Is an Arts-Based PhD a Professional Qualification?

I recently gave a paper at the UK Council for Gradaute Education International Conference on Doctoral Training Structures (Dublin, July 2014). The paper examines the divide between philosophical and professional PhDs and whether this distinction is useful when considering skills based training for creative practice researchers. As such, I thought it would be good to share the video and transcript of my presentation here – I look forward to any comments and thoughts you may have.



In this paper I want to question why arts and humanities doctorates are understood as academic rather than professional qualifications? And whether these two terms – academic and professional – are actually useful when we think about doctoral training structures. By considering creative practice research in particular, I will provide an examination of the relationship between academic and professional skills sets and how this relates to doctoral supervision, mentoring, and training.

I have chosen to focus on creative practice research (or as it has also been termed – practice-based or practice-led research) for three reasons. Firstly, it is a research area that has challenged scholarly assumptions – causing us to rethink and re-evaluate what we might normally think constitutes a research process and/or outcome. Creative practice research occupies a liminal position between the arts and the sciences, fusing the critical reflection of the humanities with the practical exploration attributed to the physical sciences. Secondly, it is an area that it is plays into discussions about the value of arts and humanities research and, in particular, the role the play within innovation and the wider knowledge economy. And finally, as I will argue, creative practice research provides an interesting framework for thinking about doctoral training in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, especially since teamwork, collaboration, and the professional sector are often embedded into creative practice methodologies.

Whether they are novelists, designers, or fine artists, the professional arts and cultural sectors form part of the research process. Indeed, a creative practice researcher cannot easily ignore the demands, needs, and wants of publishers, producers, curators, funders, and arts audiences. As a UK Higher Education Academy report on practice-based doctorates reveals practitioners are not simply in dialogue with the professional community, but part of that community.[1] The role the professional sphere plays in a creative practice doctorate I think is worth exploring in more detail given the liminal space in which creative practice research exists, a space that lies somewhere between the professional doctorate and the doctorate of philosophy.

In a 2011 UK Council for Graduate Education Report that looked at the emergence of the professional doctorate, it is stated that one of main reasons for the emergence of the professional doctorate in the USA, UK, and Australia was to create a doctorate that met the needs of the knowledge economy.[2] While this statement is perhaps of no surprise, it immediately led me to ask what the differences are between the professional doctorate and the PhD with embedded professional skills training.

As I hope to show, this is a question that is tied to personal, social and political understandings about education, employment, and training. According to Tom Bourner (et. al.) for almost six centuries the PhD was a professionally-driven qualification, often focussing on the practice of law, theology, or medicine.[3] It wasn’t until the middle of nineteenth century that the inquiry based PhD model was developed at Humboldt University in Berlin. Although as Elinor S. Shaffer argues these developments are closely tied to ideas of progress through education and C19th notions of industrialization.[4] The stereotypical view of the doctorate as an esoteric, curiosity driven educational activity then is actually a fairly recent one. In fact, the first doctorate in philosophy at the University of Oxford wasn’t actually awarded until 1920. It seems for a large part of its history, the doctorate has been driven by the needs of the professional and industrial sectors.

The current drive by governments across the globe to bring research and the knowledge economy into closer alignment is perhaps, then, best understood as a return rather than the start of something new. So, to refine my previous question: if transferable skills are to become more firmly embedded into the PhD – as is suggested in a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – to what extent is the professional doctorate different from a doctorate of philosophy?[5] And is the distinction between the two really that helpful?

According to a UKCGE report on creative practice research in particular, the practice-based PhD is considered to reflect a research focus on the creative product in its academic context, whereas the focus in a practice-based DMus or DArt and Design is on the quality of the created product.[6]

While this report has certainly been invaluable in carving out a place for creative practice research in the academy, I’m not convinced that such a clear binary distinction is helpful in the long term. Indeed, how useful is it to distinguish between the professional scholar and the scholarly professional? In my opinion, by clearly delineating between the professional and the philosophical we are not only concealing some of the complexity, but affirming that these are two entirely separate spheres. As I noted earlier, creative practice research is rarely independent of the feedback and peer review of the professional sector and is often in active dialogue with the wider professional sector. While there has been a tendency to distinguish clearly between professional and philosophical doctorates, I would argue that there is perhaps a space in-between, a space that is actively explored by many creative practice researchers.

