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Program Requirements

Amanda M. Maples with an Ordehlay mask in Lunsar, Sierra Leone.



Students take a minimum of 60 credits of graduate courses during their first two years of study, comprised of three core courses and nine electives.

The three core courses must be taken within the first two years: HAVC 201A, Introduction to Visual Studies and Critical Theory (fall of the first year); HAVC 202, Introduction to Visual Studies Methods (winter of the first year); and HAVC 204, Grant Writing (second year).

Of the nine elective courses, at least five must have a visual studies designation (i.e., taught by core or affiliated faculty), and at least three must be drawn from departments outside of visual studies. Among the five visual studies electives, at least three must be from the HAVC courses numbered 212-282 and at least one of the three HAVC courses must be on a subject outside the student’s disciplinary focus. Only two of the five visual studies electives may be independent study courses. Please review the Visual Studies website for a list of current electives.

First-year students are also required to attend all Visual & Media Cultures Colloquia (VMCC) talks, unless they face a scheduling conflict with a class or TAing responsibility (in which case they should notify the grad coordinator).


Field Cluster/Field Specialty

Appreciating that most of our graduates will be required to fit themselves back into traditional disciplinary structures once they enter the academic job market, the program is designed to provide students with both new means of interpreting visual evidence and suitable depth of understanding in older disciplinary traditions. While all graduates will acquire a shared foundation in theories of visuality (attained through our core course requirements), individual student programs vary considerably depending on the type of department or other intellectual and professional context in which the student hopes to secure employment after graduation.  In addition to completion of the core courses required of all students, each student will develop a cluster of individualized field courses in consultation with their advisor based on her/his particular professional goals.

To provide our students with the disciplinary background to facilitate employment within curatorial departments in museums and non-visual studies departments at colleges and universities, each student is required to take a minimum of four (5 unit) courses in a disciplinary cluster designated from the electives they take in their first two years of study (beyond the core course requirements).

Acceptable field cluster courses might center around a medium (i.e., painting or architecture), a temporal/stylistic category (i.e., Early Modern or Postmodernism), a cultural, national, or social group (i.e., Pacific Islanders or China), or a disciplinary approach (i.e., cultural anthropology or gender studies). An individual student’s field cluster will be developed in consultation with her/his advisor based on a student’s intellectual and professional goals. To count toward the degree, field clusters must receive prior approval from the director of graduate studies.


Foreign Language

Students must demonstrate reading knowledge of one foreign language prior to the start of their second year (either by attaining a score of 550 or higher on the Educational Testing Service Graduate Student Foreign Language Test or by passing a reading translation exam administered by the department). In the case of languages that require special study accommodations and have a steeper learning curve, students may be allowed to postpone their language exam, but must complete it prior to the start of their third year. Such an extension is contingent upon the recommendation of the student's advisor and the approval of the DGS.

Students are encouraged to master a second foreign language. Based on a student’s area of interest, and the joint assessment of the student’s advisor and the director of graduate studies, proof of proficiency in an additional language or languages may be required prior to the student being admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. Should proficiency in additional languages be required, it must be demonstrated prior to the close of the student’s third year of study.

Students should demonstrate proficiency in an additional language if they want to be eligible to compete for external fellowships requiring two languages other than English (e.g. CASVA predoctoral fellowships, which also require departmental nominations for applicants). The same options for certification are available for the additional language as the first, but these should be satisfied before you submit your application to the VS program to be considered for nomination.

When the foreign language exam is administered by the department, students will be given an academic-length article or book chapter by their faculty advisor in the appropriate language to study two weeks in advance of the exam. During the exam students will be given three hours to translate approximately 700 words of the original text, a laptop computer without Internet access, and a dictionary.


Qualifying Examination

After completing all course work and passing one language exam, students are required to pass a qualifying examination prior to the close of the winter quarter of their third year, unless a petition for an extension, demonstrating reasonable cause, is approved by the Visual Studies Graduate Committee. The qualifying exam is divided into three topic areas, with each one including a written and an oral component. Each topic area should display historical breadth and variety of media. Two of the topic areas should ideally relate to the future dissertation topic, while one of the remaining must constitute an outside area, examining a topic that is chronologically, geographically and/or methodologically distinct from the other two. The written component must be completed at least two weeks prior to the oral component.

Prior to the end of the second year, a student should consult with their advisor to assemble a group of four faculty members who will serve as examiners, and aid the student in assembling the necessary topic areas, compiling the needed reading lists, and preparing for the written and oral components of the examination in each area. The exam will have two parts. In part one, each student will respond in writing to three general questions, posed by three of their four examiners in the pre-arranged topic areas. In part two, each student will gather together with her/his examiners to field questions probing and clarifying the previously submitted written component of the qualifying exam. In order to pass the qualifying examinations, the student must receive the unanimous endorsement of the committee members.

