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Learning Objectives

  • Learn how to create multiple solutions to a dilemma.


“When I get flustered, I sometimes make irreversible decisions before considering better options.”

“My advisor and I seem to be in a rut. We are not communicating well. I don’t know how to turn things around.”

“I am a perfectionist. If I can’t think of a perfect solution right away, I freeze.”

What is Brainstorming?

Brainstorming, the process of generating a mental or written list of every possible solution to a dilemma, is a crucial problem-solving skill. You use brainstorming skills when you are thinking about your dissertation topic or troubleshooting in the lab, but do you apply these skills to your “people problems"? For example, if insulted by a co-worker, would you react automatically or would you first run through alternative solutions in your mind?

This module will teach you expert tips on brainstorming and help you learn to apply these skills to interpersonal or programmatic issues getting in the way of your career goals. This module is devoted to helping you learn to develop this specific skill, because brainstorming skills are actually much different from those involved in other aspects of problem-solving.[1]


Before we begin, imagine the scenario below. What would you think to do next?

A year ago, you uprooted your family from another state to pursue your Ph.D at this university. You applied here to work specifically with Professor Shultz on nanomaterial and nanocomposites research. Your 4 year old loves the on-campus preschool and your partner is finally settling into his new job. Your advisor announces in a lab meeting that she has accepted an offer at a university on the opposite coast and will be leaving next semester.

Did any of the thoughts below run through your head as you imagined what you might think to do next?

  • “I would not be able to pursue the same career goals without my advisor around.”
  • “My partner would leave me if I made him move one more time.”
  • “No one else would want to take me on as an advisee.”
  • “If something like that happened to me, I would just give up.”

This type of negative thinking can lead you to prematurely disregard possible solutions. In fact, the purely rational thinking can be limiting at this stage in the problem-solving process as well.[2] It's easy to jump to conclusions about what is or is not possible, or fall back on previous ways of dealing with problems, leading you into familiar dead-ends.

Successful brainstorming takes creativity and an open mind,[3],[4]skills that you can improve upon with practice.[1]There will be pros and cons to any decision to you make, but you can sort these out later in the decision-making process.

Being Open-Minded

The first step in brainstorming is to put every single possible solution on the table, even those that do not appear realistic or favorable. Temporarily refrain from evaluating possible options.[3] It is best to write down your ideas.

A list of alternatives generated from creative, open-minded brainstorming might look something like this.

If my professor transfers to another university, I can:

  1. Transfer with my family to my professor’s new university
  2. Transfer without my family
  3. Stay here and work with a different advisor on a different topic
  4. Stay here and work with a different advisor on the same topic
  5. Quit school
  6. Try to convince my advisor to stay
  7. Look into graduate college provisions for advisor chairing or co-chairing your dissertation research from afar
  8. Temporarily move near my advisor so he can advise me as I finish my dissertation, after completing your program requirements
  9. Can you think of another option?

The process of writing thoughts down can sometimes inspire new ideas. Only after you throw out as many ideas as possible should you begin to evaluate and eliminate each possibility one by one.

Try it With Your “People Problems”

Remember that there is never a right or wrong answer when it comes to solving the many types of interpersonal dilemmas that will come up in graduate school.

Brainstorm solutions to the following dilemmas:

  1. You are jealous that another student was told about a coveted research assistantship first. You think he got the info from an all-male informal lunch event.
  2. Your ANOVA professor tells you (and only you) that this week's office hours will be held during dinner at his place.
  3. You think you deserve second authorship on a manuscript, but your team plans to make you fourth author.

Below are some of the possible solutions:

1. You are jealous that another student was told about a coveted research assistantship first. You think he got the info from an all-male informal lunch event.

Possible options include:

a. Apply to the assistantship as soon as you can, even if the deadline has passed

b. Decide not to apply to the assistantship at all

c. Ask to be invited to the next informal departmental luncheon

d. Look into your school’s policies on job postings and see if a rule was broken

2. Your ANOVA professor asks if you would like to hold office hours over dinner at his place.

Possible options include:

a. Agree and attend

b. Agree to attend, but later call in “sick”

c. Say "no, thank you." Tell him you are available to meet during his regular office hours in his office.

d. Say "no, thank you." Tell him that his request is inappropriate.

e. Say "no, thank you." File a sexual harassment claim.

f. Say "no, thank you." Consult with your mentor about possible next steps.

g. Pretend you did not hear or understand your professor ’s request

3. You think you deserve second authorship on a manuscript, but your team plans to make you fourth author.

Possible options include:

a. Do nothing

b. Demand to be at least third author

c. Work really hard on the manuscript and hope that the team notices

d. Find out exactly why they have decided that you only deserve to be fourth author, and see if there is something you can do to contribute more

e. Do nothing, but make sure everyone is clear on authorship before working together on a manuscript next time

Did you overlook or disregard any of these solutions? Did you come up with an option not mentioned here?


Which of the examples below are key components of brainstorming?

Best Answer: D. C is NOT a part of brainstorming. Though it is tempting to make decisions based on what initially seems the most doable or logical, the process of exploring all your different options will help inform your decision making process later.


Engaging in creative, nonrestrictive brainstorming can lead you to try options that you might never have considered before. But, of course, this is only one aspect of strategizing. Next, the CareerWISE Make Good Decisions module will help you to systematically evaluate and make a decision from your list of alternatives.


  1. Brophy, D. (1998). Understanding, measuring, and enhancing individual creative problem-solving efforts. Creativity Research Journal, 11, 123-150. doi:10.1207/s15326934crj1102_4
  2. Gosling, P., & Noordam, B. (2006). Mastering your Ph.D: Survival and success in the doctoral years and beyond. Berlin: Springe.
  3. Von Oech, R. (1983). A whack on the side of the head: How you can be more creative. New York: Warner Books Inc.
  4. Rietzschel, E. F., Nijstad, B. A., & Stroebe, W. (2007). Relative accessibility of domain knowledge and creativity: The effects of knowledge activation on the quantity and originality of generated ideas. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 933–946. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2006.10.014

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Words of Wisdom: Dr. Anderson-Rowland
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Urges students to seek multiple campus resources for support.

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Advisor's experiences encourage well-informed career decis

To Post-Doc or Not to Post-Doc
When it's time to graduate and when it's important to start learning on the job.


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