The in-between space to which I refer is hinted at, although not addressed directly, in the aforementioned UKCGE report on the professional doctorate. The report states that:

Practice-Led Doctorates…were not developed in response to any specific needs of the professional Arts, Design and Architecture domains, for the ultimate award of a PhD. In fact, the very concept of practice-based/practice-led research in AD&A refers more generally to a specific approach to academic research in these subject areas – this is the key characteristic, by contrast with many professional doctorates.[7]

The report highlights that unlike a Doctorate of Engineering or a Doctorate of Business Administration; the aim of the creative practice PhDs is not to solve a sectorial problem, but to answer a philosophically-driven question – and it is in that sense that the creative practice PhD is more akin to the more traditional PhD.

However, while the question may be philosophically determined, this does not mean that it is therefore independent of or detached from the professional sector. Indeed, many practice-led artists, designers and writers would consider themselves freelancers and/or soletraders as well as researchers. As Karen Yair states in a 2012 Crafts Council report on the relationship between Crafts and Enterprise, craft is an entrepreneurial sector, with 88% of all makers having set up their own business and with a further 6% in business partnerships.[8] Highlighting the balance between creative fulfilment and income generation, the report shows how a large proportion of makers with higher degrees in particular have gone on to contribute to a range of manufacturing industries. As Yair states: ‘makers can support companies transformation from commodity producers to knowledge-based companies trading on creativity and problem-solving capabilities’.[9] Although there is still evidence to be collected, it is my contention that this kind of work is a result of the intersection between subject knowledge and expertise and transferable skill sets. The two are mutually dependent.

According to a report on research skills be the Australian Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research: ‘Australia’s …research graduates have the skills and attributes to both engage in world-class research and make productive contributions in a wide spectrum of professional roles.[10] The recent UK Arts and Humanities Research Council Strategy mirrors this need, stating that doctoral researchers should have the opportunity to ‘develop the skills and experience necessary to succeed in doctoral research and have a wide range of opportunities to develop their skills within and outside the academy’.[11] While perhaps couched in knowledge economy rhetoric, these policy documents are underpinned by findings from of a number of research projects that have examined doctoral training structures and career progression. Indeed, as the Higher Education Academy Postgraduate Research Experience Survey clearly shows: there is a growing demand and need for professional development across all disciplines.[12] There are, however, two points in the survey that are mentioning today. The first is that interest in subject area and improving prospects for an academic research career are top two motivations for students. And the second is the observation that those working in STEM and Health disciplines will more likely have received transferable skills training than those working in the Arts and Humanities and the Social Sciences.

Vitae’s works on career progression similarly suggests that we need to rethink career provision and training. And again I’d like to pull out a few points relating to arts and humanities provision. In the report What do researchers want to do? The career intentions of doctoral researchers (2012) Vitae note that: ‘only in biomedical science and engineering and technology were significant proportions of respondents (over 30%) anticipating careers outside research, although mostly in occupations and sectors which they saw as related to their research disciplines’.[13] The report also highlights that three quarters of respondents from the arts and humanities, and over half in the social science or education, sought a higher education career. And, finally, that for the A&H in particular a significantly lower proportion of postdocs were in full time work. According to Vitae, career planning for postgraduates is often aspirational rather than pragmatic.

The findings of the US Report: Pathways through Graduate School and Into Careers are of a similar ilk. While the report states that: ‘it is critical to illuminate the pathways from graduate school into careers’ they note the significant ‘Lack of sufficient data for individuals who earn degrees outside of science and engineering fields’.[14] The report goes on to say that: ‘Unfortunately, it appears that students have disassociated their education aspirations from their occupational ones’.[15] The disconnect between the expected outcomes of a PhD and the situation in which postdocs find themselves seems particularly problematic within the arts and humanities. As the report emphasises, while graduates in engineering programmes are frequently supported for a diversity of career options, humanities students are more strongly directly toward faculty carers. The role faculty staff and supervisors can play here is significant. As Anthony T Grafton and Jim Grossman – the president and executive director, respectively, of the American Historical Association – state:

We tell students that there are “alternatives” to academic careers. We warn them to develop a “plan B” in case they do not find a teaching post. And the very words in which we couch this useful advice makes clear how much we hope they will not have to follow it – and suggest, to many of them, that if they do have to settle for employment outside the academy, they should crawl off home and gnaw their arms off.[16]

There is clearly a need for greater fluidity and mobility between the academic and professional sectors. The problem though it seems is not because of a lack of opportunities, but because the needs and wants of arts and humanities doctoral researchers do not align with those of the knowledge economy. To my mind, this is accentuated by the way in which PhD programmes are structured – programmes often demarcating between academic and professional skill sets, the professional seemingly an add-on service, rather than something that is embedded.

