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


All PhD 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”1 500 Internal Server Error

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Although the PhD 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 will help to define and in which they are strongly invested. 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.

We offer two connected but separable programs: the PhD in Creativity and the Immersion in Creative Thinking. The Immersion in Creative Thinking is a requirement to go on to the Ph.D. But we strongly encourage students enrolled in PhD programs elsewhere to apply for the two-week Creativity Immersion without leaving their current PhD programs. These students can fill out the same application as the PhD applicants and use the proposal from their current program instead of creating a separate proposal for our program. 

Some six-year Ph.D. programs give students a thorough training in the methods and base knowledge in a field and then administer a qualifying examination to pass the student on to the dissertation stage of their work. Most offer an MA or MS degree at this stage. Many of those students go to work in their field at this point without going on to write a PhD dissertation. Others go straight into the dissertation. Our program looks at that MA or other training received from another institution, together with an applicant’s work experience and their dissertation proposal like a qualifying examination in evaluating them to enter our dissertation-only PhD.


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 arts offer the most consciously developed disciplines of non-linear and integrative thinking. But all transformative work—even in technology, science, and social science—depends upon intuition and non-linear thought. 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 relevant disciplines. Yet to take innovation to another level we also need to transcend the hierarchies of conventional training. The new PhD 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. This program commences in mid-June each year with a two-week residency. Students will be immersed in a curated sequence of arts experiences for an intense course in creativity. These experiences differ from simply spectating as a consumer of the arts by engaging the student as a participant in each activity. Each cohort of approximately 10 students will present their proposal for a group critique to their fellow students and the instructors, then they will reframe it repeatedly through a wide variety of creative lenses every day. Informed by daily experiences in different creative practices, the students will revise their proposals into working drafts that they will take away at the end of the two weeks, and around these revised proposals they will begin to build a dissertation committee in consultation with the program director and the chair they select for their committee.

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 are integral to the arts immersion. The often baffling encounters with creative problem-solving in the arts coincides with feedback from the students’ peers and three faculty instructors in the reframing 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. If space is available, PhD candidates in programs at other universities may also take this two-week immersion course as a standalone, for a fee. They will complete the Ph.D. application, indicating that they intend to take only the two-week Creativity Immersion. 


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 PhD in Creativity at the University of the Arts is a research-based PhD 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.

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The dissertation committee will annually review the student’s progress on the dissertation and will determine if the progress warrants continuing in the program;  we reserve the right to terminate a student in the program if there is insufficient progress.

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.


Most academic PhD programs in the United States take half a dozen years or more to complete. Usually, the foundational preparation that might be completed in an MA or MPhil program is absorbed into the PhD, often dispensing with the master’s degree. The PhD 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, which is a dissertation-level program only. In nearly all PhD 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 PhD programs in the individual interaction of the student with the PhD advisor. Our program allows a student to continue working in a job so long as they can set aside time to work on their PhD 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.



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February 1982, United Arab Emirates: Christo and Jeanne-Claude looking for a possible site for The Mastaba. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 1982 Christo
— Christo, Artist, N.Y. Member of the Ph.D. Advisory Council

Out of the intensive immersion courses, the group project workshops, and the reconnecting with the entering cohort and the cohorts above and below along the way, students will become part of a close knit family of graduates with whom we expect enduring professional relationships to grow. The connections between the exceptionally talented students and graduates of this program will be one of the particularly rich, immediate and long term benefits of the program and the University will continue to cultivate these relationships by  reconvening our graduates every year to mingle with one another and with current students.

502 Bad Gateway 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 PhD On the premise that creative thinking lay at the heart of innovation in all fields, it seemed appropriate to offer this first ever PhD in Creativity—irrespective of the field of inquiry—in an art school and to begin with an intensive focus on creative thinking in the arts.

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

To explore the full curriculum, click here.


  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

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.

Anjan Chatterjee
Professor of Neurology, Psychology, and Architecture, University of Pennsylvania. Director of Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics and author of The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art

Artist, N.Y. 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 Cynical 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

William Kinderman
An internationally known pianist, scholar and recording artist, who has received a lifetime achievement award from the Humboldt Foundation; a leading authority on Beethoven, he has published a dozen books, including Beethoven, 500 Internal Server Error

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, and studies of Mozart and Wagner.

Bon Ku
Bon Ku, MD, MPP is the Assistant Dean for Health & Design at Thomas Jefferson University. An  emergency medicine physician, he also directs the Health Design Lab which has featured in The New York Times, CNBC, and Architectural Digest. His book, Health Design Thinking, co-written by Ellen Lupton, is forthcoming in 2020.

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.

Larry Silver
Larry Silver is Farquhar Professor of Art History, emeritus, at the University of Pennsylvania and past President of the College Art Association.  He specializes in Northern Old Master painting and graphics and his books include Peasant Scenes and Landscapes (Penn 2006), Marketing Maximilian (Princeton, 2008), and Jewish Art: A Modern History (2011, with Samantha Baskind).

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 500 Internal Server Error

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Deborah Willis
UArts 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. Willis is also a recipient of the MacArthur “genius” award, among many other accolades.

Jerry (Yoram) Wind
Lauder Professor of Marketing Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Professor Wind is internationally known for pioneering research on organizational buying behavior, market segmentation, conjoint analysis and marketing strategy.

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


Faculty advisory committee: Jonathan Fineberg (chair), Steve Antinoff, Quinn Bauriedel, Donna Faye Burchfield, Marc Dicciani, Christa DiMarco, Katie Donovan, Erin Elman, Joe Rapone, Mara Scrupe and Zach Savich

Admissions committee: