Program Profile: PhD in Fashion & Textiles, RMIT University
Editor's Note: FSJ’s profile series on programs and institutions that prioritize and foster fashion studies education aims to highlight and bring attention to the multi-disciplinary approaches to the field globally. We asked FSJ contributor Julie Macindoe to profile the PhD program in the School of Fashion and Textiles at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia . As a current PhD student in the program, she conducted an interview with Dr. Sean Ryan, Senior Lecturer and Higher Degree Research Coordinator in the School of Fashion and Textiles.
Typical to doctoral programs in Australia, the PhD in Fashion & Textiles is based on independent research over 3-4 years, but can be achieved through traditional thesis research, practice-led research, or practice-based research. As someone who is pursuing the traditional thesis option, the practice-based and practice-led research of my fellow candidates is fascinating, offering approaches and insights that often complement my own research. With this in mind, I interviewed Dr. Sean Ryan to learn more about the program and practice-based research.
Julie Macindoe: How does the PhD program in the School of Fashion and Textiles at RMIT compare to other programs in Australia or internationally?
Dr. Sean Ryan: There are three disciplines in the school: fashion & textiles design, much of which is practice-based but also includes research into social, cultural, historical, and theoretical issues; textiles technology, which is engineering, science, and technology-focused; and fashion entrepreneurship, which is business-oriented and deals with marketing, branding, economic, industry, and social issues. But, as you would expect, there is a lot of crossover between the three disciplines. This broad focus is, I think, quite unique, and offers a lot of collaborative possibilities that we are just beginning to explore.
There’s also no other program in Australia that has the level of capacity and expertise to offer practice-based PhD’s. There is a history behind this, because until recently the fashion design discipline was housed within the School of Architecture and Design. The architecture programs started the practice-based PhD at RMIT and have developed it to the point that they now run programs in Europe and Asia. As well as giving space to new researchers to do a PhD through practice, the model allows established practitioners to do the equivalent of a PhD by publication, reflecting on their own profession and on the intentions, motivations, concepts, and contexts that lie behind their creative work. The fashion and textile programs offer a similar scope for research projects, and in fact we have had, as candidates, academics teaching at other higher educational institutions in Australia and New Zealand who have wanted to reflect on and transform their own professional practices as designers.
There is still some resistance to the model, particularly to the form of examination, which includes a dissertation, an event such as an exhibition or performance, and an oral presentation. The argument is that the research should be able to be presented solely in the form of a thesis. But the model recognizes that knowledge takes different forms. The assumption that epistemology is limited to theoretical, scientific knowledge ignores the kinds of ‘know-how’ involved in practical, creative-poetic, and technical knowledge. These other forms of knowledge cannot be communicated through discourse alone and need to be demonstrated through the works and artifacts of a practice.
What’s the difference between a practice-based and practice-led PhD?
It’s a moving feast of definitions. For us, a practice-led PhD involves carrying out research through a series of projects, but what is submitted for examination is a thesis. It’s similar to doing scientific research: you carry out your experiments or investigations, but you write up your findings in the traditional thesis form. Practice-based research involves the presentation of three components for examination: a written dissertation, which presents, explains, and justifies the practice; the practice itself, in the form of an exhibition or performance; and an oral presentation, which makes explicit the relation between the writing and the practice.
Again, it comes down to questions of what knowledge is, how knowledge is attained, and whether knowledge can always be presented in the form of written statements and arguments. On the other hand, you still need a discursive document, a dissertation that explains and interprets the practical work. You could never submit a PhD for examination in the form of an exhibition alone.
How do these alternative modes of presentation relate to the examination of the thesis and research?
It can be quite hard getting appropriate and experienced examiners for practice-based PhDs. They may not get why there needs to be a practical component, why a thesis with properly documented practical research is not sufficient. It is only when they attend this kind of examination that they understand the importance of an immersive space or experience, or the hands-on relationship to artifacts, to things that you can actually see, touch, and manipulate. It then becomes apparent how important this can be to an understanding of what the specific contribution to knowledge might be. To find experienced examiners we sometimes have to look outside of fashion design, to other design fields.
