A PhD in a third of the time: Deakin University’s PhD by Prior Publications in the Creative Arts

By Dr Patrick West

In 2016, Deakin University introduced the PhD by Prior Publications in the Creative Arts (Portfolio Creative Product plus Exegesis) as a sub-category of the existing PhD by Publication options.

The conventional three-year PhD in the Creative Arts provides candidates with the opportunity to develop a major artefact in their chosen artform, supplemented by a written exegesis. Such an extended period of focused training, under the supervision of fellow artists with appropriate academic credentials, can provide an excellent foundation for a career in the Creative Arts for emerging creative-arts practitioners, who are often in their 20s or early 30s. But the typical three year model does not necessarily fit the needs of professional artists with established reputations.

The creative artefact pushes the artform in a new direction, while the exegesis explicitly contextualises and maps the original contribution to knowledge. But this is not the only way of conceiving the research value.

The value of a PhD thesis springs from the fact that, whatever the particular discipline, it is examined against the twin criteria of command of relevant scholarship and a sustained, original contribution to knowledge. Successful PhD graduates in the Creative Arts can be assured that they have the knowledge and skills to communicate about their work to highly arts-literate audiences, both inside and outside of professional industry contexts. PhD graduates are also valued, obviously, for the high-level research capacities the qualification instills.

The research component of a PhD in the Creative Arts is often manifested as a contribution to artistic practice itself. The creative artefact pushes the artform in a new direction, while the exegesis explicitly contextualises and maps the original contribution to knowledge. But this is not the only way of conceiving the research value of such PhDs. Another possible approach is to more directly benchmark the contribution to knowledge against the criterion of its value to society in general. So, while the advancement of craft might very well be seen as sufficient unto itself as an original contribution to knowledge, practice might alternatively be lodged into a methodology that anticipates impact, beyond craft narrowly defined, in a broader domain.

Our model does not aim to replace the professional doctorate ... the key difference lies in our selection of professional artists within whose work a high-level research contribution can already be discerned. Their research as professional artists is what might be called proleptic research.

By introducing a PhD by Prior Publications in the Creative Arts, we are seeking to retain the rigour of the qualification by obliging candidates to make manifest the research dimension that, we suggest, inevitably accompanies any extended period of demonstrated professional performance by an arts practitioner. A key component of such performance is the reflection upon practice, and the value of practice, that finds its natural home in the exegesis.

On the one hand, we are trying to cater for the evident demand from accomplished professional artists, typically mid-career or later, for a PhD candidature model suited to their circumstances and needs. With established reputations at national or international level, and weighty back catalogues, such potential applicants are not looking to do a PhD degree to develop a first or early major work. Rather, they are keen to gain recognition for creative work, already completed, which possesses at least the research qualities and substance of the artefacts produced, in candidature, by students in the conventional three-year PhD.

On the other hand, balanced against this demand, we are keen to ensure that the PhD by Prior Publications in the Creative Arts upholds the universal standard of the PhD qualification as a sustained, original contribution to knowledge. To this end, the following paragraph is a crucial part of the guidelines produced for the degree:

Candidates must produce, in candidature, an exegesis (minimum 25 000 words; maximum 50 000 words) accompanied by a portfolio creative product that critically and reflectively curates and/or re-composes a selection of at least three prior, major, creative arts outputs produced by the candidate.

In this way, candidates are not only given the opportunity to showcase the breadth of their achievement across at least three previous publications, they are also, and crucially, being required to bring the work up to date, as it were, for research purposes.

The form of curation or re-composition of the several prior creative arts outputs into a portfolio will be determined by factors including the nature of the relevant artform/s, the circumstances attendant on the prior outputs, and the thesis research topic. In all cases, the final portfolio creative product is expected to be an essential element of the original contribution to knowledge characteristic of a PhD thesis. In its form and development, the portfolio creative product has a precedent in the way established writers often publish a book of Selected Works or how visual artists might hold a Retrospective.

The requirement to present a portfolio creative product is designed to provide the examiner with a cross-career selection of the candidate’s work as the focus material for the concerns and argument of the exegesis. Furthermore, the in-candidature curation or re-composition of the prior creative arts outputs will give the candidate the opportunity, in an artistic and creative mode, to select, shape and mobilize the various elements of the portfolio product so as to maximize its capacity to productively address the research problem or question. This is consistent with the tenets of practice-led research in conventional PhDs within the Creative Arts.

There was discussion in 2016 around how this PhD model would differ from a professional doctorate. Our model does not aim to replace the professional doctorate model but to do something different. We formed the view that the key difference lies in our selection of professional artists within whose work a high-level research contribution can already be discerned. Their research as professional artists is what might be called proleptic research. In this way, the students in our bespoke programme have the means to achieve the quality of research impact typically expected within the three-year model, only much more quickly.

Informally, the PhD By Prior Publications in the Creative Arts is known as the one-year degree. One year is the minimum enrolment period for any PhD at Deakin. It is expected that most candidates for this degree will remain enrolled for a period of a little over one year, say 14 to 15 months. Most of the work involved in producing the thesis is devoted to writing the exegesis. Candidates can enrol in the degree in either full-time or part-time mode. As a way of further supporting this new initiative, the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin has made available three one-year competitive scholarships (the first of these was offered in 2017 and the second in 2018, with the third scholarship to be advertised in early 2019).

At the time of writing, there are approximately ten candidates either enrolled in the degree or successfully completed. Our students have enjoyed professional careers as novelists, visual artists, documentary film-makers, public artists, animators and cross-artform practitioners. Most of them have outputs with international distribution and recognition. We also require that successful applicants have, to quote from the guidelines again, “a demonstrated capacity for scholarly writing at AQF Level 10, and high level project management skills.”

It’s still early days in the life of this programme, but one interesting development so far is that, as advanced-level professional artists, at least some of our candidates have tended to gravitate towards the second of the two models of research contribution discussed above. That is, they have taken a greater interest in how their work might be framed as a contribution to knowledge judged directly against the criterion of its value to society in general, rather than as a contribution to knowledge made from within the confines of practice itself (equally valuable though that undoubtedly may be as a contribution to knowledge).

Amidst all the talk about the PhD of the Future, the PhD By Prior Publications in the Creative Arts aims to refine the ongoing thinking and practice of doctoral educators. A big part of this will involve listening to the feedback from graduates of this programme over the long term.


Dr Patrick West has been the HDR Coordinator in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University since 2015. He is the convenor of the PhD by Prior Publications in the Creative Arts discussed in this article. Patrick’s own research focuses on the value of practice-led research as a way of addressing wicked, real-world problems, especially problems related to the inhabitation of place, space, architecture and buildings. At Deakin, Patrick is a member of the HOME group, which is a research hub with a single core aim: A Home for all. Patrick is a widely published and awarded creative writer, especially in the short story form.