Preparing a PhD Proposal in Fine Art

Guillem Ramos-Poquí BA Hons MA(RCA) PhD (Fine Art)  © 1995

1. Introduction

Having completed a PhD, and being Head of Fine Art at Kensington and Chelsea College, directing a course for post-graduate students, I am often asked for advice by staff, or students, on how to apply to a PhD in Fine Art in a UK Art College or University. I also often get enquiries through the Internet about this matter. This is the reason for this short introduction, which I hope may be of use to those who are thinking of embarking on this type of research degree qualification.

Fine Art MPhil's and PhDs in Fine Art fall within the research guidelines of universities which have set the academic requirements in order to offer these advanced levels of study. When this is the case, each university has a cross faculty Research Policy that sets the requirements for research. Often Institutions, which are not universities, may offer these levels provided they have made arrangements with a recognized university acting as supervisor for academic standards and the final awarding body. PhD means Doctor in Philosophy, but the degree qualifications for this level give the appropriate subject: Doctor in Medicine, Doctor in Fine Art, etc.

It is a basic requirement in the UK (prior to embarking on a Ph.D.) for the student to have a British first or second honours degree or the equivalent in other educational systems, prior to application, or preferably a sound MA. There is also PhD applications via MPhil.  An MPhil are a research MA often intended to be followed by a PhD from the start.  It involves a thorough grounding in “research skills”, a programme of related studies for the attainment of competence in research methods related to the subject of the proposed thesis. A sound MA is a two-year study programme which requires high level critical research (a substantial thesis) to accompany any practical work.

To safeguard academic standards, it is a necessary requirement that PhD's are supervised by staff who themselves have a Ph.D. It is problematic otherwise. More over, it is also essential; that the “supervisor” has a PhD in an area closely related to the student's research - it would not make any sense otherwise. In colleges where studio disciplines are short of doctorate expertise they often appoint an experienced member of staff, who does not have a PhD, as Supervisor (mainly for the practice) and an external Co-Supervisor (with a PhD qualification) who is an expert in the field (normally to supervise the theory, or thesis). This, I feel, is not entirely satisfactory, since yet again it may create a split between practice and theory, when both these aspects should in fact be deeply interrelated to sustain the research as a whole. The titles of “Professor”, “Honorary Doctor”, or “Royal Academician” by themselves (however important and indicative of a high professional status) are honorary titles and not degree qualifications.

2. How to prepare for a Ph.D. Fine Art application

If you have finished a BAHons in Fine Art (with a first or upper second grade) and you would like to consider a postgraduate course of study leading to PhD, then this is the right time to prepare your application not for an MA but for MPhil.

Find out which universities or Colleges offer the possibility of doing an MPhil instead of a regular MA. The MPhil option is like an MA but with a more focused research project in both Practice and Theory. For MPhil your thesis will need to be more substantial, and directly related to the issues which concern your work.

If you have completed an MA which only lasted a year (consisting of two semesters) and did not involve a thesis, or where the thesis was a “poetical” or extravagant literary exercise without a critical theoretical approach in Art and Philosophy then this will not be acceptable on the road leading to a PhD application. You may need to do another MA in "Critical Fine Art Theory", or do some certificated courses in Philosophy which grant the necessary credits for research.

A good part time post graduate certificated course which could provide you with a background knowledge is the unit on “Fine Art Research: Contemporary Issues in Fine Art”, which I use to direct with David Rodway at Kensington and Chelsea College, were I was Head of Fine Art . This was attended by a large number of BAHons and MA graduates each year. Since David and I left the College, this unit is no longer available

Find out what the PhD application requirements are for various Colleges / Universities accepting  PhD  Fine Art applications. Compare the options.  If you have an MA some colleges will ask you to do research credits before you embark on your thesis. They will certainly want to know the details of your MA thesis, look at your work and examine your proposal in great detail. If they think that your proposal is interesting they will then examine whether they can find a suitable supervisor to guide you. You may wish to suggest a co-supervisor (a properly qualified PhD person), that you have already found, who is willing to support your research. Whether the College will accept this supervisor or not is a different matter, this ultimately has to do with the College's internal politics and policies. If your College supervisor is an expert but does not have a Ph.D. qualification (preferably recent), expect little advice from that person on how to write a Ph.D. thesis, and you will waste a lot of precious time and resources. The input of an external PhD qualified co-supervisor will be essential. When writing the thesis your supervisor will give you tutorials and these will include editorial sessions and progress meetings, so your progress is recorded term by term.

