What is the Point of Further Study?
-To Develop Your Practice –
Ideally, engaging in further study – whether specialist training, postgraduate education or professional development programmes – offers the opportunity to develop your practice through enhancing your skills and/or through critical engagement with others.
-To Enhance Your Chances of Employment –
Many artists earn a living or supplement their income through working in arts administration or third level education. In both of these areas, further education, in the form of a Postgraduate Diploma or Masters Degree, is becoming a minimum requirement. Furthermore, the rapid pace of technological change in areas such as New Media means that updating your skills can be advantageous.
What are Your Options?
Training is largely about skills enhancement. During the relatively short four years of a BA programme art students are introduced to a wide range of skills. Nonetheless, there are two reasons that further training may be of benefit to your art practice. If your practice is discipline specific, it may enable you to become expert in particular techniques that are central to your practice. Alternatively, if your practice tends to be inter-disciplinary, it may enable you to acquire or develop the skills to realise particular ideas.
While postgraduate education and professional development programmes may supplement and enhance your skills, it is critical engagement with others that is the main vehicle offered for developing your practice. Within taught Masters programmes and many professional development programmes this happens through critiques offered by peers (fellow students) and tutors, and through your contribution to such critiques in relation to others. In research based programmes, such as MPhil and PhD degrees, critical engagement is centred in the relationship between you and your supervisor(s).
How Does Postgraduate Study Differ From BA Programmes?
For the most part, the difference is a matter of depth and breadth of understanding rather than a matter of kind. If, at undergraduate level, you are expected to be aware of the boundaries of learning in your field and of what is required to push back those boundaries; at postgraduate level you are expected to demonstrate a level of knowledge and understanding that is at the forefront of your field. (‘The Framework’ developed by the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland offers a useful account of the difference between BA, Masters and Doctoral level qualifications).
With regard to learning and teaching, while some postgraduate programmes place a strong emphasis on acquiring particular skills others do not, but all expect a large degree of independent learning on the part of the student and an ability and willingness to engage critically with the programme.
The Benefits – Why might it be a good idea to embark on a course of further study?
Key benefits offered by postgraduate education for your art practice are a relatively structured framework for a focused period of work, and a sustained critical response to your artwork and art practice. Depending on your circumstances, the first of these may be more or less important for the development of your work. The latter is an important consideration for anyone considering postgraduate education. Outside of an educational context it can be difficult to get critical feedback in relation to your work. The main avenues for such feedback – friends answering the question “so, what do you think?”, reviews, and commissioned essays – often lack depth and rigour. Yet it is through engaging in a critical way with questions raised by your art practice that you learn. As an individual you can develop your understanding of issues that are of interest or relevant to your practice but in the wider critical context offered by a postgraduate programme you should be confronted with questions and ideas that you otherwise might not encounter; questions and perspectives that challenge your understanding of what you are doing.
In a similar vein, engaging in a postgraduate programme will require that you articulate a critical response in relation to the work of others. While it is possible to do this to some extent on a day-to-day basis, the context does not always support a careful teasing out and development of your insight. Yet, engaging in such discussions extends your understanding of contemporary art practices, the wider context in which your own work is situated, as well as giving you tools with which to critique your practice afresh.
Returning for a moment to the challenge posed by questions and ideas that you otherwise might not encounter: this suggests that it is worth looking further afield than the institution at which you did your BA for a postgraduate qualification. From an idealistic point of view, going elsewhere will ensure that you encounter new perspectives and conceptual challenges. From a practical point of view, it is better in the eyes of employers (and peers) that you have sought a broad range of experience. This is an important consideration!
The Practical Benefits of Postgraduate Education
The practical benefits of postgraduate education vary according to the nature of the programme. While many programmes offer a studio space, some do not. Indeed, for some people being offered a studio space is a major incentive, whereas for others it is inconvenient to be required to relocate a significant portion of one’s artistic activity.
Access to resources – specialised equipment and technical expertise – is a major practical benefit offered by postgraduate education. Certainly, you should give careful consideration to the resources being offered by a given programme or institution in relation to the nature of your practice and the programme of work you envisage undertaking.
Where funding is available, this is obviously of major practical benefit in enabling you to spend uninterrupted time making work.
Finally, and as mentioned at the outset, a major practical benefit of postgraduate education is that it enhances your prospects of securing paid employment in the arts sector, be that in arts administration or in education. For better or worse, a Masters level degree is becoming a minimum requirement for teaching in third level art education and within the next decade a PhD or Doctoral level degree will be needed to gain advantage.
When Is The Right Time?
