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Artist-researchers on the Margins: Communities of Practice Beyond the PhD

DOI: | Issue 9 | Oct 2022

Josephine Coleman (Brunel University) and Sophie Hope (Birkbeck)


This article considers the reflections of fourteen arts/creative media practice-based PhD graduates, interviewed as part of ongoing research into the field. The recorded conversations were shared as a podcast series entitled Corkscrew: Practice Research Beyond the PhD. We look at meanings of practice as research, ways in which practitioners value the intellectual rigour of doing a PhD and how this affects their relationship to their practice moving forwards. Using the theoretical concepts of “communities of practice” (Wenger 1999), “social site of practice” (Schatzki 2002) and “third-spaces of hybridity” (as developed by Lam 2018), we ask: what impact does doing an artistic/creative practice-based PhD have on when, where, and how practitioners identify as academics and vice versa; and what support structures and resources are needed (or lacking) which enable them to practise as both at once?


Practice-based PhDs are often an uncomfortable fit in academic institutions and can lead to non-academic or near-academic career trajectories. More research on graduate experiences post-award is required, especially in the UK, although rich seams of research are emanating from Australia and the USA on the transformations that arts practice-based doctoral students experience whilst at university. Beverley Simmons and Allyson Holbrook explore the “rupture” encountered (Simmons and Holbrook 2012, 204), and how artists adjust to epistemological transitions as they acclimatise to the new “landscape” of academia (ibid., 210). Judith Stevens-Long et. al. apply concepts of transformative learning, finding that “doctoral students can experience a wide array of learning outcomes, beyond the traditional emphasis on intellectual development … [which] include advanced stages of cognitive development, new capacity for emotional experience and conceptions of self, and more reflective professional practice” (Stevens-Long et. al. 2012, 192).

Jeri Kroll (2004), Jen Webb (2012) and Jenny Wilson (2011) have written on the issues facing artist- and author-academics in Australian universities. Kroll points to the paradox of working on a creative writing PhD: the complex identity work involved in producing a hybrid thesis with both a “creative and critical component” (Kroll 2004, 90-91). Webb takes Bourdieu’s concepts of field and habitus to explore how artists might feel “like a fish out of water” in an academic context but can also feel out of place in art contexts when they develop an academic identity (Webb 2009, 8). This occurs because each field works according to a different logic (ibid.). Both Kroll and Webb see potential to overcome these challenges. For Webb, this involves becoming “a new kind of academic who is simultaneously a new kind of artist, making a new kind of object in a reconceptualised field” (Webb 2009, 14). For Kroll, “author-critics” are developing a “theory of praxis” and a new epistemology, “encouraged by interdisciplinarity, which will reach out to communities beyond the university” (Kroll 2004, 100). There remains a need, however, for creative arts research methods, outputs and values to be “seen as valid scholarly approaches in their own right” (Wilson 2011, 75). Wilson calls for parity for artist-academics in terms of research funding and improved administrative environments, highlighting the “loss of agency” that artist-academics face (ibid., 73). Looking beyond the university experience, Cally Guerin’s study of Humanities and Social Science graduates argues that PhD candidates “should be encouraged from the outset to seriously consider their doctorate as preparation for careers beyond academia; rather than being ‘failed academics,’ these graduates succeed as high-level knowledge workers” (Guerin 2020, 304).

There is a related body of literature exploring broader post-PhD careers in the UK, but not much focus on practice-based qualifications. A recent study of STEM-subject PhD graduates working in industry contexts points out that while their numbers have increased markedly in OECD countries, this contrasts with “little growth in the number of available academic positions for which these graduates are traditionally trained” leading to more of them “searching for jobs outside academia” (Germain-Alamartine et al. 2021, 2680). The findings suggest that networks play an important role in “increasing the quality of non-academic employment after graduation” but that these are often reliant on the students’ own networks rather than the supervisors (ibid., 2681). Skakni et al. (2021) also focus on the transition from academic to non-academic workplaces and culture shock. They too flag up the disparity between getting a PhD and securing a job in academia, pointing to the work of Vitae, a non-profit organization which supports and monitors doctoral graduate career prospects.

Our article aims to complement the existing body of literature on academic and non-academic career trajectories, focusing on the practice-based PhD graduate in the UK. Following an introduction to our methodology and theoretical framework the findings are presented in three sections. The first looks at how our interviewees explain the impact that doing a PhD has had on their practice and how their understandings of knowledge production have developed. We reflect on the role communities of practice (might) play in the PhD journey and the immediate aftermath before moving on to the second section of the paper which focuses on the crossing of knowledge boundaries upon completion. We explore both the enriching and time-wasting aspects of this liminal work. The next section identifies how, why, and when practitioners with PhDs create third spaces to develop hybridized identities both inside and outside of academia. We finish by flagging the structural barriers and missing communities of practice preventing those hybridized identities from flourishing or ever forming in the first place.


As reflexive, practice-based researchers working in academia, we are exploring the subjective experiences and lived realities of other practice-researchers. The need to create transparent, supportive, peer-led platforms for sharing work in progress during the PhD is well-recognized (e.g., through AHRC Doctoral Training Partnerships such as CHASE, Technē or LAHP and institution-specific centres such as CREAM at University of Westminster or CORKSCREW at Birkbeck). Research finds that doctoral candidates should be “better informed about existing non-academic careers” and “supported in preparing for these types of careers” (Skakni et al. 2021, 1272). Hence, we are interested in what support structures might be required by practice-based researchers beyond the PhD for professional development. We acknowledge that specific practices vary, yet there is a shared experience of being on the margins of academia as well as sometimes misunderstood in practitioner contexts. Our research highlights how there is more to be done collectively to hold a third space for developing the hybridized work of the practitioner-academic.

