Is your research practice-based or practice-led?

Professional doctorates in all fields tend to have a close relationship with practice. They yield or prompt practical innovation. The traditional PhD presents an original contribution to knowledge in a written thesis, but over the past few decades, researchers have found that not all innovation can be demonstrated in text alone. Professional doctorates have a relationship with practice that is unlike that of the traditional PhD. For professional doctorate students, practice is vital to the demonstration and application of the new knowledge that is achieved during the research.

Professional doctorates tend to be either practice-based or practice-led. Linda Candy (2006) provides a useful definition that summarises the difference between these two forms of research:

Practice-based research:

  • Embedded or embodied knowledge: New knowledge is bound up in a practical outcome, such as a designed artefact or method.
  • New knowledge is acquired or demonstrated through practice.
  • “Whilst the significance and context of the claims are described in words, a full understanding can only be obtained with direct reference to the outcomes.”
  • For example, a DDes student studying typography might develop a typeface as part of the research, in order to test a hypothesis about  typographic communication.
  • For example, a DFA student studying video art might develop a series of films to provide audiences with a temporal experience that cannot be fully embodied in a text-only thesis.

Practice-led research:

  • New knowledge influences future practice.
  • The thesis aims to advance knowledge about practice, or to advance knowledge within practice
  • Outcome does not necessarily involve practice (could be written thesis only).
  • For example, a DDes student might develop a method of communicating design ideas to clients. The written thesis could impact upon how future designers communicate with their own clients.
  • For example, a DFA student might propose a new method of approaching the collection of art exhibits. Future gallery curators could use this written thesis to inform their own methods of collecting artworks for display.

Whether your research is practice-based or research-based, it is likely to have some kind of real-world application. It is the importance of this quantifiable or observable impact that sets professional doctorates apart from PhDs.

For more, read:

Candy, Linda (2006), Practice Based Research: A Guide”, Creativity & Cognition.