Developing an Interdisciplinary Doctoral School: a Case Study

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My concern would be if we’re going to form a doctoral school, how are people going to be on the same page? And how will departments maintain creative control, but also support work that is innovative?

(Student focus group, 2021)

Dr. Inês Bento-Coelho, January 2022


In 2021, the School of Film, Music & Theatre at University College Cork (UCC) secured funding from the Higher Education Authority to develop an integrated Doctoral School, bringing together doctoral students from the Departments of Film, Music, and Theatre. This research project, entitled Visioning the Future 2: Doctoral Education in the School of Film, Music and Theatre builds on previous research, Visioning the Future: Artistic Doctorates in Ireland, which developed pedagogies for students and staff in artistic research doctoral education and expanded networks in Ireland and beyond (Gilson and Bento-Coelho, 2021; Bento-Coelho and Gilson, 2021). At the end, it was crucial to apply what we learnt and put our own house in order: how can we claim to know or to do doctoral education well, when our doctoral candidates and staff are facing numerous challenges? What is currently working well, and what can we enhance? How can we strengthen our doctoral provision through an integrated Doctoral School? We set out to develop a Doctoral School embedded in the richness of our diversity – of students, of staff, of programmes, of approaches – and operating in the delicate balance between traditional practices and innovative ones, across the three disciplines of Film, Music, and Theatre.

The very own histories of these disciplines, and the distinct relationships they have with artistic practice, proved to be a challenge, not only in relation to the variety of existing approaches, but also, as the student cited at the top of this page points out, to the required plasticity of modes of doing. The challenge was how to introduce supportive structural frameworks that would allow creative freedom in each department and discipline, whilst embracing innovative work and supporting student progress throughout a unified approach. We set out to understand students’ and supervisors’ experiences of doctoral processes, approaches, and protocols through a series of surveys and focus groups. The research led to a set of recommendations which are crucial to the implementation of an integrated Doctoral School.

This case study explores the experiences of staff and students at the School of Film, Music & Theatre (SFMT) through reflective writing. Departing from our experience of doctoral education in the arts, we aim to share the challenges that we encountered with supervisors, PhD coordinators, heads of doctoral schools, and all of those interested in doctoral provision. Doctoral programmes have been developing at distinct rates and in differing contexts, and we hope this reflective piece will afford you an overview of the key issues we faced and support the development of research environments, crucial to enhance doctoral education and to support the artistic researchers of the future. 

Why develop an interdisciplinary Doctoral School?

Even to just be able to connect on the perspectives level because I do think there’s naturally an overlap in between the three [disciplines]. And it does open the possibilities for people to do more collaborative projects, because I feel like there’s a lot of potential for that.

(Student focus group, 2021)

The argument for developing an integrated Doctoral School expands across several dimensions. Firstly, as doctoral education and artistic practice grows in small departments, building a critical mass of students becomes crucial, as it expands ways of thinking beyond one’s own disciplines (Rogers and Bento-Coelho, 2022). Secondly, a cross-disciplinary context opens the potential for collaborations across departments, and brings together ‘different voices, different perspectives, different ideas’ (Student focus group, 2021). At the SFMT, students do not formally meet doctoral researchers in other departments and ‘don’t know how to know them’, which hinders the development of cross-disciplinary collaborations. In the disciplines of Film, Music, and Theatre, there is a natural overlap, which ‘opens the possibilities for people to do more collaborative projects’ (Student focus group, 2021). Thirdly, a Doctoral School has potential for high impact in developing a community across disciplines, by fostering peer-learning situations which enrich the doctoral experience. In Situating Supervision in the Research Environment: Re-situating Supervision in a Peer-Learning Context, Rogers and Bento-Coelho propose that doctoral education in artistic research integrates three strands to support student development: a supervision strand, a peer-learning strand, and an exposition one (2022). Student development takes place as much in a peer-learning context as in a supervisory one: an integrated Doctoral School supports the enhancement of peer learning by providing an umbrella to bring students together through training, events, and sustained support. 

The School is comprised of the Departments of Film, Music, and Theatre; however, as of this writing, this structure does not yet feed down into the day-to-day administrative processes and student experiences of doctoral education behind the scenes:

But the day to day working of that, we feel like three different schools, or I can only say that, [as] Catherine[[1]] was saying ‘I don’t know anybody’. So, the idea of it being a collaborative school or one school has to trickle down into the day-to-day experiences and structures or infrastructures.

(Student focus group, 2021)

An interdisciplinary Doctoral School opens space for conversations across practices and theories (Student focus group, 2021). It also provides access to knowledge in other departments that is not immediately accessible nor visible; as a Film student notes, ‘I always felt like that knowledge [of how to conduct practice-based research] was there in the university for me, but I didn’t really know how to access it, or it wasn’t immediately available’ (Focus group, 2021). As one student describes, ‘It’s not only a matter of crossdisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity but also a matter of sociability’ (Focus group, 2021). An interdisciplinary Doctoral School provides an anchor to support cross-pollination between disciplines, and to develop the critical mass needed to support students, by offering access to people and experts in other departments, the potential to engage with practices and theories of adjacent disciplines, and by expanding the peer community.