Your proposal must be fully documented and presented in a professional way. To write a good proposal takes about a year of personal research.  During this period you should collect relevant bibliography and make contacts with experts. The proposal comprises the title and a detailed synopsis (about 500 words) of the proposed program of research and your methods of investigation, list of source materials and bibliography already consulted and bibliography to be consulted, evidence of your ability to carry out research. Finally your c.v. with a list of any research experience, publications, exhibitions of work, and the names of two academic/ staff references who will support your application.

A proposal should make a direct link between your own practice as an artist and its conceptual social and cultural context. A good proposal should be innovative and you should find out whether other PhD's have already been done in the field that you are proposing to investigate. This is not an easy task, and will require you to look in the archives of several universities to see if similar thesis have already been written on the subject that you are proposing. Remember that you will need to argue that your research is truly original, and is of vital importance in the academic world.  Consider whether there are some issues that concern your own work as an artist and are significant enough in a socio-cultural context to qualify for high level research.  You could then compare your own approach as an artist to that of other artists, and relate both to the ideas of thinkers and philosophers. Collect bibliography and make contact with properly qualified experts who may offer you suggestions. Experts in your field with a PhD qualification may not be that easy to find, some may need to be contacted abroad. You may approach an expert on an informal basis without pay, or may be required to cover the cost of a private tutorial – unless, of course, you have already planned this beforehand and have received this advice whilst you did your MA?.

You will need to have a personal computer and be fluent in word processing skills so you can cut and paste and edit text as you go along. Expert “proof reading” is essential. It is a very demanding and lengthy task which at that level of study is not the job that you can expect the supervisor to do for you. Your supervisor will help you with editorial sessions and will correct use of concepts and technical terms, but not with the spelling, grammar and punctuation.

You need to buy a booklet (e.g. there is one by Umberto Eco) which tells you how to present a PhD thesis. The booklet will tell you about margins, headings and sub headings, the way to present bibliography and quotations etc. Keep to these guidelines from the start, and this includes your proposal. Universities have their own guidelines for academic standards regarding presentations and they will advise you on their requirements. Get those before you even start writing your proposal. It would be a good idea to have a look at some of the recent PhD's thesis in Fine Art approved by the university you are thinking of applying for. These are normally kept in the library.

The university will inform you on things such as the number of words which are the minimum requirement, and whether you need to present the work in single double spacing, single or double sided, the page margins, whether the reproductions are all at the back, or interspersed or whether you will be able to present actual works, whether all copies will need to be bookbinded, who is going to judge the final thesis, how many copies of the thesis you will need to presented (and to whom), how long the oral (or “viva voce”) examination will last (normally up to three hours), who will be on the panel, how you can get an extension if the thesis is not ready on time, etc. You may think that these things are not important at this point, but they become incredibly important later on, especially when you are near completion.
In some universities, particularly in the Continent (e.g. Spain), a PhD “viva voce” examination session is open to the public and may last up to three hours, it is a solemn occasion when the candidate faces the Examination Board of five doctors, delivers a defense of his/her thesis in front of a panel of doctors and responds to their questions. The supervisor attends only as an observer. The public is not permitted to ask questions, unless they have a doctorate. Some of these doctors are from the University itself, others from other universities and the elder acts as Chair. In some universities the submissions for PhD's VIVA's date and time for these occasions are advertised on the notice boards - it will be a great help if you could attend several of these sessions as observer. In the UK the minimum composition of an Examination Board may consist of a Chairman and two external examiners. At least one of the external examiners should hold a doctoral qualification. Your supervisor can not be a member of the Board, or the Chair, but attends only as an observer. But in some universities the event may happen within closed doors, involving only the candidate, the external examiner and the supervisor, not so good in my opinion, from the point of view of transparent academic standards.

Your proposal must have a Title and Subtitle. Once your PhD thesis is registered in the university you will be able to change the subtitle, but not the title, the title is fixed once agreed and cannot be changed.

The majority of PhD supervisors are very wary and cautious before accepting candidates. Supervising a Ph.D. thesis involves a phenomenal amount of work and responsibility; it is a labour of love. A supervisor will want to know whether you are independent, enthusiastic, have critical skills, have an inquiring mind with a liking for experiment, critical reflection, academic rigor, capable of doing self-directed research, a sound theoretical background knowledge, whether you are a committed artist, and whether you have the resources to undertake this arduous task.  Or if, by the contrary, you are going to become nothing but a burden on his/ her shoulders. In addition, they will not normally be keen on supervising your research unless they have personal interest in your proposal, that is to say, they are personally convinced that you have something significant and innovative to offer and they feel they can help you. Because, ultimately, the supervisor will take full responsibility for the research project to be completed successfully, and if it is not, his or her reputation in front of his/her colleagues will be at stake and this will also have an effect on the College's standing and funding.

