PhD Design Studies

Program Overview

Within the Design Studies Graduate Program, faculty and students investigate a wide range of subject matter and apply a variety of methods, with the common goal of understanding how design (broadly conceived) relates to, responds to, and affects our lives. The program’s graduate faculty is comprised of interdisciplinary scholars, designers, scientists and artists who mentor and assist graduate students as they build individual programs of study. The Design Studies Department offers a doctoral program with the aim of preparing students for professional design careers, specialized research, college teaching, museum or archival work, community engagement, and entrepreneurial endeavors.

The graduate program in Design Studies is housed within the School of Human Ecology. The Ph.D. program capitalizes on the many rich resources offered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a public research university, UW-Madison is known for its high quality of research activity (ranked third in the nation) and comprehensive academic programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The university environment provides fertile ground for interdisciplinary research necessary for twenty-first-century students to prepare for work in a fast evolving discipline with shifting boundaries and growing global connections. UW’s world-class faculty and staff offer innovative approaches to curriculum and research. The UW-Madison campus is home to 40 libraries, nearly 100 research centers, a state-of-art virtual reality facility, and the Chazen Museum of Art (one of the nation’s leading university art museums).

The Doctor of Philosophy in Design Studies is the highest degree in the field of design research and scholarship. The program is grounded in the production of original and rigorous research. Students are encouraged to shape their own approaches as they develop mastery of the research and communication skills necessary to complete their research agendas. Through a combination of core courses, concentrations, major specializations, and minor specializations, students acquire content knowledge, theoretical foundations, and methodological approaches needed for their work. The Ph.D. culminates in the production of a doctoral dissertation that contributes to the knowledge base in the discipline of design. Graduates of the program have demonstrated their leadership in the field of design practice and education in the U.S. and internationally.

Admission to the Ph.D. program is highly competitive. The Ph.D. builds on knowledge acquired typically through a master’s degree and provides students with further training to teach and conduct research at the highest level. Competitive candidates will hold a master’s degree (MS preferred) in design, architectural history, environmental design, or other related fields. Promising applicants who do not have sufficient educational background may be admitted, under the condition that he or she take pre-doctoral preparation courses.

Students have the opportunity to apply for funding through teaching assistantship and fellowships, or through sponsored research projects under the direction of individual faculty members. All funding is awarded on a competitive basis.

NOTE: As stated in the School of Human Ecology graduate policies (issued March 2014), students enrolled in the PhD prior to Fall 2014 have the option to complete their degree under the prior policies. Any student entering or readmitted on or after Fall 2014 must adhere to the new requirements.

Areas of Concentration

The PhD Program currently offers three areas of concentration. Within each area, students are expected to build a self-directed but highly coherent curriculum in close consultation with a major faculty advisor. The tracks are:

  • Design History (DH Track)
    • Design History seeks to understand design in its historical context, as both a process and a product. Our program defines design broadly to include architecture, interior design, industrial design, decorative arts, and other areas of material culture. The Design Studies Department offers many opportunities for interdisciplinary study on the UW-Madison campus and has strong ties to other disciplines including Art History and Landscape Architecture. Design History Ph.D. students also have access to coursework and faculty members from allied programs, including the Material Culture Certificate and the Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures Program (a collaborative research degree offered through UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee).
  • Environmental Design Research (EDR Track)
    • Environmental Design Research addresses the interaction between people and they’re built, natural, and/or virtual environments with a clear goal to create environments that are sustainable and responsive to human needs. The faculty and graduates of the program have pioneered studies in environment-behavior, evidence-based design, building evaluation, sustainability, aging and environment, children’s environment, environments for special population, and emerging technologies and applications of virtual reality.While drawing from campus-wide resources, the faculty and students in EDR closely work with its allies within the School of Human Ecology, which include community psychologists, developmental psychologists, and scholars from consumer science. EDR students also have the opportunity to work with the Landscape Architecture Department, and with the UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning.
  • Textile Science (TS)
    • Textile Science investigates on the interaction of dyes and finishes with fibers, yarns, and fabrics. Faculty and students in this program focus on sustainability and work to develop chemicals and processes that are safer for the end-user, textile workers, and the environment. Students achieve this by developing and using chemicals, dyes, and finishes, and by reducing the amount of chemicals, water, and energy used in these processes. The DS Textile Lab offers equipment for textile quality control, dyeing, finishing, and plasma. The Materials Science Lab offers analytical equipment such as ESCA, an Atomic Force Microscope, an Electron Microscope, and FTIR. Depending on their research interests, students will have the opportunity to work with other UW departments including Chemistry, Material Science, Forestry, or Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Application Process at a Glance
  • Design Studies admits students for Fall semester only.
  • DEADLINE: Applications are due on December 1st each year.
  • All applications and materials must be submitted in electronic format online.
  • The Design Studies Admissions Committee reviews applications through January.
  • Finalist candidates may be invited for an interview (typically held by video conference, such as Skype).
  • The Design Studies Admissions Committee makes final admissions decisions, and considers students for funding resources (if students have indicated interest in funding on their applications).
  • If a student is recommended for admission, the Design Studies Admissions Committee will contact him / her directly.
  • For Domestic students: UW Madison Graduate School finalizes admissions and sends the official admission letter.
  • For International students: UW Madison Graduate School asks for proof of funding, and assists with documents for visa appointment.

