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Art Practice and the Doctoral Degree

Mark Tansey, The Myth of Depth, 1984, oil on canvas
Andrew McGettigan analyses the problems in practice-led art PhDs, suggesting some alternative approaches.
Mark Tansey, The Myth of Depth, 1984, oil on canvas

Doctorates in art, where the assessment includes the submission of practical, creative work, have been offered in UK higher education for over fifteen years. Yet they are still surrounded by confusion and a nagging scepticism about their worth for art practice, so that one recent article suggests that they are part of ‘pernicious and misleading validation system’.01There is whiff of anti-intellectualism around some of these comments, especially since it hints of resentment towards artists who might gain further resources to resist the tutelage of professional critics, but as Adorno notes, the philistine asks the right question and art colleges and departments have not yet provided a good answer.

First, all art doctorates in the UK are presented and regulated as research degrees. Some demystification is needed here: the research degree is a limited qualification, which can best be understood as a practical apprenticeship in becoming a researcher. It confuses the issue to conflate this award with recognition or validation as an artist, though, as has happened in the other academic disciplines, it may become seen as an essential or desirable qualification for academic posts. Research in art is legitimate and much of it is useful (certainly it is not clearly weaker than other academic disciplines), as such, a degree which prepares researchers, as in other disciplines, is perfectly valid. The suggestion is, however, that effective training is not happening in the case of doctorates with practical submissions.

The Research Degree

The research degree which includes practical, creative work of any kind alongside a written component, is assessed in terms of a ‘contribution to knowledge’. This combined submission is understood to advance a case or set of claims, a ‘thesis’, which is significant, original and robustly supported. While this general rubric may seem vague, it reflects the flexibility of the model: the individual’s research project sets the test it is to undergo and effectively determines the specific criteria which are brought into play at final assessment. Accordingly the ‘art practice’ submitted can be of any kind, media or form (whether artefact or documentation of processes or events) depending of what is held to be at stake. It may, for example, function as evidence for the overall claim, a method underpinning that evidence, or in itself as work somehow instantiate the claim. Christopher Frayling’s distinction between research through art or research as art reflects this varying role, but also indicates that the artefacts produced are judged in relation to the thesis advanced, and may therefore assume a subsidiary or instrumental role, or at least primarily reflect a focus on the something other than the aesthetic or art experience.02 Thus it is the originality of the claims that is at stake rather than the originality of the work submitted – derivative work may support an original thesis.

We have here the first intimations of what is animating the scepticism about art doctorates – they are viewed as institutional refuges for weak practitioners. But looking at it from the student’s perspective, there also marked disadvantages for artists pursuing research degrees, which institutions are failing to address.

Victor Burgin is on the right lines where he identifies the major category of applicants for art doctorates as those ‘who [make] works of art and who also [read] enthusiastically … and [turn] concepts encountered in reading into practical projects’.03 This needs expanding: these practitioners often have, alongside their practice, an open-ended interest which they would like to pursue in a sustained and rigorous fashion. At the heart of the issue is whether transforming this initial motivation into a research project is the best option. Chiefly, a frame has to be constructed that places the practice in relation to a significant problem and thereby escapes the solipsism that might result by beginning from one’s own work.

There are two relevant considerations here.

First, the ‘research’ in a research degree is distinct from the everyday notion of the activity, whereby an individual becomes informed about something. Research that advances knowledge goes beyond a personal exploration and requires a clear sense of how what is being pursued will be of significance to a broader community of academics and practitioners. To wit, when all is said and done, what would others learn from reading the thesis that they could not get elsewhere? Why there is a need for this research? How does it arise from a problem internal to current scholarship and practice and not simply individual interest?

Second, anything can become material for art practice. This has the corollary in research terms that all manner of research methods and models are available for art: from material science (for example, the development and assessment of new techniques in processes such as glass-moulding) to sociology. The freedom and flexibility of the model likewise demands that these decisions of scope are made explicit and justified from an informed position. That is, the candidate must have the reflective ability to situate and justify decisions of this kind. When it is done well, a successful candidate will potentially have solved research problems distinct from those in fields or disciplines where models are more established and less subject to variation (or indeed where doctoral students are assigned a part of a larger project being undertaken by the supervisor). On the other hand, the support apparatus (supervisors, training etc.) that enables students to make these decisions requires more investment by the host institution. By its very nature, the research is likely to be interdisciplinary and require familiarity with, even mastery in, more than one field, which means that candidates in specialist art and design courses may be disadvantaged by not having close contact with social science and humanities departments. This pressure contributes to the popularity of ‘Theory’, which seems to offer an immediate resolution to the research dimension, but may be more pernicious in its general effects if it conflates research with the reading of texts and their exposition.

