted if put directly in a shared folder), I use an encrypted virtual device that is also located in the sync folder. This means that on every computer with Citavi, I also have Truecrypt (For some people, a web-based citation management might be better, and I plan to transition to that eventually).

Reading & annotating

Continue reading Paper Stacks vs. Android Apps

PhD Pitch #1: My Thesis in Folders

International Relations Scholarship Beyond the Transatlantic Core: Citation Patterns in East Asian, Latin American and South African IR Journals

OR

TB(A+C) = 46 = 3(5/(7+8+9)(1+2))

So the goal is B; which will in the end make up (large parts of) T(Thesis). B is thereby based on A and C. Both A and C derive from Σ(folder1,…,folder9) with the basic idea of using 1 and 2 (methods) as well as 7, 8 and 9 (theory) to make sense of 5 within the bigger context of 3. The outcome will be a smaller and localized (6) version of 4.

 my_thesis_in_folders

Continue reading PhD Pitch #1: My Thesis in Folders