My Art PhD Experience And Advice For Those Considering Doing One

Several years ago I finished my PhD in new media art. It was an interesting and challenging experience.

My PhD started as a Masters degree in photography. This reflected where my thinking and expertise was, at the time. The intent was to look as Kabbalah and to explore it through photography. Kabbalah (spelt in many different ways) is a spiritual tradition which originated as an area of Jewish spirituality, but that also had developed a non-Jewish branch as part of what is known as the Western Mystery Tradition from the 15th Century onwards, where it was combined with Hermetic and other influences and evolved into a clearly distinct form from its Jewish roots. It was this non-Jewish, Hermetic Kabbalah, that I was interested in.

An image from the Time and Space series.

As often happens with post-graduate research, the project followed various twists and turns, dead-ends, and directions that I chose not to follow at the time, but flagged for future work, such as light art.

By the time I converted from a Masters to a PhD, the project had taken on much more of a video orientation. The final body of artwork consisted of a collection of heavily Photoshopped still imagery and a three-channel video projection.

I’m often asked “was it worth it” and “did I enjoy it”? The answer to both is a qualified yes. PhD’s are a huge amount of work, especially when substantial parts of it were done part time. Plus there was a lot of mess going on in the rest of my life. We were caring for my parents-in-law as they went through their end-of-life illnesses, plus one of my brothers-in-law suicided and the whole family mess that resulted from that. Add in an eventual court case over the family estate that we got dragged into and you can understand why my PhD took longer than ideal. In the end everything resolved well for us, but the journey was a challenging one.

Also from the Time and Space series

I learned a huge amount from the PhD. Since my earlier degrees had all been in science and engineering, I had a steep learning curve to understand how to conceptualise and write in an academic art manner. Plus, of course, academic writing is a complete style unto itself, and one that violates all the principles of good writing – succinctness, clarity and the avoidance of obscure language in favour of a simple, easy to understand word choice. The PhD did push my art practice in new directions and it really stretched me as an artist. It pushed me deeply away from straight photography into video art and installation, something I am extremely grateful for.

My PhD was a practice-based PhD, a form that makes great sense in the arts and also in many other fields. In comparison to a normal research PhD, the emphasis is on real-world, practical outcomes, such as a book, body of music or, in this case, a body of artwork. It also has a focus on your practice as an artist and the development of that practice. So, in a sense, it is quite ‘you’ focused.

Another from the Time and Space series

For the development of the final video piece, I decided to weave together three parallel narratives – my personal spiritual narrative, my family narrative and the narrative of the development of the Western Mystery Tradition. These three narratives interweave through a three-channel video projection, with the same imagery often serving different roles and meanings in two or three of the narratives. The narratives are also non-linear in form. All of this really pushed me to develop new ways of thinking about and developing my art. Along the way I developed a new art theory, the ‘Data-Algorithm Model’, which I used in the production of the artwork and that I am now doing further writing about and pushing it into new areas, such as education.

Tree of Everywhere Combination of Channels v2 from Dr. Wayne J. Cosshall on Vimeo.

I have definitely found it worth doing an art PhD. Professionally, it opens doors in academia and even in business, it makes people pay some extra attention to your experience. From my art practice perspective, it was also highly worthwhile. The opportunity to work with good supervisors who will push you is worth it.

Advice for those considering doing an art PhD

The following is my advice based on doing two PhD’s in my life.

Firstly, work up the idea for the project you think you want to do broadly. Understand that over the course of the PhD this will change. In fact at most Universities, at least here in Australia, whilst you need a proposal to get enrolled, you have around 12 months (full time) before you have to submit your real proposal of topic. This is recognition of the fact that there is a lot of work to be done in defining the exact research questions you will be attempting to answer.

Go beyond an idea of what you want to work on to consider process. Do you need studio facilities or do you have your own? Do some looking at research publications that touch on your area. The full literature search will come once you are enrolled, but some preliminary work is wise and will help to convince the supervisors that you want to take you on. Try to look at the most recent publications in the field so you understand the current focus and themes.

Note that there are more and more ways to do a PhD. There are, for example, PhD by publication degrees, where you publish as you go and the body of publications is what is examined at the end. Look into all the options that are available to you and consider what might best suit you, your processes and what you are doing the PhD for in the first place.

Secondly, stalk potential supervisors. Supervisors are, in many ways, much more important than the actual University you do it at. You want a principle and a secondary supervisor. Both need to have the time to support you properly. This often means avoiding the very high profile, late-career supervisor for someone earlier in their careers. Not always, but often. At least one of them needs experience in getting students through the whole process at the University you will end up doing it at. This is so they can guide you through the administrative hoops that the University puts in your way. Every University is different, and some change their processes frequently (like the one I did mine at). You need supervisors that you can get on with, who you understand (both language-wise and intellectually) and who will be focused on getting you through to completion. You should interview potential supervisors. Remember that, in reality, you are doing them a huge favour. Academics are under incredible pressure to publish and to see students through to graduation. So the power does not all sit with them. With the work you have done on examining the literature, you have the best hope of convincing them that you are serious, can do the work and will complete. Discuss with them the potential to publish as you go. This is attractive to potential supervisors and has a huge benefit for you once you graduate, as you will already have some publications behind you. I did not do this, and I highly regret it. Also explore with them about whether their department supports PhD students with offers of sessional tutoring or teaching assistant work.

Once you have chosen supervisors then the third thing is to actually enroll at the University. Make sure the University has experience with practice-based PhDs. You don’t want to be the guineapig. Consider carefully whether you will study full or part-time, as at least in Australia there are scholarship implications to this that can save you a huge amount of money down the track.

Once you are started, be as organised as you possibly can be. Develop a system to keep track of every piece of reading you do. Whether this is one of the referencing management tools, like EndNote or one of the other ones, or whether you do this manually in Word or on paper, develop a system and use it. Keep copies (preferably digitally) of all the papers you look at. Digital makes it much easier to do keyword searches to find that paper from several years ago.

Publish as you go, both papers and artwork into exhibitions. This builds your resume and gives you a head start if looking to build an academic career later. Your supervisors will love this as they get credit too and it helps to show the University that you are engaged and making progress.

Proactively drive the process with your supervisors. Schedule regular meetings and touch base frequently by email. Keep them in the loop and do not be afraid to ask for help, that is what they are there for. They get a massive benefit from supervising you, so do not feel you can’t disturb them. In Australia the University gets a huge amount of money from the government per PhD student. Make sure you get your money’s worth.

If you are doing a practice-based PhD then the thesis is shorter and is often called an exegesis. Mine sits in the 40-50,000 word range. Hire an editor. Your University should have a guidance document that spells out exactly what a PhD edit can and cannot do. Basically, it boils down to the fact that the exegesis has to be your words, they are there to help you make it read well and correctly. Universities in Australia have a budget to help you pay for editing. Ask about it. Elsewhere, there may be a similar source of funding, so ask your supervisors and read through all the documentation the University has for PhD candidates. Mine paid for almost all of my editing costs.

Writing up is a stressful process. Accept that. Be prepared to go through many drafts of refinement before it is ready to submit. Get your supervisors to point you to recent PhDs that have passed successfully in your department of the University and download the thesis or exegesis document from the library or University research repository. Use these to get an idea of how to approach and organise your work. The topic doesn’t matter, you are seeking help with how to organise your writing and what forms are acceptable to the University. This was critically important for me, as I was struggling with how to organise the vast range of ideas I needed to cover. I ended up finding one that ‘gave me permission’ to follow a narrative structure that worked for me and my work.

The actual examination process is also stressful. Generally, you have some say in who will examine your work. In Australia you can nominate who you might want to examine you. You can also state who you do not want as an examiner. This can be very important. Network with other PhD candidates and recent graduates in your field. They will have stories to tell about examiners. Basically the outcome of examination is one of three things – full acceptance as is (which was the case with mine), more work to be done, either minor or major, and outright rejection, which is very rare and should never happen if your supervisors have done their job properly (same with major additional work).

Hopefully it will all go well for you and then you are a newly minted PhD. Start using your title as Doctor immediately. You worked bloody hard for it, use it.

If you want to look at my academic work, you can go to my personal art website, where you’ll find the still image series Time and Space and the video piece The Tree of Everywhere, or my profile on My exegesis itself is available from the RMIT University publication repository.

Another Time and Space image

Great Idea – MindShift Gear’s Contact Sheet Protects Valuable Photography Gear While Shooting Outdoors

MindShift Gear (the outdoor photography bag spin-off company of Think Tank Photo) announces the release of its multi-purpose Contact Sheet.   Designed for photographers who work in wet or dirty environments and who need a clean, dry work area, this 3.5’ x 5’ ultralight, waterproof ground tarp provides a barrier from the elements.  The 3.5’x5’ Contact Sheet stuffs into a mesh pouch for easy transportation and storage.

