Representing the creative future

Do I need a PhD to be a fashion academic?

How to get into an academic career or how to use it to follow another pathway?

Contrary to the romanticised creative disciplines of fashion and art, academic pathways are rarely considered a part of the fashion industry. Usually, you hear about talented designers, stylists, or photographers leaving high-profile institutions whilst the “theorists” of the industry are ignored. Yet still, every year, hundreds of students feel drawn to degrees like Fashion History, Cultural Studies, or Curation. When you think of academic careers, you are almost instantly confronted with cliché images of unemployed PhD graduates or sayings along the lines of: “those who can’t, teach”. With funding cuts on all ends, arts education is not only becoming less accessible, but it also gets harder to imagine a potential career in it. When you look at the UK  the means of funding for post-BA education are getting more and more limited. With hundreds of students graduating every year in academic disciplines, the question of whether a career in this field is viable is turning potent.

“Arts and Humanities academia is in crisis,” says Jeppe Ugelvig, who is a curator, art historian, writer, editor and current PhD candidate at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Ugelvig did his BA in Culture, Criticism and Curation at Central Saint Martins and his MA in Curatorial Studies at the Bard Centre for Curatorial Studies. Currently, besides his studies, he is the Editor-in-Chief of the fashion journal, “Viscose”. Doing his PhD in the States, he highlights that he is employed alongside his degree. “It’s five years long. Much happens in those years. You teach you do research, you do fellowships. It’s more about having a steady job for five years, to be honest,” he says. This funding model is very different to the way you would fund a PhD in the UK, Jeppe says. “In the US, you essentially get hired as a part-time teacher’s assistant. And that is how you pay. You get the school for free – you don’t need to self-fund like in the British system,” he adds. Yet still, it is not easy as it might sound – the funding is being cut in Arts&Humanities based subjects, and it is being invested in STEM degrees since that is where the money is. “They hire around 100 engineering PhD’s, meanwhile in my department, there are two PhD’s per year,” he adds. Additionally, there is an if-you-get-hired-you-can-never-be-fired policy, which creates a lot of precariousness when it comes to the hiring process.

“Arts and Humanities academia is in crisis.” – Jeppe Ugelvig

Contrary to the US, in the UK, a PhD degree is potentially tied to financial privilege. “I don’t understand how people can even do a PhD there. You have to be rich, I think,” says Jeppe. Currently, the PhD fees at UAL are £6,000 full-time for home students and international students pay £22,780 per year. Lilly Markaki, who is a lecturer in Critical Theory and Practice and the co-director of Claire de Rouen Books, did her PhD in the UK. “I see myself as an exception to the rule because I never paid for education. I moved from Greece to Glasgow in 2009. At that time, EU students did not have to pay fees, so I did not pay for my BA. For my MA, I received an Arts Council and Humanities research funding. I had a scholarship called research preparation masters, which was a lot of money at the time,” she says. She received around £15,000 per year, which lasted her long due to the low rent in Glasgow.

“I actually started my PhD in Glasgow and for about a year and a half, I was competing with a lot of my classmates to get funding for it,” she says. Getting funding in the UK is notoriously hard, hence it signifies that you are worth investing in, which then increases your chances of getting a job after. “Funding does not only allow you to do a PhD financially, it also gives you cultural capital. I have a lot of friends who essentially did their PhDs part-time, and some of them still haven’t finished it because they had to work at the same time. It’s demoralising. It’s not even just about the money, even though that is very important, it is about the sense of self-worth that comes with it. If you are not funded, you somehow think your work isn’t good enough,” highlights Lilly.

“Funding does not only allow you to do a PhD financially, it also gives you cultural capital.” – Lilly Markaki

On social media, some posts are predestined to go viral. In academia, certain topics get funding – all the time. “It is driven by trends,” says Lilly. “You find people, who will get funded all the time, even though their work might not be the strongest. Then you find people who are doing something quite unfashionable, and they are amazing – but they never get funding.” After the funding hunt, you naturally start looking for jobs. When you study at university today, talking about a competitive job market is so normal, especially in arts and fashion education-based degrees. The dark cloud over everyone’s heads is daunting with unemployment statistics and a lifetime filled with temporary jobs, peer-reviewed journal articles that barely pay the electricity bill, and 0-hour lecturing contracts.

Whilst a PhD increases your salary, it might not necessarily increase your chances of getting a job.

Due to that, last November, about 70.000 members of the University and College Union went on strike in the UK. Their reasoning was rooted in low pay, unstable contracts, and a pension cut. Additionally, the current inflation rate for the UK is around 10%, and University teachers’ salaries have only risen by around 3%, reports the Evening Standard. Witnessing this as a student makes one wonder – is academia a stable career option, or is it being gatekept like most aspects of the industry? And maybe most importantly – do you need a PhD these days to work in this field?