From this it follows that the demand to render these decisions into a plan at an early stage of study, as is common at ‘registration’, may, owing to this complexity, militate against art students more than others and privilege conceptual practices that involve strong previsions which are then executed (closest to the hypothesis form which dominates social science research), at the expense of more intuitive approaches. In both cases, without an independent and mature practice that resists the tendency of research to deform practice to its own ends (as a means to marshal or generate evidence) what might be produced is academic work in the bad, old sense.

Within and across institutions

The challenge for institutions, not always met, is how to turn the bureaucratic hoops and structures into productive, formative exercises; more fundamentally, how to limit the deformation of practice. This is not to position institutions as the enemy. Any resentment directed against them for offering research degrees should first consider whether the ratio of good doctorates to bad is in any way worse than in other disciplines or if this ratio differs markedly from the ratio of good to bad work on show in London. Research degrees are not in a position to resolve the broader forces and antagonisms structuring contemporary art practice.

That said, the belief that a research degree should improve practice points to something else – that the merits of the degree are not being manifested publicly in terms of research. For example, one of the ‘characteristic outcomes of the research degree’, as suggested by the Quality Assurance Agency for UK higher education is that those who hold them are able to demonstrate ‘the general ability to conceptualise, design and implement a project for the generation of new knowledge, applications or understanding at the forefront of the discipline, and to adjust the project design in the light of unforeseen problems’.04

Are all holders of art research degrees capable of this?

Again, we see what some decry: to rehash the old line, one thing always seems to be lacking – either the research or the practice. This is not a question about standards. There is a general confusion about doctorates.05Burgin, in the same article on whether the doctorate should be the ‘terminal’ degree in art, expresses concern regarding attitudes amongst supervisors and examiners:

‘Most damagingly, there are widely differing conceptions of the quality of intellectual argument and written expression that is acceptable at PhD level – not only between different departments, but between different faculty within the same department. If this current state of affairs continues it can only undermine student morale and public confidence in the value not only of research degrees in visual arts but of PhD degrees in general.’06

Consider the commonly cited ‘50:50 model’. Two components of the doctorate are understood as separately assessed: the ‘practice’ and the ‘theory’, where the latter is conceived as the discursive apparatus through which the practice is presented. It is not sufficient to point out that this model is framed in few, if any, degree regulations. Chiefly, because it encourages an illustrative or allegorical relation between the practice and the theory, rather than an overall research project.07I do not see this variation as a fog that can be dispelled with some clarificatory insight or some agreed conventions. The confusion results from the felt contradiction between strict adherence to research degree regulations and productive doctoral study in art. We are not here simply encountering a misguided ‘folk’ interpretation of research degrees, but an actual practice supported by supervisors and examiners contrary to the definitions of institutional settings.08That is, on occasion, owing to shared practices, the potential restrictions of research degrees, described above are being circumvented. De facto, submissions are being assessed according to different considerations.

This contributes to the stress and disappointment of candidates who receive mixed messages: many are encouraged to concentrate on practice and reach the final viva voce assessment without a clear idea of the research contribution. Consequently, unsure of what should be submitted as practice, some continue making work until the very last moment (even the morning of the viva). Practice-led candidates can end up producing far more work than ought to be necessary, and take longer, since weight of work is used to compensate for absence of an obvious research contribution.

At an individual level, good research degrees can and do result, but the generalisation of good practice within institutions is hampered because many are acutely aware of the limitations of the research degree and their ability to supervise towards them. Now, this is not a reason to condemn art doctorates. Instead, the ‘50:50’ model points to a potential solution. Why don’t art colleges and departments offer ‘doctorates by practice’? Although the term is often bandied about as a synonym for the research degree, it involves a distinct mode of study and assessment and has as yet not been developed in the context of art.

The doctorate by practice, sometimes referred to as a professional doctorate, is common in professions such as psychotherapy or teaching. Often modular and directed to the acquisition and application of high-level skills, its focus is on the advancement of critical practice. (That is, as a qualification it privileges the reflective abilities of a high-level practitioner who can demonstrate mastery of, and effectively implement, the most advanced techniques). While the qualification will involve project work, and will thus have a research dimension, the focus of assessment is on impact and real-world success. Such knowledge claims as are advanced within the thesis are subordinate to this aspect. From an art context, this would offer a different place for practice, where the work, in whatever form, would be assessed as original or otherwise.09

Alternative models

So in response to a perceived crisis in art research degrees, I am suggesting the introduction of another kind of doctorate – one, to be sure, associated with forms of professionalisation and academicisation that also attract criticism. I cannot engage with that issue directly here, but this option appears not to have been investigated while at the same time seeming to reflect what is actually happening ‘on the ground’. What are effectively doctorates by practice are already being passed under the rubric of research degrees but in confused and haphazard fashion.

