What is creative research? (and why it matters)

Insights from the Postdoc Takeover Week, 27 - 31 March

Postdoctoral researchers from The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) are taking over our Insights blog this week – sharing advice and tips on the things that matter most to today’s researchers.

Browse the full list of posts.

Gianturco Junior Research Fellow in Music and Philosophy at the University of Oxford, Toby Young, shares his tips on how young academics can stand out from the crowd.


In a harder job market than ever, young academics need to stand out to avoid being branded as boring. We’ve all heard the buzzword of creativity, but how can it help to enhance our research? Here are three suggestions:

  1. Get away from your desk

Traditional models of the creative process are basically the same as the research process – you start with an idea, you work through it, and you package it up for dissemination. However there’s one crucial difference, which in creative theory is called the incubation period. This bit of time in the early stages of the research process where you leave your desk and explore something creative, artistic or fun.

This is crucial for giving your brain time to develop your ideas, whilst also subconsciously tapping into the artistic elements of the new experience or task to help the ideas combine and reform in interesting and unusual ways.

Think this sounds a bit new-agey? Take a leaf out of NASA physicist Robert Lang’s book for example, as he uses his passion for origami to inspire his engineering work (and vice-versa) and see how meaningful this stage of the research process can be.

  1. Take a tip from storytelling

Fundamentally, all writing is creative, but with tight deadlines and pressure to publish quantity over quality, it’s all too easy to forget the potential for communication and expression that good writing can hold.

The easiest way to rekindle this is undoubtedly to read, both inside and outside academia. The tips and tricks you can pick up from novels about tone of language, pacing, and narrative are invaluable to explaining your research clearly, concisely and colourfully.

Have fun with the written word again! Imagine every article or chapter is a short story and you’ll be amazed how quickly you’ll notice the difference.

  1. Look beyond the written word

We’re so used to disseminating our work by the usual channels of journal articles, chapters and books, etc. But is a 6,000 word piece of writing really the best way to express your ideas? Might your work have more impact if it was sung? Or painted? Or danced?

One example of a work which challenges conventional forms of dissemination is Nick Sousanis’ stunning doctoral thesis Unflattening written entirely in the form of a comic book, and the first visual monograph ever to be published by Harvard University Press.

Be brave! Sometimes non-conventional forms can handle just as meaningful and complex academic discourse as the written word, whilst also helping to inspire and engage a wider audience to your work.


Toby Young is the Gianturco Junior Research Fellow at Linacre College, Oxford. He has given numerous public talks and lectures on creativity, philosophy and music, including a TEDx talk, a series of three radio programmes on ‘Artistic Knowledge’ for Resonance FM, and an upcoming lecture on beauty and taste for Gresham College. He is also Co-Director of the Oxford Centre for Creative Research. More information can be found on his website. Follow Toby on Twitter @theothertoby.