An MPhil full-time takes 21 to 36 months and a PhD full time 24 to 60 months. Full-time notional hours for research means 35 h per week. An MPhil part-time 33-48 months and a PhD part time 45 to 60 months.  Part-time notional hours for research means 12 hours per week. Because the research is self-directed it is normally the responsibility of the student to maintain regular contact with his /her supervisor. A PhD may take three years or more. Some people extend it up to five years. In some colleges you are required to be no less than an average of six weeks per year at the college site. In some cases PhD students are offered part time teaching at the College.

MPhil and PhD fees vary from College to College, starting at around £2.640 for full-time and £1.320 for part time home students. Unfortunately in the UK (unlike Scotland) there are no grants for doing a Ph.D. Some universities have thier own Research Programs lasting two or three years or more. Students applying normally obtain a studentship or research grant. The research is university lead, and not student lead.  In many cases at the end of the research the student is awarded a Ph.D. Advertisements for research fellowships appear weekly in the national press - e.g. the education pages of the Time Higher Education on Fridays or the Guardian on Tuesdays. There are also post-doctoral research posts in these advertisements.

3. Planning the PhD Thesis

You will need to decide on the structure of your thesis: the Introduction, the length and number of chapters and the Conclusion. The Introduction is written at the very end, when the thesis is finished, and it explain the research methodology adopted, the parameters of the thesis, the title and subtitle, the chapters, and what one intends to achieve.

The required length of a PhD thesis sometimes varies from College to College, it may be between 30.000 to 40.000 words, up to a maximum of 80.000 if the PhD is by thesis alone. The text is accompanied by a summary and bibliography. However, if the research consists of a thesis and a body of original practical artwork, the length of the text could be between 25.000 and 40.000 words.

The chapters can be of equal length, or with one long chapter holding the main body of the argument. For a 60000 to 80000 word thesis you will have to watch the extension of each chapter and the overall flow in the arguments. Distinguish what part of the text is body and what should be included as footnotes. Footnotes can be placed at the bottom of each page, but if these are too long they can be placed at the end of the chapter.

The Conclusion, also written at the very end (just before writing the introduction), should be short and to the point. It is here that you show the focused of your research and your findings. If your research is not sufficiently focus from the start, then writing a convincing conclusion will be difficult and problematic. You may have to revise or shorten some chapters.

Finally comes the bibliography and the reproductions. These can be at the end of each chapter. Or specific bibliography at the end of each chapter and a general bibliography at the end of the thesis.

4. A final word

In my opinion MPhil's and PhD's in Fine Art should be 50% practical and 50% theoretical.  And the practical and theoretical should be deeply interrelated.  Although any research at this level should be essentially focused (e.g. on significant issues relevant to our culture and society today), it should also be approached in a broad contextual framework of critical - theoretical debate. That is to say, an interdisciplinary approach which, far from being a narrow approach on post-structuralist philosophical, aesthetic or psychoanalytical thinking, examines the framework of paradigms which links Fine Art and Philosophy in the context of a well informed critical perspective. This means an understanding of the role and value of art and creativity, which links Fine Art with other fields of knowledge: the different branches of Philosophy (not just Aesthetics but Epistemology, Ethics, Axiology and Hermeneutics) and the Social Sciences  (e.g. Sociology, Psychology, Anthropology, and Politics). This type of research implies an understanding of issues concerning Fine Art at meta-theoretical and iconological levels ("weltanschauung" - worldview / ideology inherent in art works).

Interdisciplinary Model in Fine Art Education/Research

© Guillem Ramos-Poquí 1995


by  Guillem Ramos-Poquí and David Rodway © 1995

Stage 1: In relation to the socio-cultural context/setting,  identify the main issues and interests in your work as an artist, and the different “angles” that you wish to take on each issue - e.g. you may say that your main concern is with  ideas about gender and identity, or ecology and feminism,  or conceptual themes in philosophy, or the formal aspects of painting or sculpture, etc. etc.  This stage of your study takes the form primarily of a phenomenological” exercise. In other words, it is concerned with laying out, itemising , describing, your ideas and interests, and your views about their relation to the wider issues of society and culture.

Stage 2: Identify and research the theoreticians, philosophers, thinkers, critics, who have written about the issues that concern you.

Stage 3: Identify artists, working in any media (painting, 3-D, film, literature, etc.) who deal or have dealt with these issues and make a comparative study between their approaches and yours.

