On October 9th, 2013, Professor Whitney Davis invited his HA100 class and other art historians to come to his optional talk about applying to and considering graduate school education in Art History. Specifically, he wanted to address "Thinking about Graduate School and Components of the Application".
I have here provided my notes from his talk and encourage others to contribute to this resource and ask any questions you may have.
The discussion consisted of several parts:
- What to do NOW
- Consider doing now or soon
- Art History Programs
- What can you do with an MA or PhD in HA?
- Delicate Questions you need to Ask
- Personal Statement
- Letters of Recommendation
First of all, there are not many Art History programs in the country, maybe 40. You came from one of the top three programs in the country, so shoot for the best, settling is NOT worth your time when it comes to graduate school programs.
What to do NOW
- Take the GRE while in school. Studies show your scores are best while immersed in an academic environment. You can take it as many times as you want. BUT: if your scores are simply not up to par, Graduate School may not be worth your time.
- Ask your professors for Letters of Recommendation NOW. These can be saved with a letter service, provided through the University, and they can be updated later. This is much easier than asking a professor three years later to write a letter from scratch, don't shoot yourself in the foot.
- Make appointments with professors about Graduate School possibilities. Get as much Berkeley support while you are here! This is useful even if you are not applying immediately, even if you are not sure about going to grad. school, and even if you don't really know what you want to specialize in in Graduate School programs.
Consider Doing Now or Soon
- Do the Honors Program. You will produce a competitive writing sample suitable for Graduate School applications. If you cannot get into the Honors program, consider:
- Do an Independent Paper/Thesis. This gives you the chance to augment and develop a paper with the help of a professor. You need a paper which expresses your research skills and research interest in art history.
- Languages. Most programs' language requirements have become more flexible, but languages are always a benefit. German and French are generally the default languages, so if you have taken classes, continue to work on these. If you have a native fluency in another language, build on it! Grad Programs have a lot of flexibility when it comes to languages. If you can study something in another language, the better. Someone studying Latin American art will obviously benefit more from knowing Spanish than German, so keep this in mind! A lot of programs want you to know one language coming in, and learn a second while you are there. Find out what languages are important for your field of interest (ex: Classical Art will want Latin and ancient Greek, Chinese Painting will want Chinese, etc).
- Consider an Extra Semester of Coursework. This can be especially helpful for junior transfers and double majors. Take more classes in your focus of interest if you can.
- Do a joint Undergrad/Grad Seminar. This will produce a great writing sample. You can even ask a professor to be allowed to participate in a graduate level seminar.
- Internships in the Bay Area. These are great for personal experience, especially if you see yourself doing this kind of work in the future. BUT: these are NOT necessary to be competitive in graduate school programs, they do not add any more plausibility to your application than upper level course work. ALSO: Letters of Recommendation from your employers, museum curators and such, are not important, as they cannot assess you academically, so in this regard, professors preferred.
Art History Programs
- MA versus PhD. First of all, a terminal Masters is the Masters you get before you continue into a PhD program, usually. Getting a Masters at a special program and continuing into a PhD elsewhere is typical.
- MA in Art History. MA holders in Art History do better getting into PhD programs than BAs, as they are more competitive. Consider the following: Of applications received to Berkeley, 90% are BAs, and 10% are MAs. Of applications accepted into Berkeley, 50% are BAs, 50% are MAs. An MA program may also help you guide your interests.
- MA programs are usually specialized. Williams College is a well respected research institute, with a great MA especially in modern art. Courtauld College (affiliated with London University) is a well regarded one year program. NOTE: Art History in the US is a different intellectual animal than the rest of the world, the more familiar you are with this fact, the stronger your application. The MA is certainly not required, but the experience is usually very clarifying and gives application greater strength and qualification.
- The PhD. This is needed for an Art History career in academics.
What can you do with an MA or PhD?
- Curatorial Career. This is highly specialized, and expertise is needed. Thus, a PhD is required.
