Investigating doctoral studies in two Finnish art universities

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Journal ISSN
Volume Title
School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Doctoral thesis (monograph) | Defence date: 2016-01-28
Degree programme
Aalto University publication series DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS, 2/2016
The overall aim of this research is to determine how doctoral students in art universities experience the doctoral process and to highlight both the subjective perceptions and the context and circumstances of the doctoral path. The research crosses two fields, the emergence and development of research activities in art universities, on the one hand, and doctoral education, on the other. The study seeks to provide a better understanding of what an artist-researcher is, to discuss the distinctive features of doctoral degrees at art universities, to demonstrate the various activities in which doctoral students engage along their doctoral journey, and to consider the different support structures for art dissertations that combine theoretical standpoints with the creation of artworks. It is assumed that individual experiences are framed by and interact with institutional practices. Therefore, a socio-cultural approach, cultural historical activity theory, has been adopted as a theoretical frame for the research. This approach has offered a useful means whereby to examine the institutional and material aspects of doctoral studies. The investigation is qualitative and consists of semi-structured interviews with artists involved in the audiovisual and performing arts. In addition, documents and literature on the development of research activities in art universities were examined. The interviews were analysed thematically and grouped into four themes: motivation for doctoral studies, activities with the research object, discursive and material mediating activities, and new artistic agency. The opening theme outlines the motivation to undertake doctoral studies. The interview responses indicate that the research interests and ideas often emerged from observations within artistic practice. For some, doctoral studies offered a break from daily artistic work and, for others, the theoretical orientation was already an integral part of their art-making. Within the theme, activities with the research object, I discuss art productions, documentation and writing, as well as how to create the necessary nexus between artistic practice and written reflection. Research-related art productions are usually very extensive and are time-consuming to complete, document and reflect on. Writing up the theses was not difficult for the interviewees in this study, which was contrary to what has been found in earlier studies. The most challenging aspect, however, was integrating the knowledge gained in art productions and the chosen theoretical approach into a coherent whole. Mediating activities involve discursive and material aspects, such as supervision and peer support, and account has to be taken of the research infrastructure and institutional conditions. In many policy documents supervision is considered to be of great importance for a successful doctoral path. However, the actual experiences revealed in this study only marginally support this official view – supervisory practices seemed to be unstructured though relatively unproblematic, and the relationship with supervisors was quite collegial. The methodology used in artistic research is an evolving one and this is why students need assistance from supervisors. When the productions are finished and the reflections phase has begun, especially when writing the final submission, students seek support to make the connections work. At the other end of the support continuum are the peers, fellow artist-researchers and members of artistic teams. The importance of such activity supports the findings of Hopwood and colleagues (Hopwood, 2010a, b; Hopwood et al., 2011) concerning the significance of unexpected experiences and spontaneous interactions. In other words, doctoral students are relationally agentic, the interviewees in this study recognized and relied on a wide range of networks and other people as resources. These notions on supervision and peer support are part of the wider environment in which doctoral research is realized. Research infrastructure, whether in terms of the space needed for art productions or simpler physical arrangements for the successful interaction with peers, seems to play a crucial role and to mediate the doctoral experience in an unexpected manner. The final theme, identity and agency, was constructed on the basis of the question regarding how undertaking a doctoral degree affects the student’s identity. Based on the interview data, the distinction between being either an artist or a researcher had vanished and doctoral students were comfortable with their current positions as artist-researchers. Some thought it was a privilege to be able to work simultaneously as artists and researchers. The concluding chapter includes also recommendations for the further development of doctoral studies in art universities.
Supervising professor
Varto, Juha, Prof., Aalto University, Department of Art, Finland
Thesis advisor
Löytönen, Teija
doctoral studies, art universities, artist-researchers, surveys
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