The regulations and protocols governing 'Practice as Research' (PaR) in the performing arts in the UK leading to the award of PhD
Robin Nelson (MMU) and Stuart Andrews (PALATINE)
The report includes: Draft ‘best practice’ guidelines on PaR PhDs and Ten Steps to a ‘Perfect’ PaR PhD
Responses to the calls for information were received from more than twenty HEIs in the UK. Most were from Theatre and Drama departments but a significant minority were from Music (or Music/Drama) departments and schools. Responses from Dance departments and schools was poor. No attempt was made to draw upon the Visual Arts domain since that sector has its own established networks. The findings of this investigation having been provisionally drawn up, it is hoped to cross-refer to other related sectors involved in arts or media practices.
It can reasonably be asserted at the outset that regulatory practice varies widely. Some HEIs have developed clear guidelines specifically to address PaR for PhD applicants. A significant number, however, have no specific guidelines at all on PaR and general regulatory frameworks which do not admit it at all. Several openly acknowledge living from ‘hand to mouth’ and it is evident that this report is eagerly awaited in some quarters.
In some HEIs in the UK (and commonly in Australia) Professional Doctorates (e.g. DMus) are awarded for a substantial and high level creative practice, typically bearing a close relationship with professional achievements. Some of these require an ‘action research’ methodology whilst others are based substantially on professional practice in a conservatoire milieu, requiring at most a 10,000 word contextualising essay by way of written submission. Avowedly avoiding the niceties of philosophical distinction, this study focuses on PhDs on the premise that research questions in the performing arts can be rigorously worked through in a range of practices (of which writing is only one) to produce new knowledge or substantial new insights equivalent to the requirements of PhDs as traditionally established.
In presenting the findings of this inquiry, it would be invidious to name specific HEIs since the purpose of this short report, and the draft guidelines derived from it (see below), are intended to support the performing arts community in encouraging PaR. Acknowledgements are due to colleagues who have shared established regulations and protocols with this project and thanks are hereby duly given to all who have contributed. Some will indeed recognise phrases in what follows though, as noted, no individuals or HEIs have been specifically credited. It must also be acknowledged, however, that the subsidiary dimension of this report, a survey of the experiences of those students who have undertaken PhDs involving PaR, has yielded some very unhappy experiences. These range from students’ sense that the host institution had no clue about PaR, and frequently no interest in accepting it as research-worthy, to completions wherein the practical dimension of the research project was completely ignored by the examiners. Problems in finding suitable examiners and appointing them appropriately with the opportunity to access process were common in the responses received.Draft ‘best practice’ guidelines on PaR PhDs
The following draft guidelines are offered to assist HEIs in establishing their own versions in a fuller awareness of the particular issues involved in PaR PhDs. It is assumed that HEIs will apply versions of the protocols offered within their own broad regulatory frameworks. Whilst a loose regulatory formulation affords flexibility and one department even cautions against drawing up detailed regulations, the experience to date of the students cited above from across the range of HEIs, suggests that a framework which pays attention to the detail of different stages of PaR procedures will assist, at least by way of a guideline.
The findings of the research are thus presented as a set of draft guidelines with endnotes bringing out areas of wide difference in practice and some contentious issues. Feedback is welcomed on the draft and a refined version will be more formally published in due course.
Applications and Admissions
Registration and Supervision
Scope and Components of Project
Examination and Examiners
Draft Ten Steps to a ‘Perfect’ Practice as Research PhD
1) Agree terms of research with department
2) Ensure relevant institutional guidelines
3) Select appropriate supervisors
4) Research a basic grounding of PaR issues
5) Be a proactive student
6) Identify how practical enquiry will relate to the research
7) Be aware of practical constraints on a PhD
8) Beware of submission demands
Institutions tend to treat PaR PhDs cautiously and so can over-compensate by demanding excessive additional work for PaR PhDs over and above the criteria for a traditional PhD. This may include new policies of reporting back and/or additional writing and examination processes to compensate for the perceived uncertainty of PaR degrees. 24
Supervisors and students should become familiar with the demands used at other institutions, to ensure some degree of parity. However, in the short term, it is unlikely that standard guidelines will emerge across institutions and any such guidelines may not necessarily benefit the diversity of practices in specific disciplines.
9) Ensure that examiners recognise the definition of PaR being used by the institution and the student
10) Demonstrate effective documentary practice
The material in this report on PaR PhD students is based on the responses of current and completed PhD students at the following institutions:
University College Chichester,
Queen Margaret University College (Edinburgh),
University of Exeter,
University of Leeds,
Manchester Metropolitan University,
University of Nottingham,
University of Plymouth,
Royal Holloway (University of London)
University College Worcester
1 Some institutions do not specify an entry level. Others require a professional standard of practice.
2 Where a PaR project comprises more than one element or outcome, it may be necessary to draw on differing supervisors’ skills and experience.
3 As noted of experience of PaR to date, even where creative practice is admitted, the written component is often privileged in terms of the weighting of words and/or the attention given to it by examiners.
4 Some PaR regulations include ‘original creative contribution’ in referring to PaR appropriate to PhD. Given the established notion of ‘an original contribution to knowledge’ for PhDs generally in a particular science-based, progressive tradition, this is understandable but ‘original’ in a poststructuralist context is a contested term. If it were taken in a PaR context to imply that the sole criterion for the admission of creative work is that no-one has done anything like it before, the requirement to establish a completely new performance ideolect, if not language, would seem more stringent than is customary for established PhDs. In the latter, the making of a small contribution to a body of knowledge is established practice and the RAE phrase ‘affording substantial new insights’ might be appropriate. The creative practice is likely to yield original product in the sense that it is the individual or group’s own imaginative project but it is equally likely that the work is locatable within a genealogy of performance practices. In exceptional cases, it may be that the claim to PhD-worthiness is the absolute originality of the practice but it is perhaps better to avoid regulations which might be taken to indicate this approach to be a norm.