Stage 4: Identify and examine the various theories in the Philosophy of Art  concerning the role, value and judgement of art. Ascertain what they say about the relation between form and content, form and function, art and society, etc. See, too, what beliefs about, or definitions and models of, perception, reality, human nature, freedom, creativity and flourishing, these various theories, or philosophies, involve; make a study of the range of “fallacies” in art criticism, showing examples of each in past and recent writing. Ask yourself where your own views fit with these and what you see as the  important, significant, intellectual issues confronting the artist today; also what contribution you feel the artist can make to culture and society now.

Stage 5: You are now ready to take further the methodological approach of your research. This means examining your practice and theory at a “meta-theoretical” level - i. e.  identifying the underlying ideology/”world view” (“Weltanschauung”) behind your art theory-practice, and the hermeneutic and semiotic ideas used in art & design, and communications media for the encoding and decoding of meaning . Ask yourself questions such as: Can Art be a source of knowledge/insights about the world? . What do we mean by reflexivity in art, philosophy, and science?; what are the differences and similarities between the natural and social sciences ?  What is the relationship of: body/mind;  nature/culture;  observed/ observer; facts/values; means/ends; part/whole,  etc.?  Examine the value-systems and ideological positions that different approaches to art and the study of society and culture entail.

Stage 6:  Stages 4 and 5 , in particular, will call for an  inter-disciplinary approach to your research, spanning the fields of art history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, cultural and media studies, and paying particular attention to ideas and insights in the study of perception, creativity, communication, language and ideology.
To complete the unit, you will be required to make a critical assessment of your views, issues, and stand point  as an artist, embodied in your practical work or project, which has provided the platform, and springboard, for your research.  This will involve the two levels of theoretical analysis, cited in stages 4 and 5 .

Guillem Ramos-Poquí and David Rodway © 1995


by Guillem Ramos-Poquí and David Rodway © 1995

A “meta-theory” (or 2nd order theory) is the theory that grounds or underlies 1st order theories about the world (e.g. theories in sociology, theories in psychology, theories in art, etc.). In other words, meta-theories are the underlying framework or model of the world in which 1st order theories are embedded, or the theory that goes beyond 1st order practical or empirical theories.

In philosophy, the field of metaphysics is concerned with examining and postulating different meta-theories or world views. In examining theories meta-theoretically, there can be an “infinite regress”; that is, each theory or question  begs another, which requires you to evaluate the criteria or theory for evaluating these theories, and so on.  This will lead to a situation where certain premises or basic beliefs will need to be accepted as a starting point for  theoretical thinking .

The “Cartesian” view  is that metaphysical systems cannot be evaluated or judged, that is to say, ranked against one another; it believes that conceptual analysis and reason can be applied to such systems, but  that one cannot be favoured over another. This view is challenged by the movement in philosophy called “pragmatism” (not to be confused with the ordinary usage of the term pragmatism), particularly by philosophers like John Dewey. He believed that we need to examine metaphysical systems on the basis of “consequences and effects” in life (the effects and consequences of holding certain beliefs rather than others).

Philosophical pragmatism champions an alternative view to Cartesianism: it makes possible an intersubjective framework for understanding, one based on recognition of  shared aspects of human nature and “human ends” e.g. : that we do not want an environmental collapse and ecological breakdown, that we are able to develop our creative and cognitive capacities because, as humans we have consciousness and the faculty of reason which enables us to shape our development.  Dewey is part of a developing tradition opposed to “scientism”,  absolutism, and the anarchy and high-relativism which comes from the Cartesian world view.

Metaphysical views involve such questions as the relationship of mind-body,  culture-nature, and whether the world is to be understood reductively or atomistically, in a “bottom up” or else holistic “top-down” manner; or alternatively, according to the “ecological-wholistic” model or paradigm, which holds that there is an indissoluble interdependence of part-and-whole, bottom-up-and-top-down  in our picture of the world  i.e.  it is “wholistic”.

“Reflexivity” is another word for self-reference. It is the idea that the observer is always a part of whatever is being observed (note the hermeneutic circle of perception). The hermeneutic tradition of critical philosophy  recognise, (contrary to the Cartesian  tradition) the anti-realist point  in epistemology : that all perception, reasoning, selection and judgement in art, ethics, politics and science, is a circular process or construction: “we bring what we see”. In other words: how we interpret information, visual data,  the world, depends on the beliefs or theories, assumptions, interests, values, education, culture, and world view (conscious or otherwise) we bring with us. Reflexivity is thinking about thinking and the agent, context, doing the thinking. It involves questioning critically the assumptions and implications of your ideas and theories . For instance, does the meaning, quality, “truth”,  of a work of art speak for itself,  irrespective of the viewer? Is all meaning indeterminate (i.e. anything goes)? . This reflexive approach  makes theoretical enquiry essential for a truly  critical practice, not just in philosophy but art too. The alternative is to be led by our unconscious, unexamined assumptions, beliefs, world view (“weltanschauung”) and by the vagaries of mere fashion.

