I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I was awarded my PhD in creative practice in 2018. Since then, I feel as if I’ve been on something of a journey and I’d like to share some thoughts, primarily as a cautionary note directed at any artist contemplating beginning the long path towards a practice-based PhD. Be aware that your decision will quite possibly and irrevocably alter your creative process. But it will certainly change your life.
It’s best to begin with why you would choose to do a PhD in the first place. This, I feel is crucial.
Possibly, having completed a Masters, you want to be an academic and teach in a university or art school with all the perceived benefits of being on the ‘inside’, e.g., access to funding opportunities usually not available to artists out with the HE sectors. Today, almost all HE institutions now require that their teaching staff have a PhD. So, for those artists wanting to pursue this particular path, a PhD is essential. But not all HE institutions operate in the same way, so choose very carefully and do your homework before deciding where you want to spend what will inevitably turn out to be a very demanding few years.
By way of an example, at the university I attended, the weighting for a practice-based PhD final submission was 50:50 – between the artwork and the thesis. However, what did surprise me was that throughout my PhD, I encountered very little interest in my practice as an artist or in the new body of work I was creating as part of the final PhD submission. Instead, I discovered that the key focus was placed squarely on the thesis itself.
Because of this, I became aware that my creative process was slowly changing and not always in ways that I recognized or liked. But I accepted these new ways of understanding and articulation as par for the course – I did after all want this doctorate and so I embraced the challenge of acquiring new skills and what felt like, a new language.
But what of those artists who, post-PhD, do not want an academic career and wish to return to the studio and focus solely on their creative practice? I had imagined myself comfortably located within this latter group. By way of an excuse, I should perhaps say that in 2018 I was 66, with a creative practice spanning over 40 years and therefore felt that I had a strong sense of identity as an artist.
But it didn’t quite turn out as I’d imagined and I see now that prior to beginning my PhD, I had no real understanding of how much it would impact on my way of thinking and most importantly, on how and why I create at all. Thanks to this lack of understanding, since gaining my doctorate I’ve been struggling to find my ‘creative way’. I have in fact, become a creative hybrid, a nomad seeking a home.
But I have to be clear here and say that given what I now know, would I still have undertaken a PhD? I don’t know. It did feel like the right thing to do at that point in my life and I did learn a great deal. However, at the very least I should have taken more time to consider other PhD options.
In writing this I set out to try and clarify my thinking about what has been one of the most intense periods of my life. It is a personal story. But it turns out that this is far more common than I’d imagined. As I stated at the beginning, this is primarily directed at other artists who might be considering following the same path as I decided to take. As part of my ‘clarifying’ process, of course……..I did my research around this area of risk to artists doing PhDs and for those who might be interested, can I recommend reading the work of James Elkins, of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is highly regarded and takes an informed view of artists doing PhDs. His work is well worth reading. I know that his words have made me feel far less solitary. In addition, by way of further context, I also found these references useful.
But this story is not all negative. How I am resolving the ongoing disquiet about my ‘changed’ creative practice will be in my next post.