Are you interested in doctoral studies at the Theatre Academy, Uniarts Helsinki or are you planning to write a thesis by means of artistic research? This section provides practical advice to help you get started.

Research plan

Without a well-made research plan, the research will easily start to expand and will never be completed. The plan tells you what you are doing and why. It helps you to present your research to others. Based on the plan, you can be accepted for doctoral studies or be awarded a grant.

It is, however, difficult to draw up a research plan, because it requires the researcher to already know something they are just setting out to explore. A researcher is always caught in a sort of loop between known and not-known. Engaging in research will change the initial conceptions, based on which the plan was drawn up. If this does not happen, there is cause for concern that the research is not progressing.

Therefore, be prepared to continuously update the research plan throughout the working process. Instead of a prescribed process description, you should think of the plan as a tool resembling a journal, in which you reflect on your current situation in relation to the set goals and the work already done. Like a map, the research plan can show the terrain through which you are moving; your current position, optional paths to follow, and the direction in which you intend to proceed.

It is a good idea to explain as clearly and concretely as possible in the research plan what you intend to do. What kind of things do you want to understand, and why? How will the research progress, what will it produce, demonstrate or reveal, and how? How can the emerging knowledge be shared with other people, and how can it be assessed? Avoid overly abstract and theoretical terminology, especially if you are unsure of the different connotative meanings of the words. It is often better to describe your own method in the comprehensible general language. The reader assessing your plan may perhaps not be familiar with the specific field whose terminology you are using. A comprehensive explanation of complicated ideas also helps the author themselves to clarify and deepen what they are trying to say. It is often easy to escape the complexity of things behind scholarly jargon, because it entails a kind of aura of erudition that makes the reader respect what is said, even if they do not understand it. This prevents critical debate because people will not dare ask seemingly stupid but useful questions.

Coming up with and defining a research question

Although artistic phenomena cannot be expressed with unequivocal declarative sentences, and the aim is not to provide exhaustive answers, a research plan should already at an early stage be based on a clearly formulated research question with derived supporting questions. A well-stated research question will direct the work towards more in-depth thinking by always posing new, more specific thematic questions.

It is often a good idea to start with something in your artistic work that you would like to understand better. It can be a personal experience, something that constantly amazes you, a practical problem, or a working method that you would like to develop. Any phenomenon that creates in you a desire to explore and know more. What is essential is that you are genuinely curious and interested in your subject. You are, and must be, allowed to show your ignorance, limitations and uncertainty.

Next, try to structure and refine the subject. In what ways is it concretised and visible in your work? What kind of words could you use to describe it? How do other people talk about the subject? Is it discussed in public? Who speaks about it, and what do they say? Has research been published on the subject? What other issues and broader themes is it related to? Discuss the subject with all interested parties. Write down your thoughts, no matter how incomplete they are.

If you can answer questions like this and you are satisfied with them, you may have a research question taking shape, which will form the backbone of your research plan. Try to summarise it in sentences that are as concrete as possible. It is often advisable to define and structure the actual research question with more detailed sub-questions. They serve as a roadmap for identifying components that your research entity will comprise.

Pay attention to the question words you begin your sentence with, such as what, which, how, why, for whom, for what, etc. It tells you whether you are exploring the following:

  • What is a given phenomenon deep down? What is it all about?
  • What is it like? What is it in nature? What kind of qualities does it have? 
  • How does something work or manifest itself?
  • Why is a given phenomenon as it is? What factors affect it?
  • To whom is the phenomenon you are studying meaningful? Who can benefit from your research?

Reflecting on these questions will help you later find the appropriate method and theoretical tools for your research.

Next, consider how you will be able to address your questions. Is it possible to find answers to them at all? If a question is too general and abstract, it may not result in any kind of meaningful discussion. However, as has often been repeated in this learning material, artistic research does not aim to provide exhaustive explanations, but the research topic must provide an opportunity for deepening the understanding. (Research with art; Hermeneutics and the circle of understanding) Does it forward the thinking; does it produce new insights or modes of artistic activity?

A strictly defined question that can be addressed using concrete cases or materials often helps to advance the research, although it may seem confining. There are many big, interesting questions related to art that can be discussed indefinitely, such as “What is art?” Artistic doctoral research may include this kind of philosophical reflection, but it can easily expand in endless different directions. It is also good to note that there are already shelves upon shelves of literature on such fundamental issues. Doctoral research is expected to produce new understanding, so if you choose a philosophical direction, you will have a lot to study. But will you have enough time and interest to see it through?

