Why are PhDs so Difficult for Arts Students?

I consider myself an arts student. I am an arty photographer, and hold degrees (BA and MA) in Literature. I have recently finished a PhD on ‘discovery writing’ within an education department. I enjoyed my BA and MA experiences, perhaps because I was allowed a lot of latitude in how I tackled them, what I chose to write about, etc, etc. But my PhD, which I wanted to enjoy, was frequently a frustrating process. My PhD was difficult, which it no doubt should have been. But I also felt that the whole structure of a PhD (its generic constraints, its traditions, its values?!) were working against me. I felt at ‘home’ with my BA and MA experiences in arts and humanities departments, feeling as though I could embrace different ways of thinking, tackling and aligning different spheres: history, philosophy, writing, human experience, etc etc. Philosophy, in many ways, was at stake in my BA and MA writing, which was great because I was free to challenge anything and everything. But for my PhD in Education, I felt that I was being obliged to put philosophy to one side, and that I should embrace a more ‘scientific’ method. I found this extremely frustrating, even counterproductive. It wasted my time, diluted my energy, tainted my soul, messed with my chi.

I’ll try to explain….

Throughout my PhD, I was confronted with science based values. Words such as ‘rigour’ were impressed upon me. I was advised that my method could be more rigourous. The SOED definition of rigour is:

2. The strict application or enforcement of a law, rule, etc. LME.


I would rather that I had been asked to make my work ‘good’ or ‘better’, since this is more neutral. ‘Rigour’ is a word that chafes on me. Stiffness! Rigor mortis!

I was told that I needed to set out research questions. This wasn’t suggested as advice or by way of a helpful heuristic. NO! I was told that a PhD required research questions set out in advance. I wondered if people were kidding me. They weren’t. They were essentially saying THIS IS WHAT A PHD IS, and thus, THIS IS WHAT YOU MUST DO.


(The supreme irony is that my PhD was about the different ways in which writers can approach writing. The different strategies and philosophies that people bring to writing!  I was theorizing the same institutionalized values that I was myself being subjected to.)

People were not kidding me. Not for a moment! I shouldn’t have even questioned if they were kidding me. They were being serious. It was a serious business. We were going to handle this professionally, as professionals. As an arts student, this sense of the importance of structure was completely new and alien to me. I felt like I was being told how to think. I didn’t feel like I had much choice in the matter. The sense of seriousness was also massively at odds with how I work. I like to think! Thinking can be serious and relaxed at the same time. I feel that the best thinking is playful.

And they had a structure all set out for me, with suggested word counts for each section. It was detailed. It went like this:

  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Methodology
  • Findings/Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion

Most of the ‘how to… PhD’ books tell the same story. It’s a science format. It’s PhD protocol, as far as I can see. Very prescriptive! Very programmatic! Absolutely normative! Not very artsy! As an arts student, my usual approach is to find a structure in which to approach a particular topic. The topic, in an important sense, gives rise to my approach. So I don’t like to have a set approach. I like to find things out as I go. This approach has really helped me in photography and in essay writing. It’s the way I like to work. It’s fluid and flexible – fitting an approach to whatever I’m working on.

A PhD, so it goes, should follow a set structure. The structure comes from science, and is a lot like how I came across science in secondary school, when Mr Turnball, my science teacher, told us that we would always approach scientific experiments in the same way, something like this:

  • Hypothesis
  • Method
  • Results
  • Conclusion

Noooooo! Please no?! That’s no fun! It’s really not. When I was 11 years old, I naively assumed that science was going to be interesting. Mr Turnball soon broke that illusion by setting out his all pervasive structure. We had to draw a meniscus in a set way. We had set ways to draw liquids in beakers too. We had ways to draw beakers, test tubes, bunsen burners, and all the other myriad paraphernalia of the science class. If you got any of this wrong, Mr Turnball would let you know when he marked your work. Thinking wasn’t a part of it. Mr Turnball knew how our scientific ‘experiments’ would turn out! We were, so it goes, going to find out at what temperature water boiled. No shit! In my eyes, science was first and foremost about conformity to a method, a set way of doing things and presenting things. Perhaps invention and ingenuity were supposed to follow later, a lot later. A lot lot later, once you had mastered EVERYTHING; once you had been fully inducted into the program; once they had stripped you of any sense of individuality, any sense of what might be a fun thing to do.