Our repurposing of recorded research interviews as podcasts demonstrates the potential of podcasting as a publicly-engaged research method. We can do more than just create artefacts or disseminate findings; we can develop research conversations in public with peers. Our research methodology is therefore not just about finding the best way to research other people’s careers but experimenting with formats and methods for collective inquiry. The format of our podcast, while not perfect, is an attempt at making more transparent the ways in which practice-based PhDs are conducted and the realities of life afterwards. Our approach aligns with the rapidly-growing trend for academic podcasting, particularly where this is developing as a practice-based methodology for rethinking how podcasting itself is researched and practised (Kinkaid et al. 2020). What we have found invaluable are the opportunities for self-reflexivity afforded during the interviewing, listening back, audio-editing and transcribing stages; the process is just as important as “the quality of the final product” (Jorgensen and Lindgren 2022, 57).

As non-positivist, practice-based researchers, we are interested in the ways knowledge is embedded in experience; reflexively acknowledging our own partiality and subjectivities are part of this (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). We developed a way to analyse the material which acknowledges an “abductive” approach (Peirce 1955; Shepherd and Sutcliffe 2011). Guided by a set of initial research questions, we listened back to the interviews and read through the transcripts, identifying extracts which we tabulated under subheadings. After further reflection and discussion with each other, and more sifting through the extracts, connections and salient points were foregrounded. Circling back then to the theoretical concepts, three broad themes emerged around which we have structured this article.

Our interviewees completed their PhDs between 1992 and 2020 from universities across England in a range of arts and humanities disciplines, such as creative writing, community media, contemporary art practice, performance and sound art. Of the fourteen interviewees drawn on for this article, nine did not have permanent academic jobs at the time (although many of them were teaching): Rob Watson is from a community media background and having been made redundant from his academic post as he finished his PhD has set up his own company; Libro Levi Bridgeman and Olumide Popoola are creative writers, working freelance and often teaching; Sunshine Wong is a practitioner who did a theory-based PhD and now works as a curator at Bloc Projects in Sheffield; Lucy Lyons works as a freelance medical illustrator and also teaches; Nina Perry continues to work as a freelance sound artist and audio producer and is also a visiting fellow at Bournemouth University; Cara Davies has a performing arts background and works with a research collective, Tracing the Pathway, as well as carrying out teaching contracts and working as a document controller for construction companies; Lucy Wright and Harold Offeh are visual arts – Lucy left a period of short-term academic contracts to work part time for arts organization, Axis, and Harold was in the process of moving on from a university post. Of the five who were at the time employed in academia: Rachel Hann has a theatre and scenography practice and works full time as a senior lecturer; Anne Douglas, from visual arts backgrounds, was a full-time professor; Becky Shaw is a full time Reader and Lizzie Lloyd and Katy Beinart are part-time senior lecturers. As the conversations we had are all available publicly on the podcast, we refer to the interviewees by name when we quote them. We would like to thank them all for their time and generosity and honesty in sharing their experiences with us.

Theoretical framework

Notwithstanding the useful concepts mentioned above relating to transformation and culture shock, we feel that a context-sensitive community of practice framing is appropriate for developing a holistic understanding of the challenges facing creative practice-based PhD graduates in the workplace. Before we discuss the factors which supposedly bind practitioners together into a community around a shared interest and pursuit, we should first acknowledge what “practice” is and how we can apply the abstraction to reality. Practice theorist Theodore Schatzki has drawn on the ideas of renowned philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Foucault, and Bourdieu to devise a concept for understanding “bodily doings and sayings” (Schatzki 2002, 72) as social orders in particular locales. The notion of there being a “social site” represents not only the spaces where a practice takes place, but a set of arrangements created by that practice: “a mesh of practices and orders: a contingently and differentially evolving configuration of organized activities and arrangements” (Schatzki 2002, xii). There are four interlinking aspects: the people involved share a common understanding as to what the practice is and what it entails; they know how to carry out the requisite actions and activities; they experience and respond to its teleoaffective structure (being the generally accepted and emotionally-affecting means and ends); and are aware of and respond to a set of rules and guidelines specific to that practice (Schatzki 2002, 87). Any agency involved in the carrying out of activities associated with a practice is affected by shifting interrelationships between practitioners, beings and objects as well as by the dynamic structural contexts within which they act.

Continuing with this line of thought to consider how practitioners become immersed in a field of practice, embodying certain attitudes, and developing appropriate aptitudes in order to assume an identity aligning them with a particular community, we can turn now to organizational theory. Etienne Wenger’s work on learning has become popular since he wrote about communities of practice with Jean Lave in 1991. They developed the notion of “legitimate peripheral participation” which provides a way to speak about the “process by which newcomers become part of a community of practice” (Lave and Wenger 1991, 29). Like Schatzki, Wenger sees the importance of “meaningful interactions with others in the production of artifacts” and these can be in physical or conceptual form from words and concepts to documents and various tools which “reflect our shared experience and around which we organize our participation” (Wenger 2010, 1). Wenger perceives a practice as having “a life of its own” that actively responds to and negotiates with institutions and other practices: “It is in this sense that learning produces a social system and that a practice can be said to be the property of a community” (ibid., 2). This helps us understand practitioners doing PhDs and their subsequent careers as “involved not only in practising the profession, but also in research, teaching, management, regulation, professional associations, and many other contexts…” (Wenger 2010, 4).

