How to Apply for a Practice Based PhD
If you are an artist remembering the good old days of art school when you had a free studio, solid peer support, inspiring lectures and access to incredible facilities that helped you be ambitious in your work. At times now you may feel lonely in your studio and lack direction and purpose for your next project. Sound familiar? I experienced that too...many times and still do sometimes.
If you are an artist looking for direction and meaning in your practice, the next push forward in your career and a welcome challenge - not to mention a 3 year salary, a PhD might be the next right choice for you. However you may be wondering if its possible to do a PhD in art and how to start the application process. I have been through process of applying for a practice-based PhD and received my place, investing almost an entire year of my time and energy to do it, and this is what I learned.
What is a Practice-Based PhD?
Ordinarily PhD programs already have specific projects or 'problems to solve' outlined by a University. Practice-based PhD's are different. Instead you propose your own individually created project in line with your own aspirations to contribute to your field. This can be both a challenge and a blessing, as you do not have any blue-print to follow but you have the freedom to create nearly anything you like!
I roughly knew what a practice-based PhD was, during my Master’s degree. PhD students came to help our year group with essay feedback or give the occasional lecture, so I had a pre-insight to what they got up to in their day to day work. However, I also knew back then in (2015), it would have been way too soon to start a PhD after an exhaustive 7-years of study to stay at University any longer. Six years on, I started to miss the structure of art school days - if not only for the support and direction, but for the challenges of having to meet deadlines and be pushed by those around you.
For me, pursuing a PhD was about having the infrastructure to help me grow as an artist, be pushed outside of my comfort zone to tackle projects that I couldn’t necessarily do alone as well have have a wider outreach in the world for my work. I was set on starting one but didn't exactly know where or how to start or if it would apply to 'my kind of art' or if I'd really be able to make the work I wanted once I started.
Needless to say, there are many things to consider when applying for a practice-based PhD. The following pointers will help you set in the right direction should you decide to pursue one too.
First, let’s determine what a practice based PhD IS and what it is NOT. When most people think of a PhD, they imagine sitting at a computer screen or in a library typing hundreds of pages of academic essays to accompany their research. A practice based PhD is different, and the clue is in its name. Practice-based means that the majority of the degree will be in the form of practical projects such as painting, drawing, exhibitions, on site or public artworks or community outreach projects and thereafter explain and evaluate your findings into a written complimentary component. It means that the physical output is the larger part of your degree and as the artist, you have the liberty of choosing which direction or mediums to use in your project. Remember that your project can also be truly interdisciplinary and work across multiple mediums, methods and subject areas.
6 Steps to Apply for a Practice-Based PhD
1. Choose Your University
2. Find a Suitable Supervisor
3. Write Your Research Proposal
4. Submit Your Application
5. Apply For Funding
6. Await Reply
1. Choose Your University
The first thing you will need to determine is which universities you are interested in applying to. There are obvious choices that go in to narrowing down the university of your choice, such as location, ranking, campus, facilities, research departments, scholarship opportunities and tuition costs. Let’s consider them a little further.
Does the school support the research you want to do? Is it in the city or country you would love to live in? Is it affordable for you to get there/move there? Can your family go with you? These are all factors you will need to determine first.
Narrowing down the list most importantly includes knowing whether a Universities research department is a good match for your research goals. For example: Some universities have strong International Relations Interests or has strong ties with the future of Ethical Fashion. You wont want to apply to a University that does not prioritise the same interests as you. This will be a professional partnership that should provide a win-win situation for both yourself and the University. Unlike a BA or MFA degrees, you will be working 'beyond' the campus, stretching your knowledge out into the world acting as a public advocate for the University and equally the university should be helping you reach where you want to go professionally, so you can develop original research and contribute to your field.
Helpful Tip: Comprise a document in your favourite note-taking software (like Evernote) and make a new folder called PhD. Inside make lists of each thing you need to keep a track of. I.e. University comparisons, the application guidelines for each school, and supervisor profiles. All of this information will be handy as you begin writing your proposals.
2. Find a Suitable Supervisor.
The next most important thing that you need to do is to find a suitable supervisor for your research. As I previously mentioned, this is unlike your BA or MFA degree. This is a more professional set-up where you are more like business partners than student/professor. Obviously you are still learning and they are there to guide you but ideally you will also be informing one another of new finings too. So undoubtedly you need to find someone who will gladly support your research interests otherwise it won't be a fruitful experience for either of you.
Where to begin? Search all of the staff profiles inside your research area on your chosen University's website. So for me I was studying Fine Art and wanted to make drawings and paintings in my PhD so I searched for all of the research faculty under Fine Art and any other area that was relevant to my project. If you are going to use interdisciplinary research methods it is favoured upon by the University and funding bodies if you look for primary and secondary supervision support across more than one subject. For example my project explored international relations and art so it was favourable for me to work with a professor who was from an arts background as well as someone who had good knowledge of international relations to help guide me in the right direction. You are not expected to know both fields inside out if you are working across disciplines, just as long as you have considered how you will manage new knowledge and research methods. The university and staff are there to help you fill in those gaps over the course of your studies.
