Why do I do a PhD?
Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 5:56PM
Sigrun LurĂ¥s in PhD, Research by Design, Systemic Design, Systems Oriented Design, Ulstein Bridge Concept

Lately I've got some questions about why I chose to start a PhD. I didn't really need a PhD, I had no ambitions of becoming an academic. I already had a good job at DNV and nice colleagues I enjoyed working with. And with the Norwegian job market, I was lucky to have the opportunity to change jobs if I wanted to do something else. I had developed valuable experience and was well recognised for my expertise within my company. And if I started a PhD I would have to work more hours on a considerably lower salary. Why on earth would I want to do that?

Choosing to do a PhD

If I was to give one answer to the question of why I chose to start a PhD, it must be that it seemed like a unique possibility for both personal growth and contributing to the design profession, which I care a lot about. What triggered me from the call for the Ph.D. fellowship in Systems Oriented Design was the mentioning of systems thinking and design of complex systems. I had since my Master studies in 2003-2005 been drawn to these kinds of topics, and my main field of interest was and still is design for complex high-risk environments. I believe designers can contribute positively in the design for such environments, but I believe that a different mindset may be necessary. Taking part in developing theory and practice related to this was very appealing.

The PhD was related to the maritime sector and part of the Ulstein Bridge Concept (UBC) project. I had some experience from the maritime domain and knew that this is one of the more complex domains you can work with as a designer. If I got this PhD fellowship, I could build on the experience I had gained from 6 years in practice, and learn more about how one may approach designing for such environments through carrying out a PhD research project defined by myself. I was really happy when the institute leader called and offered me the position. And I felt even more lucky by the fact that DNV was willing to give me three years leave in order to take on this job.

So what have I been doing so far?

I've now been working as a PhD research fellow at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO) for over a year. Many people envision that doing a PhD means sitting alone in an office full of books reading heavy stuff that is almost impossible to understand. Ok, there have been a few times where I've scratched my head over an article wondering what I'm doing. But that's the exception.

The first 9 months of the PhD were to a large degree devoted to AHO's research school. This research training is common and obligatory for PhD fellows from all four institutes at AHO. The trainig involved attending lectures and reading articles about research within design, urbanism and architecture, as well as writing critiques and a literature review. The research school took about 75% of my time, and the remaining time I spent mostly on my own research in detail.

Since last summer I've split my time between working with the design team in the Ulstein Bridge Concept project and working on my individual research. As a senior designer and researcher in the UBC project I do a number of things including help ensure that we hold a systems perspective in our work, do user research and field studies, do some designing myself and support the fresher designers of the team in their design work.

In my individual work I've so far spent a lot of time studying other people's research, mainly from the fields of interaction design, human-computer interaction and human factors and ergonomics. I read a lot on systems thinking and I've read most of the research I've found related to ship bridge design. I've done some writing, but the coming year I will have to speed up the writing process and try to finish the three articles I have to deliver as part of my PhD. While doing practical design work at the same time. Doing a design PhD is a bit chaotic at times!

What is so enjoying about this?

What I really like about doing a design PhD is that I can define what I want to do myself. I've got three years to develop some new knowledge in the field of Systems Oriented Design for the maritime sector, but as long as I show the required progress, it's more or less up to me what I want to do and how I want to go about it.

One of the most important and enjoyable activities of my PhD work so far has turned out to be talking to others. I learn so much from discussing with the other PhD fellows, the teachers and senior researchers at the institute, my colleagues in the UBC project and the students. No matter how busy I am, I try to set aside time for a chat by the coffee machine or on my way home.

Talking with people from outside AHO is also important to me. Meeting old DNV colleagues always gives me something to think about. Attending different professional gatherings and talking to people I meet there is always inspiring, e.g. the monthly meetups by IxDA Oslo, Eggs Design's First Friday and Human Factors in Control's meetings. At the Systems Oriented Design seminar in October I met many interesting people with a lot of experience and ideas to share. Through one of the attendants I was put in touch with the organisers of the Overlap: Risk conference. Overlap is "an annual peer-to-peer gathering of people who believe that interesting things happen at the edges and intersections between disciplines, and that these overlaps are at the core of innovation"1. Doing a PhD within the UBC project gives me the opportunity to attend Overlap: Risk, which takes place in a couple of weeks. I am overly excited about going there!

I try to treasure these three years of doing research and make the most of them. I hope that I through my research will to be able to help us designers become a little bit better prepared for the future challenges we will face in this increasingly complex world of ours.

References

1 Overlap: Risk conference website

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