“Due to the over-popularity of master’s degrees, the PhD qualification is the new master’s.” – Sara Bernat

Whilst a PhD increases your salary, it might not necessarily increase your chances of getting a job. “Due to the over-popularity of master’s degrees, the PhD qualification is the new master’s,” says Sara Bernat, a Senior Strategist with a PhD. Yet still, fashion school is a different story, since it is based on a very practise-based discipline. Dal Choda is a lecturer in Fashion Communication and Promotion at CSM, and he does not have a master’s or a PhD. Besides his lecturing work, he founded Archivist Addendum, an untraditional publishing project, and he also works as a contributing editor for Wallpaper magazine. Having worked in academia since 2009, he describes it as a viable career. “I think all careers are viable, I just don’t think everybody needs to be encouraged to do it,” he says, touching on an important point. Just like university might not be for everyone, an academic career might not be for everyone too.

In fashion schools, there are degrees for every part of the industry – from design to makeup. Yet, in terms of Academia, there is usually only for one or two, which are usually tied to fashion history.

Academia, especially in subjects tied to practise-based industries has a strange disconnect from the “real world”. In fashion design, you research months for a collection, when in reality, you might only have a few weeks for it, if even. In fashion journalism degrees, you write insightful long-form pieces, aspiring to be the new Diana Vreeland, but once you get out in the industry, your employer asks you to write an Instagram caption. When you study theory, you have to make peace with the fact that university, the place where academia is cradled, does not reflect the industry in the slightest. Sara, who did her PhD in the Sociology of Luxury at the Humboldt University in Berlin, decided not to undertake a classical Academia career because of this disconnect. “Being a scholar, without having institutional support, I decided to branch out into the industry. I was playing with the idea of going into academia, but I found it so rigid, in terms of being divorced from practice. Even on the theory side, fashion should be an applied science. I am sure that there are schools, which are like that. But in my experience, it was either being on the theory side or going into the industry. Personally, I just found that you can make a bigger impact on the industry side,” she says.

“Even though fashion academia as a field is widely accepted, it feels like a club most people are refused entry to.” – Sara Bernat

Parsons hasn’t only doubled their available spaces in their courses since Project Runway, but there is also the concept of the multi-versity, especially in the US. Clarke Kerr, the president of the University of California, wrote in an article with the New Yorker that “the university is so many things to so many different people, that it must be, out of necessity, be partially at war with itself”. This concept describes modern institutions, which drift away from the classical structure of academia as seen in Oxford or Cambridge. In fashion schools, there are degrees for every part of the industry – from design to makeup. Yet, in terms of Academia, there is usually only for one or two, which are usually tied to fashion history. That results in an emphasis on industry-focused degrees and neglect of academic disciplines. Additionally, even though fashion academia as a field is widely accepted, it feels like a club most people are refused entry to, exlains Sara.

If not remaining exclusively within academia, what other career can someone pursue? Beata Wilczek, a researcher and strategist, founded her consulting agency “Unfolding Strategies” because she felt that there need to be more avenues for academically minded people than just the classic university pathway. “I was working as a stylist and art director, independently. I did exhibitions. I worked as a curator – I did all this image-heavy and fast-paced work. But then, I felt that it was all very unsustainable and I wondered how to do it differently, how to actually make fashion and creative industries different? I naturally turned towards education, where you can rethink how to do things and incubate new ideas. I ended up working as an educator for over 10 years” she says. As beautiful as the philosophy of teaching sounds – Beata has a similar point to Sara, saying that teaching young minds is great, but if you want to actually change things, it is very limiting. In a classroom, you talk about decolonisation, sustainability and digitisation to potential changemakers, rather than speaking to people with actual power to change things. “I think it was very limiting to have it closed in a classroom of 20 people, It becomes a very exclusive way of circulating information and knowledge. You can see, it does not go very far beyond that. That is why I started Fashion Knowledge, a podcast based originally on my courses with guest speakers. I wanted to give more people access to what I considered important” She felt like it was time to open it up – and do both. In Beata’s opinion, there shouldn’t be such a big wall between those two worlds. That’s why she used her industry and academic knowledge and turned it into a venture that pushes for change, supporting and educating fashion and creative workers at every stage of their careers. Her PhD research, now in its final year at the University of Fine Arts in Vienna and Aalto University in Helsinki, revolves around the decentralisation and digitalisation of fashion education. Through her studies, she reveals how we can transcend the often rigid and distinct lines that separate academic research from practical industry work.

With fashion being an image-dominated circulation, being someone who researches and writes will always be on the harder side, unfortunately. But still, there are spaces that appreciate the written word and start to carve out more of a niche for it. Viscose, founded by Jeppe is exactly that – he started a publication that makes academic writing accessible, with only one image-led editorial per issue. If you want to work in Academia, even if it remains questionable whether you need a PhD or not, one thing is for sure: Be smart with your skills and expertise. In times of rising competition, being a specialist on a topic can be proven a valuable asset, so don’t let the elitist nature and reputation of academia limit your potential. Maybe your biggest “enemy” is not the underappreciation of academia and words, but the institutional gatekeeping, socially and financially.


Discover our list of Fashion History and Theory Reads here