We’re doing something no one else has done—we’ve radically reconceived the Ph.D. degree based on the premise that creative thinking lies at the heart of innovation in all fields.


A low-residency degree for advanced interdisciplinary research in the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. This pioneering Ph.D. offers unique features not found elsewhere: intensive immersion in creative thinking, cross-disciplinary workshops for dissertation development, and professionally accomplished advisors from outside the university whose selection is tailored to best serve each unique dissertation.

Two young people working in a garage with no funding had an idea that cut across design and technology and they had the drive to create it. It was the first Apple computer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

  • Program Overview
  • Advisory Council
  • Admissions
  • Housing
  • About the Director

All Ph.D. programs require a dissertation that makes “an original contribution to knowledge.”  Yet after steeping the candidate in the existing literature and methods, they offer no guidance on how to move beyond them. So as George Bernard Shaw famously wrote "progress depends on the unreasonable man”1 who changes rather than accepts established practices. At the University of the Arts, our Ph.D. is about fundamentally changing the way our students think. We intend to use a deep immersion in the intuitive practices of the arts to seed a more creative working practice in students who come already prepared with the conventional methods and knowledge of whatever fields they work in. We seek students who have already achieved a professional mastery in some discipline and we prepare them to go to another level. We show them how to be open to finding that moment when ideas that didn’t seem to have anything to do with one another suddenly come together to ask or answer a question, create a solution to a problem, produce a new invention. The complexity of problem solving in the arts, in their deliberate embrace of intuition, differs from scientific methods. The statistical odds of a scientist winning a Nobel Prize triples if he or she has an avocational practice in the arts.2 The arts can teach a practitioner in any field -- in science, in medicine, in business, engineering, health care, the social sciences, innovators in the non-profit world, and even in the arts – to think more creatively. Business entrepreneurs need to “think out of the box”; musicians need to do more than master the score.


The underlying idea of this reimagining of the Ph.D. is to infuse any discipline with protocols of creative work. Our Ph.D. students begin with exposure to a variety of interdisciplinary approaches to research in different fields during four days of seminars. The readings prepare the ground for an openness to the immersion in artistic process that will follow. Then we throw them into a creativity immersion course which repeatedly challenges them to bring coherence to their experience over an intensive, week long immersion in artistic modes of thinking. While doing the immersion week, students also workshop the frame of their thesis project, aiming for a truly interdisciplinary perspective, more radical than what would normally emerge from existing Ph.D. programs. Then we will construct a tailor-made committee of respected advisors in the various relevant fields specifically selected for the individual’s project. Coupled with rigorous research, the creative working processes founded in an immersion in art practices will make our students stand out as leaders and innovators in a field that they themselves help to define. We’re looking for M.D.s, practicing lawyers, professionals working in corporations, non-profits, governments, foundations, or in the arts who have cross disciplinary ideas that they wish to pursue beyond the limits of their training.

Although the Ph.D. is increasingly the gateway for high level careers outside academia, most universities require it for full academic rank. We intend to prepare our graduates for a more creative approach to whatever path they take and expect industries as well as the academy to set a premium on our degree. By redefining the underlying approach to their practice, our graduates return to the work world equipped with deep expertise in an area they helped to define and in which they are strongly invested, while also deeply embracing the creative process. They gain singular expertise in a field they create for themselves; their future work will fit them better for a career that lines up with their real interests. As our graduates succeed in public life, this University of the Arts degree will also further a broader understanding of the centrality of the arts in all education, at every level.


The artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude had the idea to build the The Mastaba (Project for the United Arab Emirates) in 1977. When completed, it will be the largest sculpture in the world, made from 410,000 oil barrels drawing on expertise from civil engineering, art, the history of Islamic architecture, social, political and financial practices, drawing broad swaths of the local and global population into the making of a work of art. Photo: copyright Christo

The Preliminary Methods Seminar and Arts Immersion in Creative Problem Solving

The arts offer the most consciously developed disciplines of non-linear and integrative thinking.  But all transformative work -- even in technology, science, and social science -- depend upon intuition and non-linear thought just as the arts and humanities do, whether this is acknowledged or not. Contemporary work in neuroscience demonstrates that “cold logic,” devoid of a dynamic engagement with the emotional centers in the brain, doesn’t work.3  We need the rigors of the scientific method and the data base of knowledge in the disciplines. Yet to take innovation to another level we also need to transcend the hierarchies of conventional training. The new Ph.D. at the University of the Arts begins with creativity itself; creative thinking is in the DNA of our faculty and no university is better equipped to teach it. In addition, Philadelphia is thick with creative activity. This program commences in late June each year with four days of seminars on readings in a variety of methods of research.  Students complete the reading before coming to campus. These seminars open the students to both the contingency and the possibilities of all approaches to research. Then we immerse our students in a carefully curated sequence of arts experiences for an intense, week-long immersion course in creativity, while at the same time bringing the students together to workshop their individual Ph.D. projects.

Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, found a way to express complex phenomena in quantum physics in simple visual forms that helped other physicists to grasp the dynamics of difficult concepts. This Feynman diagram shows the scattering of fermions and below is the mathematical notation it illustrates. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.


The methods seminars prepare students to take greatest advantage of the arts immersion in breaking down the hierarchies of conventional trainings as they structure their projects. The intensive immersion in these often baffling encounters with creative problem solving in the arts coincides with feedback from their peers in the framing of the students’ dissertations. Since each cohort will come from a range of disciplines, candidates are forced to jettison disciplinary jargon to make their projects comprehensible to one another.


A team of civic minded New Yorkers came to the architect and designer Elizabeth Diller with the idea of using a rusting elevated track from the industrial age for something new. She imagined a way to turn this abandoned relic into one of the most popular public recreation sites in the city. Photo: Diane Cook & Len Jenshel for National Geographic.

The Ph.D. Dissertation or Project

Each cohort of students will meet to workshop their dissertations during the first summer residency, as they frame the concept of their research. They meet again over a long weekend the following January, when they have substantial research behind them. Finally, they confer again the following summer as they enter the final stages of research and begin writing in the second year. We strongly encourage completion within three years.

On the Oxford model, we only accept students with a high degree of professional proficiency into the program and we focus on the production of a creative, interdisciplinary dissertation or other Ph.D. project. The preliminary studies required to qualify establish a base of disciplinary mastery in advance, as signified by the M.D., M.A., M.B.A., M.F.A., L.L.B. and M.Phil degrees, for example, or by equivalent experience in social services or non-profits or other background that prepares a student to begin at a dissertation level. The Ph.D. project is typically a written dissertation, however it may also take other forms of equivalent depth so long as the final work may be publicly shared and the dissertation committee is satisfied by the depth of research and thought. The public presentation in some form is a final requirement. The thesis, if written, would normally be between 30,000 and 50,000 words or the equivalent as approved by the individual’s committee; research projects in science, economics, or other disciplines in which a book length dissertation is not normal, will conform to the standards in those fields, which may be an online article or articles of sufficient merit to earn the degree. Students will present their work on a monthly basis to their committee and defend their theses in June of their third year, unless an extension is approved by their committee.

Theaster Gates -- the Chicago artist, urban planner, performance artist (to mention only a few of his fields of work) -- had the idea of renaming a derelict crack house on the South Side of Chicago as an art project. Renaming it literally redefined it and engaged the people of the neighborhood in renovating it together into a vibrant community art center; this in turn seeded the transformation of the neighborhood. Theaster Gates 2012 Dorchester Projects, Chicago. Photo: copyright Theaster Gates.


Low Residency

Most academic Ph.D. programs in the United States take half a dozen years or more to complete. Often the foundational preparation that might be completed in an M.A. or M.Phil program is absorbed into the Ph.D., dispensing with the master’s degree. The Ph.D. at the University of the Arts assumes that M.A. level work and experience in the field is already reached by our applicants before applying to our program. In nearly all Ph.D. programs candidates at this level focus on their dissertations, often while doing research independently for extended periods;  the most profound teaching takes place in all Ph.D. programs in the individual interaction of the student with the Ph.D. advisor. Our program allows a student to continue working in a job so long as they can set aside time to work on their Ph.D. project;  it does not require residency over most of the research and writing time. This is not unusual. But in our program we have several advisors for each dissertation, they are more specifically suited to the project, and they are more actively involved than in most residential programs, which is what makes it possible to complete the degree in three years.

