The rules of engagement: creative arts doctorates and productive external networks

By Professor Craig Batty, Associate Professor Robyn Barnacle, Professor Denise Cuthbert and Dr Christine Schmidt

The return on Government investment and graduate career outcomes have been key focus areas of the Australian doctorate in recent years, following similar scrutiny internationally. Propelled in Australia by the 2016 ACOLA Review – which followed the 2015 Watt Report on research and research training – there has been significant emphasis on how doctoral candidates can engage with “end users” (the dominant reading of this is “industry”) during their candidature, with a view to seeing this translate into end-user impact. As Sandra Gattenhoff, Lee McGowan and Donna Hancox, and Alistair McCulloch, report in this issue of NiTRO, this has involved (respectively) initiatives such as internships and re-thinking how research training can incorporate broad skills development.

It is the pre-existing professional networks candidates bring into the academy that are most often harnessed to inform end-user relationships.

Recently, we undertook a small study at RMIT University to investigate graduate careers and knowledge transfer, with a focus on Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) disciplines. Creative Arts disciplines such as art, design, screen production and creative writing were very well represented in the study. Our findings, published in Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, suggest that contrary to beliefs about STEM disciplines dominating industry and end-user impact discourse, HASS doctorates provide rich potential for engagement and knowledge transfer beyond the academy – during and after candidature.

Given the typical profile of a creative arts doctoral candidate – older than those in STEM, has industry experience, has a body of creative or professional output, potentially looking for a career change – it may not be a surprise to read that it is the pre-existing professional networks candidates bring into the academy that are most often harnessed to inform end-user relationships. For those graduates who stay on to work in the academy – a predominant number of our participants (31 out of 47; 66%) – these networks may endure far beyond the doctorate, not only for the benefit of research partnerships but also to inform teaching and learning scenarios (e.g., industry-led briefs).

The recent Australian Council of Graduate Research report on doctoral engagement (Bentley et al. 2017) found that almost three quarters of Australian candidates had benefited from some kind of external contact or advice from non-university entities. Perhaps surprisingly, that study found that HASS candidates were even more likely to engage with potential end users than those in STEM – although notably this engagement is less likely to be funded than in STEM. 39 of our 47 respondents (83%) said they had undertaken some kind of non-university activity during candidature. Examples included:

  • Attending lectures and seminars

  • Engaging in “real world” research projects

  • Receiving input on project topic and design

  • Collecting/access to primary and secondary research data

  • Writing collaborative research papers

  • Paid and unpaid placements.

There was also considerable continuity between pre- and post-PhD careers: 27 said they had worked in their current sector prior to undertaking the PhD; 14 worked in a professional capacity in another sector before commencing the PhD; and 10 interacted with their current industry sector during the PhD. Many of the relationships forged before or nurtured during candidature developed into productive partnerships after the PhD, and not only for those working outside of the academy. For example, of the 31 respondents who remained in higher education, 25 reported enduring relationships and partnerships with non-university organisations, particularly the community sector and cultural institutions such as museums.

Of the 31 respondents who remained in higher education, 25 reported enduring relationships and partnerships with non-university organisations, particularly the community sector and cultural institutions such as museums.

The pattern of HASS graduates remaining in higher education on graduation may contribute to some perceptions of the limited ‘usefulness’ of doctoral research to the world beyond the academy. As others have observed, HASS researchers are often subjected to flawed conceptions of the value of their research compared to those in STEM (Olmos-Peñuela et al., 2014a; Olmos-Peñuela et al., 2014b). This is due in part to a lack of data about graduate careers and knowledge-transfer related activities. Our small study has shown that there are indeed many examples of HASS doctoral end-user research engagement.

One of our respondents stated that “the agility, problem solving, creativity and theoretical structures explored in the PhD have contributed to the meta-skills or the ‘learning how to learn’ that makes this up-skilling in whatever is required, whenever it is needed, possible.” These sentiments echo a recent Deloitte Access Economics report looking specifically at the value of the humanities, which argues that although the majority of higher education graduates remain in education, they possess “the right mix of skills to help solve complex policy problems, often called ‘wicked problems’”, and that “they make meaningful contributions to their communities and societies” (2018: 6). These might be seen as “soft skills” – albeit critical ones for industry, society and culture – and this is one aspect of research training that seems to be shifting, with universities keen to ensure their candidates graduate with skills for employability.

Despite university employment being the norm for HASS doctoral graduates, the potential for knowledge transfer with entities beyond the university – either during candidature or post-graduation – is not necessarily diminished. Indeed, it appears that HASS doctorates may be an important site for multi-sector knowledge transfer. As our study found, paid consultancies, creative collaborations and the building of contacts and networks can lead to ongoing collaborations and interdisciplinary exchange. This has implications for valuing the research capability and career development needs of Creative Arts doctoral candidates, as well as understanding the potential social and economic value of their research.



Barnacle, R., Cuthbert, D., Schmidt, C. and Batty, C. (2019). HASS PhD Graduate Careers and Knowledge Transfer: A Conduit for Enduring, Multi-Sector Networks. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education. doi: 10.1177/1474022219870976

Bentley P, Bexley E and Dollinger M. (2017) Mapping the external engagement of Australia’s PhD candidates. Available at: Accessed June 10 2018.

Deloitte Access Economics. (2018) The value of the humanities. Available at: Accessed 31 October 2018.

Olmos-Peñuela J, Benneworth P and Castro-Martínez E. (2014a) Are ‘STEM from Mars and SSH from Venus’?: challenging disciplinary stereotypes of research’s social value. Science and Public Policy 41: 384-400. doi: 10.1093/scipol/sct071.

Olmos-Peñuela J, Castro-Martínez E and D’Este P. (2014b) Knowledge transfer activities in social sciences and humanities: explaining the interactions of research groups with non-academic agents. Research Policy 43: 696-706. doi:10.1016/j.respol.2013.12.004.

Professor Craig Batty is Head of Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. He has published widely on screenwriting practice and theory, creative practice research and doctoral supervision, including the 2019 edited collection, The Doctoral Experience: Student Stories from the Creative Arts and Humanities. He has won university awards and a national citation for excellence in PhD supervision.

Associate Professor Robyn Barnacle is a Research Education Specialist in the School of Graduate Research at RMIT University. Her research into graduate education, policy and practice appears in leading international journals. This includes Studies in Higher Education, Educational Philosophy and Theory and Higher Education Research and Development.

Professor Denise Cuthbert is Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research Training and Development in the School of Graduate Research at RMIT University, and is former convenor of the Australian Council of Graduate Research. She has published extensively on higher education, with a focus on policy and graduate research education. Her work appears in leading international journals including Gender and Education, Higher Education, Studies in Higher Education, and Higher Education Research and Development.

Dr Christine Schmidt is a Research Fellow at the School of Graduate Research at RMIT University. She has also worked on media and communication projects focused on digital media in the Pacific region. Schmidt has extensive professional experience as a fashion designer in Australia and internationally. Her publications include The Swimsuit: Fashion from Poolside to Catwalk (Berg, 2012) and “Against the Grain: Australia and the Swimsuit” in Australian Fashion Unstitched: The Last Sixty Years (Cambridge University Press, 2010).