Contact Sheet
The Contact Sheet solves one of nature and outdoor photographers’ biggest headaches, which is how to create a safe work area when operating remotely in the out-of-doors.  Made of a mixture of 30D Ripstop PU and Nylon mesh, it can easily be spread out and valuable electronics gear laid on it safe in the knowledge that it is protected from the elements.


Tarp:  5′ X 3.5′ (152cm X 107cm)

Stuff Sack:  7″ x 4.5″ x 2″ (17.2cm x 11.43cm x 5cm)

Weight:  5 ounces (142 grams)

MindShift Gear ( is a group of professional photographers and designers committed to conservation of our natural resources and global environment. Founded by the creators of Think Tank Photo and conservation photographer Daniel Beltrá, MindShift is dedicated to building carrying solutions for those who are passionate about experiencing the natural world. Their slogan, “Engage with nature,” challenges people to not only become involved in outdoor activities, but to create a conversation about nature and our relationship to the environment.

PhoozL Announces Shared Cash-Prize Photo Contest: ‘PETS in B&W’

Photography competition site PhoozL announces a special cash-prize photo contest: ‘Pets in B&W’. This is a judged contest where the Top 3 Winners share a progressive (growing) cash prize pool from the paid-entry proceeds. The judge is pro pet photographer and pet photo author Andrew Darlow, and the contest is open to all logged-in members of, amateur to pro, 18+ worldwide. To see more details and to submit, go to:


“We’re excited to announce our first shared-cash-prize contest,” says Harald Johnson, PhoozL’s founder. “It costs only $10 for up to 3 entries, and 60 percent of entry proceeds will be paid out to winners! And who better to judge this contest than pro pet photographer and pet photo author Andrew Darlow.”

About Judge Andrew Darlow

Andrew Darlow is a professional photographer, author, and consultant. He is the author of two award-winning books: “301 Inkjet Tips and Techniques: An Essential Printing Resource for Photographers” (Course Technology, PTR), and “Pet Photography 101: Tips for Taking Better Photos of Your Dog or Cat” (Focal Press). Andrew publishes the “Inkjet & Imaging Tips Newsletter,” which is available for free to subscribers at

About PhoozL

PhoozL® ( provides photo education and entertainment for photographers and photo enthusiasts who want to be challenged and have “phun” while learning more about photography and spreading their creative wings. Photo contests, photo assignments, photo critiques, photo learning, photo sharing and community… it’s all part of PhoozL.

*PhoozL® and Photo IQ® are registered trademarks of Harald Johnson Communications.


The Week In Photography 28th May 2013

Here’s what has caught my attention on the Internet about photography over the past few weeks:

Bug-eye camera offers a new view of the world

Creating Drama Through Cinematic Light

Backlit Photography 101: Secrets of Expressive Backlit Portraits

The illusion of simplicity: photographer Peter Belanger on shooting for Apple

Strange Geographies: The Mojave Desert’s Airplane Graveyard

Nature & flower photography inspiration by Beatrice Lechtanski

The Top 8 Reasons Why I’m a Big Believer in 35mm Lens Photography

Jewel-Like Photographs of Lucite Sculptures

New Yorkers Upset Over Photographer’s Secret Snaps Through Their Windows

Airline Says ‘No Photography’ on Flights

Photographs of Motionless Bodies of Water Inspired by Rothko

Olloclip Quick-Flip Case and Pro-Photo Adapter add protection, tripod mount

Microscopic Photos of Dust Collected from the World’s Best Art Museums

Photographer David Emitt Adams Creates Tintype Photos Using Rusty Old Cans









The Week in Photography 6th May 2013

Here’s what caught my attention on the Internet about photography in the past week:

Amazing Macro Photos of Bugs With An Unsual Accessory

Explore Hong Kong’s ‘Vertical Horizon’ in These Reverse-Vertigo Inducing Photos

ProScope Micro Mobile lets your iPhone get mega-close-ups

Panasonic introduces DMC-G6 and DMC-LF1 cameras

14-Year-Old Photographer’s Amazingly Surreal Self Portraits

VFX pro produces short film with a Macbook Pro and Adobe Creative Cloud

UK.Gov passes Instagram Act: All your pics belong to everyone now

How the hell is this photo of the Moon even possible?

