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 Academia.edu. My exegesis itself is available from the RMIT University publication repository.

Another Time and Space image

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