There is no wrong time. The right time depends upon your practice and what it is that you wish to achieve. For some people, it makes sense to go straight from undergraduate into postgraduate study. If you have a particular vision of what you want to achieve and are clear upon the way in which a given programme will enable this then there may be no reason to delay.
For most people, in my opinion, there is something to be gained from not enrolling straight away on a postgraduate programme. The real learning about what it is to be an artist, what it is to pursue your art practice and make work, begins once you leave college so that staying in college may simply serve to put off the uncertainties and difficulties this involves. Importantly, having learned what it is to be an artist and developed your art practice in ‘the real world’, you are in a good position to exploit the opportunities offered by postgraduate education. An established art practice allows you to identify precisely what it is that you want from a postgraduate programme, and knowing what you want will put you in a good position for choosing the right programme to meet your needs. It also places you in a strong position to engage with the programme based on your experience to date – both in making sense of and in exploiting the critical responses received in relation to your work, and in offering the same to your peers.
At the right time and on the right programme, the intense engagement offered by postgraduate education is energising and, as such, can give a new lease of life to your practice.
Academic Study or The Real Experience
Both! The real and unending learning takes place in pursuing your art practice over time and in the face of obstacles and uncertainties. Moreover, a real and enriching learning is offered by academic study – it is a wonderfully selfish opportunity to pursue your interests with the benefit of other people thinking toward your ends.
Training & Workshops
During the course of your undergraduate education you will have been given a sound basis in the skills that are part and parcel of being an artist – from the physical and technical know-how to knowing how to operate as a professional artist within the contemporary art sector. And yet, it probably ought not end there. As indicated above there are various reasons why you might want to enhance or update your technical skills – to become expert in particular techniques that are central to your practice, to extend the range of skills necessary for an inter-disciplinary practice.
Depending on the nature of the skills you are looking to acquire or extend, there are a range of providers and modes of study. FÁS offer a range of excellent courses, ranging from arc welding to web design, with means of delivery from day and evening time courses to on-line courses. The various arts centres and sculpture centres around the country occasionally offer courses, ranging from the practical to professional development.
Most undergraduate programmes include a ‘professional practice’ component, intended to equip students with the knowledge and skills needed to orient themselves in the contemporary arts sector. And yet, the importance of acquiring a thorough understanding of these skills may not hit home until the safety net of college has been left behind. Workshops offering this kind of professional development are available through Visual Artists Ireland and, as mentioned above, may also be available through local art centres.
MA / MFA Programmes
For most people looking to re-engage in a critical way with their practice within an academic context, a taught MA / MFA programme is the most suitable postgraduate programme. The objective of a Masters programme is to support students in developing a practice that is founded on a deep and focused enquiry at the forefront of their discipline. Alongside this, most Masters programmes look to develop their students’ ability to articulate their intentions within the work and its place within contemporary art practice.
The reason that an MA / MFA programme is the appropriate postgraduate programme for most artists is that the process that the students (artists) are being asked to engage in is an extension of what it is to make art. That is, the student is required to come with an art practice and a proposal for a body of work s/he wishes to carry out. S/he carries this out in the context of the programme and is offered an ongoing critique in relation to the processes engaged in and the manifest outcomes of that process. Further, the theoretical framework that s/he is required to engage with tends to involve concepts and discourses that are central to the contemporary art sector.
What is the difference between an MA and an MFA? In the United States of America there is a clear difference between these two awards. The programme of study required for the award of an MFA is twice that required for an MA, and the MFA is currently considered to be a terminal degree, that is, the highest possible qualification in fine art. In the UK and Ireland, however, the difference is not clear-cut. Programmes of equal duration and substance may be called an MA or an MFA.
A Masters qualification is coming to be a basic requirement for lecturing positions in art and design at third level, and a pertinent Masters is desirable for many positions in arts administration.
MPhil Programmes (Masters by Research)
Doing a Masters by Research is still a relatively recent development within art and design. An MPhil in Fine Art (or design) is different to a traditional MPhil research programme in that it involves art-making or design-work, and different to a traditional Masters in Fine Art (or Design) in that the artist engages his or her practice as research. That is, research is carried out through the art practice rather than simply for the art practice. At a crude level, this involves a substantial written thesis (typically, from 20-30 thousand words) to be submitted alongside a body of artwork. What is important is the anticipated relationship between the written words and the artwork that, together, comprise the MPhil submission. This precise nature of this relationship will be determined, in significant measure, by the research question.
Research involves posing a question, selecting an appropriate method of answering or addressing that question, gathering evidence, and relating the evidence to the question so as to draw conclusions.
