Applying for an Artistic Research PhD – a Prospective Student Guide

In any arts practice PhD, you have to come in with the practice. (…) It is not like you come in and you learn the practice, what you are doing is you are taking your previous skills, in my case in dance, in research, in artistic design and concept. So, you are taking them and you are putting them in a new context. It’s about inquiring into the practice that you already have. (Miriam Phillips, PhD student, 2020)

This guide will help you ascertain whether a potential programme is a good fit for your project. When applying for an Artistic Research PhD you need to consider multiple factors, such as institutional and supervisory fit, resources, skills and funding. Firstly, think about your project: the resources, skills and knowledge you will require. Secondly, review potential supervisors and programmes. Thirdly, consider your options in relation to your project. Let’s get started!

Considering your idea, reflect on the following:

    • What is the role of practice in your project? Why is the practice important? Think about how the practice will contribute to developing your research. 
    • What will you make? Consider this in detail, for example, if you will be performing, reflect on how many performances, duration, potential contexts, themes, whether other people will be involved, etc. It is hard to be specific at this stage, and this will likely change throughout the project, nonetheless, having an overall vision at the start will help you through the application process for programmes and scholarships. 
    • What outcomes do you expect at this stage? This may be artworks, performances, films, a toolkit, a new methodology, a theoretical framework, etc.
    • Considering the previous questions, what resources does your project require? Make a list and be as specific as you can: digital lab, imaging software, cinema screen, black box theatre, rehearsal space, desk space, production budget, equipment booking (video cameras, sound-recording, tripods, AV equipment, speakers), technical support (audio, sound system, LED lighting, technical manager), etc. 
    • What skills do you feel you need to develop? Consider both discipline specific skills and generic skills. 
    • Reflecting on your proposal / idea and on your practice, what bodies of knowledge will you require from your supervisory team? Think about the areas in your discipline you want to explore and require expertise on. 

You should now have a clearer vision about the scope of your practice and project, and of the resources and skills you need to complete it. Now, let’s consider supervision. Whilst for your BA/MA you were likely researching courses and universities, for your doctoral study, you should focus on potential supervisors. There are several models of supervision and most institutions require at least two supervisors. There may be a supervisor and an advisor who takes more of a pastoral role (see the section on Supervision for more details). At PhD level, the supervisory team is more important than the college or programme, as your project is likely to require very specific knowledge. A department which you may find appealing may not have the necessary supervisory expertise for your project as their staff may be focused on other areas of research: you would be wasting your/their time by applying to this university.

There are several strategies to find potential supervisors:

    • Who are the practitioners/scholars that you cited in your MA dissertation / BA essays? Are there specific texts you read recently that are central to your project? Check who the authors and practitioners are, where they are based, and their research background.
    • Review PhD programmes websites and ensure that they offer Artistic Research doctorates. Find out about the research interests of the supervisors in those institutions.

The application process for a PhD is also very different than for an MA. Most universities expect engagement with a student before they make an application, so ensure you enquire about supervisory expertise / availability well in advance of the application deadlines. Once you have potential supervisors in mind, email them: state your interest in the programme, send your proposal (or a summary of your project), enquire about the feasibility/suitability of the project, and ask whether they would be interested and available to supervise you. These initial conversations are an opportunity to understand whether your proposal would fit the supervisor and the institution before you apply. Institutions want to ensure a candidate’s project is the right fit, and that they can provide the right supervision and resources:

But the main one [principle] is finding the right supervisory team. Our effort is to invest in it before the candidate is registered so that we know it’s the right fit, the right project, the right supervisory team. And that’s why I think we like to do the informal discussions and the meetings and working on the proposal as a collective. (staff member, 2020)

You have now narrowed down your options. Look back at your project and your initial reflections, and considering each potential programme, think about the following:

  • Supervision: is there a strong fit between the research areas your project addresses, and the research interests/expertise of the supervisor(s)? How have your communications with them developed so far? Considering you will be working with your supervisor(s) for 3 or 4 years – or longer, if you choose to study part time – it is important that you can communicate effectively. If possible, meet your potential supervisors in person or on a video call. 
  • Resources: is the institution able to provide the resources your project needs? Ask your potential supervisor about what access / additional resources a PhD student could expect. The department website will inform you of available infrastructure in the institution, however, there may be access restrictions in place for a number of reasons. You can also speak with current students or email people in the department to find out. If resources are not available, are you able to source the required equipment/materials elsewhere, or to find alternative solutions to secure the resources you need? 
  • Skills: does the institution offer courses in / training in the specific skills you need to complete your PhD? Most institutions provide general skills training, consider whether they offer the discipline specific skills your project requires, or which you want to develop for your career. 
  • Funding: are there any funding streams you can avail of within the institution or nationally? In Ireland, the Irish Research Council funds doctoral study through a competitive application process. The Arts Council Ireland provides bursary awards for artistic practice which may be used in the context of PhD research depending on the field (check the eligibility criteria). Most universities offer scholarships in some form: check the funding information on the institution website and inquire with your potential supervisors. Sometimes universities and colleges are also involved in research projects funded by the EU or by other sources which include provision for doctoral students in the area of research of the project. However, this is not yet common in Artistic Research. 
  • Developing your practice: do you feel this programme provides a suitable context to develop your practice? 
  • Community: does this programme offer an Artistic Research community? Speak with current or previous students to find out more about this. 
There is an investment in both the student and the supervisory team, so that we don’t take a project on that we know we can’t support. And have it be the right fit. (staff member, 2020)

Of the key points above, some might be more relevant for you than others. As you reflect on how to take your project further, bear in mind that what is really important is to ensure a strong fit between the project, the institution, and the supervisory team. Spending time in these initial stages will help you ascertain whether a potential supervisor / programme is the right pathway for you.



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