In practice, a research question is very rarely too narrow. Even though this can sometimes happen, in general almost every research plan is too broad in the beginning. Typically, there may be several equally big questions in it that will take the research in different directions. It is a good idea to choose one and save the rest for later projects. As the research plan narrows down, it usually also becomes deeper as a result. Surprisingly, when you focus on the detail you have chosen, you may find that you are also addressing the big questions that you perhaps filtered out in refining the research question. Especially if you are planning a doctoral degree, keep in mind that this does not have to be the only research you do. The researcher’s career does not really begin until after the doctorate.

Be prepared that after starting your research in practice the initial research question might change. It may become more defined, take an unexpected turn, or raise additional questions. This is no cause for concern – it only demonstrates that your research is taking shape, but the research plan will require constant updating. It is also one mode of thinking.

Artistic components as research materials, mediums and outcomes

A special feature of artistic research is that artistic or pedagogical processes, works of art, performative arrangements or workshops are at the same time research materials, tools and outcomes. Therefore, it is not enough to simply present your artistic work or use it as an example to illustrate theoretical reflection. You should address your research question in and through your artistic or pedagogical practise, in which case a given practical activity or sensory experience is in itself a form of reflection and thinking. Designing and realising such an artistic component is perhaps the most challenging task in your research.

It is possible that your research question can be best addressed through a large-scale work presented to the general public. However, it is often worth considering what you really need. How simply can your artistic component be realised? Do you want to make an entire performance, or is a small-scale exercise enough? What is the minimum you will need? Do you need large-scale stage machinery? Do you need sets? Do you need actors?

It is not just about saving resources. An artistic research component can be compared to a scientific laboratory, in the sense that it would be good to remove all extra factors from the experiment so that they do not affect the subject being studied. Naturally, the problem is that everything affects everything in artistic processes, and especially in theatre performances. The delimitation is always artificial and excludes some perspectives. This should be openly considered when outlining the research: what is primarily to be addressed, what is most important and what falls outside the scope of this specific research or component.

The research plan is not set in stone in this respect either. Ultimately, the artistic components may become very different from those envisaged in the original plan. It is still a good idea to prepare your plan carefully, as it will help you concretise your questions. In the early stages of doctoral studies, small-scale experiments can be conducted before the actual artistic components are realised. Other researchers and artists can be invited in, both as co-authors and audience.

Because the artistic components serve as the key material for your research, they are directly related to the research questions. What kind of material do you need? In what kinds of perceptions does the phenomenon you are studying emerge? How can you approach them? In what format do you document and save your findings? Can you use images, videos, audio recordings, written texts, material samples, etc.? Are you documenting the process, the performance, or both? Are you interviewing the team or the audience? Are you keeping a diary? What kind of concrete things are you looking for in the artistic components?

You will not be able to document everything, so you will have to choose what is relevant to your research question. But keep in mind that the research question may change, and new questions may arise along the way. Any finding may prove necessary. Because this can easily result in an excessive accumulation of material, plan its structure and storage so that you can find what you need later.

If conventional book seems too limited as a format for publishing your research, you can look at artistic research forums on the Research Catalogue (RC) platform. for alternative means of communication. In RC, you can also save unpublished materials to your account. Consider what opportunities different publication forums offer your research, but also what limitations may be associated with them. Choosing a publication format affects how the research is best conducted, so it is worth considering this already in the research plan. In her in-depth article “Artistic Research beyond Doctoral Studies” Annette Arlander discusses how she used Research Catalogue in her own work.

Choosing research tools

In the research plan, you must explain how you intend to address your research question and how you expect to find answers to it. This is called a research method. There is no generally accepted selection of methods in artistic research. (Methods of artistic research) If you wish, you can familiarise yourself with methods used in the humanities and social sciences. If you are lucky, there may be a method that you can creatively apply to your research.

However, it is more likely that you will have to develop your own research method because each artistic process sets its own rules and principles. Here, too, try to be clear and simple. Explain in your own words what you intend to do and why. Also consider the adequacy of the method. If you wish, you can use the following questions for help:

  • What questions are you looking to answer using this method?
  • On what basis does the method answer your questions? How does it work?
  • What kind of questions does the method fail to answer? Are they important to your research?
  • What other methods could you use as an alternative? Why did you make the choice you did? (Nothing prevents you from using more than one method.)
  • How can you assess the results obtained with the method?
  • What problems can the method cause? How can they be fixed?

In addition to the methods, the most important reference literature should be presented in the research plan. (Tools for artistic research; Theoretical framework) This refers to the theories and previous research that you use to support your discussion on the research question. In artistic research, both works of art and written texts can equally be used. The bibliography does not need to be long, but it must be deliberately chosen and justified through the research questions. The aim is not to show great learning, but to present the research tradition that one wishes to follow. It goes without saying that the list will expand as the research progresses.

