The catalyst

Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design established one of the first PhDs in Design in the USA in 1999. It remains one of only around 5 doctoral programs in Design in the USA. Those programs tend toward being social science of or for Design. The National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) recently reaffirmed its position that the MFA remain the terminal degree for Design academics, characterising a PhD as a degree in research, which may or may not be part of a Design academics work profile.

Since the establishment of doctoral programs in Design in the USA, the PhD in Design has become much more widespread, though primarily in Europe and Commonwealth countries. Those countries outside of the USA established PhDs in response to Research Quality Assurance & Measurement initiatives by the governments funding the higher education sector. Nevertheless, the response was to develop PhD program with processes, epistemologies and evaluation criteria more appropriate to the practice of Design. Practice-based Design PhDs – that is, PhDs that draw on cases of professional practice, deploy the methods practice, include products as part of their submissions, generate new knowledge about practice, and/or that are evaluated on their contributions to professional practice – are now well-established.

In the USA, there is increasing interest in Design PhDs, by academics in schools with systems of tenure or seeking to win research funding, and by designers interested in academic positions for which they must compete against international candidates with PhDs. At the same time, interest in Design as a contributor to radical innovation or social change is also driving a demand for more doctoral-level design research. It seems that the next wave of Design PhDs that meets this increasing demand in the USA could and perhaps should be practice-based.

At the same time however, higher education is entering a period of major transformation if not crisis. The business model of higher education is fragile or immoral, causing administrators to consider how social media could scale up offerings at reduced cost. In traditional disciplines, PhDs are being criticized as leading to an oversupply of academics and/or being exploited as a source of cheap instructors.

This symposium seeks to examine the state of the Design PhD in North America, with a focus on what the practice-based Design PhD in the USA should now be.