As a social learning system, “the production of practice creates boundaries, not because participants are trying to exclude others (though this can be the case) but because sharing a history of learning ends up distinguishing those who were involved from those who were not” (Wenger 2010, 3). As with Schatzki, this helps us understand the relational aspects of how practices are developed at the edges of these sites and communities. For Wenger, boundaries are where “meetings of perspectives can be rich in new insights and radical innovations…the innovation potential is greater, but so is the risk of wasting time or getting lost. In every practice, boundary processes require careful management of time and attention” (Wenger 2010, 4).

Alice Lam has written about the identity work of artists and creatives in academia in the UK. Basing her findings on “interviews with 32 artist-academics in drama, music, media arts and design from three research universities in the London area”, she identifies three types: “academic-practitioners” (who seem to easily switch between roles); artists-in-academia or “pracademics” (who have made a career transition from practitioner to academic), and “practitioners-in-academia” (those who joined academia late in their careers and see themselves primarily as “practitioners”). Lam analyses how knowledge boundaries are disrupted (Lam 2020, 846), finding that it is the “ambivalent hybrid” pracademics who risk most in terms of threat to a coherent identity, but “also undertook the most disruptive boundary work: they contested the established knowledge practices and hierarchies and promoted alternative ways of knowing” (Lam 2020, 857). This relates to Webb’s practice-theory-informed call for artist-academics to become “a new kind of academic … in a reconceptualised field” (Webb 2012, 14) and Kroll’s new interdisciplinary epistemology (Kroll 2004, 100). For Lam, the academic-practitioners, because of their ability to hold these distinct roles of artist and academic, “seemed much less disruptive: they blurred the knowledge boundaries but did not explicitly challenge them” (Lam 2020, 857).

Lam notes that the relationship between professional arts and academia has been uneasy because the two communities value different types of knowledge, especially where the value of non-textual knowledge is concerned. She refers to how all types of artist-academics “work at the interface of two contradistinctive knowledge communities and their experience reveals the identity work undertaken to reconcile the tensions” (Lam 2020, 843). There is a growing body of literature that distinguishes practice-based approaches from “traditional norms about research, new knowledge and how it is generated” (Candy and Edmonds 2018, 68). It has been deemed ontologically distinct (Andersson 2009), post-paradigmatic (Rolling 2010) or indeed an entirely new paradigm (Haseman 2006). There is significant risk involved to one’s “habitus” for artists undertaking the “transformational journey” as they “struggle to adapt to the unfamiliar terrain of research, and to integrate it with their creative practice” (Allen-Collinson 2005, 725).

Similarly for Webb, structural differences between the fields of art and academia mean that they “operate according to different rules; they use different tools, discourses and methods; their rewards are different, as are their audiences; and they must satisfy different gatekeepers” (Webb 2012, 8). She explores how artist-academics often “attempt to conflate their two fields: to make art work count in and for the academy and, to a lesser extent, to transport academic products into the field of art” (ibid.), but this means they are “continually switching codes as they move between those two ‘home’ fields, and what they gain in one field can be lost in the other” (ibid., 9). To understand “where career actors construct hybrid role identities and undertake knowledge brokering”, Lam explores Homi Bhabha’s ideas of hybridity and the dynamic “third space” where cultural differences are encountered and negotiated (Lam 2018, 1718). For Lam, an artist-academic finds themselves in “a site of articulation, contestation and transformation between two cultural systems” (ibid.). Her respondents must reconcile the tensions of “boundary work” (Lam 2020, 857). Their agency and power lie in the ability to “assert control over the definition of legitimate knowledge in the host academic context so as to create a more conducive work environment for their hybrid selves” (Lam 2018, 1735).

Schatzki, Lave, Wenger and Lam all point to the significance of practices forming, taking shape through engagement within and across communities of practice. Our analysis illuminates how difficult and unsatisfactory this boundary crossing can be, especially when there is no conceptual third space in which to develop a hybrid identity. As stated earlier, there is scope for more research on post-PhD experiences, indeed Lam, whose respondents were mid- or late-career academics in senior positions, points out that “a study on those who have moved out of academia into the practitioner world could also be illuminating” (Lam 2018, 1738). Our research attempts this and although it involves a relatively small sample there is a wider geographical spread across England, and over half our interviewees did not hold senior academic positions at the time. Not only do the interviewees describe post-PhD career trajectories outside of academia, but they also hold differing opinions on how to articulate the relationship between their artistic practice and research. Amongst them, understandings of the relationship between practice and research varies as influenced by their everyday experiences in terms of what has worked for them and what is/was expected or considered acceptable by their work environments. How graduates navigate and articulate the relationships their practices have to research is significant, as we will outline in the next section.

