Tips for Grads: Guide to creative problem-solving

By Emily Azevedo-Casey, PhD student

Grad students at any stage will often run into situations in research, coursework, or job searching where they may feel stuck or unsure of how to proceed. When these instances arise, try these tips for creative problem-solving to help you generate new ideas, see more options and alternatives, and focus on your next steps.

Creative problem solving (CPS) is a method of problem-solving that challenges you to approach a problem in an “imaginative and innovative way” using a combination of divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking can be understood as the brainstorming phase and convergent thinking can be thought of as the evaluating, selecting, and refining phase in problem solving. The method has existed since the 1940s and was pioneered by Sid Parnes and Alex Osborn’s innovative work.
Ask open-ended questions. This helps start the brainstorming process. Move on from a problem, like your research data yielding inconclusive results, to ask how you can improve the data collection or analysis to get more conclusive findings. Woven in here is the goal you want to see – more conclusive results. A good starting point is to write down everything you know about the problem.

Be willing to consider all new ideas. We can quickly shut down new ideas by judging too quickly and harshly, stemming the flow of ideas. Hold your judgment for now; we will want it later in the process. Focus on “yes, and…” instead of “no, but” when generating alternatives.

Evaluate and select the best option(s). Prioritize the ideas that will most appropriately answer your question. Among many ideas that may come out of the brainstorming phase, like increasing funding and adding collaborators in the inconclusive results problem, probably only a few ideas will actually help answer why the results were inconclusive. Perhaps you need to collect more or different data or use other methods for your analysis.

Make an action plan. Once you’ve identified a solution that meets your needs, break down the steps and time anticipated to get there. Consider planning who is responsible and what resources are needed at each step. Revise your plan as you progress. Repeat the CPS process as needed!

We all possess the ability to think creatively. These tips can help ground that creativity in a proven process that can be used again and again in the variety of contexts you might encounter in graduate school and beyond. For more resources on creative problem solving and examples of it being done here at UW, check out the Wisconsin Insitute for Discovery and the Design Thinking Program through School of Human Ecology.

Tips for Grads is a professional and academic advice column written by graduate students for graduate students at UW­–Madison. It is published in the student newsletter, GradConnections Weekly.