A linguistic change is needed in the first instance. We need to start talking about PhD candidates as professional researchers, rather than as early career academics. The term ‘academic’ I find particularly problematic as I believe it can have a detrimental effect on the way in which people think about future career paths and what might be considered ‘suitable’ and/or relevant. I think using the term professional researcher would also help with rethinking the way in which research, research degrees and the professional sector interact. We also need to work at hard at removing the stigma surrounding those who opt for a non-lecturing position or a career outside of higher education. By valuing research as a skill that is applicable in a wide range of sectors, the value of the academy and research becomes much clearer, and career routes for researchers more varied and permeable.

Supported by the Higher Education Academy grant, we are currently undertaking a research project that explore this issue by examining the need and wants of our creative writing doctoral researchers, the views of our creative writing researchers and supervisors, as well as those working in professional services.[17] In particular, we are looking at whether the findings of the aforementioned reports apply to our creative practice doctoral researchers, particularly given that creative practitioners often undertake their doctorate part time and at a later stage within their career. For the project we undertook semi-structure interviews with 12 of our creative writing supervisors and sent out a survey to our current cohort of doctoral researchers, for which we had a 13 responses: 6 part time, 3 full time, and 4 on our low residency programme.

From an initial review of the results, while there is certainly a noticeable similarity with the findings of the above surveys, there are also some important and significant differences. For instance, whilst the majority of doctoral candidates were primarily thinking of working in academia and were motivated primarily by their interest in the subject area, the professional sphere – the publication industry – remained important. Indeed, the majority said that the PhD afforded them an opportunity to refine their writing practice, and – intriguingly – to take creative risks and to experiment in a way that they couldn’t outside of academia. Respondents, though, also said that their overarching aim was to generate better industry publications and/or write better, to work with other writers and network, and to facilitate the publishing of a novel. And, when asked directly about progressing in an academic career – while half the respondents said yes, the other half said either ‘no’ or that they identified more with being a writer than an academic and that publishing works was important to them.

These results are interesting as they provide an extra level of detail, especially with regards to the intersection between the professional and the academic in creative practice PhDs. Indeed, it seems these candidates actually struggle to see the distinction between the two spheres. As our students are predominately part time (70%) and usually have at least one successful commercial publication behind them, their professional profile forms part of the admissions process and, thus, it is of no surprise that they don’t see the two as independent sectors.

Given the above, what training structures should be in place? Are transferable skills programmes really suited to arts and humanities doctoral researchers if a significant proportion of coming from the professional sphere? I would like to argue yes, but the training needs more thought. Career planning is, after all, a lifelong process and their engagement with the professional sector doesn’t alter the fact that seeking employment in the academic sphere post PhD may not be possible.

It is this area where I think we need to focus our energies. As the Arts Council England’s latest report on the value of the arts and culture states:

In some areas, such as the environment and sustainability, and science and technology, we have a general lack of suitable research – yet these are areas in which our own experience and common sense tell us that the arts play an essential educational and communication role.[18]

I would, perhaps, go a step further and say that arts, humanities, and social sciences all have the potential to contribute directly to scientific and technological development. Indeed, there have been a number of recent studies – one by Nesta I should add – that have argued that role science fiction has played a significant role in the way in which technology has developed – the way in which novelists and filmmakers imagine the future and future technologies providing a bedrock of thought[19].

There are many many other ways in which research into the arts and the humanities can have cross-sectoral impact. As two Bath Spa University professors, Fay Weldon and Kate Pullinger discuss:

Evidence of this is still problematic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true – it means that to locate arts and humanities research within the knowledge economy we need to better understand the global research ecology and that can only really be achieved by engaging more directly with a wide range of sectors.

