Doing a PhD led by Creative Practice

I’m nearly at the end of this experience. I made four works of art (Bear with Me, The Empty City,  Gentlemen Songsters and Warmwaters 26,000 words of script, 3.1 hrs performance containing upwards of 60 pieces of music) and wrote a 40, 000 word exegesis in three years, A bit much really. This blog is/was part of that process. I guess this blog totals something like 100, 000 words. This is the 100th post so it seems like a good time to surface some non-definitive thoughts and questions about the process in the spirit of helping others who might be curious.

What do you want to be an expert in? What topic you want to be the go-to person for? What’s the one thing you’re fascinated by – so fascinated that glaring at it for a few years won’t destroy your passion for it? Decide. That’s your PhD. Then it will change.

You know how making art is soul and mind and time consuming? Imagine you’re studying the act of making art at the same time. You are the microbes on the slide and the scientist peering through the microscope lens. A tricky position to hold.

It may take you a while to clarify your research question – this is similar to aesthetic processes you may have experienced: you start making art about one thing, then it turns out to be something rather different. Related, but deeper. Start somewhere and track these changes.

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David Shrigley

It’s important to know where you’re coming from, artistically and theoretically. You may directly experience the perceived antipathy between the epistemic and aesthetic. You will find a way to balance these forces so they weave and work.

Besser-brick or brownstone,  you’re standing in a stream of artistic and academic history. How might you identify and work with the currents or shift the flow?

Sometimes the intense introspection or outrospection required by a PhD led by creative practice means the artwork’s quality feels different to (and sometimes worse than) what you’re used to. You didn’t sign up to this to do the same old shit again.

Your artistic process and all its details may be fascinating to you, the kind of thing you couldn’t possibly do justice to within your word limit. However: imagine you’ve just been overseas: only your closest friends will want to know about the bad meals, one night stands and stop-overs. Everybody else just wants you to cut to the chase. You’ve been ‘on the journey’. Don’t take us too. Just the headlines will do.


Sisyphus: that’s just how he rolls

Your loved ones are doing a PhD beside you. My son once had to use the word ‘Sisyphean’ in a sentence in primary school. He did: ‘My dad is doing a phd and it is Sisyphean’

Your creative collaborators are gold. Your PhD will be over one day. How you want your creative relationships to end? Your academic collaborators, the people studying beside you, are gold. They understand what you are going through. Say thankyou.

Life happens. Babies get born, arms get broken, and worse,and better. Take leave if you need to. Your university is like a large reptile with a brain the size of a walnut. Tell it precisely what you need in language it understands, probably by filling out a form, and don’t expect it to care. But be kind and respectful to the folks that keep the dinosaur moving.

This is high level independent research. Your supervisors are likely to have specialties. Work out what they are and draw on them. Hand-holding is unlikely to be in this suite of skills.

If your university has any semblance of a research culture, get involved. Then you won’t feel so alone, or if you don’t feel like you ‘fit in’, you’ll know for sure and feeling alone won’t feel so bad.

Any research done at this level will test your capacity for hard work, that’s obvious,  so don’t complain.

Once you’re well into it, if it’s all too big for your head, if you can’t hold all the ideas in there, and you’ve lost your way a little, you may well be in the right place.


David Shrigley

You have to stop researching sometime. And write it up. The moment you do that, your work starts to date. All the more reason to write it up soon and well and get it out there.

“There is no escape from perplexity” (Fortier 2002, 218)  There is always more to learn, a phenomenon that’s most poignant just after you think you’ve nailed it and written it up.

Formatting always takes longer than you might think, and you’ll mis something.

You have to locate a specialist topic, go so deeply into it that almost nobody knows or cares what you’re up to, and then return with a summation of your work that’s unsatisfyingly short and cannot possibly do justice to all the riches you’ve found.  It’s a cliche to talk about ‘going on a journey’ but the main thing is you have to come back with something (art/writing/both) that makes sense to someone who hasn’t been and may never go. They mightn’t need to now you’ve been.

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