The meta-theoretical level of research will lead the artist, for instance, to examine his/her assumptions in the context of a wider spectrum, rather than being entrenched and trapped in a particular tradition. In the case of  e.g. formalism, research undertaken at a deeper level will entail comparing this theory of art to other theories . This will show that  formalism is a tradition amongst many and, by comparing its assumptions and ideas about e.g. perception, creativity, with the assumptions of other theories of art, the researcher will be able to “step-back” and evaluate critically the merits of his/her own position. Although we are unable to step outside our culture, we have the possibility of understanding its structures and using our critical faculties or reasoning and observation to examine its limitations or shortcomings. In a way we do this when we examine the assumptions and beliefs of our culture in other centuries, and are often amazed to discover how people were entrenched in particular ideas and beliefs.

A useful tactic in your research, rather than talking directly about your own beliefs, is to establish first the ideas in the philosophy of art that you are sympathetic with, explaining the reasons. Then go onto those that you find less coherent and acceptable, again  giving reasons. Finaly, reflect in an evaluative manner, once more, about the ideas or theories that you favour, pointing out the possible limitations or misgivings, comparing different viewpoints and elucidating your arguments through quotations and references from the relevant texts. You should then be in a position to comprehend and clarify more critically your own views and statements in relation to your practice. Only then come to some conclusions. Remember, contrary to absolutism, such conclusions (though the best one may make in the light of present evidence, reason, and theory) can only be provisional, and may, at a later date, need to be modified, amended, and expanded in answer to new experience, evidence, and reasoning - just as for instance Einstein's theory of relativity corrected shortcomings in Newton's cosmological model.

Guillem Ramos-Poquí and David Rodway © 1995


- See chapters 10 and 3 on the Philosophy of Art and on Empiricism, in Donald Palmer: Does the Centre Hold?.  Myfield 1991/96
- See Introduction (pp. 2-8) and chapter 6 on Art (pp.121-132)  in N. Warburton: Philosophy. The Basics. Routledge, 1992/95
- See Ch 6 (The Problem of Knowledge) in J. Teichman & K Evans “Philosophy : a Beginners Guide”, Blackwell 1995
- See Introduction (note pp 8,9,10,12) in Norman Bryson  et al. eds. Painting and Interpretation. Polity Press, 1991
- See JAY, Martin  Downcast Eyes. The Denigration of Vison  in  XXc French Thought . Univ. of California Press. 1993
- See chapter on metaphysics by Simon Blackburn in: The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy, 1996
- See Introduction in Tom Campbell : Seven Theories of Human Society , Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1981
- See Alexander Rosenberg pages 97-107 in:  Philosophy of the Social Sciences
- See section on hermeneutics in J. Harris: Against Relativism. Open Court Publ.  La Salle, Illinois, 1992
- See Ch. 6 (on Descartes and Liberal Individualism) in L.A. Arnhart: Political Philosophy from Plato to Rawls. Macmillan, 1989
- See Ch 1 (Introduction) in Andrew Heywood:. Political Ideologies- an Introduction.  Macmillan, 1992
- See chapter 1 in Raymond Plant Modern Political Thought,  Blackwell, 1991


ANGELES, Peter A.1981 Dictionary of Philosophy.Barnes&Noble Books,N.Y.Row Publ. London, 1981
COOPER, David, Editor 1992  A Companion to Aesthetics. Backwell Publishers Ltd., 1992
FOWLER,Roger, Ed.1987   A Dictionary of  Modern Critical Terms. Routledge, 1987
SLATTERY, Martin1991 Key Ideas in sociology.  Macmillan. (Note  sections on The Frankfurt Sch., Habermas, Mannheim)
SPEAKE, Jennifer, Ed.1984 A Dictionary of Philosophy. Pan Books, 1984

Guillem Ramos-Poquí and David Rodway © 1995

Guillem Ramos-Poquí



Creative Strategies and the Counter-Culture of the 90's

Philosophy Chart
Philosophy Chart: The Ecological Wholistic Paradigm in Art and Philosphy

Guillem Ramos-Poquí  LINKS
Recent Paintings
Links to personal research fields:
Contemporary Art Practice & Theory (PhD)
Photomontage (Digital)
Collage / Assemblage