The French artist Jean Dubuffet asked himself how his brain worked in apprehending reality and then attempted to find a form in which to communicate what he discovered. This painting, Fluence (Fluidity), of November 19, 1984 shows the complex sequencing and layering of his thoughts embodied in form. Photo: Ellen Page Wilson, courtesy Pace Gallery, ©2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York,/ADAGP, Paris.


In late June of the first year, students will come to the University of the Arts for a ten-day residency that may extend from morning into the evening each day. They will need to prepare a list of readings before they arrive. When their cohort reconvenes in January and then again in the second summer of the program, there will also be challenging elective seminars in interdisciplinary topics designed specifically for them to reinforce their creative work.

February 1982, United Arab Emirates: Christo and Jeanne-Claude looking for a possible site for The Mastaba. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 1982 Christo
— Christo, Artist, NY. PhD Advisor

The Origins of this Program

David Yager and Jonathan Fineberg met in 2015 at a conference on cross-disciplinary thinking in art and science sponsored by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (part of the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative). Well known for his pathfinding work in medicine and art, the academies had asked David Yager to serve on the steering committee. The organizers asked Jonathan Fineberg to speak about his new book Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain which crosses psychoanalysis and neuroscience with art criticism for a fresh perspective on creative thinking. At this conference, Jonathan and David began a conversation that led to their collaboration in creating this radically reconceived Ph.D. On the premise that creative thinking lay at the heart of innovation in all fields, beginning the degree with an intensive focus on creative thinking made sense and starting in an art school, regardless of the fields of research, seemed appropriate.

Jonathan Fineberg, Director of the PhD Program and David Yager, President and CEO


  1. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”  George Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists, in Man and Superman (1903), (Baltimore MD: Penguin Books, 1952), 267.
  2. See Adam Grant, Originals (N.Y.: Viking, 2016); based on the study by Robert Root-Bernstein et al, Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, volume 1, number 2, 2008.  Springer Publishing Co., DOI: 10.1891/1939-7054.1.2.51.
  3. Antonio Damasio’s book Descartes’s Error is one of many scientific contributions that point to this conclusion.  See also Semir Zeki, Splendors and Miseries of the Brain, and Jonathan Fineberg, Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain
  4. Christo, conversation with the author, 1983, cited in Jonathan Fineberg, "Meaning and Being in Christo's Surrounded Islands," in Christo: Surrounded Islands (Harry N. Abrams Inc.: N.Y., 1986), 27.

The Advisory Council is comprised of distinguished professionals across diverse disciplines whose knowledge and expertise has contributed to the formation of this program. They will assist in the recommendation and selection of outside advisors to serve each dissertation.

David Yager
President, University of the Arts, ex. officio

Patricia Kucker
Provost, University of the Arts, ex. officio

David Campbell
Professor of Physics, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Materials Science and Engineering and former Provost, Boston University.

Roy Campbell
Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Professor of Computer Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

John Carlin
Author, television and record producer, founder of Funny Garbage and The Red Organization, N.Y.

Artist, NY.  Creator, with Jeanne-Claude, of such temporary art projects as The Gates (NYC), Running Fence, Wrapped Reichstag, and The Mastaba, Abu Dhabi (currently in process).

Fang Lijun
Artist and entrepreneur, Beijing. Associated with Cyncial Realism in the 1990s, Fang is a leading vanguard artist.  He is also a founder of the National Archives of Contemporary Art.

Jack Flam
President of the Dedalus Foundation and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Recipient of the MacArthur “genius” award as well as an Emmy and a Peabody Award for his television series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.

Emilia Kabakov
Artist, NY. A pioneer, with Ilya Kabakov, of installation art, with recent retrospectives at the Guggenhiem Museum in N.Y., The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, and the Tate Modern in London.

Cynthia Oliver
Professor of Dance, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; choreographer of Virago-Man, in the 2017 BAM Next Wave Series and currently touring.

Fred Tomaselli
Artist, NY; best known for detailed paintings of birds, plants, and transparent human forms in a combination of unorthodox materials, and for his fantastical reimaginings of the pictures on the front page of the New York Times. Represented by James Cohan Gallery and White Cube in London, with solo exhibitions in New York at the Whitney Museum and the Brooklyn Museum.