Within the context of fine art, an MPhil (or PhD) research programme requires that you have a relatively clear research question – a problem to be solved or an idea to be explored. You must know and be able to articulate what it is that you want to investigate. If you are interested in doing an MPhil (or PhD) it is important to invest time in developing your question, and it is advisable that you do this in consultation with your potential supervisors (see below). You want to arrive at an articulation of your research question that is feasible – firstly, that the question can be addressed in a way that is open to inter-subjective examination and judgement, and secondly, that the formulation of the question requires the kind of activity (in terms of art-making and text-based research) that you wish to engage in.
An MPhil (or PhD) research programme also requires that you have a reasonably clear sense of how you will go about addressing your research question. You may not know exactly how your research process will unfold at the outset but you do need to have a strong sense of how you expect to proceed, what you anticipate happening, and how you think this will relate to your research question. Your initial activity – within the studio and within your text-based research – may largely serve to orient and sensitise you to the issues to be addressed, allowing you to modify your research as you go along, but it is important achieve clarity regarding your methods and their relationship to your research question.
As you carry out your research, within the studio and through investigating the thoughts and works of others relating to your enquiry, it is important to document your process thoroughly. This will allow you to keep track of the path your research followed and give an accurate account of it if necessary. Such documentation should include a research log (a form of diary) and a reasonably wide range of visual documentation.
At the end of the research programme, a two-year period for a full-time MPhil, the outcomes of the research are submitted. The precise form of the submission will require careful consideration. Where appropriate (and in most cases) direct access to the artwork should form a part of the examination but it is important that the submission includes good enough documentation that a reader/viewer who does not get to see the artwork at first hand can make sense of the research in the future.
So what of the vexed text? It seems to me that if art practice is to be engaged as research, then there ought to be an integral link between the thought processes in the studio practice and the thought processes in the reflection (the written text). The benefit of this is that if the structure of the interaction between the making and the written component is negotiated on the basis of the particular art-practice, then the words penned alongside the artworks can function as a part of the artwork working. Nonetheless, as I said above, what will determine the appropriate relationship between text and artwork is the research question.
The Role of the Supervisor.
Whether you are enrolled on an MPhil programme or a PhD programme, your supervisor will have a major impact on your experience and on your research. For this reason it is worth spending time identifying potential supervisors (in a range of institutions, ideally) and meeting with them to get a sense of your compatibility and their likely contribution to your research. Certainly, it is advisable to involve your potential supervisor in the development of your research proposal as this will help with refining your research question and will allow you both to judge your ability to achieve a shared understanding of the project and to work together.
In general, time spent on developing your proposal and finding the right supervisor is time well spent! Don’t rush into it; once the clock starts ticking time moves on very quickly and the more you have done before you officially start the better.
The process of doing a PhD is much like that of doing an MPhil, but more is demanded of the outcomes and the duration is 3 years. What is required of PhD research is that it makes an original contribution to knowledge. That is, the research must extend the frontier of knowledge in your field. The information given above in relation to MPhil programmes – from the formulation of the research question to the role of your supervisor – is equally applicable to pursuing a PhD.
If engaging your practice as research is the right thing to do for your practice, then engaging upon an MPhil or a PhD is a very rewarding undertaking. If it is not the right thing to do for your practice then it can be intensely frustrating. At masters level there is a strong alternative – an MA. At doctoral level there is much work yet to be done to determine an appropriate, discipline-specific and equivalent alternative, a DFA. This is an important issue because as more people do creative PhD’s and more art and design institutions get involved in research, having a doctorate will become an important advantage in seeking employment as a lecturer.
Art (or Design) as research is still a new field and, as such, it does not yet have a developed literature regarding appropriate methodologies (the method is the way in which the research is carried out, the actual structure employed by a researcher in carrying out a particular enquiry; methodology is the study of methods, it entails theoretical principles and a framework to guide how research is done in accordance with those principles). It is nonetheless important to engage with the question of methodology and a research programme (at MPhil or PhD level) that offers a taught element in relation to this.
Useful Sources in Relation to Art as Research
-Elkins, James, ‘The Three Configurations of Practice-Based PhDs’, in Printed Project, no. 4 (2005): 7-19.
-Emlyn Jones, Timothy, ‘A Method of Search for Reality’, in Printed Project, no. 4 (2005): 20-34.
-Hannula, Mika, Juha Souranta and Tere Vadèn, Artistic Research – theories, methods and practices, Academy of Fine Arts, Helsinki, Finland and University of Gothenburg/ArtMonitor, Sweden, 2005.