Obviously sorting out such a problem is not the only consideration for institutions looking to diversify income streams and consolidate money from research councils. Part of the sector’s medium-term strategy will involve assessing whether to recruit more of those holding research degrees or to invest and fund such programmes. The question then of whether those who hold what look like research degrees really are trained and tested researchers may become pressing.

However, it is also better to embrace a mixed economy here and realise that offering students a continuing relation with an institution may better reflect general interests. There are a variety of motivations for a return to study. Unlike some, I do not believe artists who apply to doctoral programmes are misguided. Based in the Research Office at Central Saint Martins until its closure last year, I was the first academic reader of all doctoral applications in all disciplines and provided feedback on draft ideas. Formal research considerations were rarely at the fore in those initial conversations or proposals; the opportunity to continue studying and practising within the supportive environment of an institution was. To this end, creating the space and opportunity for forms of engagement and association beyond taught degrees may be potentially attractive for institutions buffeted by the proposed changes in higher education funding.

The current questions around ‘deschooling’ and seceding from ‘compromised’ institutions rightly ask whether art is being advanced by the university framework.10 An equivalent to the model I am suggesting may well be achieved amongst collectives and alternative forms of organisation (though without the formal qualification at the end). Some proper strategic thinking is needed here, but the onus is on institutions of all kinds to create and investigate bases and frameworks that allow appropriate modes of study to thrive and play a broader role in art practice and society more generally.

It is worth remembering how most research degree regulations are inherited or copied from other institutions and disciplines. What I am then suggesting is that this is recognised and addressed by formalising the actual practice within institutional settings, frameworks and regulations, the better to reflect the strengths of supervisors and students. In contrast to Burgin, my practical recommendation does not relate to rethinking the forms of the written component (as the written form does not guarantee research status) but rather relates to the criteria of final assessment and therefore the overall structure of the degree lifecycle.

My point is not that artists should not pursue research, but that art schools should overhaul their doctoral programmes to make the two options explicit: equal but distinct. A research degree is a relatively restricted award, which may only reflect the desires of a small subset of applicants and many would be better suited to a modular doctorate oriented to critical, pedagogical and professional practice.


  • Peter Suchin, ‘Rebel Without a Course’, Art Monthly, vol. 345, April 2011, pp.11–14.
  • Christopher Frayling, “Research in Art and Design” in: Royal College of Art Research Papers, vol.1, no. 1, 1993/1994, pp.1–5.
  • See the QAA consultative document, ‘Doctoral Degree Characteristics’.
  • One senses this from the varying terminology surrounding them: anyone working within art institutions within the last decade will have become familiar with a welter of apparent synonyms: ‘practice-led’ research, ‘practice-based’ research, PhD by practice, ‘50:50 model’, ‘art as research’, etc. It is additionally confusing since some of these same terms, such as ‘practice-led’, are used by different people in different ways.
  • V. Burgin, op. cit., p. 9.
  • The term can be justified but only minimally through reference to word lengths. i.e. if an institution specifies 80 000 words for a written only thesis and around 40 000 words for the writing that accompanies a practical submission, this suggests that the writing in the latter case counts for half the award. But this indicates neither a modular mode of assessment nor that the writing is ‘theory’.
  • Phillips and Pugh, in their key guide to getting a PhD, indicate that one of the main reasons candidates fail is that the supervisory team are not familiar with the requirements of a doctorate. Given the relative novelty of these doctorates in art, it is common for the supervisory team not to contain anyone who has undertaken one, and indeed, such teams may lack anyone with experience of writing extended pieces. See:
  • In this regard, Stephen Scrivener has argued that where artefacts are produced and submitted, then what is to be assessed by examiners is whether the candidate is able to demonstrate that they are ‘self-conscious, systematic and reflective creators’; while ‘originality’ is redescribed as ‘not derivative or imitative’. Though he does not make this explicit, these are the assessment criteria of a doctorate by practice rather than a research degree. S. Scrivener, ‘Reflection in and on action and practice in creative-production doctoral projects in art and design’, 2000. Available at
  • See for example the conference organised by the Hayward and Serpentine galleries in April 2010: Or, more recently, the discussion triggered by Mike Watson’s short article in Art Monthly 342, ‘Education Cuts Both Ways’, December 2010 /January 2011, p.39.