Impact of undertaking the PhD

In this section we explore the impact that conducting a PhD has had on our interviewees during and directly after completing their doctorates. Their individual experiences are varied as are the unique contexts of their engagement in communities of practice, even down to how they term their practice approach. Sophie Hope (2016) provides a means of accommodating different understandings of practice-based, -led and -related academic research using the metaphor of the artists’ colour wheel. The gradations of colour allow for blurring and our interviewees use the terms interchangeably, with some preferring the term artistic research, and one person rejecting any separation, saying all research is practice. The podcast conversations reflect Kroll (2004), Wilson (2011), Webb (2012) and Lam’s (2018 and 2020) findings in that there is a constant tussle between the postgraduates’ practice (and identities) as artists and as academic researchers. This type of PhD involves learning how to be an artistic or creative practice-based researcher: being acculturated to specialist ways of doing and saying things. But how vibrant and welcoming are the fields into which postgraduate students hope to develop a career (in academia or not)? Entering the world of academia during a PhD can involve manoeuvring from one community of practice and assimilating into another. Stevens-Long et al., for example, refer to one of their participants who wrote: “I have not been the same since, more appreciative, more observant, more willing to listen” (Stevens-Long et al. 2012, 190). One of our interviewees, Shaw, also reflected on this challenge. She refers to “hiatuses” and “sharp moments,” such as the ethics review and project planning process, which echo the transitional types of third space where artistic and academic conventions collide. These can be, according to Shaw, “incredibly difficult, because they go right to the deep root of what it is, of conventions and expectations, assumptions about art practice” (Shaw 2018). She suggests that any artists thinking about doing practice-based research should think about “what that disruption is for and whether you’re really up for it” (ibid.).

The disruption for Wright and Watson came from being more familiar with research and academic expectations and then developing their artistic/creative practice through doing the PhD: Wright as an ethnographer and Watson as an engineering and digital technologies teacher in a university. As Wright describes: “Everything that I do [now], as an artist, is informed by some element of a research problem or question” (Wright 2021). Similarly for community media activist Watson, doing the PhD meant he had “crossed over from being an academic, somebody [who] just talks about this in the classroom to actually being a practitioner… [exploring] how we communicate with people on that inter-subjective level” (Watson 2021). He found that developing academic research expertise led to asking more critical questions of the field he was exploring: “[Our task] as academics or researchers is not to advocate for a model, but to test the model and to ask the questions of, well, what drives this?” (ibid.). Doing the PhD helped him recognize alternatives to professionalized, corporate media such as the potential for creative community engagement.

Bridgeman also found their own critical thinking improved which impacted on their writing: “It’s given me more confidence really to tackle things like verbatim theatre…and not feel nervous about subject matters that you think might be a bit more specialized” (Bridgeman 2018). The process has a particular impact on ways of knowing. Researching through questioning their practice and collapsing the divide between theory and practice enabled experimentation. Other respondents also enjoyed feeling that “the research space could open up the opportunity to ask questions that you couldn’t ask elsewhere…to rethink, to reflect, to work experimentally in a way that…[is] very difficult to do in the professional space” (Douglas 2018).

Of those already practising as artists or creatives who then embarked on a PhD, some found it was the experience of entering academia that was jarring. They experienced culture shock similar to what Skakni et al. found in their respondents entering non-academic work contexts after graduating (Skakni et al. 2021). There was a sense of uncertainty or of not fitting in, a feeling that they were having to do things differently. Visual artist Offeh said he found “the scariest thing was writing” (Offeh 2021). Composer Perry felt it “was very much using a different part of me, like I wasn’t used to sitting and writing all’s quite an alien way of being” (Perry 2021). Lloyd felt that she did not “fit in”. Doing her practice-based PhD in an Art History department: “For a long time, I was kind of wondering what on earth I was doing, as most people do through their PhDs” (Beinart and Lloyd 2021). Wong also experienced “imposter syndrome” and felt “disengaged” and “detached” from her existing community of practice for at least the first year or two (Wong 2021). This was necessary to focus on the PhD. Since she was studying in a different city to where she was living, she was not meeting people and felt very isolated. “I’m in my room, and I’ve got my post-its and you know, my breathing exercises, and I’m gonna write this damn thing…” (Wong 2021). Wong’s experience of this loss or lack of community of practice was mirrored in her being told that she “wrote very subjectively” and was directed to “clean out all the I’s” (Wong 2021). It was not until after the PhD that Wong could re-engage with her practice. While Wong produced a theoretical PhD to be proud of, her artistic activities were side-lined.

For those practitioners working with their practice in some way through the PhD, there were also positive stories of the benefits. For example, Hann had the confidence and support to value the process of “creating documents, which are legible as the thing rather than a kind of interpretation of the thing…that recording of the performance becomes another kind of artifact that’s critically distinct or ontologically distinct from the performance itself” (Hann 2021). Similarly, Beinart described the collaboration with Lloyd as “writing through or…making through and…that…is generating the knowledge rather than knowledge being generated secondarily to the practice” (Beinart and Lloyd 2021). Lloyd referred to how they keep “thinking and doing really enmeshed…It’s kind of messy and frayed at the edges but it also makes things difficult to negotiate and difficult to complete” (ibid.). This third space afforded to some through the process of the practice-based PhD, to play around with relationships between theory and practice, might allow practice-based researchers to move away from binary distinctions or hierarchies between, for example, theoretical and tacit knowledge. For Lyons these “don’t negate each other and they shouldn’t” (Lyons 2018). Perry declared that, for her: “the research has always been a significant part of my practice and artistic inquiry, whether I’ve been situated within academia or not” (Perry 2021).

