NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Training our peers: Why we need HDR students

There is a part to working in a university that I love – every week I get to work with at least one PhD or Masters (Higher Degree in Research or HDR) student. They are often guided by a sense of purpose and eager to find a way to be a part of a university. HDR students bridge the worlds of artistic practice, creativity and scholarship.

By Professor Kim Cunio

There is a part to working in a university that I love – every week I get to work with at least one PhD or Masters (Higher Degree in Research or HDR) student. They are often guided by a sense of purpose and eager to find a way to be a part of a university. HDR students bridge the worlds of artistic practice, creativity and scholarship. They teach us as we supervise them, they teach our Undergraduates and remind us how fulfilling teaching can be. They are our peers and successors.

Artistic practice research offers musicians an opportunity to understand and possibly resolve some of the contradictions that emerge from being a professional artist.

In the creative arts much of the undergraduate experience is skills based. It takes years for a performer to become competent never mind exceptional; maybe even longer for artists/composers to “find their voice”. While musicological skills can be readily taught, it takes years for an emerging researcher to find an area of expertise. It seems just as we are getting close to achieving something remarkable we lose our students. Most of our student leave after three years and they do their thing, (while a small number move directly into research this article is not concerned with them), working as portfolio artists, teachers and increasingly as Flexible Double Degree graduates who have well paid day jobs. We do not see them for a decade or more.

At this point many of our ex-students start to doubt the veracity of the assumptions they inherit. Attitudes towards music and its role of music are questioned, particularly by players within classical and art music traditions. Musicians engage with popular, folk or traditional music styles, an engagement with technology as the primary tool of music making, and experimentation. Alongside this there are two confrontations that many musicians encounter. 

Artistic:

There is often a point in which a musician becomes dissatisfied with the music they make. This relates to the style of music they work in, the settings they make it in, or a perceived or actual derivative quality in their own practice. Musicians may suddenly see the music they are making as not inherently special or original. 

Economic:

The point in which an artist takes stock of life in the creative arts. This relates to the fundamentals of buying houses, raising families, building superannuation etc. At this point, making art may not be enough. This also occurs at pivotal points in the economic cycle, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Global Financial Crisis. 

It is at this time that we matter. Without universities, many of our finest artists might be lost to our disciplines. They might get a “real job” and move into the hobbyist space or make their art for “fun”. By studying with us they can become artistic practice researchers while still making art.

Our students make art at the highest level, yet they also learn to justify their practice and all the hours it takes to maintain it. They learn to justify our disciplines, and why they should exist in the academy.

Artistic practice research offers musicians an opportunity to understand and possibly resolve some of the contradictions that emerge from being a professional artist. Musicians can go back to the space they inhabited as a young graduate, build a genuine platform of artistic innovation by getting really good at something. Musicians can create a niche from participating in the debates of the academy. 

There is much more to this illustration than the proposition that we can help a student when they need it – for HDR students show universities as places of life-long learning and make them look really good. There is something in this for us as well. When we train HDR students we advance the scholastic traditions of our field. Research training requires an ability to make art and to understand why art can be a part of the contest of ideas.

Our students make art at the highest level, yet they also learn to justify their practice and all the hours it takes to maintain it. They learn to justify our disciplines, and why they should exist in the academy. They learn to justify the arts at a time when they seem too easily expendable. Our students have a job to do. We need thinkers who can pre-digest complex research; we need innovative researchers who can apply for funding in cross-disciplinary contexts; we need advocates who can learn from the last generation. We have them, but as we know that is the easy part – the hard part is finding them a job after they graduate


Professor Kim Cunio, Head of the School of Music at the Australian National University (ANU), is an activist composer interested in old and new musics and the role of intercultural music in making sense of our larger world. A scholar, composer and performer, Kim embodies the skills of the artist, showing that writing and making art are part of the same paradigm of deep artistic exploration.

More from this issue

More from this issue

If the debates about the state of the creative arts PhD appear to have slowed down over the last 15 years, it is perhaps not only due to a contraction of the sector, but because the questions being asked of it are no longer in sync with forces driving structural change, whether in the academy, the creative arts, or in the world more broadly.

I recall thinking, decades ago, the introduction of Higher Degree Research (HDR) programs had reinvigorated the teaching and learning space. These programs added interactions for staff and candidates on topics of exciting diversity toward cultural insights.

This brief piece responds to the questions of how the PhD might be re-conceived and what necessary combination of changes might ensure its ongoing quality and appeal to a new generation of creative-arts scholars keen to challenge established boundaries in the public domain. In the context of communication and creative arts, aesthetics has something significant to do in relationship to generating and communicating research findings and presenting or challenging the facts of a matter.

Higher degrees by research, in any discipline, are significant but humble undertakings, and bring together a whole set of relationships and expectations, intersecting across and between the candidate researchers, supervisors, institutions, and the wider political economy and policy agenda in relation to research training and its funding. Invested and vested interests can get very partial or biased about the relevance of a research project or practice. The lack of a real or practiced arms-length approach to federal research funding in Australia is a problem.

As we inch closer to the 100-year anniversary of Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, it is timely to remind ourselves that journeys in knowledge are rarely linear or constructed from large waypoints. This great creative work, a masterclass in the relations of part and whole, is roughly contemporary with another creative work which is only now hitting it stride – the doctorate.

Graduate degrees in the performing arts are now well established in Australia, with graduates employed in various university departments. The exegesis/project combination of these degrees holds different weightings across the various universities that offer them … The unfolding of the relationship of writing to practice also occurs in vastly different modes across institutions.

By Professor David Cross — Artists with PhDs is the name of a blog by American art historian James Elkins founded some fifteen years ago to question the value and validity of the PhD in the creative arts. Framed around his “Fourteen Reasons to Mistrust the PhD”, Elkins has over time taken on the role of eminence grise of practice-based PhD scepticism believing that artists of any persuasion, but specifically visual arts should not be undertaking doctoral research.[i]