Once you have found supervisors you like, drop them an email and be specific. Say you are applying for a PhD and are really interested in their research in (....) and wonder if they would be open to supervising your project (....). Give them time to respond (they may not have much or may already have a full schedule of other PhD students (so remember to have more than one in mind). You may not get your first choice. Once you hear back from a supervisor and provided they are happy to supervise your research you may be able to have a back and fourth with them to strengthen your proposal before you make a formal application.
Also remember that not all universities require this stage. Some prefer it for you to write a complete research proposal first without any supervisor confirmed. In this case they will usually ask you to suggest a suitable supervisor that you are interested in working with. That will let them know that you have specific reasons to work at their school. Then once you have received your place the university wiil pair you with that supervisor or someone else they believe will be suitable for you.
Helpful Tip: Begin the application research process including finding a supervisor at least 6-months before the application deadline (preferably longer). That way you have time to thoroughly research everything as well as allow time for supervisors and schools to respond to any queries you may have and get feedback on your proposal before you submit.
3. Write Your Research Proposal.
Universities generally include a guideline for what they expect to see in your proposal, some more specific than others but they are usually quite similar to what they are looking for.
Proposals typically require a title, an introduction to your field or background knowledge in your area to show your understanding of what’s already been done. Present them with the problem or issue to solve, why it is necessary or important to solve, how you will solve it, how long it will take, what challenges you expect to find, what you will do to overcome those and what you hope to achieve and who or what else you hope to benefit overall from the process of your research.
Follow the guidelines strictly but remember to focus on your art practice, rather than what you think a PhD should be. A practice-based PhD is not conventional and you are not expected to be an academic. It does not need to be an overly scholarly essay but rather clearly demonstrate your creative abilities, aspirations, motivations, your understanding of existing knowledge in your chosen topic, outline as clear as you can an issue you hope to solve or explore and how you will do that in your own unique way!
Helpful Tip: Application guidelines vary for each university including proposal word counts...so make sure you are aware of each guideline ahead of time - as you may need to edit your proposal down multiple times to make it right or each individual application!
4. Submit Your Application.
Now you’ve chosen your supervisor, polished your proposal, are proud of what you have written and are excited about your ambitious practice-based project, you’re ready to complete your online application, upload your transcripts, reference letters and hit the submit button.
The amount of references you will need varies from university. Sometimes they require just one letter and others ask for up to 3 or 4 references! (all of this information will be saved in your Evernote document that you have been using from the start of your research…) so you can refer back to that any time you can’t remember what you need for each application. Your reference letters are another very good reason to start the application process early because you must allow time for your referees to get back to you before the submission deadlines.
Once you have everything and have finished the online application, you are good to go. Submit!
5. Applying for funding
Usually to apply for funding you will need to have a first class or second class degree at minimum.
In the UK, universities have 'internal' selections between all the submitted proposals to choose which proposals will be entered into the nationwide funding competitions. Therefore, you’re application will be submitted to the university first and (accepted) before you apply for funding. In England the research council for funding PhD's is called the AHRC and in Scotland there is The Carnegie Trust (for any subject) and SGSAH (funding for the Arts and Humanities. There are of course other funding options outside the university, but these are the bigger players that if selected agree to fund your entire project for the duration (3-4 years) plus a living stipend - so you would not need to worry about arranging any funding year after year. While these are UK specific, most countries have something similar for their home students. There are usually some loopholes as well for foreign students who have studied their BA and or Masters in the UK prior to applying for their PhD.
The funding process in some ways is more arduous than the proposal itself, because you have to go back to your initial proposal and edit it again sometimes twice or three times on top of all the hard work you have already done! However don't be discouraged. The university panel meet to discuss your proposal and essentially break it up into pieces and delve deep into questioning how you will really do the things you say you intend to do. Your supervisors job at this point is to re-tell their comments and feedback to you along with solid suggestions on how to improve your proposal and funding application. The process is designed to make your proposal the absolute best it can be so you have the best chance possible to secure funding for your 3-4 year project.
Helpful Tip: Don’t be discouraged by the internal selection process to improve your proposal. It will help you strengthen your ideas and hopefully give you even more clarity on the direction of your project and goals - even if you do not receive the funding! You can try again the following year with the same or similar project. There is nothing personal about not receiving your funding because the competitions are highly competitive. No-one reached this level of the competition with a poor proposal, so celebrate you have made it this far!
6. Await Reply.
All your hard work is done - now all you need to do is wait! Usually replies take somewhere between 2-3 months. Good luck!!
While I tried to include as much information as possible in this article to help others, if there is anything else you feel I left out, or you have any further questions regarding applying for a practice based PhD, please get in touch with me and I’d be happy to help!
P.s. Below are a few great resources that helped me figure out my first stages of my application.