So the PhD structure (you MUST begin with a hypothesis, with research questions) was beginning to push all the wrong buttons for me. It was, in the worst sense, taking me back to science classes in school.

I much prefer to delve in, play, find my own way to approach something. If someone wants to make suggestions or offer alternatives, well that’s great. But to tell someone how to work, to tell them how to think, that’s just wrong. Perhaps some people like to be told what to do. But for anything that matters, anything that requires devotion, creativity, serious thinking, I have to own my work. My work has to belong to me in a personal sense. I like to create my own structure.

(As an aside, University of Exeter, where I got my PhD, also does not allow use of contractions in PhD writing. I like contractions. I like their informality. Having to edit out the contractions was prescriptive too, and something I resent. I don’t understand why they made me do it. Well, I do understand – they thought it represented formality and clarity, and they valued those things. I just don’t agree with their philosophy.)

Importantly, I am not trying to argue that science or scientific method is necessarily a bad thing. I am arguing that if scientific methods and formulas are applied rigidly – such as asserting that a PhD must begin with research questions or hypotheses – then this can be too prescriptive. For me, this prescriptive formula was mind crippling, because it represented a system that was telling me how to think. It represented an authority that would try to constrain my thinking to a certain pattern, a shape. I do not think in terms of research questions or hypotheses.

A word used to describe the thinking and theorizing process of my PhD was ‘analysis’, which, like the term ‘rigour’, seemed to cut it dead somehow. ‘Analysis’ has the word ‘anal’ in it, for starters. Anal-ysis. Oh no!  And my interview transcripts (I had interviewed fiction writers) were referred to as ‘data’. So I had these gorgeous interview transcripts, that each, in my mind, presented individual stories and experiences, and yet I was being asked to treat them as ‘data’ to be ‘analysed’. Ouch! No! And I was advised that I could analyse my data via computer coding software: NVivo9. And that’s kind of like saying that ‘processing’ the interviews is more valuable than ‘thinking’ about them, because the computer will do a lot of the work for you. I wanted to think about my interview transcripts!

So where am I going with this?

I think my point is that PhDs should NOT have to take science as their paradigm. I feel like I wasted a lot of important energy during my PhD by having to fight against a scientific paradigm that my university was pushing. I was fighting a rearguard action when I shouldn’t have had to. I don’t mean to blame academic advisors at the university here, because I think that they were just trying to interpret what they felt were a prescribed set of rules and values, that in their eyes, were ‘rigourous’, were PhD. Like the ‘how to … PhD’ texts, they were trying to prepare me for the external examiners, and for the ‘genre’ constraints of a PhD. So I am blaming ‘the rules’, as it were. I am blaming the commonly held assumption that the scientific paradigm should hold sway for PhDs – that, for example, research should begin with hypotheses.

If I go any further as an academic, I think it be in the area of battling against scientific paradigms in academia. A lot of good theory is out there, from Polanyi, Biesta, Richard Rorty, and just many many other key thinkers of the Twentieth Century. A lot of creativity theory promotes a sense that playing is an important learning process.

In fact, I really shouldn’t be having to write this. This should all have been done and dusted in the 1960s. Seriously! After the beautiful freedoms of my BA and MA (I studied 1960s American writing, such as New Journalism), I’m just amazed that I should be having to contend with a contemporary world that’s putting science in the place of philosophy and creativity. But there it is! Fuck!

And as I write this, I think to myself that I am relying on University of Exeter for references, so I feel like I shouldn’t be writing from the truth of my experiences here. And it is so wrong that I should be worried about telling it as I see it. Education should be about integrity and honesty. And yet it so often is not. It seems to be about conformity and careerism. Universities have league tables, or do they call them ‘student satisfaction surveys’. Whatever! The point is that there is not a climate to criticise the system. We can blame capitalism for this. Everyone trying to promote stuff! It’s easier to speak up for things that to criticise things. Easier to be positive than negative.

I should add that this post is a personal response to my PhD experience. The ‘field’ I was working in (if it can be called a field), is writing process theory, which seems to be dominated by science based theory. I felt that I produced some good work, but I don’t think it will be valued very much by the ‘field’ because it doesn’t link very strongly to the science. So I kind of had science coming at me from all angles, and I didn’t appreciate it.


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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