Does this also require specific training for supervisors of practice-based candidates?
We hold workshops for supervisors, of course, but I think the supervisors are pretty used to what we do here. It’s still a developing field, so methodologies for this kind of research are still relatively new. Also, what constitutes a good PhD, the way in which the dissertation, exhibition, and the ‘viva voce’ presentation fit together and reinforce one another, we’re still working out. Again, we partly look to the architectural disciplines in the school because they have a more established approach than we do. We also need to educate our own university’s School of Graduate Research, because their PhD guidelines are still heavily influenced by the traditional thesis model.
Many people seem to be taking up the option of doing a PhD by practice — has it been very popular?
I think initially it was taken up primarily by staff members who had a professional practice alongside their teaching practice and who thought, ‘I would like to do a PhD, but I don’t want to write a thesis on the history or sociology or aesthetics of design. I’d like to write thoughtfully about my practice and explore what it is that I do.’ The first practice-based PhD in fashion design was that of Robyn Healy (Now Head of the School—JM) in 2009, who examined her own fashion curatorial practice. Since then, the numbers have grown rapidly. We are also gradually attracting practitioners outside the academy who are interested in doing practice-based research.
And, of course, we have many candidates, like you, who are studying for a PhD by thesis. Although we do have a particular focus on practice-based research, I think it is important that we offer PhDs in multiple forms and with diverse approaches to knowledge and research methodologies, because we occupy a complicated field of study. We study and teach and research fashion and textiles, but how we do this can be aesthetic, practical, social, technical, and scientific, and sometimes all of these at once.
Who does the program attract as candidates? Do many students come through RMIT as undergraduates?
Currently we have between 50 and 55 postgraduate research students, about 12 of these are Masters students, the other 40 to 45 are PhDs, with half in the technology fields and half in design and entrepreneurship. A lot of the design PhDs come through fashion and textile design programs and they tend to be local applicants, although the number of international design candidates is growing. Most of the applications we get for the Research Centre for Materials Innovation and Future Fashion (these are generally technology or textiles science PhDs) are from the Indian subcontinent, South-East Asia, and the Middle East. These countries have strong undergraduate and coursework degrees in textiles science but relatively few pathways to a PhD.
Are there any future plans for the program?
Because of the increasing need for universities to attract their own funding, as government support dwindles, like other disciplines we need to strengthen our relationships with industry. In textile technology a number of candidates work on projects responding to an industry brief, in collaboration with senior researchers. But there’s an opportunity for design and entrepreneurship candidates to explore these possibilities too. The fashion industry is not just factories and production houses, it’s government bodies, micro-practices, the retail environment and things like that. We need to identify and engage better with those sorts of opportunities.
Just as we need to be more industry-connected, we need to be more interdisciplinary, to connect fashion and textiles with other fields of research. As a school we are already theory-based and practice-based, located in technology and science, art and design, history, social and cultural theory, business and economics. There are opportunities here to collaborate and redefine the boundaries of what fashion and textiles research is.
Given our geographical situation, our historical and cultural links to Europe but also our proximity to and close engagement with Asia, there are opportunities to increase our international presence and global involvement in new ways. The school has existing relationships with a range of fashion and textiles institutions across the world, and this is something that we would like to strengthen.
And what should prospective students do to learn more about the program?
Read up on the school’s research streams and priorities and check out the research interests of potential supervisors. Most importantly, work on developing a research proposal that inspires you and that you would like to spend three years of your life researching and writing about. While it is great to come up with a proposal that fits with our research interests, I am always on the lookout for a really interesting proposal on a topic that I would never have thought of.
[ed. I’d also recommend checking out the graduate symposia , available online, and the RMIT research repository  to see the variety of research coming out of the school.]