- "Art Librarianship". A new and booming field, technology for Art History information is expanding. There is a need for experts in this field, and some Grad. Programs train specifically for this, such as the Pratt Institute in NY, or the Art Institute at Chapel Hill, NC. Similar to digital archiving. This is effectively an MA track.
- Auction Houses. These seek academically qualified art historians with MAs. Sothebys runs its own institute specifically for the training in this field.
- Research Art Historian. This is for the people who want to go into academics. You only want to apply to the best programs, and the best way to learn about these credentials is through the National Research Council, which maintains a comprehensive review of all research institutes in the US. This gives a picture of the stature and funding situation. KEY: You apply to work with a person or team! Who is your primary advising team. Get a perspective on this person. Inform yourself about these people ASAP and read their current scholarship, not what they published 20 years ago. You want to work with someone who still wants to publish, so inform yourself about their future projects, read the faculty pages, look at current grad students and what they are working on (this is what the person of interest is supporting, afterall!), and MAKE CONTACT well before the application! Otherwise it may come across as disinterest.
Delicate Questions you need to Ask (don't be afraid!)
- Expectation on an Academic Track. How much importance do they place on the GRE scores, and on transcripts?
- Are they staying/teaching? This is especially relevant for professors who are older
- Faculty and Grad Students. Get both perspectives! A graduate student may be able to provide very helpful insight.
- Funding. Funding is relatively weak in Art History, and a huge difference in programs can very well be the ones that can full fund you or not. Some schools need to get funding elsewhere, and need you to teach a lot more (Berkeley). Ask what you can expect.
- What is it like to Live there? From quality, experiences, and expenses, there are many things to consider, and grad students may in this case give a good perspective. For example, some programs better in some city centers, but also very expensive to live there.
- The Personal Statement is Proof you are Human. This is where you write about yourself, and why you want to work with someone on your project. It is your foot in the door.
- "I love Art". Do NOT use this phrase or variation thereof, at any point in your PS. I'm serious, an embarrassing number of people do this. It is charming, but naive, and you need to convey a certain level of sophistication.
- Show awareness of current trends in HA. You are not retrospecting, or working on something your professors already proved 20 years ago. Express an awareness of these transformations, new trends like world art studies, neuroscience, etc. Combine with New Media, if you have the skills or knowledge.
- Compensate for Drawbacks and Showcase hidden Strengths. This includes documentation in special media and cultural knowledge gained from life or travel abroad. What makes your perspective/approach distinctive? Discuss relevant coursework. Say why you want to work with someone, this is a chance to show what you know about them, be specific!!! They know when you are filling in blanks in a default PS. Make it clear why you want to work with them with this team.
- Scores and what People Want. You can explain anomalies here. Furthermore, you can express if the test scores do not reflect your ability, and stress that papers and classes are a better indicator.
- Good Grades. You want to come forward with good grades in HA, but the writing sample can help make up for the grades if necessary. Also, the reputation of an institute means a lot in considering grades (a B from Chicago better than a B from Florida).
- Writing Sample. This is about 20 pages long. It should be related to the proposed field of interest, as it is risky to write it in something unrelated. Think about how to convey this relation. Note: A one year MA not require an writing sample, but a two year MA program probably will.
Letters of Recommendation
- These are the Decisive Factor. They represent who you are and what you have done. Also, letters from Berkeley is a huge advantage.
- Permanent Senior Faculty are the Best. These are the core research people, so get their letters while you are still here! Be clear what you want them to say! It is ideal to get at least two out of three letters from Permanent Faculty, but the third letter may be from someone outside the HA program.
- Give Letter Writers Time. Lots of time and material to work with. Make sure they know exactly what you are working on, and preferably, get them your personal statement early, so it matches the rest of your application. And don't be shy :)
- Get letter Now. Getting the letter now while you can still talk in person to your professor and he or she remembers you is most ideal. You can have the letter saved with a letter service, and they can update it at a later time if needed.
I hope these Notes can be of Help to all of you!