A partnered PhD for cultural impact?

By Professor Jo Lindsay and Professor Cat Hope

 

DDCA Vice President Cat Hope joins Monash University’s Jo Lindsay, Associate Dean Enterprise, in conversation about the changes in postgraduate research training that have recently taken place.

 

Q: Do you think that the changes proposed in the ACOLA report are needed for creative arts postgraduates, or are they more directed towards other disciplinary study?

 Jo: I think the idea of doing postgraduate research with partners and within organisations offers really exciting opportunities for creative arts students, but it will take a bit of a culture shift within both universities and partner organisations for these to take off. Traditionally, STEM disciplines have had closer relationships with industry partners and a culture of PhD students being embedded in larger research programs as part of labs and so on. By contrast, in the arts the lone scholar making an independent contribution to knowledge has been the norm.

This is an entirely new way of doing a PhD – the idea is that the student can conduct research or a series of case studies that directly benefits the partner while also using this research to produce the thesis. It would be wonderful to develop another GRIP program ... where creative arts postgrads could play a central role, but realistically this is a few years away for us.

Cat: There is a lot of opportunity here, but sadly the financial investment in the arts does not reach the same levels of the STEM disciplines. Yet if universities are open to in-kind contributions and cash that is directed for real costs, there are a number of possibilities. 

Q: How are universities shifting expectations towards end-user engagement in postgraduate study and research training?

Jo: There is a much greater focus on pivoting the postgraduate degree so it becomes a partnership project. At Monash we have instigated the Graduate Research Industry Partnership program, which is a really exciting but also a challenging initiative for us. It involves a cohort of 15-18 PhD students working on a critical challenge from an interdisciplinary perspective, and supervisors are drawn from across the faculties at Monash. The PhD scholarships and training activities are co-funded by the university and “industry” partners (industry is broadly defined and includes organisations outside the university such as government departments or NGOs). We are about to launch our first program led by the Faculty of Arts, on the topic of Migration, Diversity and Inclusion. There is absolute potential for Creative Arts PhDs to be part of this program and we have begun reaching out to organisations who may be interested in partnering with us.

The challenge is that competition for funding within the arts is intense, and my feeling is that PhD students are not yet seen as a good investment. This is an entirely new way of doing a PhD – the idea is that the student can conduct research or a series of case studies that directly benefits the partner while also using this research to produce the thesis. It would be wonderful to develop another GRIP program on creative industries, where creative arts postgraduates could play a central role – but realistically this is a few years away for us. 

Nationally, Creative Arts disciplines have not yet had success in accessing larger scale interdisciplinary funding, such as the Cooperative Research Centre Scheme or the ARC Industrial Transformation Research Program. It may be worth lobbying to expand access to these schemes so that Creative Arts disciplines can provide opportunities for researchers, and cohorts of PhDs can work together with partners.  

Working with arts organisations can be a completely different skill set to making art. It is useful, but not necessarily at the core of the student’s project.

Cat: There is certainly more focus on PhD students looking towards work at the conclusion of their studies, rather than the PhD being an end in itself. If that is an academic career, then publications are key; but to work in the industry, ongoing engagement is important and universities need to be able to accommodate flexible approaches to study and industry engagement. There are still areas of performing arts – sometimes inside schools themselves – that don't see the arts as an “industry” due to the generally low level of investment, but they are a key part of the cultural landscape all the same.

 

Q: How is this being measured/assessed and how does this reflect creative arts study?

Jo: The number of PhD students who are co-supervised with external partners and/or funded by external partners is now counted in the ERA Engagement and Impact exercise. Universities are increasingly interested in boosting the number of PhD projects where students work closely with partners or are even embedded in partner organisations.

Cat: Universities value industry engagement from candidates at enrolment, which contrasts with those who come into PhD study from a Class A honours, for example. 

Q: Are there any unforeseen consequences for the creative arts from increased end-user focus?

Cat: I think the end-user focus affects all disciplines, but artistic research to a larger degree as many creative arts candidates are researching their own work and the questions arising from within it, rather than how it interfaces with the industry. Having said that, peer review is important to creative artists at all levels and that feedback is part of all creative arts projects, providing a direct link to industry. 

 

Q: Have the shifts included in ACOLA been generally beneficial for creative arts?

Jo: I think they definitely could be beneficial but my sense is that collaborative PhDs will take a while to filter through the system. An upskilling of supervisors and students is required, and we need to change expectations about what PhD research can deliver to the creative sector.

Q: Is there still a place for “blue sky” thinking?

Jo: Yes. I think these new ways of doing PhDs could potentially provide multiple benefits. By working more closely with partner organisations and industry advisors, students can develop a greater understanding of how arts organisations work, their pain points, their potential for changing the world and their research needs (knowledge that would be useful for them). At the same time, creative arts organisations get access to subsidised yet expertly supervised research, and an opportunity to develop talent and employ the graduate who has worked with them. I can see a lot of blue sky for more impact-focussed creative arts PhD projects, but there will always be an important place for more traditional creative projects too. 

Cat: We need it more than ever, yet it can feel difficult to obtain if students need to focus on gaining additional training and industry engagement. Working with arts organisations can be a completely different skillset to making art. It is useful, but not necessarily at the core of the student’s project, so we have to be careful of that. Artistic research as a method, for example, can be very valuable, but I think pursuing projects that focus on an artist’s work for its own sake is important too. Sometimes knowledge and work are not directly linked, and not all art has a measurable industry “benefit”. Having said this, the Creative Arts PhD is an incredibly privileged thing – three years focusing on an artist-defined project embodying new knowledge 


Professor Jo Lindsay is Associate Dean Enterprise in the Arts Faculty and Professor of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University. Jo is a sociologist in the fields of families, consumption and environmental sociology with a strong track record in interdisciplinary research and supervision. She believes that excellent research has a huge role to play in addressing complex problems and supporting more inclusive, equal and sustainable families and communities. She has published 3 books, over 50 articles and is regularly called upon by media to talk on family and sustainability issues. Jo is passionate about research partnerships, research innovation and working with partners and communities to solve complex social issues. 

Professor Cat Hope is Head of School of the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University. She is an accomplished Australian-based musician, composer, songwriter, sound and performance artist whose practice is an interdisciplinary one that crosses over into film, video, performance and installation. She is a classically trained flautist, vocalist, improviser and experimental bassist who has conducted extensive funded research into digital archiving, graphic and digital notation, low frequency sound and electronic music performance.  And as for her music? It is conceptually driven, graphically notated scores and features acoustic or electronic combinations and new score reading technologies. It often includes aleatoric elements such as drone, noise and glissandi that are inspired by her ongoing fascination with low frequency sound. Her composed music ranges from works for laptop duet to orchestral works. Generally, her practice explores the physicality of sound in different media, although she is also well known for her forays into noise improvisation.