The Studio Door Is Open, a discussion of doctorates in studio art


This paper summarises a presentation contributed to the session, “The MFA And PhD: Torque In The Workplace” at the CAA Conference 2006, Boston, USA where Kristi Nelson and Johanna Branson invited me to act as the discussant.

In reading the four papers listed for that session I was struck by both the similarities and differences between the US educational context and the UK environment which has provided so many precedents for the “New PhD in Studio Art” as James Elkins describes it in the title of his book on the subject, to which I have contributed a chapter.1 That is one of first four books about PhDs published in the last year. Studio art is an American epithet and in my view it is far superior to the misleading term “practice-based PhD” that is current in the UK. I’ve been involved in studio art doctorates for nearly twenty years now and, within my experience, such doctorates have now developed across Europe as well as in Australia, NZ and the Republic of China (and probably other places that I don’t know about). In each of these places local answers have been found to the global question of how the studio doctorate should operate, and I look forward to distinctively American solutions emerging too. This paper seeks to address such possible solutions.

Perhaps the most distinctively American dimension of recent debates about doctorates—and the premise for this conference session—is that of the status of the MFA as the terminal degree and the possible effects of the doctorate on the credentialization of art teachers. Doesn’t the “talk in the workplace” alluded to in the title of this session centre on the idea of maybe having to go back to college to get improvement and maybe to even keep your current job? This is a distinctively American issue as the US is the only country I know to have a concept of a strictly defined terminal degree (I do understand the concept of a terminal illness, but not a terminal degree, it sounds a little threatening). So my innocent and blithe European suggestion would be to get rid of the idea of a terminal degree!

In the UK higher education job market, whilst a doctorate might be preferred in considering candidates for appointment, as might a masters, other qualifications sought in job applicants include an international exhibition track record and high quality teaching experience. It is the applicant who is best qualified overall who gets the job, not just the guy with the certificate, and excellent artists and teachers with no more that a Bachelor’s degree still get jobs in the UK, when they are the best person.

A further consideration for the job market is the fact that appointment committees can only appoint people with doctorates if they apply for jobs, and at present these people are insufficient in numbers as to pose an immediate and widespread threat to the majority of faculty – even when you take into account the growing number of European art doctors seeking jobs in the US. Nothing is going to happen overnight, although the direction of fine art education is self-evident. My point here is that it would be a shame if faculty anxiety were to cloud the debate of how (not if) art doctorates come about, when there are sound academic arguments to put forward.

In her paper, Susan Roth2, describes an American doctorate that would be largely unfamiliar to Europeans in its apparently taught structure, although it seems similar in some respects to the fine art doctoral programme at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, which steeps students in their cultural background through taught courses. To me the Virginia Commonwealth University idea of a credit rated doctorate raises the important distinction of taught and research doctorates that I shall come back to. Whilst there are taught doctorates in Europe, research is the more familiar context and rationale that underpins methods and methodologies. Listening to the anecdotal evidence of friends in the US I have come to feel there may be greater differences between the PhD per se in the US and Europe than may be obvious, even before you get into differences in studio art doctorates. The University of Washington project, “Re-Envisioning the PhD”2 appears to attempt a drawing together of the diversity of American PhDs in ways much closer aligned to the European PhD whereby the completion of a PhD becomes a realistic prospect in the three to five years that is normal in Europe. Let’s see if it kicks in. As it is, Susan Roth outlines a distinctive way of getting to grips with the PhD.

Hilary Robinson3points out the lack of established norms in the UK for what she calls “the visual research PhD,” and she comments on—amongst other things—the possible relationships between studio outcomes and written text. Crucially, she describes the thesis as “a proposition, not a bound volume,” and this brings us to the conceptual model of research as making redundant a distinction of theory and practice that nevertheless sticks with us – it seems it cannot be flushed away. She speaks too of “the fundamental structure of a research project” as a facilitating concept in the development of art research and this opens an important dimension of the making of art considered as a process of enquiry.

Donald Schon4 made a similar point about theory and practice in the mid-1980s in work that has informed recent research thinking, and it is one taken up by Graeme Sullivan5 in putting forward what I think is a very helpful model of art research that represents a significant contribution to the international debate of this topic. What is needed is a new or at least modified paradigm of art practice as a process of enquiry that leads to the generation of new knowledge or new contributions to understanding, and Graeme goes some way to providing this. The term “practice” as an epithet for the production of art may now be redundant; the respectability of art having being secured not by the bourgeois values represented by the general practitioner doctor or the practising lawyer, but by the values of enquiry and learning associated with the highest levels of education, and on art’s own terms. In moving towards a research paradigm for the production of art based on what artists understand and do, Graeme draws us away from the hegemony of the humanities and social sciences, as I too have advocated in the past. In my view, the natural sciences are more natural allies to fine art with their reliance on observation and experiment. These are key concepts in fine art even if not in design.

Like Hilary Robinson, Cameron Cartiere6 reviews aspects of the UK scene most informatively and her observations from the supervisor’s point of view take us directly into key practical issues. Also, like Hilary, Cameron highlights and discusses the role of the Research Assessment Exercise in funding art research in the UK. Here the differences from the US become prominent and reflect larger differences still. The UK is used to an almost exclusively government funded education system whilst the US is not. Even given the important role of foundations and endowments in providing financial aid to students in the US, loans remain the norm here, and the US federal aid system has yet to be aspired to in Europe. This funding difference requires American doctorates in studio art to be significantly different from those found elsewhere in the world and cost is a serious issue here.

