Academic research

Academic research - introduction

Megan Calver, ‘To match the song of a blackbird leave the house each day at dawn and listen’, Mixed media, 2008. Courtesy: Megan Calver.

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Megan Calver, ‘To match the song of a blackbird leave the house each day at dawn and listen’, Mixed media, 2008.
Courtesy: Megan Calver.

Free taster of subscriber-only material in the Academic research section. Fully updated for 2008

What is research?

Most artists consider that they undertake research as part of the development of their work and practice. Their research may be investigating different types of varnish, it may be looking at different species of birds, you name it, it is often called research if it comes before the end product or outcome. However within the academy, not all acts of investigation are seen as research. Traditionally, something is worthy of the title ‘research’ if one or more hypotheses are tested within specific parameters and with due reference to other similar, complimentary or conflicting findings that are already within the public domain of knowledge. This research usually makes a contribution towards some kind of new knowledge (one requirement of doctoral research). The way in which this type of research is carried out can be through literature searches, case studies, interviews, eye-witness accounts, action or heuristic research. An artist’s self-reflective practice can be a valid and very fruitful methodology in research if undertaken in a rigorous and critical manner. However, the debate isn't this simple and the path isn't necessarily a straight one."

Research opportunities

There are a number of research opportunities available to artists within higher education establishments:
• full and part-time postgraduate degrees at Masters or doctoral level;
• research fellowships;
• short periods of research not leading to an academic qualification.
• These types of research programmes and projects can offer an artist an intensive time in which to reflect on a specific aspect relating to his or her practice, within a supportive environment that may offer access to facilities, equipment, critical debate and peer review. Like all opportunities, the institution, the course, or research period/opportunity should be investigated thoroughly before any application is submitted.

Postgraduate degrees

Many artists now consider continuing, or returning to higher education in order to further their practice and delve deeper into conceptual and practical concerns. Postgraduate qualifications are now increasingly influential in applying for teaching and professional employment. Fifteen years ago, the number of artists who were undertaking PhDs was negligible. Now, more and more artists, particularly those with an eye to an academic career, undertake doctoral studies.

Charlie Fox, ‘Bear Sanctuary - Urban Bear Research Centre’, 2008. Photo: counterproductions.Part of Carny Town, Portland Gallery.

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Charlie Fox, ‘Bear Sanctuary - Urban Bear Research Centre’, 2008.
Photo: counterproductions.
Part of Carny Town, Portland Gallery.

Applications and funding

There is no set time of year when all applications to host institutions for both Masters and doctoral studies are made. Each institution has its own application procedure – some have rolling deadlines, others annual, or bi-annual. Many institutions have specific funds that students can apply to for funding towards fees and maintenance. These are particular to each university and college, so you need to make specific enquiries to the institution to which you wish to apply. The main national research grant giving body is the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), formerly known as AHRB.

With the rapid increase in student numbers at undergraduate and postgraduate level, it goes without saying that funding awards are more and more competitive. In addition to open applications and AHRC funded PhDs, there are also a number of individually advertised PhD studentships. These are usually funded positions and are often attached to a larger research project. Although these types of studentships dictate the focus of study, there are tangible advantages: there is guaranteed funding which covers fees and an annual stipend; there is already a starting point in terms of time and concept.

Practice-based/Theory and practice

The balance of practice and theory is as varied as the number of degrees. Whilst some degrees are purely practice-based – such as some Master of Fine Art (MFA) degrees, others have written and oral presentations as part of the examining process. Practice-based PhDs are now common doctoral submissions. The traditional 80,000 to 100,000 word thesis can now take a number of forms including a series of exhibitions, performances or documentation film. So artists who are not necessarily well-versed in the act of writing do now undertake and complete PhDs. However, the academic conventions attached to writing a thesis – such as copious referencing, reflection and analysis still have to be present in the final submission of work whatever its format. Clear aims and objectives need to be set out and followed through to specific conclusions.

Steve Manthorpe, ‘Cornuscope Animation’, wooden carving with embedded video, 2007.Developed during a period of research at Leeds College of Art and Design as part of an AA2A award.

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Steve Manthorpe, ‘Cornuscope Animation’, wooden carving with embedded video, 2007.
Developed during a period of research at Leeds College of Art and Design as part of an AA2A award.

Anna Townley, Lawrence Bradby, ‘Dust’, 2006.A performance walk on the winter solstice, sweeping a line from Norwich hospital mortuary to Norwich crematorium, a distance of about 8 miles. Developed during a period of research at Norwich School of Art as part of an AA2A award.

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Anna Townley, Lawrence Bradby, ‘Dust’, 2006.
A performance walk on the winter solstice, sweeping a line from Norwich hospital mortuary to Norwich crematorium, a distance of about 8 miles. Developed during a period of research at Norwich School of Art as part of an AA2A award.

Research fellowships and residencies

There are a number of advertised annual fellowships including the Stanley Picker Fellowship (Kingston University) and Research Fellowships and Senior Fellowships at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds (with Leeds University). The Stanley Picker Fellowship Programme based at the Faculty of Art, Design & Architecture at Kingston University provides two high-profile practitioners, one in the field of Fine Art the other in Design, with the opportunity to develop a substantial body of work within a supportive and creative environment.

The Artists Access to Art Colleges (AA2A) offers opportunities for artists, designers and makers to use art college facilities to develop a period of research. Through the scheme, which has awarded 700 artists access since 1999, artists have free access of at least 100 hours plus a small grant towards material and travel. Application packs are available from participating colleges with an annual deadline around September each year.

Subjective points of view

All research is subjective and it is worth remembering that what may be appropriate in one particular context – be it conceptual, philosophical or environmental – may not be accepted in another. So research your research. Talk to people. And, to use a less conventional research methodological approach: trust your instinct.

First published: a-n.co.uk September 2008

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