PhD in Transition Design: Behind the Scenes


The School of Design’s Jonathan Chapman recently traveled to Delft University of Technology to attend a PhD Design Summit. This gathering was the first of its kind, marking the beginning of an open and collaborative dialogue amongst leading universities running Design PhD programs. Attendees included the PhD program directors from Carnegie Mellon University, Politecnico di Milano, Aalto, Imperial College London, Delft University of Technology, and Illinois Institute of Technology.

The impetus for this expert group to come together occured when these universities realized that they were operating in private silos. “We thought it would be beneficial to sit around a table with others experiencing the same things as us,” detailed Chapman. He continued to describe how this type of open dialogue was revolutionary. “I’ve never had a moment in my career when I could sit down with other people doing exactly what I do in a very open way,” Chapman remarked. “It was incredible. I found it completely eye opening.” At a high level, the directors exchanged best practices to begin a collaborative relationship with one another and to improve doctoral-level curriculum across the board.

In terms of curriculum, the group discussed the idea of creating an international benchmark for Design PhD programs. Such programs have a relatively young history and currently operate in isolation. This means the experience one student has in one program will be radically different from that of another in a different program. This diversity in curriculum is important, since it reflects the place from which the program emerged. However, it can also lead to “very patchy” experiences and expectations between programs. Furthermore, PhD programs attract a wide mix of students from across the globe. This means there is an important need for more consistent and deliberate curriculum across schools, to ensure the meaning, value and standard of a PhD is kept high.

Another point the group explored at length was the topic-focused nature of PhD programs. Most PhD programs are general Design programs, but ours is one of the few with a distinct topic focus: Transition Design. The directors agreed that the main advantage of this model is that topic focussed programs attract more focused applicants. After joining a program, these students can normally dive right into deepening their focus, meaning that after four years, they are working at great depth and specificity. The topic focus also helps with establishing a strong community, and culture of shared values, within the program.

One major highlight of the meeting was the short program presentations each director gave to a live audience at TU Delft. Instead of presenting to each other behind closed doors, the group booked a lecture theater and welcomed all at the university to attend. “The theater was packed with Master’s students, PhD students, and professors. The interest in doctoral studies is really high,” remarked Jonathan.

The main goal of this Summit was to explore and develop more robust, quality Design PhD programs worldwide. An important part of this goal is to have a sustained, open conversation with schools across the world.

“Here in the School of Design, we’re continually looking for ways to improve our curriculum and make things as good as they can possibly be.”

The next PhD Design Summit is tentatively set for the coming spring.

Learn more about the School of Design’s PhD in Transition Design >>

Date Published: 
Thursday, November 29, 2018
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