See the “How to Apply” page for specific, step-by-step instructions for beginning your application.

Candidate Interviews
Finalist candidates may be invited for an interview (held by video conference, such as Skype).

Funding Application
(addendum to application materials)

  • Submit portfolio of design work, for design-related teaching positions.
  • Submit evidence of courses taught as instructor or teaching assistant, if applicable


Admission Requirements

Admission Requirements 

  • Degree
    1. Bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited U.S. institution, or comparable degree from an international institution is required
    2. Graduate Master’s degree in a related field (Master of Science preferred) OR applicable coursework in a related field. The prerequisite degree should contain the appropriate mix of coursework for the preparation of PhD work. The graduate admission committee and the potential graduate faculty advisor jointly determine the suitability of the degree and coursework at the time of admission.
    3. Outstanding candidates who do not meet the Pre-Doctoral Prerequisites requirement may be considered under “Special Considerations: Admission with Deficiency”
  • Grades
    • All grade-point averages are based on a 4.00 scale
    • Minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0 on the last 60 semester hours (approximately two years)
    • Minimum graduate GPA of 3.3
  • English Proficiency Test Scores
      • English Proficiency test scores are required for every applicant whose native language is not English or whose undergraduate instruction was not in English. See UW-Madison Graduate School for details and exemptions. Test scores should be sent to directly from the Educational Testing Service using the institution code 1846. The required proficiency scores are:
        • TOEFL Minimum: 100 Internet-based (iBT) / 600 Paper-based (PBT)
        • IELTS Minimum: 7.0
  • Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
    • Design Studies requires all PhD candidates to submit GRE scores. The test scores should be sent to institution code 1846
    • A minimum GRE score of 310 (Quantitative + Verbal Reasoning Scores) is required for admission.
      • When compensatory strengths are evidenced through other submitted materials, students with scores of 300 or greater may be considered
Application Materials
  • Online Application to UW Madison Graduate School, with fee
  • Transcripts or academic records for each institution attended.
  • All transcripts must be in English.
  • Personal Biographical Statement
    • Describe concisely how your personal background and life experiences motivated you to further pursue graduate education. The personal biographical statement is not a statement of purpose that describes your academic plan (no more than 500 words)
  • Statement of Purpose
    • Statement of purpose is a well-stated and concise document that describe the research you will be conducting if you are admitted to the program. It should include both the area of concentration and specialization and how you plan to do it. If applicable, include your qualification that helps admission committee understand the feasibility of your study plan (no more than 500 words)
  • Writing sample, sample scholarly paper
    • The writing sample should be sole authored, such as chapter from thesis or published journal articles.
  • CV or résumé
  • Three Letters of Recommendation
Timeline by Year

First and Second Years

  • Complete 38 credits of Core Courses, plus language requirement if applicable
  • Complete Qualifying Research Project
  • Begin identifying dissertation research topic and supporting materials
  • Dissertation committee formation and approval

Third Year

  • Complete remaining credits required of all PhD students (51 credits total)
  • Complete Preliminary Examinations
  • Complete Dissertation Proposal
  • Begin Dissertation research

Fourth Year and beyond

  • Complete any of the remaining credits required of all PhD students (51 credits total)
  • Dissertation research and writing
  • Final oral defense
  • Degree awarded
Steps to Candidacy

Doctoral students are officially advanced to candidacy for the doctoral degree after completing the required coursework, submitting a satisfactory Qualifying Research Project, and passing the preliminary examination. During the first two years, students should also begin to formulate a preliminary dissertation topic. Students should make every effort to advance to candidacy within three years from their initial enrollment date.

Effective for those entering in the fall 2014, the preliminary examination should be taken after satisfactorily completing required coursework, Qualifying Research project, identification of a dissertation topic, but prior to dissertation proposal approval. The examination is intended to demonstrate the students’ knowledge in both major and minor areas as well as their broad knowledge in the field of design. Steps to candidacy are outlined below.

  1. Step One: Dissertation Topic
    • A student must develop a dissertation topic in consultation with the student’s major faculty advisor prior to the preliminary examination. The dissertation topic should be a concise, one page description of research question, methods, and possible outcomes. The topic at this stage is preliminary in nature but will serve as a basis for formulating some preliminary examination questions.
  2. Step Two: Dissertation Committee
    • Doctoral students form a five-person graduate advisory committee as soon as they develop a dissertation topic. Minimum UW-Madison Graduate School requirement for graduate committee are:
      1. The chair or co-chair of the committee must be Graduate Faculty [1] from the student’s major program;
      2. Doctoral committees must have at least five members, four of whom must be UW Graduate Faculty or former UW Graduate Faculty up to one year after resignation or retirement. At least one of the five members must be from outside the student’s major field (often from the minor field).
  3. Step Three: Scheduling Preliminary Examinations
    • Doctoral students must complete the Request for Preliminary Warrant form through the Graduate Admissions Coordinator[2] to submit it to the Graduate School PhD office. The form must be submitted at least three weeks before the scheduled exam date. Students are highly encouraged to submit the request to the Graduate Admissions Coordinator five weeks in advance. The official Preliminary Warrant will be returned to the student’s advisor, who will bring it to the preliminary exam. (The Request for Preliminary Warrant form must be submitted to the Graduate School by the student prior to the term in which they wish to establish dissertator status. The warrant can be held for a period no longer than the semester in which it was issued. This allows time for a student to make up deficiencies prior to submission of the final warrant.)
  4. Step Four: Taking the Preliminary Examination
    • Preliminary Examination questions are solicited from committee members by the student’s major faculty advisor, who prepares them for the student. The student chooses between two exam formats:
      1. Take-home exam: the student receives questions in advance. The student writes the examination and submits responses within five days. In this case, the expectation is that references and formal citations are included.
      2. In-class exam: the student receives questions shortly in advance. The student sits for the exam in an assigned room on the UW campus. Response time is limited to 2 1/2 days. A computer may be requested, but the student may not bring his or her own. In this case, there is no expectation of formal citations.
    • Every student answers five questions drawn from four general areas. Definition of these four areas will rest with the student’s committee. The areas are:
      • Research methods
      • Major area: theory and application of concepts
      • Major area: research literature, historical and contemporary perspectives
      • Minor area (can relate to distributed minor foci)
    • Students may ask their advisors to show them sample questions from previous preliminary exams. While examples are useful, students should keep in mind that exam questions are always tailored for each individual student and his or her area of interest.
  5. Step Five: Evaluation of the Qualifying Exam
    • The completed exam is distributed to the committee members by the major faculty advisor. The committee responds with an evaluation two to three weeks following the receipt of exam. The committee generally meets informally with the student to discuss the exam, or at the very least, committee members provide feedback to the student. The criteria for passing the preliminary exam are not monitored by the Graduate School and are at the discretion of the DS faculty. The policy recommended by the DS Graduate Committee is:Each member casts one vote. Each individual faculty member is primarily responsible for the evaluation of the question she/he submitted, although they read all questions and make the evaluation on the general competence of the responses. The levels of evaluation are: Pass with Distinction, Pass, Pass with additional work required, and Fail.
    • A student cannot pass the exam if more than one failing grade is given. If the exam is failed, the student may request to retake the failed portion(s) of the exam only once; the second exam must be taken within one semester following the first exam. The committee for a repeated exam must be composed of the same faculty members. If additional work is required it will be arranged with the major faculty advisor in consultation with committee members.
    • If committee members agree that the student has passed, the student must make certain that all committee members sign the warrant. The student gives a copy of the signed Warrant to Graduate Admissions Coordinator and returns the official Signed Warrant to Graduate School PhD office.