Structural challenges encountered

Bringing together three departments with distinct disciplinary outlooks, frameworks of practice, and histories proved to be the biggest challenge. Two areas emerged in which disparate views appeared to open room for a wide range of approaches: the choice of and impact of terminology in pre-PhD and post-PhD stages across disciplines, and the harmonisation of protocols. 

Words carry the histories of a discipline and its beliefs. Within the context of research in the arts, terminology is often associated with a geographical context – for example, artistic research is the term currently used in central Europe and the Nordic countries, whilst the UK is following earlier discussions on practice-led, practice-based, and practice-as research. Terms stick to our tongues, and even when new ones appear, they do not always take hold or completely replace previous ones. In relation to this, geographic locations and spheres of influence have an impact in terms of considering where our students come from and which terms they are familiar with, as well as where they will go once they finish their doctorates, and what currency certain terminology holds in those contexts. In the SFMT, distinct terms are used across fields – creative practice in Film, practice-based research in Music, and artistic research in Theatre – and, even within departments, distinct terms are employed for different degrees. One might argue that language is not so important; however, in a search for unity, in looking towards the future of research, and in positioning a doctoral school within current international discourses and debates on the evolution of artistic disciplines – three disciplines in our case – adopting a terminology is an act of positioning, which imposes a difficult choice between deciding to focus on what we have in common, or to value the diversity that the distinct disciplines bring. 

The staff focus groups discussions registered dissensus regarding which terms to use. A staff member in the Department of Theatre raised the importance of students understanding where one fits ‘in the wider global context’ and of explaining our choices behind doctoral programme names and ‘why we’re framing it as such’ within that context. Another concern raised by a staff member in Music pertains to representation: creating a space where ‘everybody feel(s) like their outputs, their ways of working, the ways that they would supervise is reflected in the word’. A staff member in Film points towards the conventions of the discipline: ‘some students do not see the scholarly aspects of creative practice and film through media’. Thus, we face an impossible dilemma: maintain the elements of flexibility and interdisciplinarity of all three departments or adopt a common term that may not reflect all the discourses of the field?

This discussion is intrinsically connected to ways of working, and modes of thinking and doing across departments, which reflect on the disciplinary differences. Each department has its own strengths that must be preserved, whilst simultaneously operating in dialogue with other fields with widely distinct histories. This is clear in our School: an internationally renowned Film Studies department with a strong tradition of theoretical investigations that has only recently opened to practice-based doctorates; an eclectic Department of Music with a distinguished tradition of being open to practitioners who wish to pursue investigations in music through a range of approaches; and an avant-garde Theatre Department expanding the boundaries of theatrical experimentation in contemporary art practice. Although as a collective we appear to be pulling in different directions, with staff members valuing widely varied approaches to teaching and learning, and with distinct views on the scope of their disciplines – as well as what a doctorate is or should be – there is an overall will to enhance doctoral education, to activate the exciting possibilities of interdisciplinarity, and to take advantage of the rich context we can explore as a School. 

In spite of the clear desire among staff to strengthen and optimise our doctoral environment and practices, persuading three departments to change their established modes of doing presents its challenges. Ultimately, harmonising protocols and policies across departments must serve two purposes: to enhance student experience, and to streamline administration processes, so freeing staff time from administration duties. This is a balanced paradox; as, in enhancing student experience – by providing stronger processes around training and annual reviews, for example – new protocols need to be put in place (such as the supervisory meeting form which is common in several degrees in Europe and the UK); these, in turn, add to staff administration time, and may therefore be met with resistance, as staff is already at capacity. 

Harmonising protocols also requires detective work. At UCC, new policies are regularly developed, protocols change, and staff struggle to keep up with ever-changing ways of working. Each department has its own approaches, perceived differently within the student body. An enormous amount of staff time is spent keeping up with changing regulations, chasing forms and signatures, and even finding out who is meant to sign what. Harmonising and simplifying protocols improves efficiency of processes and frees staff time from administrative burdens. However, policies must be seamlessly integrated within changing university regulations. In this context, higher education institutions or art schools not integrated in university settings who wish to develop a doctoral school may have a simplified task. 

