This blog post was originally written in October 2018 and updated in November 2019.
In October 2019 I was asked to give a brief presentation to prospective PhD research students at the London College of Communication PhD Open Evening. I had done the same thing in October 2018, and then wrote the original version of this blog post, so it was interesting to reflect on how my thoughts on the PhD experience had changed during my writing-up year. I have updated this blog post accordingly and also included my slides.
Coming from a background outside of art and design can be an advantage in post-graduate research. I regard my scientific experience as being fundamental to my own research, as it gives me a different perspective on, and different insights into, the field of scientific visual communication. It has proven essential in my engagement with the subject area of my PhD and in my forming a successful collaboration with the neuroscientists at King’s College London. The world of art and design can feel somewhat insular at times and having the ability to stand outside of that world and look in has definitely been helpful.
Over the four years of my PhD, my research question was continually revised as my research followed directions I had not anticipated. I had certainly not planned to collaborate with neuroscientists and that significantly changed the trajectory of my PhD. Chance encounters with images, books, exhibitions, people – all of these affected the course of my research and meant that I ended up somewhere far removed from my starting point. It is important to always keep an open mind to different ideas, opinions and directions, and be prepared to change when something more interesting / more engaging / more relevant comes along.
Before I started my PhD, I had no idea how important graphic design practice would be to my research. As well as providing a range of research tools, engaging in practice also provided information and insights that I simply could not get from theoretical research alone. In her foreword to the book Visual Research, Ellen Lupton writes, “Design itself is a form of research, following both measured and intuitive sequences of investigation in order to arrive at new forms and insights.”
A PhD can be a long, and sometimes lonely, undertaking and it is your supervisory team who will be with you every step of the way. When things go wrong – as they inevitably will – your supervisors will be the people who pick you up, dust you off and get you back out there to continue your research. Therefore, it is important you ensure that the team members are the best fit for you and your research. They need to be as enthusiastic about your research area as you are and have confidence in your abilities to complete your research. If possible, get to know at least one or two of your supervisors before you start your PhD – ideally, they will help you with your application. A supportive supervisory team can make the difference between a good or bad PhD experience.
This a strange thing to say to an audience of people who have not even started a PhD yet. At first, a PhD does seem like an Everest-sized pile of research waiting to be tackled and you think that once it has been completed, that will be that. Then, as you progress, you begin to realise that you are actually opening up a myriad of possibilities and opportunities for further research and investigation and your PhD is just scratching the surface of what could be achieved in your area of interest. My writing-up year gave me the chance to reflect more on my PhD and to clarify several ideas for future research. My continuing collaboration with scientists at King’s College London should enable me to put some of those ideas into action.