Today’s guest blogger is Steven Thurlow, who is undertaking a doctorate at The University of Melbourne. As part of his studies, he has written about the perceptions of creativity held by PhD candidates in the Arts (see Thurlow, Morton & Choi in The Journal of Second Language Writing). He is currently investigating how Arts academics understand the notion of creativity in doctoral writing, both what it is and where it is found.

By Steven Thurlow

It was the last class of our 6-week “creative” writing circle for Arts doctoral writers at the Australian research-intensive university where I work. We had spent each 2-hour class looking at one aspect of creativity – both practical examinations of creativity at the textual/product level and more esoteric discussions about how creativity might be present in doctoral writing processes and practices. The mood was buoyant as the students began taking their leave and heading back to their various disciplinary nooks and crannies.

As she was heading for the door, one of the more enthusiastic participants turned to me. “Gee, Steven, that was a really interesting course and I learned so much.” Then came the body blow: “But I still really have no idea what creativity actually is, and how I can use it in my work.”

Looking at creativity can be disconcerting like that. Spectre-like, it rarely reveals its full shape and form in the academy. But despite a distinctly frosty welcome and even hostility in some quarters, it lingers and lurks in the shadows; in the cracks and crevices of academic discourse; a quixotic beast; a reminder of risk and a beacon of what could be.

Creativity is a term that resists neat definitions, a buzzword that bleeds across academic, professional and self-help contexts. As an explorer of creativity in doctoral writing contexts, I too have struggled with nomenclature. In investigating what it is and why it could be important for doctoral writers, I have tried to stake out some boundaries. In no particular order, the notion of creativity in doctoral writing:

  • tends to have a more practical application in universities and is often used synonymously with terms such as innovation and novelty;
  • is commonly associated with the expenditure of imaginative effort which results in creative content and/or to the idea of creative expression/form (Tardy, 2016);
  • is always subject to expert judgment in the guise of expert readers/examiners of doctoral work.

From the position of creativity researchers such as Csikszentmihalyi (1996) and Tin (2016), creativity springs from a potent mixture of personal/innate characteristics, a product outcome, the process or practice of the creator and a cocktail of other environmental factors. All these forces come together to face an institutional gatekeeper who judges the final thesis document.

So, why is it important for doctoral writers to acknowledge and use creativity in their thesis-writing efforts? One reason connects very explicitly to one crucial ingredient for every successful thesis: originality. Indeed, creativity is often spoken about interchangeably with originality, but they can be very different beasts. From my perspective, to reach the thesis nirvana of true originality, doctoral writers need the spark and inspirational passion that characterise creativity. Despite its cosily symbiotic relationship with originality, creativity is all too often sidelined in the academy. Working with doctoral writers, I have often observed seemingly competent and highly creative students who:

  • inform me they are unable to use specific creative words, structures or approaches in their work, as they are “forbidden”;
  • rarely consider (or have explained to them) the specific processes and practices are needed to complete the complex task of preparing the thesis “book”;
  • often show little interest in delving closely into their writerly “selves”/identities;
  • never explicitly discuss creativity with their supervisors and/or peers.

Many supervisors, too, would appear to view creativity as more of a constraint than an enabler and appear to rarely engage with the concept. However, from my work as both a doctoral writer and doctoral writing teacher, I have found myself more drawn to the idea of practical creativity – specifically, how it could be used to both engage and get our essential message across to readers.

Unfortunately, it appears from my investigations into creativity to date, that any mention of creativity in doctoral writing – apart from those undertaking a creative exegesis – is usually accompanied by a degree of tension. For while I did find some evidence that doctoral writers (especially those in the Arts) considered creativity while writing their theses, the amount and degree of it was adversely affected by feelings of confidence or vulnerability towards their work. Interestingly, it also seems that although most doctoral writers recognised the potential usefulness of learning specific techniques to activate their creativity, several also commented on the need to unlearn previous “blocking” information about creativity in academic writing that had been previously taught to them.

All in all, it seems we have some way to go before creativity is enthusiastically accepted as a liberating and powerful force for thesis writers and, indeed, for doctoral education.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Tardy, C. (2016). Beyond convention: Genre innovation in academic writing. Ann Arbor, Michigan): University of Michigan Press.

Tin, T.B. (2016). Creativity in second-language learning. In Jones, R. (Ed.) (2016) The Routledge handbook of language and creativity. (pp. 433-448). London; New York: Routledge.