For the creative writers, binaries between artistic and academic knowledge remain useful. Bridgeman suggested, for example, that “academic writing is a counterpoint to creative writing. They don’t necessarily sit side by side very well…they seem to occupy different areas of the brain. Sometimes if I’m working in imagined worlds and creative worlds, it won’t necessarily correlate with critical thinking and academic writing” (Bridgeman 2018). This perhaps sets up an “academic-practitioner” position where the worlds of art and research will retain some distance. According to Lam, “academic-practitioners” or “embedded knowledge brokers” operate in overlapping spaces between arts and academia, “where they internalize the cognitive-relational distance between them” (Lam 2018, 1718). The academic-practitioner is not necessarily going to challenge knowledge boundaries, rather they can reinforce them, for example by retaining a distinct space for fiction which they do not want to be subsumed or articulated as research. This links back to Wilson’s provocation that “[a]rtistic work needs to be encouraged without compromising the essential development of artistic technique if Australian higher education is to avoid producing a nation of art critics and commentators rather than artists” (Wilson 2011, 74).

Since this type of specialized training takes place within the academic field, many of our participants were already engaged in lecturing and described how doing a PhD improved their teaching. For some, however, the process was not without tension. Douglas recognized “the PhD can be a kind of intervention…and also, potentially, a threat to when people have gone through a career trajectory in which…you became a practising artist and you taught as part of that practice. I think the PhD has unnerved that in some ways” (Douglas 2018). Offeh was already teaching undergraduates at Leeds before doing his PhD on performance and re-enactments. He said the process inspired him to refresh the content in his lectures. Completing it was just the beginning: “It’s a lifetime project…there’s that sense in which those lines of inquiry kind of continue...I feel, like, equipped with a set of…transferable skills, I think, that are useful for teaching. I think I’m a better teacher as a result of having to do this thing…in terms of just that depth of reading that I’ve had to do” (Offeh 2021).

But achieving the PhD does not necessarily lead to a teaching post within academia and it is this parting of the ways that poses challenges. Novelist Popoola enjoys teaching very much, but said she particularly appreciates being able to put her own stamp on it, so despite doing some hourly-paid and visiting lecturer work, she is mostly teaching her own courses. She explained: “If you’re not teaching, you still need to think about how you’re going to make your money” (Popoola 2021). She runs workshops in creative writing for emerging LGBTQ+ writers called “The Future is Back,” funded by the Arts Council and aims to convey the same mindset to her participants: “I want them to creatively develop. And I also want to be very practical: how can we actually ensure our income and also be writers?” (Popoola 2021). Popoola advocates instead of asking students to simply read about an issue such as intersectionality, even critical texts, the important thing is to encourage them to talk about it as a lived experience. Thus, the gap between theory and practice is bridged: “In society, we need to sort of learn to be unsettled, and to being undone. But this undoing is important for us to arrive at…a new understanding, new meanings, new connections in life, and therefore also, maybe better places” (Popoola 2021).

Several interviewees reflected on the need for time and space straight after the PhD, for their (awkwardly) nurtured, new hybridized identity to settle before thinking about what to do next. Some, like Lloyd, described the relief of it being over, but for others it felt more like being “left out in the wild” (Wong 2021). Post-PhD, our respondents reported feeling as if they fell into a different category from before and, as Lyons put it, needed to “move into a different circle” where they would be valued for “how you share your views of the world via your work” (Lyons 2018). Wright described being a precarious academic as “a kind of a hustle” since “you’re always having to try and work out how to sell yourself the next time” (Wright 2021). She referred to how she might downplay her “actual approach” as an artistic researcher in interviews, in the “hope that I can squeeze it in on the side, when I’ve actually got the job, but at the time you try and be what they want you to be” (Wright 2021). This tallies with Webb’s reference to “switching codes” in different fields (Webb 2012, 9), and Kroll’s reflections on how author-academics must “don several masks in a university context” and how they might “suffer from multiple personality disorder, in a healthy way, and only the context determines which personalities have their say” (Kroll 2004, 100). Not only do PhD graduates experience a sense of culture shock when going from academic to non-academic work contexts but practice-based researchers are also experiencing unease both in the academy and outside, as creative arts research remains largely misunderstood.

Germain-Alamartine et al. (2021) and Guerin (2020) also found that outside the academic community of practice, the PhD carries differing currency and is not always recognized as useful. Bridgeman, for instance, recalled being asked by their agent to remove the PhD from their website biography as it made them look too academic. Douglas described finishing her PhD and suddenly becoming “neither fish nor fowl.” She remembered going for teaching jobs, “where people didn’t know really what to do with me” and how perhaps this was because they “felt quite threatened by the presence of a PhD” (Douglas 2018). She described this feeling as “you’ve abandoned being just an artist and you’re suddenly not, kind of, one of that community anymore.” (ibid.) This echoes Webb’s findings that artist-academics are often “misfits” who “risk remaining frustrated near-outsiders”; “…not fully at home in both art and the academic fields. One must dominate; and this means there is always a loss, and always a cost” (Webb 2012, 9).

For some, finding work in a completely new community of practice outside academia and their art making was the answer. Davies feels there is a lot of pressure on PhD students to have made the decision before they finish the PhD on what they are doing next. For her, it has been “a very refreshing experience” to work in a different industry: “I’m now feeling much more revitalized to translate that back into my practice, and to have some time to assimilate that” (Davies 2018). For many, however, such time and space to readjust is not feasible, either inside the academy due to workloads or outside. Negotiating the relationship between academic and practitioner selves continues into post-PhD career progression as a core element of what constitutes the social site of this specialized community of practice.

