The end of an era: reflective practice

I am entitled to be just a little dramatic with my headline as I have now officially completed my thesis. Those who follow me on twitter would have noticed the excited tweets. I know that many have been asking me for my thesis, and I can assure you that it will be published online within the week- there are just a few more hidden hoops to jump before i can publish it, but more on that in a bit…

So, I figured now is a good time to reflect on the journey that was the almighty PhD pilgrimage into academic enlightenment. This is less of a practice-based post and so perhaps it will be of more interest, or use, to those considering an academic pathway or who perhaps are curious as to what to do after a PhD. I have chosen to write this based on the most common questions and comments i received during and after my studies and will conclude with hopefully some helpful advice.


Common question #238: What is the point of doing a PhD, let alone in design?

Depending on your definition of influence and impact, this question is (imho) often expressed out of naivety and ignorance. However, I can see how someone can construct the argument that a PhD is pointless, but it all comes down to value and perspective. If you value the pursuit, tradition and history of scholarly practice, you will understand how humbling it is to contribute to a long history of reflections, insights and theories from many scholars and practitioners committed to evolve and expand knowledge. But if you are of a more practical nature, the analysis, reflection and documentation may seem superfluous, and often at times, outdated to current trends.

It is true that you do a PhD in order to obtain a license to work as a researcher. It is also true that in many instances research is often a few steps behind practice. But what is not true is the assumption that the skills you acquire in doing a PhD are impractical for the “real world” (my most loathed statement. What is the “real world”, anyway? and to whom?). I am in the very fortunate position to have come out of academia and be able to return to industry practice in the field that I studied. So I can attest to the many transferrable skills developed in studying for a PhD:

(These are particular to qualitative/case-study PhD’s and to design practice)

  1. Writing skills. This is a highly valuable skill in general, but particularly if you are required to write reports, proposals, thought leadership, etc.
  2. Strategy. I really believe most PhD’s are highly strategic. You have to scan the field for untapped opportunities then assess many multiple theories, options, and methods for your plan of attack. As I now work in strategy (or strategic design), which involves both strategy and design research, I have realised that much of the formative ‘fuzzy’ front end of design thinking is very similar to the process of PhD research.
  3. Critical thinking. Well, you can’t find a better place to develop critical thinking than through graduate research. And I challenge anyone to dispute how valuable critical thinking is in most industry based practice (except, maybe, for the arts?)
  4. Public speaking and presenting. I also don’t think anything could prepare you better for client pitches like a review board of professors and/or conference presentations. PhD’s are perhaps best adept at forming and presenting arguments whilst defending anticipated rebuttals.
  5. Field research. This is specific to those who conducted primary research and may end up working in a design field or industry applying a design/thinking process that requires field/ethnographic research. As mentioned earlier, the design, methods, analysis and synthesis inherent in design practice are the fundamental building blocks for completing a PhD.
  6. Articulation of ideas. Particularly if you are client-facing, being able to clearly and coherently articulate your point/ideas across and in a way that is intellectually accessible to those around you who may not come from your depth of knowledge, is an incredibly persuasive asset.

I am sure there are many more I could think of, but these are the PhD skills I use most often on a day to day basis in my work.


Common question #592: Why didn’t you stay in academia?

There are a few reasons why I didn’t continue down the academic path right now. To be brutally honest, I wanted a rounded career and feared that if I continued with a career in academia I would be labelled an ‘out of touch academic’. This is unfortunately a reality for most academics, even if it (most often) is not true. It is very hard to return to industry after a PhD, (at least in Australia, it seems) let alone after working as an academic for many years. Despite the fact that I already had industry practice, I wanted to obtain more industry experience related to my thesis. I am still open to the idea of returning to academia (hint hint) and will continue to publish from my thesis. Right now the thought of remaining on a very low salary after four years of a near-poverty-wage scholarship is simply suffocating.


id like to know what having money feels like


Common question #475: What are your reflections on academia and practice?

I will keep my thoughts brief, as I am currently writing a deeper blog post on this topic. But the TL;DR of it is that, as an academic, you have much more time and freedom to exhaustively reflect on a topic and come to a deeper and more insightful conclusion. Industry has no tolerance for time-consuming, self-indulgent activities like reflective practice. For the most part, this reflection is not needed.. but I feel it is incredibly important if we are going to aim for creativity, let alone innovation, in any kind of practice. Again, this is where a PhD graduate could really add value and particularly if from a design background.


So to those still studying for their doctoral thesis- know that you have a choice and that there are options beyond just a post-doc. Present your skills in the right context and language to the industry you are applying and you will find that you have much more to offer beyond the assumption that academics are “just thinkers”. One good thought is worth more than a thousand mindless prototypes.


(Watch this space for a post that contains my thesis)


2 thoughts on “The end of an era: reflective practice

  1. Hi Stephanie,

    Firstly congratulations on making it through a PhD. An achievement in itself. As someone with an academic background who moved back into a commercial world a few years ago, I empathise with some of the comments above.

    When it comes to writing reports and documents, I actually believe the academic style of writing becomes a barrier to clients and a more commercial audience. With the work we have been doing, especially over the last year, I have been trying to find a balance between the “academic” and communicating in plain English for our work is digestible and accessible to the widest possible audience. I think academic writing does this job quite poorly, and especially in writing proposals, the jargon that we use (or the lexicon of design which we actually advocate and teach students) has been pointed out as a negative.

    Trying to walk the line of applying rigour within our research, whilst not “dumbing down” and yet producing work that people engage with that creates real impact for clients, is my seemingly never-ending quest (and I’m sure that of many others in a strategic discipline. 🙂

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this, and keen to see how this thinking progresses as you move along your career path (and good luck with that as well!).

    Chris Jackson

    • stefdr says:

      You have described exactly the same thoughts and concerns that i have been reflecting on recently! I appreciate your lovely comment (and apologies for the delayed response- though i believe we have chatted quite a bit over Twitter!) . I think one of the things that i initially fell into the trap of in coming out of my PhD was that research= rigor. I realised most recently that research in design is not professional research, and it is silly (and unrealistic, even unfair) to demand that research in design practice should be as rigorous as professional research. It is an approximation or appropriation of formal research, and as much as we strive to be rigorous, we cannot expect or hold our research in design practice to be of the same quality and thoroughness as research in professional academic practice. i am surprised how many people assume this is the case whilst also wanting short, iterative timeframes- this also includes the language we use to communicate the research in design practice.

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