Creative engagement with the APR Intern program for practitioner-researchers

By Associate Professor Sandra Gattenhof, Dr Lee McGowan and Associate Professor Donna Hancox

To Higher Degree Research (HDR) students in most disciplines, a paid internship can be a helpful torch to the light their way to the end of the tunnel. The prospect is especially attractive where it fills the scholarship-free period between submission and receipt of examiner reports. For practitioner-researchers (those working in the traditional fields of creative practice, including writers, theatre-makers, dancers and visual artists), who are often operating as sole-traders working project to project within the creative industries – a field populated by small, often subsistence-based enterprises – the shine of such a scheme’s appeal is not quite as bright.

A drawback, and one that impacts directly on the creative industries sector, is that the partner must pay the whole sum up front. The scheme rebates the other half to the partner afterwards.

The Australian Postgraduate Research (APR) Intern – or APR.Intern – is a not-for-profit industry arm of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI), and was initially set up to connect industry and research with a view to creating a catalyst for innovation and advancement in the STEM related sectors. These days, it seeks to cater to every discipline through an incentive scheme aimed at encouraging PhD-level collaboration between businesses and university research.

Where an industry is willing to make as little as a $10,000 investment, they have their funding matched by APR.Intern. With the university’s help, the partner is able to recruit a hand-picked, highly-trained researcher – free of teaching and the millstone of their thesis (minus any changes) – to work on a project of their own design.

In return for the initial investment (which can increase, depending on duration), the student receives a $3000 monthly stipend for between three and five months. A one-off $5500 contribution goes to the academic supervisor (typically the HDR student’s principal supervisor) as research funds, and a one-off $5500 administration and case-management fee is retained by APR.Intern.

It’s an overly complex system, but it does enable the university to promote and assist HDR students gain internships and improve their chances of post-PhD employment. A drawback, and one that impacts directly on the creative industries sector, is that the partner must pay the whole sum up front. The scheme rebates the other half to the partner afterwards.

Practitioner-researchers in the creative arts possess skills in what education and business commentators note are the "real skills" needed for the future, namely creativity, communication, critical reflection and collaboration.

The initiative is aimed at connecting HDR students with industry, particularly where engagement is seen as vital to improving a researcher’s employability and transferrable skills development. It encourages students to gain immersive industry experience and work with clients, mentors and academics to produce an outcome determined by the employer.

To date, only one such internship has been undertaken in the Creative Industries Faculty at our university, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). A visual art student successfully conducted archival research with a Brisbane-based arts SME. QUT’s Graduate Research Education and Development (GRE+D) team have pushed hard to connect our students with industry, but have found the terrain difficult to negotiate, particularly where the treatment and track record of arts and humanities in Australian Research Council funding has been less than kind.

A number of reports (The Heart of the Matter 2013; Humanities Graduates and the British Economy: The Hidden Impact 2013; Australia’s Future Workforce? 2015), argue that creativity and innovation will be key to 21st century economies, particularly in developing responses to multi-perspective problems. While STEM reigns supreme, the increasing realisation of the need for creativity and innovation has resulted in recognition that the creative and cultural industries have an essential role to play. Practitioner-researchers in the creative arts possess skills in what education and business commentators note are the “real skills” needed for the future, namely creativity, communication, critical reflection and collaboration. Their knowledge of and connections to industry are extensive, and their ability to contribute to a scheme such as APR.Intern would ordinarily ensure success. But there are real barriers to the scheme’s success.

 (1)  Funding in a sector that is already experiencing stress. Dollars are stretched. Government agendas have shifted focus away from the arts, leaving arts organisations to rely on unstable grant-funding to build their own capacity. They are rarely in a position to offer $10,000 for a three-month HDR internship (especially when the full $20,000 has to be paid up front).

 (2)  Creative practice as research is not seen to have a foot-hold in industry. Is it possible arts organisations do not see the value and impact of academic research? We ask because the GRE+D team at QUT highlight a disconnect between the academy and industry in terms of research outcomes.

 (3)  Sessional teaching loads, particularly studio-based teaching that often requires intensive periods of engagement. In addition, other short-term industry or project-based work that arises with festivals and event programs. Both impact on the practitioner-researcher’s ability to engage with internship opportunities.

 (4)  HDR students will often look for an internship that aligns with potential employment in the tertiary sector (a common means of securing some form of regular income for a practitioner-researcher), or as might be expected, work that is clearly aligned with their chosen discipline.

It’s not all bad news for the students or the APR.Intern program when it comes to practitioner-researchers – there are opportunities here. For example, an advantage of the scheme is that HDR students can work in an allied field, or build elasticity and transferability where they employ their creative practice skills in an alternative field. Creative Industries graduates have the much sought after skills of creative entrepreneurship, social intelligence, problem-solving and critical thinking, which are becoming increasingly essential for work in the 21st century (see Chartered Accountants Future of Talent, 2017).

One avenue the QUT Creative Industries Faculty is looking to explore is artistic residencies, which could offer opportunities for corporate entities that operate outside of the creative industries. These entities, which often have extensive budgets, could embed a creative within their organisation to develop an innovative and imaginative solution to an industry-identified problem. Further, where creative arts SMEs may not be able to afford the funding on their own, a consortium model, which features research around a specific common concern, might benefit the partner organisations involved.

APR.Intern is a relatively new scheme with millions of dollars being invested and students from a range of disciplines are able to take advantage. But it’s really not designed to accommodate the arts. We’re sure it’s possible to carve out a pathway for a practitioner-researcher that would support them into employment, but unlike the STEM disciplines that seem to have a foothold in government policy and funding, the creative arts and creative industries will need to think about different models of internship engagement for HDR students in an industry dominated by SMEs.


Dr Sandra Gattenhof is Associate Professor and Director of Research Training in the Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology.

Dr Lee McGowan is senior lecturer in Creative Writing in the Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology.

Dr Donna Hancox is Associate Professor and Associate Director of the Creative Lab in the Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology.