Is graduate school for you?
If so, what's next?
Choosing the Program
Letters of Recommendation
Statement of Purpose
Taking the GRE
Additional Sources of Information
Is graduate school for you?
1. Do you have professional goals that require a graduate degree? You should not apply to graduate school because you “like to learn,” but rather because you have clear career goals that require an advanced degree.
2. Are you willing to put in the years required? An M.A. takes 1-3 years and a Ph.D. requires 5-8 years.
3. Do you work well independently, with a minimum of guidance? Graduate programs provide comparatively little oversight to their students, so it’s essential that you be self-directed.
4. Have you considered the fierce competition for both academic and museum jobs? At present writing, the market for curators and professors is very limited. You should check out job listings to get a sense of what you are in for before applying to graduate school.
5. Are you OK with being financially strapped for another decade? Returning to school will mean more years without much income. Consider if you are OK living a student’s life until you get your degree.
So, what’s next?
1. If you’re still a junior, consider writing a senior thesis. It will provide you with an excellent writing sample to submit with your application (usually required) and give you a good sense of whether or not you enjoy the kind of research and writing that’s a staple of graduate school. If you’re a senior, consider taking an independent study project and expanding/improving on a seminar research paper.
2. Take time off. Graduate programs prefer students who’ve been out of school for at least a couple of years. You’ve been in school a long time by senior year and need a break, even if you’re a great student. Whether or not you work in your chosen area after graduation, the time away from school will give you perspective and focus.
3. Consider joining the College Art Association (CAA) or the American Association of Museums (AAM). And, read the Chronicle of Higher Education online. Members of CAA and AAM get access to job listings and can follow the latest trends in the fields. The Chronicle will give you a good sense of current issues being debated in the academy. These are all good ways of getting acclimated to the academic or museum worlds.
4. Maintain contacts with your professors after graduation. You’ll need them for letters of recommendation and graduate school/career advice, so keep in touch. We like to hear from our students.
5. Seek advice from as many professors and current graduate students as you’re able. Not all professors will agree with one another (you’ve surely seen this in classes), so consult with several faculty members before deciding what makes sense to you.
Returning to School
A. Choosing the Program:
- Be sure to consider programs outside of art history, such as visual studies, American studies, Renaissance studies, feminist studies and Classics, depending on your intellectual interests.
- Pick a program based on your desire to work with their faculty. Students often make the mistake of applying to “good” schools, without regard for who teaches in their area with compatible approaches to the material.
- Consider writing to the faculty member with whom you’d like to work, explaining your interest in her/him and in their program.
- Contact the program’s administrative coordinator or their Director of Graduate Studies with questions.
- Find out about TA and fellowship opportunities, as well as the average time to degree.
- Research the quality of the library and museums at each school.
- Ask for statistics to see what percentage of the program’s graduates get tenure-track (i.e., long-term) jobs.
- Ask graduate program coordinators for names of current graduate students with whom you can speak at their schools.
- Consider visiting your top schools and sitting in (with permission) on graduate seminars.
- In researching programs, consult with a faculty member in your area, search web pages, talk to current Ph.D. students, and view the College Art Association’s online guidebook, Graduate Programs in the Visual Arts.
- Many universities see their M.A. programs as an easy means of generating revenue. As a consequence, M.A. students rarely receive university funding. It is much more common, however, for Ph.D. programs to fund their students—providing both tuition waivers and modest stipends. As you might imagine, funding tends to be more generous at private institutions.
- If you are set on attending graduate school, consider applying for external fellowships at the same time that you apply for admission to graduate school. Securing external support will greatly ease your way through graduate school.
- If you are admitted to the program of your choice, but do not receive full funding, carefully consider how important it is for you to attend that program as well as your comfort with taking on students loans. This would be a good time to seek advice from your former professors.
C. Letters of Recommendation:
- Get your letters of recommendation from academics whenever possible. You’ll likely need three.
- In general, letters from professors do more for you than those from lecturers or teaching assistants.
- What’s most important, however, is to get letters from the people who best know your academic work.
- Don’t use letters that are on file. Get fresh letters from faculty in the year in which you apply. Your professors will often know people at the programs and can personalize the individual letters.
- Waive your right to read letters, so the letters will be taken more seriously.
- Meet with referees, if possible, and always provide them with your statement of purpose, transcript, resume, and a sheet that clearly lists all of the schools to which you are applying along with their application due dates.
D. Statement of Purpose:
- Write a focused statement on your expected course of study. Don’t make the mistake of telling them that you are still deciding on a field of interest.
- Avoid writing about your “love of art.” Outline your specific intellectual interests. The more detailed you are about your intended course of study and methodological approach, the better.
- Have a faculty member read and comment on your essay before you send it off. These are challenging essays to write and you’ll do better with feedback from a professor in the field.
- In evaluating your essay, the admissions committee will consider if you have the skills and preparation to undertake your topic. It’s therefore essential that your proposed topic of study be supported by your previous course work, experience, and knowledge of languages.
- Bear in mind that no one will hold you to this topic if you change you mind over the course of your studies.
E. Taking the GRE:
- Consider taking a test preparation course, or at least studying with the aid of a guidebook.
- Don’t be overly concerned if your quantitative reasoning scores are low, as most graduate schools in the humanities will focus on your verbal reasoning and analytic writing scores.
F. Foreign Languages:
- Graduate art history programs typically require two languages (beyond English), but some ask for as many as four.
- Consider taking summer school courses in language the year prior to your enrollment.
- Many schools offer language courses designed especially for graduate students to prepare for and pass their language exams.
G. Additional Sources of Information:
- Robert E. Clark and John Palattella, eds. The Real Guide to Grad School: What You Better Know Before You Choose Humanities & Social Sciences (New York: Lingua Franca Books, 1997).
- Robert Peters, Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning an M.A. or a Ph.D. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997).
- College Art Association, Directories of Graduate Programs in the Visual Arts (New York: College Art Association, 2008).
- College Art Association, Graduate Programs in the Visual Arts (New York: College Art Association, online publication 2012).