The Basics Of DSLR Videography

Photographer Uses His iPhone to Capture One Photo Per Day of a Lonely Bur Oak

Canon N


Canon EOS 5D Mark III firmware upgrade provides significant still-shooting and Full HD video improvements

Supports advanced user needs through clean HDMI output for video and boosted AF performance for low-light and telephoto shooting

Sydney, Australia, 30 April 2013 – Canon Australia today announced that the new firmware upgrade for the EOS 5D Mark III digital SLR camera is now available for download, delivering considerable improvements to still-shooting and Full HD video. The new free-of-charge upgrade will allow users to boost the EOS 5D Mark III’s potential, opening the door to new imaging opportunities.

The upgrade, which was first announced in October 2012, enables the use of the HDMI output functionality for more efficient video editing and monitoring workflows by professionals in the fields of cinema and TV production. With HDMI output, users can record HD uncompressed video data (YCbCr 4:2:2, 8 bit) to an external recorder via the camera’s HDMI terminal, supporting minimal image degradation during video data editing for greater onsite efficiency during motion picture and video productions. Additionally, video can also be displayed on an external monitor while being captured, for real-time on-site monitoring for HD video during shoots.

To further improve functionality, the upgrade improves the AF system with centre AF point now enabled at f/8 supporting the needs of photographers to achieve more from their camera when using fast super-telephoto lenses with extenders. Drastically increasing the shooting range, version 1.2.1 now makes it possible to use an EF600 f/4 lens and two-times extender to achieve a massive 1200mm focal length with precise AF performance. This will benefit sport and nature photographers who shoot over long distances. This upgrade also increases the range of lens options with full AF capabilities, including the EF400mm f/5.6 and the EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS with 1.4x extenders, for zoom ranges up to 560mm.

“The EOS 5D Mark III, continues to lead the way in DSLR Full HD Movie making and with this new update Canon has responded to the needs of professional image makers by providing them with clean HDMI output, as well as boosted AF performance for telephoto shooting over an expanded range of focal lengths,” said Charles Montesin, Product Manager – Professional Imaging, Canon Australia. “We’re excited to be offering these features in direct response to requests from professionals working in the fields of cinema and TV production, and expect the firmware to enhance the user experience and workflow.”

The EOS 5D Mark III free firmware update is available now from:

Canon 5D Mark III

Related links:


About Canon

Canon is the world’s leading imaging brand that actively inspires with imaginative ideas that enable people to connect, communicate and achieve more than they thought possible through imaging solutions for business and consumers. Canon’s Australian R&D company, CiSRA, develops and exports digital imaging technologies for use in Canon products worldwide. Canon has ranked among the top-four US patent recipients* for the past 21 years, and had global revenues of over $US40 billion in 2012. Canon Australia also operates Canon Finance Australia, which offers one-stop shopping for customers wanting leasing or finance services. For more information, visit,,,

* Based on weekly patent counts issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office

The Week In Photography 25th April 2013

Here’s what caught my attention on the Internet in the past week or so:

David Kingham Photography | Focusing at Night

Seven Lenses for The Portrait Shooter on a Budget

FocusTwist: Focus-Controllable Images with the iPhone | CDTobie’s Photo Blog

How to Do Stop Motion Photography: An Introduction

The Great Compositions of Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt

Amateur Photographer Captures NASA-like Space Images

Magic Lantern’s Focus Peaking Makes Freelensing A Snap

Photography redefined

Accession by Ben Thomas

How photographers joined the self-publishing revolution




The Week In Photography 12th April 2013

Here’s what has caught my attention on the Internet recently about photography:

Colorful Long Exposure Photos of Glow Sticks Dropped Into Waterfalls

Blackmagic Design Announces Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

G-Technology announces new family of Thunderbolt-equipped docks, drives

NeroTrigger camera trigger is faster (and smarter) than your shutter finger

Canon XA25 HD and XA20 HD Camcorders:

Turn ordinary photos into extraordinary iPhoneography with textures

Trygger Camera Clip: a better polarizing filter for your iPhone 5

5 iPhone Photography Accessories for Better Pictures

PhotosNormandy: An Online Collection of 3,000+ Royalty-Free Photos from WWII

Eye-Popping Photographs of Hong Kong High-Rise Apartment Buildings

High-Speed Photographs of Ink Dropped into Water

Dreamy Photography by Weerapong Chaipuck



New Crystal Macro Video

I’ve posted a new macro video shot with the Canon MP-E65mm macro lens.

And below is another image of obsidian, volcanic glass, shot with the same lens.