-Hanrahan, Siún, ‘The Fruit of Anxious Intercourse’, in European Journal of Higher Arts Education, no. 1 (2002).
-MacLeod, Katy and Lin Hodridge (eds.), Thinking Through Art: reflections on art as research, Routledge, London, 2006.
-The Journal of Visual Arts Practice (and its predecessor Drawing Fire) has been a significant vehicle for discussing issues relating to art as research since the mid-90s.
-Professional Development Programmes
For those interested in developing their practice through a sustained critical engagement with others, there are very highly regarded organisations offering exciting and internationally recognised programmes that do not lead to an academic award. The Independent Study Programme at the Whitney Museum in New York, for example, involves pursuing your practice (studio, curatorial, critical studies or architecture/urban studies) while engaging in “ongoing discussions and debates that examine the historical, social, and intellectual conditions of artistic production” with fellow students and an impressive Faculty (internationally recognised artists, critics and curators that lead their seminar programme). In a similar vein, the Rijksakademie in The Netherlands offers an annual residency programme hosting 25 artists and offering artistic, technical and theoretical support across the full range of contemporary artistic practices.
On international programmes such as that of the Whitney or the Rijksakademie, the critical experience gained can match that to be gained on an MA programme and, for the most part, will be recognised as such within the art world.
Ireland or Abroad?
All sorts of factors affect the decision as to where to go for postgraduate study. There is a wider range of choice if you go abroad – many more taught programmes to choose from, diverse understandings of how to pursue art as research at MPhil or PhD level, a large postgraduate student body etc. However, the range of options to choose from without leaving the island is getting better.
Considered on an all-island basis, there is a reasonable range of postgraduate programmes to choose from without going abroad. Furthermore, there is funding available from County Councils and many colleges offer a range of scholarships.
Nonetheless, there is a lot to be said for the experience gained through being exposed to new structures and new people. From a financial point of view it can seem easier to stay put but it is worth spending time identifying where you would most like to go, regardless of location, in order to then determine whether it is possible to source funding, either from that college or through international agencies.
In arriving at your decision, take your time and do your homework. Time spent deciding where to go is not time wasted. Having identified the MA programmes that interest you, it is an idea to look around the studios and facilities during the academic year, to see end of programme exhibitions and to talk to lecturers as well as students of the programme. If you are interested in postgraduate research then bear in mind the impact your supervisor will have on your experience. Spend time identifying the experts in your particular field; if a key person in your field works in art and design higher education then s/he may be willing and able to supervise you.
Postgraduate education is a major investment – of time and money – so it is worth investing some effort in getting your decision right.
Postgraduate education can be costly. On an all-island basis, education-grants are available from local authorities – these cover fees and provide a small living allowance. Scholarships are also available from a number of art colleges for postgraduate research.
If you wish to study abroad, then it is worth talking to the institution to which you are considering applying to discover what scholarships they offer, and for suggestions regarding other possible sources of funding.
Another way of keeping costs down is to study part-time. The fees for part-time study are significantly less than for full-time study. Some MA programmes offer a part-time and a full-time pathway. In general, part-time study requires greater discipline and motivation of a student so, if possible, pursue your studies on a full-time basis. This is particularly true for postgraduate research. Research is quite a solitary pursuit and making progress requires sustained concentration. It may be possible to switch between being full-time and part-time so this is worth considering if full-time study is not feasible for the duration – consider a period of full-time study at the start of the programme and again towards the end.
Online education is a growing field with some potential application for art and design. Where there are particular skills to be learned that do not require face-to-face demonstration, this can be a good option – such programmes can allow you to structure your time effectively and on your own terms. There are also plenty of online options for traditional (text-based) postgraduate research. For a studio-based education, on-line programmes are not particularly developed at postgraduate level. If you are investigating an online option (whether studio based or traditional) it is important to explore how student activity is structured so as to support the emergence of a learning community; what does the programme require you to do that will create a context for peer exchange and the learning that comes from negotiating shared understandings. In addition to overcoming isolation, peer discussion is a crucial source of learning.
Dr. Siún Hanrahan
Dr Siún Hanrahan is a writer and artist, and is research coordinator for Art, Design & Printing at Dublin Institute of Technology. She completed her practice-based PhD in 1997 at the University of Ulster and has published in a number of edited anthologies, as well as in journals such as Leonardo (MIT Press), Source, and the Irish Arts Review. Siún is on the editorial panel of Printed Project and is a Director of Photoworks North (publishes Source). She is co-director of DrawingLab, a practice-led research cluster at DIT, and coordinator of a European funded project exploring the use of Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) in Art and Design.