Mastering Your PhD: Strength in Numbers


Much of the time, especially after a string of long nights in the lab, you may feel as if you’re navigating the dark and stormy waters of research all alone, with a broken compass and no land in sight.

But help is at hand, and you don’t have to go it alone if you don’t want to. Take advantage of the experience and creativity of the others in your lab by asking them to try an experiment in parallel thinking.

At your next group meeting, present to your peers a problem you’ve been unable to solve by yourself and ask your lab mates to participate in a technique called the “Six Thinking Hats.” Developed by psychologist and physician Edward de Bono, Six Thinking Hats will help you examine problems and decisions from several perspectives. Used properly, this tool will encourage you, and your lab mates, to operate outside your normal mode of thinking. Even better, it can help you, and those around you, understand the full complexity of a problem and spot issues and opportunities you might otherwise have failed to see. Better still, it can help you learn about how you think.

Jump-start your thinking

As a scientist, you probably approach problems from a rational point of view. If so, you probably fail to view a problem from an emotional, intuitive, or creative point of view.

Why is this a bad thing?

Purely rational thinking may lead to a failure to think creatively, consider negative outcomes, or plan how to proceed if the original strategy doesn’t work. Purely rational thinking also may keep you in the rut you’re in, with a problem you can’t solve, not because it’s unsolvable, but because you haven’t been able to see it from a different perspective.

Each of the people you work with has a unique way of thinking. This can be the result of personality, habit, or both. Some may be optimists, always looking on the bright side of things, certain that every strategy they try will work ( What a fantastic idea! Let’s go for it!). Pessimists may be defensive and quick to point out the weaknesses and flaws of a plan ( It’s never going to work. Don’t even bother!). Those of a more emotional bent may fail to look at decisions in a dispassionate and rational way ( I hate that idea. Let’s try something else!).

If you examine a problem using the Six Thinking Hats technique, you can solve it by harnessing all these approaches and others, as well as your and your colleagues’ personal tendencies, leading to a balanced and well-conceived strategy.

The technique in action

You can use the Six Thinking Hats technique on your own, but it might be more fun to try it out in a group meeting. The trick is to get everyone thinking with the same hat at the same time, then moving through the different hats together until the problem has been examined from a variety of sides.

But first, stop for a minute and think about a typical group meeting. It probably starts with someone presenting a research problem, then someone else chimes in with an idea for a solution. Someone else shoots it down, saying it will never work. Another group member comments that it’s the best idea they’ve heard in a long time. The discussion becomes adversarial and goes in circles, with no structured approach to solving the problem.

That’s where parallel thinking can help. Parallel thinking requires getting everyone using the same thinking tool at the same time. It’s far more effective than arguing back and forth.

Six Thinking Hats is merely a convenient way of putting parallel thinking into practice. The hats and colors were designed to make the technique practical. Remember when your grade school teacher told you to put on your thinking cap? Now you can say to people: Let’s all put on the yellow hat and see if we can find some benefits to this idea. Each thinking hat represents a different style of thinking.

        The black hat will make your plans more resistant to failure. It can also help you spot flaws and risks before you choose a course of action. Black-hat thinking helps to counterbalance overly optimistic thinkers and those who leap ahead without considering drawbacks.

              How does it work in practice?

              Because you’re the one with a problem to solve, ask your adviser if you can chair the next group meeting. That way you’ll be wearing the blue hat and will be in charge of keeping the parallel thinking on track.

              Start the meeting by presenting the problem. Explain the objectives of the Six Thinking Hats. Then ask the group to move on to white-hat thinking: What are the facts? What information do you know?

              When green-hat thinking has generated some ideas, red-hat thinking can come into play. The group can use “gut feelings” to choose one or two possible ideas to pursue.

              Finally, at the end of the meeting, the blue hat calls for a plan of action. What needs to be done and when?

              If it’s not obvious by now why this technique is so powerful, think again about how your group meetings usually go. When everyone is adversarial, or bored, coming up with a coherent strategy is difficult if not impossible.

              But with everyone wearing the same hat at the same time, you’ll have a much better chance of success. In addition, this exercise might help you understand what type of thinking you tend to employ most of the time. In other words, are you a perpetual yellow-hat thinker, or are you a pessimist who employs black-hat thinking as you go about your work? Perhaps you are more intuitive in your approach, relying on the red hat most of the time. No matter which hat fits you best, you, and your science, will benefit from learning to wear different hats at different times.

              Next time you’ve come to a dead end in your research and don’t know where to go next, put on the Six Thinking Hats during a group meeting and see what you can come up with as a team.

              Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition, Chapter 6: Carrots and Sticks

              The Importance of Undergraduate Research