Student Views on the ideal PhD

In thinking through a Doctoral School tailored to the needs of our students, we began by asking them what their vision of the ideal PhD was. Students with positive doctoral experiences talked about what had worked well for them – supportive supervision, funding, and access to research seminars, for example. Several students experienced challenges of some form during their studies, and they immediately talked about what they felt was missing and considered important. In attempting to put together a vision for what the ideal PhD in artistic practice looks like, common trends emerged: participation in a community of peers, access to peer-learning opportunities (and to physical space to develop peer relationships), and dedicated arts-related training. Also discussed were the need for clear administrative doctoral protocols, appropriate funding, and teaching opportunities. These responses reflect the state of the art of the current case study, nonetheless, they highlight the value and importance of community development, a major issue identified in the literature in doctoral education and an experience common to many PhD researchers (Bento-Coelho, 2021; Boud and Lee, 2005; Flores-Scott and Nerad, 2012). 

Doctoral Frameworks

Long discussions took place around the importance of clear PhD structures – at PhD level, in annual progress reviews (APRs), and at administration level. Students noted the need for timely and clear processes for the APRs, for guidelines to help self-structure the degree, and for clear expectations for each year (including a timeline, milestones, and a roadmap). Speaking about a previous MA experience, one student said, 

everybody was different, their studies were different; but it gave an overall cohesion and a mapping, and a roadmap, which obviously you could tweak, per your project itself. There was a cohesion to the steps and there was this piece of paper that you could refer to.

(Student focus groups, 2021)

Students suggested the enhancement of existing protocols, and the provision of clear yearly milestones (sufficiently general to accommodate distinct projects) to include, for example, when to apply for ethics approval, and expectations of progress by the end of each year. This could be achieved through ‘a guideline to help us self-structure the PhD’ to support ‘guiding the self-directedness [of the degree] because nothing exists in a vacuum’ (Student focus groups, 2021). Students recognise that ‘every project is different’, however, there are ‘certain things we can aim for’ (Student focus groups, 2021). A roadmap, one of the recommendations of Visioning the Future 1, is welcomed. Another protocol which should be clear and effective is the annual progress review: it is instrumental in student progress as it enables the identification and timely resolution of potential problems.

The quest for community

Developing a community of peers was the main point raised by doctoral scholars. One student states, 

I’d imagined the PhD would be… I think of a sense of community among students. I had this idea that everyone will be in the department together, swapping ideas, and there’ll be this real… you’d learn from your peers and your colleagues as much as you learn from your research.

(Student focus group, 2021; emphasis added)

Research on peer learning suggests that student learning takes place in a situated practice within the context of the research environment (Boud and Lee, 1999). In doctoral education, the emphasis has been placed on the supervisory relationship, to the detriment of the wider educational context which has much to contribute to student development (Flores-Scott and Nerad, 2012). Boud and Lee’s seminal article on peer learning suggests considering the research environment as a context where multiple communities contribute to student development and to the student’s evolving conception of ‘becoming a peer’ (2005). As the student above notes, this is missing in their experience, echoed by their colleagues: a student community is an integral part of student learning. 

Developing a community of peers is also important to support student mental health, hindered by the lack of a physical space to meet and exchange ideas on a regular basis. One student noted that, ‘if there was somewhere that PhD students could go to meet each other’, such space would provide opportunities to communicate, socialise and discuss, tackling the feeling of being ‘so on your own doing everything all the time’ (Student focus group, 2021). An initial connection event (such as a welcome induction) would support the development of doctoral student communities, as currently, there is no ‘initial connection point to actually set up that base or do it [connect]’ (Student focus group, 2021). Several students mentioned that ‘none of us know how to contact each other’, or even who the others are (Student focus group, 2021). Reflecting on their doctoral experience, a student said, ‘I was very much in need of some level of social interaction both on professional and on informal level, in order for me to really make the most out of the experience’ (Student focus group, 2021). One student noted that opportunities to meet fellow peers are scarce and that the need for connection gets overshadowed by administration and the need to settle in during the initial stages of the degree (Student focus group, 2021). 

Students recognise how peer learning can operate as a catalyst for expanding ways of thinking and doing, through the exchange of ideas with other PhD students. One student noted, ‘I would have liked to have a more consistent group of people that I could come and go and talk to’ (Student focus group, 2021). This research project was their first opportunity to meet a practice-based researcher from another department, and ‘more of that would have been really beneficial’ (Student focus group, 2021). Developing a peer cohort, across departments, and potentially across year groups, can have a positive impact in tackling isolation, building community, expanding ways of thinking, and overall enhancing the doctoral experience and, thus, the quality of doctoral submissions. 

An initial welcome day or induction seminar, followed by regular interaction through a School training module, would facilitate the development of doctoral student communities and foster contexts for both formal and informal peer learning situations to develop, by providing time and space for students to meet and to exchange views. International students also raised the importance of providing support for those coming from distinct educational contexts, as they struggle to adapt to a different educational system. This kind of support can be accommodated as part of the induction, offering an overview of what to expect from doctoral education in the country of study.