Crossing knowledge boundaries

Our interviewees are crossing professional knowledge boundaries on a regular basis post-PhD, and this influences their identity formation, cohesion, and career progression. Wenger states how “remaining on a learning edge takes a delicate balancing act between honoring the history of the practice and shaking free from it. This is often only possible when communities interact with and explore other perspectives beyond their boundaries” (Wenger 2010, 3). Lam (2018) focuses on the positive attributes of this boundary crossing work, such as ways it can challenge the construction and communication of knowledge. This was echoed by Hann who stated how important it is that practice-researchers do not “create a culture of silo-ing ourselves and seeing ourselves as distinct” (Hann 2021). Hann thinks practice researchers need to talk more “about how they do practice research, but also communicating the vitality and importance of practice research within their own disciplines” (ibid.). Douglas also refers to the potential for “shifting the university from being a kind of silo of knowledge” to a more relational model “where the university is simply part of a much bigger community of knowledge” (Douglas 2018). She sees a role for practice led research in “this opening up of the arts to public life” (ibid.). Beinart also stated that it is important to not “just get siloed into communicating within academia, and that you keep communicating within other worlds as well” including artistic circles (Beinart and Lloyd 2021). This was echoed by Popoola who remarked that during her year working at Goldsmiths as maternity cover, she enjoyed having colleagues to exchange with, “even though I wouldn’t call myself a researcher, I’m definitely a thinker and enjoy an environment where I can, you know, bounce certain ideas off, also learn from others, see what they’re doing” (Popoola 2021).

We heard many stories of boundary crossing post-PhD from our interviewees. Having both recently completed their PhDs, Beinart and Lloyd, for example, were collaborating on a project called “Acts of Transfer” which Beinart described as an interesting way of “continuing to research but taking me outside what I know and testing my own kind of comfort zones” (Beinart and Lloyd 2021). We also heard evidence that practice based academic research changed minds in specialist fields, as in the case for Lyons whose research has had an impact on clinicians working on evidence of ossification. She describes practice-based researchers as “canaries down the mine…we’ll go down into dangerous places, and we’re quite willing to do it…We are subversive, and we’re interventionists and I think we must use that” (Lyons 2018). She uses her fine art practices as methodologies in sciences and medicine contexts, which she feels is a strength, adding: “But it can be very isolating as well” (ibid.).

Boundary crossing as an application of transferable skills and transformative learning beyond intellectual development to include more reflective professional practice (Stevens-Long et al. 2012, 191), is demonstrated by Davies’ story of finding work outside the university where her archiving expertise and PhD background was considered valuable especially for interpreting and applying data protection and the changes in EU policy and regulations: “It’s a very different field, but actually [I’m] using quite a lot of the fundamental, interpretive deep reading skills that have been brought up through the PhD” (Davies 2018). After her PhD, Wright worked as a research associate at the Centre of Enterprise at Manchester Metropolitan University. Even though it was not her field, she describes how it was like a training ground and that there was time to develop her own interests, allowing her to work out what her role was going to be in the future. For Shaw, when she finished her PhD in 1998, she returned to working as an artist in social commissioning context for about eight years before getting a job in academia, whilst also continuing her art practice. She said she felt that the “type of thinking and practices were completely commensurate” with the way she had worked on her PhD: “I wasn’t situating it in a practice-based research context, but I was using all the same methods and headspace” (Shaw 2018).

These examples, albeit inadvertently, might have cracked open that “third space” to develop hybridized identities post-PhD that draw on different skills and practices learnt through the PhD process. They also illustrate positive ways in which boundary crossing can be productive as communities of practice overlap. This brings us back to Wenger’s metaphor of a landscape through which we have various relationships to the practices we encounter. If the journey through this landscape could be considered a career, as he points out, “some communities may welcome us, but others may reject us” (Wenger 2010, 6). This came through in the conversation with Lyons who used the metaphor of being invited to a party to describe a sense of belonging in a different discipline. She recommends: “If someone invites you to their party, and even if they seem a bit odd or outside your own practice, go, because that’s where you’re wanted…go to your tribe, don’t fight it. Because you’ll be far more comfortable and supported with them” (Lyons 2018).

Boundary crossing also came in the form of a commitment many of our interviewees had to involve or reach audiences beyond academia. For example, achieving her PhD through publication, Perry’s practice-research was in producing audio material for public broadcast which is also being used in teaching. Through the creation of such content, Perry can “bridge the audiences”: Radio Four listeners as well as a community of academics. Similarly, Beinart and Lloyd have created an exhibition and publication communicating their findings in a non-academic forum for different kinds of audiences to view. For Popoola, it was important that the novel which emerged from her PhD needed to be “a lot more accessible than reading a peer reviewed journal article” (Popoola 2021). An ongoing question for her is how to ensure academically informed knowledge can be widely available but also fun: “I’m interested in breaking form and thinking about how knowledge and research can be presented differently” (ibid.). Kroll (2004) also points to the potential for creative writers in the academy to reach communities beyond the university, in part due to the multiple identities of creative, critic and scholar and the different audiences their work must address.