Having commented on the issues that have struck me most strongly in the four papers, I would like to try to draw together some of these issues with some thoughts on how studio art doctorates might be advanced in the US. I have drafted these as eight personal recommendations to those who might be developing doctoral programmes:

  1. Recognise that different contexts require different solutions to common problems – there is an American way of dealing with art research; it just may not be obvious yet.

  1. Look to how process has been a distinctive concept in C20th American art and education, drawing from Bauhaus precedents as distilled by a range of artists from Albert Albers at Black Mountain College to Pollock and beyond. This happens to be the keystone of art research – the idea of art as a process of enquiry. Art research, therefore, already has a strong provenance in US culture even if it is not yet celebrated here. Although describing what artists do as research might seem novel, it is interesting to see curators of contemporary art normalising the language of research in increasingly describing artists as “enquiring,” “exploring” and “investigating.” The concern with how studio doctorates work is an enquiry into creative method and there has already been much thinking about this in the US.

  1. Beware the hegemony of the humanities and the social sciences in formulating best practice for fine art research. I recommend you look to the natural sciences where observation and experiment are normal methods, and where enquiry into primary sources is a foundation of knowledge, as distinct from the reliance on secondary sources of the humanities and social sciences.

  1. Take the rationale of the CAA standards for the MFA as the basis for thinking through the relationship of text and artefact at doctoral level. These insist on intellectual rigour without a formula about the writing of text, let alone a formula for a number of words (which is normal in the UK). This enlightened American view might be contrary to the formulaic rationale of the English, locked into the strict conventions of Anglo-Saxon thinking (this is an Irish based Welsh Celt writing), and it may be the more fruitful.

  1. Beware the typically English fuzziness in the concept of “practice-based” research as if it related to research in medicine and law; those are distinct fields of enquiry that have nothing to do with the so-called “practice” of art. “Practice-based” research is all about modes and ethics of professional conduct in formal settings, as distinct from the generation of knowledge and understanding as represented by artefacts (in the broad sense of the term that is known in art). In our debate we are talking about doctorates in studio art. I love the clarity of this American term, valid even when artists extend it beyond the four walls of a physical studio.

  1. In looking to the UK for precedents, recognise that UK and Irish masters programmes do not normally align with the American MFA, except where there is a two year programme such as at the Royal College of Art; Glasgow School of Art; Edinburgh College of Art; University of Ulster, Belfast; Newcastle University; and Burren College of Art; and possibly a small number of others. Normally the UK masters is a one year full-time MA, with the lower standards that implies. This means that the MA is a pre-doctoral programme rather than one that can be integrated with the doctorate as may be the case with the MFA. I enlarge on this in the next point.

  1. Don’t think of the doctorate as something an artist does after and separately from the MFA. Like Oxford University, many UK universities and colleges require doctoral applicants in art to have completed a masters, without requiring this in other subjects. Instead, nest the MFA and doctorate together in a 1+2 model just like the conventional PhD in non-art disciplines worldwide. Fine Art is not so special that it has to be so much more time consuming and therefore expensive. An integrated masters and doctorate is the only way to make doctorates affordable outside an elaborate UK-style funding system.

  1. Look at the differences of the research doctorate – the PhD – and the professional doctorate – the DFA before committing to a programme. The PhD is honorific within the UK because of the imperative of assessable research activity within the Research Assessment Exercise. A studio taught doctorate of fine art (DFA) that operates within and as an extension to the conventions of the taught MFA might be more appropriate and valuable to the US as an alternative to the research PhD, and it would build on distinctively American strengths.

In conclusion I would point out that it is now too late to either stop or ignore studio art doctorates in the US because they are already happening. You have to go with this phenomenon, and any questioning needs to be on how, not whether nor why. The horse has already left the stable; no, I mean the studio! The studio door is open!




  1. Jones, Timothy Emlyn (2005) AMethod of Search For Reality:Research and Research Degrees in Art and Design inElkins, James, (2005),Printed Project No 4: The New PhD in Studio Art. Sculptor’s Society of Ireland, 2005 (also published in Holdridge, Lin and Mcleod,Tracy, Thinking Through Art, Routledge, 2005).


  1. Roth, Susan (2006), The PhD in Media, Art, and Text, in CAA 94th Annual Conference Boston, Abstracts 2006, College Art Association, New York


  1. Robinson, Hilary (2006), UK Torque, Problems and Pleasures, in CAA 94th Annual Conference Boston, Abstracts 2006, College Art Association, New York


  1. Schön, Donald (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Ashgate, Arena


  1. Sullivan, Graeme (2006), Studio Practice as Research, in CAA 94th Annual Conference Boston, Abstracts 2006, College Art Association, New York


  1. Cartiere, Cameron (2006), Riding the Wave of Practice-Based Research: Hanging Ten or Heading for a Wipe Out, in CAA 94th Annual Conference Boston, Abstracts 2006, College Art Association, New York