Deborah Willis
BFA '75 (Photography)
Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.  She is an artist, photographer, curator, photo historian, and author.  She is also recipient of the MacArthur “genius” award, among many other accolades.

Zhang Xiaogang
Artist, Beijing. One of the leading painters of the first generation of artists to emerge in China after the Cultural Revolution and an artist of global influence.

Semir Zeki
Professor of Neurobiology and Neuroesthetics at University College London and FMedSci Fellow of the Royal Society

We seek students who have already achieved proficiency in an intellectual pursuit – it could be in any field – such that the candidate is prepared for the dissertation stage of a rigorous but out of the box Ph.D. Our students will typically have found themselves wanting to transcend the disciplinary limits of their training with an interdisciplinary project. We will begin the application process by asking each applicant to submit a written statement of purpose about their intended interests. They should also submit a full resume that best represents their training and achievements; it should include degrees and publications, reviews, and three letters of recommendation that address their project and their commitment and preparation for it. Referees should send the confidential letters directly to the admissions committee for the Ph.D. Fluency in spoken and written English is a requirement and will be assessed in an interview before acceptance.

Start Your Application

Successful first stage applicants will be asked to present their ideas and negotiate a preliminary plan for their project in an interview with the admissions committee. We will be looking for projects that are interdisciplinary such that they may not easily fit into programs elsewhere. The student will need to explain what they want to do and demonstrate their dedication to doing it, possibly also indicating the kind of advisors with whom they might ideally like to work. We will help them construct a committee of advisors tailored to their project, drawing from as far as we have to go, to provide the best help to advise them. We have a rolling admissions process that continues until each cohort of 10 students is filled. The first review of applications will begin April 15, 2018. The first interviews will take place as soon as possible thereafter. Within two weeks of acceptance a non-refundable deposit of $1,000 (to be applied to the first-year tuition) will be required to hold the place. (In exceptional cases, this fee may be waived.)

The Ph.D. program is pending approval by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.


The tuition for this program is $48,800 a year. This will cover the cost of hiring top experts from around the world for dissertation committees and all tuition in residence. This does not include hotel and meals.  Fellowships, up to full tuition, will be awarded on an individual basis.


Contact the program online or phone at 215.717.6529

Contact Us

Housing Options While in Residence

We will offer short-term housing options in center city Philadelphia at an additional cost. If you find your own housing, we recommend options close to the University of the Arts to increase opportunities for students to discuss their dissertations and experiences each day. Housing costs are not included in tuition.

The 2018 Calendar

The 10-day residency begins on June 21st. The four days of seminars (morning and afternoon) in the 2018 program will begin on the morning of June 21st and continue through June 24. The arts immersion course begins the evening of June 24th and continues through the evening of June 30th.

The University of the Arts, Hamilton Hall, Philadelphia

University Professor, University of the Arts
Director of The Ph.D.

Jonathan Fineberg is University Professor at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  He is the author of Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being the most widely read survey of postwar art and co-creator (with John Carlin) of Imagining America: Icons of 20th Century American Art, the award winning PBS television documentary of 2005. He is the author of some 30 books and catalogs on modern art, including: Christo and Jeanne-Claude: On the Way to the Gates (Yale & Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY); The Innocent Eye: Children's Art and the Modern Artist (Princeton); When We Were Young: New Perspectives on the Art of the Child (University of California Press and The Phillips Collection, Washington DC); and most recently Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain (University of Nebraska Press, 2015). He is the Edward William and Jane Marr Gutgsell Professor of Art History Emeritus at the University of Illinois and a Trustee Emeritus of The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., where he was founding Director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art. He earned his B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, an M.A. from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and studied psychoanalysis at the Boston and Western New England Psychoanalytic Institutes. He has curated more than a dozen museum exhibitions, taught at Yale and at Illinois, and as a visitor at Harvard, Columbia, University of California, and elsewhere. His awards include the Pulitzer Fellowship in Critical Writing, the NEA Art Critic's Fellowship, fellowships from the Dedalus Foundation, the Japan Foundation, the ACLS, the American Philosophical Society, and the College Art Association’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in the History of Art.

By redefining the underlying approach to their practice, our graduates return to the work world equipped with deep expertise in an area they helped to define.
— Jonathan Fineberg, Director of The Ph.D.