Our conversations have also illuminated how difficult and unsatisfactory this boundary crossing can be, especially if there is no conceptual third space to develop a hybrid identity. As Wenger reminds us, boundary crossing can be a “waste of time and effort” if it turns out the engagement is not worthwhile, and it takes us away from our core practice (Wenger 2010, 4). We found that the boundary crossing that many are required to do post-PhD to make a living can be tiresome work if one’s position as practice-based researcher is consistently misunderstood, rejected, or ignored. Wright refers to her work as “too weird” so “it never really got anywhere” and that while she found the practice-led aspects of her work “made her stand out” and were seen as the “icing on the cake”, once she was in role “it kind of wasn’t what they wanted” (Wright 2021). Trying to apply a newly-formed hybridized identity to the world of work can also involve a wrench away from an academic identity nurtured during the PhD. Webb refers to the paradox that “those who are not credible artists will also lose credibility as academics employed within a creative discipline; but the investment required to maintain that artistic credibility eats into what they have available to invest in their academic identity” (Webb 2012, 9). Davies for example, when we interviewed her, was managing multiple roles as a document controller for construction companies, a guest lecturer and running a research collective. She reflected upon how it felt to leave education having been a perpetual student:

[It’s] like I’m leaving part of who I am and who my identity is…I very much would like to think that I’m still an academic, but the reality of trying to maintain an academic profile in keeping up with publishing, the pressure of going to conferences, but not having the funding or an institutional affiliation becomes a lot harder. Especially when you might be in a similar situation to myself, where you’re interdisciplinary, you’re freelancing, you’re working across different industries, something’s got to give. (Davies 2018)

While a third space might allow a liberatory environment in which to develop, negotiate and play with a hybridized identity, the realities of fixed-term teaching and/or research contracts in academia means this is a precious, privileged space that is not available or desirable to everyone. Following her PhD, Wright, for example, carried out a “string of short-term academic contracts.” She was on a treadmill of applying for posts: “there was always that little promise of like, well, maybe if you do this, then the powers that be will think you’re worth keeping on, and it never happens…” (Wright 2021). This precarious academic job market of fixed term contracts, overwork and exploitation led to Wright making the decision to leave academia. Lyons has also taught in many different places and has written programmes and courses, but these had become zero-hour contracts. Perry is a visiting fellow at Bournemouth University and her work is submitted to the REF. She found that “those practice outputs [for REF] were part of my practice, as an artist and as a producer. So, I think I’ve found a formula that enables me to use a lot of what I create as research, but not probably as much as I’d like there to be” (Perry 2021). Perry finds herself “in a slightly odd place with academia” in that she is technically an early career researcher but very established in her career as a practitioner. She remarked that it is about “not just being paid by an institution to do research. It’s also having the framework of support” (ibid.).

Finding a third space

Some of our interviewees managed to crack open third spaces to develop their own and others’ hybridized identities as artists and researchers in the context of academia. Lam describes the artists-in-academia or “pracademics” as “transformative knowledge brokers” who operate in transitional spaces. As intentional hybrids, they “make conscious efforts to bridge two discrete work domains by creating a separate transitional space” (Lam 2018, 1718). They both “internalize as well as challenge the knowledge practices of the host context. Their knowledge brokering activities are instrumental in transforming both themselves and their work context” (ibid.). Several of our interviewees at various times and when conditions were right, occupied this position. For example, Douglas settled at Gray’s School of Art where she felt that “the practice of arts and the research through the practice of arts...has become very much part of me” (Douglas 2018). She felt the PhD had given her a career “without doubt” and thinks this was largely due to “the insight and huge work that Carole Gray [former Professor there] put into trying to establish a research culture” (Douglas 2018). As another established “pracademic,” Hann acknowledges the significance of how communities of practice are shaped over time, referring to the influence of one of the “key figureheads,” Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca, in her field with whom she was able to share an office and learn from.

Douglas and Hann are examples of established, artists in academia; they have been contributing to the development and understanding of practice-research, whilst continuing their own practice-research. They are enacting Lam’s hybridization strategy by acting as “bridges” between “the two worlds…brokering roles to facilitate interaction and knowledge co-creation between their academic and practitioner colleagues” (Lam 2018, 1734). Early career researchers are also managing to crack open these spaces in academia. Offeh, for example, took on a leadership role in which he contributed to research culture activities for other PhD students and Davies set up sessions on embodied knowledge and the integration of archival and documentation within dance. Even for potential artists-in-academia who are setting up transitional, third spaces, however, this work is often precarious and unsustainable, as Davies found when she had to get a temporary job to supplement her income.

These are examples of practice-researchers post-PhD contributing to and generating communities of practice in the context of academia. For others, the context of academia has been too pressurized and unsupportive leading them to leave or disengage from academia and find ways of developing their practice- or artistic-researcher careers outside the academy. In some cases, our participants have found that doing a practice-based PhD has changed their understanding of the relationship between creative practice and academic research and that the academy is not conducive to pursuing their own creativity.

Following twenty years of teaching in academia, Watson was made redundant after finishing his PhD. He found working in academia did not afford him the time to publish because “you’re constantly working at the grindstone to get stuff done” (Watson 2021). He has set up a limited company and finds that while it offers “flexibility and freedom” it also comes with financial risks. This is echoed by Lyons who likes operating in spaces outside universities because they “give much, much more and allow much more” (Lyons 2018). Similarly, Bridgeman sees universities as “bureaucratic and frustrating, and not helpful for the creative spirit in many ways” (Bridgeman 2018). This kind of third space is protected by not being in academia: “I’m pinging around from university to university now…I’m not desirous of having that locked-in academic full-time position. You have to be quite flexible and not lose your nerve when you’re taking short term contracts, but it kind of works for me” (Bridgeman 2018).