5 There is wide divergence of practice in this aspect. Some institutions who appear not to accept PaR as research-worthy require a full (typically 80.000 word) traditionally written submission, grudgingly accepting any practical submission as supplementary evidence of the ideas and arguments put forward in the thesis. In one instance a PaR candidate appears to have been required to write an additional 20,00 words for having the temerity to submit a practical outcome. The tendency is to lace more weight upon the traditionally written ‘thesis’ than on practical outcomes though there is evidence that the situation is changing quite rapidly. Other than in Visual Arts, there is no evidence of 100% practical submission. The current norm of a 50/50% balance is thus used here.
6 A number of HEIs specify a ‘professional standard of practice’. This requirement begs a number of questions both about restrictions on applicants and whether it is a notional attainment in practice under conditions beyond the Academy or research aims and objectives which best define PaR. Accordingly ‘professional’ is perhaps better avoided in a PhD context.
7 In cases where more than a calendar year has elapsed between presentation of practice and viva, the examiners are hard-pressed to have a clear recollection of their experience of the live presentation, notwithstanding any notes they may have made at the time.
8 Examiner access to process may serve merely to inform assessment of the overall project but it is important to be absolutely clear where the process itself – perhaps in terms of innovative methodology or practice – is itself to be examined.
9 Some HEI protocols require an archival standard record but, if this implies a professionally made record, it may be unnecessarily prohibitive in terms of cost. Relatively inexpensive modes of making DVD records are published on the PARIP website.
10 Evidence suggests that some HEI postgraduate registries (or other bodies) are not prepared to pay for additional External Examiner visits. Departments need therefore to consider costs in taking on PaR projects.
11 Even informal feedback may ultimately be unhelpful but, if it is agreed that the examiner will watch and listen without comment, this must be made clear in advance to the candidate(s).
12 The pace of expansion in the provision of PaR PhDs means that many students will begin their study while official guidelines are being drawn up. Students may need to ensure their project is flexible enough to alter to fit any new guidelines. The drawing up of guidelines will be beneficial in the longer term as it means that they relate directly to the context and ethos of the specific department. PaR degrees would not, therefore, be ‘bolted on’ to a department but emerge more organically from that department. This would then allow staff and students to reflect back on the new form of the department and the context it provides for research and teaching.
13 In one institution, a student was advised that an entire performance might need to be re-staged to fit with the institutional procedure.
14 Students have argued that supervisors should be drawn from different institutions, thereby bringing different PaR approaches to bear on the student’s work. While this may be difficult to organise, it does demonstrate the concern that supervision be contextualised within wider debates on PaR.
15 Several students commented of their work on PaR that they felt they were ‘learning’ or ‘making it up’ ‘as we go along’. While this may be considered part of the research process, the lack of understanding often seemed to lead to feelings of isolation from a department. It may indicate that the more usual support structures for postgraduate study were of limited value in the PaR context.
16 In one instance, the perceived lack of support and engagement with PaR led a student to transfer to an alternative institution. Any such unease may be alleviated somewhat with the creation of internal departmental frameworks for discussion, that would mark a department’s commitment to PaR. One department has set up a PaR research group that includes both staff and students and allows for shared exploration of the issues surrounding PaR.
17 Several students had anticipated that they would submit a traditional thesis and it was only during the course of the programme that they shifted towards practice as research. With some students, the supervisor suggested this shift; with other students, it was their own discoveries about PaR that led them to change their focus.
18 Occasionally this has led to students being unable to follow through aspects of their intended research or meant that they left the institution to which they had initially registered.
19 For some students, research questions emerged from early practical enquiries. For others, the practical work occurred later in the duration of the course. Several students commented that their interest was in process and, specifically, rehearsal processes, rather than performance. They noted that process was not directly accepted as being examinable and that this limited their ability to conduct their intended research. The effect was that they were required to determine new approaches to their subject.
20 There may be very few models offered in guidelines for the relationship between the two and students will need to construct their own sense of the interrelation and the extent to which this is evident in the work.
21 One student commented that working with other students, in this case undergraduate students, raised problems of authorship and professionalism. These issues may need to be considered within the research process and, as a result of the process, may require alterations to the intended methodology.
22 It may be that students should be assigned a mentor outside the department to ensure fair dealing. However, the more that resources are tied down, the more they are likely to be quantified, rather than allocated where available and with goodwill so a balance will need to be struck that is convenient to both parties. Effective communication will be significant.
23 Students may want to prepare the ground for their project before actually beginning the course of study as otherwise they may feel that the pressures of time impact upon the quality of their work.
24 One student with an MA had to complete an MPhil upgrade report which is not normally required by the institution for students with an MA. A dance student was not able to submit practical work but, instead, was invited by the institution to include 20,000 additional words to describe the work.
25 A number of students argued that, although they had included supplementary material alongside their thesis it appeared that the examiners had not looked at this. Such supplementary material may be time consuming and costly to produce. Indeed, one student was required to mount a video within the bound thesis, which cost some £200 in binding alone.
26 One student was able to submit the 40,000 word written component on CD. As part of the project, the supervisor and candidate may need to challenge the institution guidelines early on in the research to argue for alternative submission criteria.