The second part of our HEA project looks at how this might work on the ground and we are currently exploring the various ways in which different departments can work together to support doctoral researchers. Bringing together the graduate school, research office, careers teams, subject librarians and supervisors, this project hopes to push the boundaries of the doctorate, taking it beyond the walls of the university. Although there is still much work to do, we are looking at ways of bridging the gap between research expertise, skills and the professional sector and hope to have made some headway in this area by connecting our creative writing doctoral researchers with industry professionals – agents, editors, and national organisations all contributing to our programme through talks, events, and resources that provide our doctoral researchers with a dynamic environment that we hope blur the boundaries between academic, personal and professional development.

Indeed, careers shouldn’t be seen as appendage, but as part of the PhD process. To focus on providing training in soft skills in some ways misses the point. To help doctoral candidates see the benefits of coupling academic research and industry, we need to dispense with the stigma – and see the benefits of collaboration. Key to this will be acquiring a detailed and discipline specific understanding of the translational nature of the skill sets acquired during a doctorate and assisting doctoral researchers to connect their research to the professional and public sectors. We need to go beyond the professional skills training session and provide opportunities for researchers to think through doing and to reflect on that experience. Creative practice as research has in some ways provided a fertile ground to address these questions, as the professional sector already plays a key role in the development and dissemination of research. As Yvon Bonenfant has argues: ‘as a research paradigm, PaR is pregnant with radical and fecund potential in societies that increasingly rely on ‘creatives’ for economic and social growth, ecological transformation and regeneration, because of PaR’s ability to integrate logics that are other than linear, embodied activity, and creative unpredictability within one field’.[20]

In my opinion, it is not simply – as the European League of Research Universities argues – that skills need to be at the heart of the doctoral process.[21] This just isn’t the reason most people undertake a doctorate, particularly in the arts and humanities. To my mind, it is about developing skills in relation to research, expertise, development, and ecologies of knowledge. It is about how these all interconnect and how we can provide structures that offer a range of opportunities for collaborative, interdisciplinary, immersive and reflective learning.

[1] June Boyce-Tillman et. al. (ed.), PaR of the Course: Issues involved in the development of practice-based doctorates in the Performing Arts (Higher Education Academy, June 2012).

[2] UK Council for Graduate Education, Professional Doctorates in the UK (2011), 20.

[3] Tom Bourner, Rachel Bowden, and Stuart Laing, ‘Professional Doctorates in England in the 1990s’, Studies in Higher Education, 26/1 (2001), 65-83.

[4] Elinor S. Shaffer, ‘Romantic philosophy and the organisation of the disciplines: the founding of the Humboldt University of Berlin’ in Romanticism and Sciences, ed. Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 38-54.

[5] OECD, Transferable Skills Training for Researchers: Supporting Career Development and Research (December 2012).

[6] UKCGE, Practice-based Doctorates in the Creative and Performing Arts and Design (1997), 12.

[7] UK Council for Graduate Education, Professional Doctorates in the UK (2011), 63.

[8] Karen Yair, Craft and Enterprise, (Crafts Council, March 2012).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Austrailian Government Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Research Skills for an Innovative Future: A Research Workforce Strategy to Cover the Decade to 2020 and Beyond (2011), 11.

[11] Arts and Humanities Research Council, The Human World: The Arts and Humanities in Our Time (March 2013), 18.

[12] Paul Bennett and Gosia Turner, PRES2013: Results from the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (Higher Education Academy, 2013).

[13] Vitae, What do researchers want to do? The career intentions of doctoral researchers (Careers Research & Advisory Centre, 2012), 2.

[14] Council of Graduate Schools and Educational Testing Service, Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers, Report from the Commission on Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers (Princeton: Educational Testing Service, April 2012), 4.

[15] Ibid. 15.

[16] Antony T. Grafton and James Grossman, A very modest proposal for graduate programs in history (26 September, 2011). Retrieved from the American Historical Association website.

[17] Thanks to Tim Middleton and Tracy Brain for their assistance with this paper.

[18] Arts Council England, The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society: an Evidence Review (March 2014)

[19] NESTA, Better Made Up The Mutual Influence of Science Fiction and Innovation (March, 2013).

[20] Yvon Bonenfant, ‘A portrait of the current state of PaR: Defining an (In)Discipline’ in PaR for the Course: Issues involved in the development of practice-based doctorates in the performing arts, ed. June Boyce-Tillman et. al. (Higher Education Academy, June 2012), 21.

[21] European League of Research Universities, Doctoral degrees beyond 2010: Training talented researchers for society (March 2010).


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