Dissertation Committee Formation Guideline 

After successfully formulating a preliminary dissertation topic, completing the preliminary examinations, and prior to completing a dissertation proposal, a candidate should form a dissertation committee in close consultation with their major faculty advisor. The committee is composed of five members. The chair or co-chair must be a member of the DS Graduate Faculty.

Dissertation Proposal 

After successfully completing the preliminary examination and advancing to PhD candidacy (or dissertator status), a student must complete a written dissertation proposal and submit to the student’s dissertation committee for approval. The general format for a dissertation proposal will vary according to the student’s area of concentration. Students should consult with their major advisor regarding the appropriate form and content. A sample from the EDR track is provided below.

  1. Proposed Title
  2. Background and Literature Review
    • General problem/content area, research questions
    • Current theory, research or creative activity
    • Literature appropriate to the area of concern
    • Perceived need for, or expected contribution of the study
  3. Parameters of the Study
    • Statement of the problem
    • Underlying assumptions
    • Objectives/hypotheses
    • Working (operational) definitions
  4. Procedures
    • Materials
    • Methodology
    • Subjects (if any)
    • Source of data/design
    • Time schedule broken into target dates for each phase
  5. Expected Outcomes
  6. Pilot Study Design and Outcomes
  7. Bibliography

Resources required and statement of availability (e.g., studio, laboratory, equipment, supplies, computer consulting and use, statistical consulting) and Timeline of the research

If a dissertation research involves human subjects, the student are required to complete on-line training and the research must be conducted according to an Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved human subjects protocol. For more information on these requirements, see the Human Research Protection Program at the Human Subject’s Protections website which includes links to the training, protocol submission, and other information.[3]

Most doctoral dissertations in Design Studies are reviewed by the Education and Social/Behavioral Science Institutional Review Board (IRB). The student’s advisor is officially responsible for the dissertation project, and must complete the training as well.

The proposal is presented to and approved by the student’s five-person committee.

A student should make every effort to complete his/her dissertation proposal within six months of advancing to candidacy.

Dissertation Timeline and Final Defense 

A dissertation is required of all PhD students at UW-Madison. A PhD dissertation demonstrates the student’s ability to design and conduct original research, further contribute to the knowledge base of the design research and scholarship.

The student is allowed five years to complete the degree after passing the Preliminary Exam and achieving Dissertator status. If more than five years has transpired, the student must retake the Preliminary Examination or petition the DS Graduate Committee and the Dean of the Graduate School for an extension of one year.

During the process of completing the dissertation, the student should remain in close contact with his or her faculty advisor and the other members of the committee. To graduate with a doctoral degree, the student must inform the DS Graduate Chair and make his/her intent known to the Graduate School in the final semester. After arranging a dissertation defense date, the student must obtain the PhD warrant through the secretary in the DS Program Office. This must be filed with the Graduate School a minimum of three weeks before the oral defense date. The Graduate School will then send a warrant to the department, and the advisor will obtain signatures at the defense.

The finished dissertation should be approved by the advisor before it is distributed to other committee members. The complete draft should be given to the committee at least one month prior to the scheduled defense date. It is recommended that the full dissertation committee have a pre-defense meeting with a short presentation by the candidates and use the opportunity to refine the final defense and modify the written dissertation should the need arise. Once the committee agrees that the pre-defense presentation is acceptable, the final defense is conducted. The final defense is open to the faculty and students of the university.

Students should follow all guidelines for Dissertators that are established and published by the Graduate School, including how to file a copy of the dissertation at Memorial Library. Copies of the dissertation are also provided to the members of the committee, and the student is expected to file a copy in the Harris Collection.

[1] Faculty associates may not serve as graduate advisors but might serve on committees.

[2] Mary Mead in DS office currently serves as the Graduate Admissions Coordinator.