The QE Committee Nomination Form must be completed and the department must submit it to the Graduate Division at least one month before the proposed examination.

The constitution of the committee must meet the following conditions:

1. The committee is composed of four members, at least two of whom must be core or affiliated Visual Studies faculty, and at least one of whom must be an outside member. (Visual Studies affiliated faculty may count as either Visual Studies or outside members, depending on what serves the constitution of the committee best.)

2. The outside member must be either a tenured faculty member from a different discipline on the University of California, Santa Cruz, campus; a tenured faculty member of the same or different discipline from another academic institution involved in research and graduate education; or a qualified person outside of academia with significant research experience.

3. The chair of the examination committee must be a tenured faculty member. The chair moderates the oral part of the exam and therefore cannot be one of the question writers for the written exam. The student's faculty advisor cannot be the QE committte chair.  A tenured outside member may serve as the QE committee chair, as long as this person is not the same person serving as the Outside Committee Member and there are also two VS/VS affiliated faculty members on the QE committee.


These nominations must be approved by the Graduate Dean, who is authorized to grant exceptions to the guidelines when requested in writing by the director of graduate studies.


Dissertation Prospectus and Colloquium

Students who began the program prior to 2021 can choose either prospectus length and committee size (see below).

Following the QEs, the student will write a prospectus to set out their dissertation project in consultation with their advisor. The prospectus represents a concise essay of 3000 - 5000 words (prior to 2021, 25 pages), which describes the overall project, central research questions, methodology, provisional chapter descriptions, research plan, and select bibliography for the proposed dissertation. The goal is to describe your project, explaining why it matters, providing an account of the key research questions, and how those questions will be addressed through your research methodology. You should also include a select account of the relevant scholarship (who are the main figures who have dealt with this or similar issues, and how will your research add something new to the discussion?). The prospectus is not about demonstrating expertise on a topic that has yet to be investigated. Rather than provide answers in advance, the prospectus should present the project—often posed as an overarching problem, or a constellation of visual material, about which you can pose meaningful questions—arguing clearly for its significance, and offering a realistic plan for its investigation. It is an initial approach to your subject, one that will likely be recast and refined in later iterations, including grant proposals, conference submissions, the final dissertation, and job applications.

The dissertation prospectus is due no later than the end of the 2nd quarter following completion of the QE.

For your colloquium, discuss with your advisor and agree upon 3-4 (prior to 2021, 4-5) faculty members (including your advisor) to form your colloquium committee. Your advisor can help clarify the intellectual connection between your research and the committee member’s area of expertise, and can assist in making a formal invitation. Two of your committee members must be core or affiliate VS faculty. Faculty participating in the colloquium committee may or may not have been members of the QE committee. All committee members should have expertise relevant to your project, so that they can provide useful feedback on the prospectus, assess your preparedness to begin researching and writing the dissertation, and offer relevant recommendations and practical advice. Your advisor needs to approve the prospectus before it is sent to the colloquium committee. The prospectus should be sent to the committee members a minimum of 1 month before the scheduled colloquium. Please contact the grad coordinator with the names of your colloquium committee members and ask for a room to be scheduled for your colloquium. It is the student’s responsibility to make arrangements for the scheduling of the colloquium. 


Advancing to Candidacy

Advancement to candidacy follows and is contingent upon passing the qualifying examination, all needed language examinations, completing an approved dissertation prospectus, passing the colloquium, and the subsequent appointment of a dissertation reading committee of at least three members (two of which must be core or affiliate Visual Studies faculty). The requirements for advancement to candidacy must be completed no later than the end of the winter quarter of the fourth year.

Nominations for Dissertation Reading Committee Form


Dissertation and Final Examination

The dissertation must make a significant and original contribution to the field of visual studies, as judged by each dissertation committee member.

An oral defense of the dissertation is the only final examination requirement, unless a petition to waive the oral defense, demonstrating reasonable cause, is approved by the student's primary advisor and the visual studies director of graduate studies. The student’s dissertation committee, under the supervision of a Visual Studies core or affiliated tenured faculty as moderator, will conduct the exam. No other attendees are allowed at the oral defense.


Normative Time from Matriculation to Degree

The visual studies Ph.D. program at UCSC is designed to require six years of study. During the pre-candidacy period students will devote themselves to coursework, completion of the language examination, some teaching, preparation for and completion of qualifying examinations, completion of an approved version of their prospectus, passing their colloquium and selecting their dissertation reading committee. Requirements for advancing to candidacy must be completed by the end of winter quarter of the fourth year. Students will finish their dissertation and successfully defend it before the end of their sixth year.


Visual Studies Student Handbook 

For specific details about the Visual Studies program requirements as well as other resources, please refer to the VS Student Handbook. UCSC account log-in required.