Enhancing support for career development

You know, its music, right? There are no jobs, it’s art, there are no jobs, there’s no jobs that ‘no jobs, no jobs, no jobs’, is the thing I’ve been hearing for 10 years since I started a masters. (…) So I want to just say that first: we don’t ask that question.

(Student focus group, 2021)

When asked what kinds of career training would support PhD researchers, this student’s immediate response was to remark that ‘we don’t ask that question’. The job market in academia has changed drastically over the last few decades, but the question of whether doctoral programmes have accompanied that change with appropriate career training remains to be asked. Most students who participated in the focus groups manifested their interest in pursuing an academic career, however, in this case study, whilst a few students mentioned receiving excellent support from their supervisors in terms of career planning, career training geared towards the arts landscape, both within and outside academia, would be helpful. Access to teaching experience and opportunities during the degree was deemed as essential, with one student stating, 

I think the teaching experience [is] essential. I don’t think it’s ethical to send people off into the world who have not been in a classroom before. I don’t think you can do that. You wouldn’t send a fireman out in the world without ever having put out a fire.

(Student focus group, 2021)

There is an expectation that a doctoral degree will lead to a career in academia, as it has been the case in the past. In the current job market, this will not be the case for the vast majority of candidates. Students need more awareness of potential careers outside academia and how their skills can be transferable to many other contexts. Further, if they are to compete in the academic job market, teaching experience is increasingly essential, and doctoral programmes should offer that as part of their doctoral training. It is in this context that institutions must adapt and respond to the evolving contextual landscape, particularly, in relation to careers. Whilst previously career training was not necessarily part of PhD programmes, the current market evidences a need for further support in this area. 

Moving Forward

This research project has given us a detailed understanding of the main challenges doctoral students and staff tackle in our School: we have a great opportunity to develop tailored policies in response to student and staff views and experiences. The main outcome of this research project – a series of Recommendations for the development and implementation of an innovative Doctoral School – includes proposals to enhance research training, community development, peer learning, doctoral protocols, and career training. This is our next step: enhancing third cycle education in line with current European policies in doctoral education, such as the Vienna Declaration on Artistic Research (2020) and the Florence Principles (2016). 

Developing a Doctoral School is an act of care for the students who will benefit from it, as well as for the staff, who will have more time for research, teaching and supporting students, spending less time in administration and in resolving uncertainty. It is also a step towards developing a stronger and more sustainable research environment, supporting students and enhancing the potential of successful funding bids, working towards expanding student career development. 

In bringing the three departments together, an opportunity arises for critical and meaningful discussions around the scope of our disciplines, what it is that unites us, and where we see differently. It opens a space to understand who we are, what kinds of candidates we want to work with, and how we can best support them in developing their own research identities. It also offers us a space from which to explore disciplinary intersections within the School and to develop our positioning in terms of research culture and themes. Sound was a theme that kept recurring as an integral element across departments; embodied practices were also discussed, and certainly many other connection points will continue to emerge. From here, as a Doctoral School, we will be in a stronger position to develop our Research Centre, one which is embedded in the practices and theories that we value, and which serves the context of our research environment. 

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Bento-Coelho, I. (2021) Survey Analysis: European Practices in Artistic Research Doctorates. In J. Boomgaard and J. Butler (eds.) The Creator Constellation, Exploring a new model for a doctorate in the arts. Amsterdam: Gerrit Rietveld Academie, EQ-Arts, pp. 183–193. Available at:<> [Accessed: 16 Dec 2021].

Bento-Coelho, I. and Gilson, J. (2021) Artistic Doctorate Resources. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 10 March 2021].

Boud, D. and Lee, A. (2005) ‘Peer learning’ as pedagogic discourse for research education. Studies in Higher Education, 30(5), pp. 501–516, DOI: 10.1080/03075070500249138.

European League of Institutes of the Arts (2020) The Vienna Declaration on Artistic Research. Amsterdam, Dublin, Gothenburg: ELIA, European League of Institutes of the Arts. 

European League of Institutes of the Arts (2016) The Florence Principles on the Doctorate in the Arts. Amsterdam, Dublin, Gothenburg: ELIA, European League of Institutes of the Arts.

Flores‐Scott, E. M. and Nerad, M. (2012), Peers in doctoral education: Unrecognized learning partners. New Directions for Higher Education, 157, pp. 73–83.

Gilson, J. and Bento-Coelho, I. (2020) Visioning the Future: Artistic Doctorates in Ireland. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 10 March 2021].

Rogers, H., and Bento-Coelho, I. (2022) Situating Supervision in the Research Environment: Re-situating Supervision in a Peer-Learning Context. Advancing Supervision for Artistic Research Doctorates, Erasmus+ Project. [online] Available at: < /situating-supervision/> [Accessed: 8 Jan 2022].

[1] Names changed for anonymity. 

This work by Inês Bento-Coelho is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC 4.0).