Not just any source will do as theoretical reference literature for academic research, such as doctoral research. Scientific journals, university publications, doctoral theses and textbooks are usually reliable sources. You should be cautious of popular non-fiction books and websites. Verify the information from multiple independent sources. When you find one good publication, check its bibliography. It can provide you with a lot of good tips. Learn how to use library services:

Use the bibliography to place yourself in the field of performing arts research. On the one hand, you narrow down and clarify your own area of interest, and on the other, link it with more general discussions. Briefly explain the basic idea behind the key references you have selected, and why they are important to you. You do not need to agree with the authors, and you can also look for shortcomings in previous research that you seek to correct. If you use theoretical concepts, explain where they come from and what they mean in that context. Try to include as recent publications in the bibliography as possible. Show that you know what is currently being discussed in your field, even if you rely on older sources.

The following questions may be useful for you:

  • Why do you want to know more about this particular subject? Why is it important?
  • What is in it that you do not know about?
  • What have others said on the subject? What can you learn from them? What do they not seem to know about it? What do you disagree with them about?

Find publications that address the same or similar questions that you plan to explore. For example, if you are interested in the perception of things, you may want to familiarise yourself with phenomenology. (Bredenberg, Rouhiainen) If you are interested in functionality and practices as forms of thinking, pragmatism can provide useful perspectives. (Kumpulainen) If you want to understand power relationships and established thinking structures related to art, feminism and post-colonialism may offer frameworks for you. (Porkola, Järvinen) If artistic work with non-human actors is your own field, it is a good idea to learn about relevant examples exploring them. (Arlander)

If you are not already familiar with the theories of art research and philosophy, do not let the complex concepts confuse you. For most words, you can find an explanation in general language, such as The Helsinki Term Bank for the Arts and Sciences (HTB), website (Finnish and Swedish only) or even Wikipedia. And do not despair if you have trouble understanding art philosophical literature right away. Some of them are deliberately multi-layered, ambiguous, even poetic. They often require a specific manner of reading and a thorough knowledge of philosophical traditions. This cannot be expected immediately from an artistic practitioner whose expertise is in a different field. If you are interested, you can take courses, join seminars and study circles discussing the subject. You do not, however, need to take up complex concepts and theories unless you explicitly choose a particular orientation as the subject or framework of your research. When making a research plan, use words that you feel you can comprehend.

Research budget and schedule

When applying for doctoral studies, you may be asked how you intend to fund your research. Do not get alarmed, even if you have no idea how the funding will work. Most doctoral researchers do not know where their funding will come from when they apply to the programme. If you are accepted to a doctoral programme, you can start applying for grants and paid doctoral candidate positions. You will be provided with assistance and advice on these. Thus far, artist-researchers have been quite successful in receiving grants, but doing doctoral research is always a financial challenge. Only rarely do researchers receive funding for the entire duration of their research. Doctoral studies can also be completed while employed, which means that they will take longer.

In the research plan, assess how much funds and other resources you will need to complete your artistic components. Remember to calculate the salary of any working group members in accordance with the appropriate tariffs. It is easy to obtain a few thousand euros from different grants for small-scale productions, but if you are planning a large-scale performance, it is worthwhile to seek collaboration with, for example, a professional theatre or some other party.

Prepare a preliminary schedule for the progress of your work. Be realistic and do not try to do too much. As a rule of thumb, research always takes much more time than you think it will when you are making your plan. So, be sure to leave enough leeway for yourself.

If other people will be participating in your artistic research arrangements as test subjects, or if you will be processing personal data, be prepared to conduct an ethical review of your research. This may turn out to be a big job. Read more on the subject in Finnish National Board on Research Integrity TENK website.

In conclusion

If you are planning to start doctoral studies, stop for a moment to think about whether you enjoyed drawing up a research plan. Will you be able to continue working like this? Doctoral studies take a long time. The target completion time with full-time funding is four years.


Laura Gröndahl

Laura Gröndahl has worked as set designer, researcher and teacher. She defended her doctoral dissertation at the University of Industrial Arts in 2004, worked as Professor of Stage Design from 2006 to 2013, held teaching positions in several universities, and holds the title of Docent in Theatre Research at the University of Helsinki. At present, she works as University Lecturer at the Performing Arts Research Centre at the Theatre Academy of Uniarts Helsinki, with special interests in practices within the arts and theatre, scenography, and documentary theatre.