Applying to graduate school in art history can either be a straightforward, rigorous, scholarly toil, or an agony akin to having the flesh ripped from your bones. My hope is that this page will help you to find your way through the process with as much of the former and as little of the latter as possible!
To apply or not to apply?
Should you go to graduate school? And if so, is now the right time? I’d encourage you to think this out very carefully. Only 1.7% of the US population has a PhD. Getting a doctorate is a highly unusual thing to do, and should not be anyone’s default or fall back plan. You should give this very serious thought. It will take a lot of time (6 or 7 years, easily), will cost you money (even if you receive full funding and a stipend, you will have barely enough to scrape by), and it is, to be frank, pretty exhausting.
That said, it is also a wonderful experience. You will have access to brilliant minds, fabulous objects and rare primary materials, and will have the opportunity to do nothing but focus on your academic interest for a few years. For me, this meant spending a lot of time in the manuscript libraries of London, Cambridge and Oxford, getting my hands on stunning thousand-year-old books. For you, it might mean travel to the caves at Dunhuang, or the temples at Uaxactun. It might mean, for those interested in Contemporary art, interviewing artists — I once had a chance to interview Andres Serrano who was, not surprisingly, rather an interesting person.
Is this the path for you?
Does the job you want require a PhD? Very few do. If you want to be a professor or a museum curator, you will need a PhD. Otherwise, you probably won’t.
- Are you sure you want that job? If you are thinking about museum work, get an internship or low-level job in a museum before deciding to make sure that it really is for you.
- Are you prepared to move throughout the country or world? Grad school may necessitate a move, but more importantly, finding a job after almost certainly will. I am from (and love) New York, but have moved to California, Cambridge (UK), Pennsylvania, Arizona, and back to California as I went through graduate school, adjunct jobs, and lectureships, en route to my tenure track (now tenured) post at California State University, Chico.
- Are you prepared to work somewhere less glamorous than your dream job? Do the math: if each professor in a “top program” in art history (that usually means NYU, Columbia, Berkeley, U. Chicago, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and so on) has, in the course of her career, 15 PhD students, when she retired, only one can have her job. The other 14 have to find employment elsewhere! There are, though, literally thousands of colleges and universities in the US and abroad, and many are wonderful places to live and teach.
- Are you prepared to be pretty poor for several years? Grad stipends really don’t provide enough to live on, even if you are able to get one, but taking on part-time work can really slow down progress toward that degree.
- Do you love spending time in the library, learning obscure or dead (or obscure, dead) languages, learning, writing about, and discussing art, all into the wee hours?
If so, then apply! Hopefully, the following pages will help: