Doing a PhD, Quitting a PhD, and Trying to Get a Real Job

Academic Identification

Since completing my MA i have went on to attempt a PhD in Design at Northumbria University. Since January 2014 I had been writing my proposal, which was to continue the theme of my work produced for my MA (the work shown in previous blog posts), and had applied to 4 or 5 universities. My proposal was rejected (rightly so, retrospectively, as i’ll go into later) by all universities, with the exclusion of Northumbria – where I was invited for an interview. Prior to the interview I had e-mailed the professor of design issues and arranged to meet up with him and discuss my idea, which in short was to utilise illustration for means outside of economic gain. I was accepted as a post graduate researcher, and started my research in early October.

Soon after my enrolment, It became increasingly clear to me that those I was studying alongside where interested in very different aspects of design to myself. While my research was proposed to be a practice-led approach to exploring how Illustration could be developed as a discipline of social benefit, my peers where looking more into how design can help bring solutions to problems with health care problems. It became apparent within a few weeks that my understanding of ‘design’, and how the university and other students of it understood design, where 2 very different things.

I altered my proposal to fit in with the mode of design that I had come to understood as what I would have to be dealing with at the university. My intentions in my proposal where to try use illustration to communicate alternative ways of thinking and behaving – ideas that go against cultural conditioning that doesn’t serve us both individually and collectively. I recognise now that my goals were too high. Unfortunately the university seemed to misunderstand this when accepting me on the programme, however I soon realised it became clearer to them after a few meetings with my principal supervisor, and so my proposal changed to fit in what i understand ‘design’ to mean in this particular context.

After 3 months of the initial period of a PhD it is required to complete a ‘Project Approval’, which outlines the thesis plan with an overview, methodology, research plan, etc. My reshaped proposal set out to use illustration to benefit homeless communities. My intention was now to instigate a series of workshops through a charity titled ‘Centrepoint’, working with young homeless people aged 16 -25 on producing illustrations that could be used as ‘design activism’; the form of the activist material being realised through the research process. The aim was to attempt to expand on the increase of wellbeing that is brought about through participation in arts based interventions (see ‘homeless link: creative arts for all’ for examples) by using the visuals produced by participants (co-designers) in a designed context (i.e. a series of postcard-petitions, or a book of illustrations with text explaining the homelessness journey, for example). This would benefit the participants directly in empowering them with a tool of communication, (by using a visual language understood by all, irrespective of social class etc.), while also demonstrating how Illustration has more to offer than profit to a employer (a notion I still strongly believe in).

After having my PA draft reviewed from my supervisory team, i became aware of the politics of academia, in addition to my lack of understanding of what the discipline of design in this particular context really meant. I was pulled up on many of the terms i had tried to force into my writing in order to appear relevant, and questioned on my lack of scientific rigidity in my methodology. I am used to working on instinct and by subconscious navigation, which are not appropriate to the scientific structure that a PhD (despite being in a creative discipline) adopts. While i was told my PA was ‘not a million miles away’, i realised my interested and ability with this particular way of working, in this particular institution, where not what would be required to fulfil the expectations of high-brow academia. What i wanted (and want) to do is much more suited to an independently organised activity, than one embarked on under the tension of vague but rigid instruction.

Ego Examination

After over a year of planning, writing, applying, researching, attending meetings,  etc., I recently solidified my decision to withdraw from the studies. Doing so has caused a great amount of internal discomfort in regards to confidence and anxiety, however attempting to continually go against the grain to do something i should never have been accepted to do was causing me a lot of suffering, that doesn’t appear worth the reward. Continuing research that would make me more qualified in doing more research and no more employable in being a design practitioner (my real interest) appears to be going further into the quicksand of existential crisis.

Part of the 3 month process of anxiety and questioning i have been going through during the PhD has been an in-depth reflection of myself. I have been able to observe my own neurosis. Many of my worries where centred around no longer having proved myself as a ‘clever person’ from having some letters after my name, and the attachment that I had developed to the identity of ‘Dr. Adam McDade’.

The idea of losing this felt like the loss of self, but of course this notion of self is just that of the ego. We are not our jobs, our life narratives, our qualifications; we are consciousness. If we were born into different circumstances we would behave differently. If we were born in a different generation then our understandings of things like social taboos or our tastes in music or fashion may be different. To assume we are a series of past events neglects the understanding that the present moment is all that exists. We are shaped by culture, and we can create culture, but we are not culture. We are consciousness experiencing our perceptions of various phenomena through the receiver of the mind, from the senses of our meat bodies.

It has taken me some time (and I’m still working on it)  after having being of the understanding that I would have a PhD in 3 years’ time and would have contributed something to the knowledge of design, too accept that I would not. Through these thoughts however, I have come to recognise that the nature of the thoughts in themselves are just activities of the mind and the ego, and ultimately irrelevant if I remain present – with presence being the only thing worth paying any attention to.


After accepting that i was no longer going to be studying for a PhD, I started to seek out full-time employment. The day that i recognised that I had to think of an alternative i rewrote my CV and sent it to any job that i thought could be relevant. The day after I was invited for a job interview for the clothing company, ‘Duck and Cover’, as the role of junior graphic designer, which i went to on the 8th of January in London.

Part of the interview involved producing graphics for their t-shirts, as well as a vector drawing of a jacket that demonstrated my skills on Adobe Illustrator. The link below demonstrates my attempts.

Adam McDade Duck and Cover Interview Tasks

I find out the outcome of the interview on the 12th or 13th, and so may be moving from Sunderland to London. The hope is that alongside whatever full-time job i end up with (whether that be this one particularly, or even a non-design orientated one) i can produce work both freelance and for myself – bringing to realisation the ideas proposed in my PhD, but with no restrictions to worry about, and freedom for exploration.


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