Wong has found that research positions and opportunities requiring doctoral research skill sets are limited both inside and outside academia. She said: “There are so many more PhDs than there are those jobs…my initial sort of instinct is to kind of jump away from that bottle necking” (Wong 2021). Consequently, she started a slow reading group, TLDR, as an excuse to bring people together to “do a little bit of research, but in a much more kind of slower and communal way” (ibid.). The realities of childcare and needing to work near where she lived meant she looked for jobs in the art world: “It’s just territory that I felt…I could more readily find a paying job sooner than I could in academia” (Wong 2021). Now working in a small organization, Bloc, she said: “A lot of the thinking I’ve done in my PhD has really infiltrated, like sort of infused…for instance, one of the main themes that we have for this year is critical care…which came out of my third chapter” (ibid.) After Popoola’s fixed term maternity cover contract was over, she then had a baby herself. Being freelance again gave her the flexibility to “do my own thing where I was calling most of the shots. It definitely suited me not to be part of the deadlines, like, you know, marking” (Popoola 2021). Like Popoola, when Shaw had her first child, it made more sense for her “to be earning more money from my teaching” rather than the art commissions which took her away from home for three months at a time (Shaw 2018).

While there are positive aspects to flexible, academic-practitioner careers, for some people a more secure contract is desirable and a necessity. For Wright, this came in the form of a permanent, part-time position with the arts organization Axis. This was her first permanent job: “It was fantastic…it was just a weight lifted off my mind to suddenly, you know, not have to be always worrying” (Wright 2021). Beinart, who works part-time (0.7 FTE) at the University of Brighton in the School of Architecture, was on a six-month sabbatical when we spoke: “I think, as we all know, the amount of time you get for research normally isn’t very large. So, the sabbaticals are a really good opportunity for me to try and focus on the research” (Beinart and Lloyd 2021). Lloyd was recently moved onto a permanent 0.5 role as a senior lecturer in University of West of England: “So that has meant I don’t have to teach in lots of different places and kind of scramble around for work all the time. It also will give me some extra, I mean, a small amount of research time within that contract” (ibid.).

Working in academia can be constraining and working outside can offer certain freedoms, but at the cost of security of a permanent salary. Whatever the type of contract, finding the time and space for developing, negotiating, and maintaining a hybrid identity in which practitioner-researcher identities are recognized is not easy. These are the realities for many in this specialized field of practice for whom part-time, short-term teaching contracts or work that offers some security helps to balance family commitments and/or the needs of their practice.


Schatzki’s social site framing primes us to expect doctoral students to be purposefully and emotionally committed to carrying out distinct tasks and routines following existing conventions according to shared general understandings and know-how appropriate to their particular field. However, there seems to be a lack of fixity in what form and where these assumed practitioner contexts are to be found post-PhD. Using Wenger’s communities of practice lens, we recognize that a practice-based PhD graduate can also be identified as a learner in a particular social system which currently lacks the third space between or spanning knowledge boundaries. When newly qualified practitioners traverse a field boundary to become peripheral in academia, they can feel neither one thing nor the other. To feel both academic and practitioner in sync seems quite rare.

These examples show how the formative experience of the PhD involves identity ‘crises’ or at least a reshaping as researcher and practitioner identities coalesce. How these hybrid identities continue to be formed post-PhD is what we are beginning to explore further with this research. Even for those practitioners who do not have permanent positions in academia, we argue, there is still academic identity-work occurring due to carrying out a PhD. It can disrupt the way they understand themselves and their community of practice. Having been moulded to some extent into having academic identity through the process of doing a PhD, it is perhaps surprising for this to then be suppressed or ignored, particularly given the time, money and energies gone into it. For some practitioners trying to make a living outside academia, however, having a PhD is not that relevant. Deciding when research is and is not practice and vice versa also seems important. Webb, for example, calls for artist-academics to “apply a reflexive dimension to their creative and practical knowledge” which includes “being explicit about the difference between professional, aesthetic and research practice” (Webb 2012, 14).

Our findings suggest that although the respondents imagined that doing an artistic/creative practice PhD meant they were becoming part of an identifiable community of practice-based researchers in their institution and/or field of practice, they emerged into a different, amorphous reality. Such is the multiplicity of experience involving the “countless other[s]” (Wenger 2010, 5) in different contexts requiring many variations of “alignment”, the field as boundaried entity is difficult to pin down. Drawing on Schatzki’s social site of practice, we discern that the “evolving configuration of organized activities and arrangements” (Schatzki 2002, xii) feels unmoored. We suggest that the community of practice for practice-researchers during and beyond the PhD is not yet fully formed, as evidenced by our interviewees’ narratives of their PhD journeys and careers so far. This is perhaps only to be expected because we are internally motivated and externally encouraged to be innovative or even rebellious in our “academicized” acts of creativity. The goalposts shift, personal situations and intentions evolve, but belonging to a community that is better assured of its value to academia and non-academic sectors might enable practitioners to explore, flourish and produce new knowledge with less precarity. Arguably, there remain legitimacy issues in the academy and the wider material structures around this academic (set of) practices require strengthening. Developing more ways for practice-researchers post-PhD to share career hopes and fears might be a step towards this.


We would like to thank our anonymous reviewer(s) for their valuable insights and all our podcast guests for sharing their experiences.


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