Applying to Graduate School in Art History

Every year a percentage of our majors chooses to pursue a career in art history. If you are a highly motivated and accomplished student who enjoys working with art objects, buildings, and/or artifacts; reading and writing; formulating and carrying out independent research projects; travelling to sites and collections; and studying foreign languages, then art history graduate school may well be a good choice for you. Wesleyan’s art history department has produced exceptional majors who have entered the best PhD programs in the country. Because of the variety of courses offered and the richness of faculty expertise, this is a very good place to get a BA in art history if one wishes to continue in the field.

Art history is not a lucrative field and requires a long period of study. Graduate school applications are extremely competitive and should only be undertaken by extremely prepared candidates. If you are not daunted by these realities and are considering applying to graduate school, here are some things that you should keep in mind.

For those considering graduate school in art history, completing the major is a solid but not sufficient foundation. Interested students should consult with an advisor -- the earlier the better -- about how best to prepare for further work in the discipline and attend the department's meeting for prospective applicants around the middle of the fall semester each year. In addition to helping to sort through the decision itself, faculty can provide advice about which courses are likely to serve as foundations for graduate work, and how students might best develop a multi-semester working relationship with a faculty mentor who might advise a senior thesis project and/or write strong letters of recommendation. Faculty may also be able to give advice regarding museum internships or other fieldwork, which provide useful experience outside of the classroom and help strengthen graduate school applications.

Although not required for the major, senior thesis projects are highly recommended for those considering graduate work in art history. These provide students with the opportunity to define and carry out a long-term research project—the single most important indicator of success in graduate school. Since art historical research often involves travel to sites, collections, and archives, students wishing to undertake a senior project should consider applying for a John T. Paoletti Travel-Research Fellowship in Art History during the spring of their junior year. Up to two fellowships are awarded each year on a competitive basis to fund student travel and research during the summer before the senior year that will result in a senior thesis project.

In order to have a career as an art historian at a university, historic site, or museum, you will almost certainly need to earn a Ph.D. Exceptionally prepared students are ready after earning a BA to apply to combined MA/PhD programs. Students who have come late to art history and/or who have not yet successfully completed a lengthy independent research project may need to apply first to MA programs before continuing on to earn a PhD. In choosing a graduate program, students should meet with their faculty advisors to discuss which graduate programs are appropriate and best suited to their fields of interest. Students should also consult Graduate Programs in Art History: The CAA Directory (2011), which includes detailed information on individual programs, their faculty, admissions requirements, funding and curricula. Individual department websites also offer up-to-date descriptions of graduate programs, their faculty, admission dates, and procedures.

A typical graduate school application consists of the following:

  • Coursework and grades in art history. You will need a strong academic record that shows both breadth and depth of study
  • Foreign languages (typically two, including German and at least one related to your field of study)
  • GREs (not always required)
  • Letters of recommendation (typically 3). These should be sought primarily from faculty in the art history program or in cognate fields who are well enough acquainted with your work to provide an assessment of your ability to succeed in graduate school.
  • Statement of purpose. This is normally 2-3 pages in length and should describe in some detail the course of study that you wish to undertake. In defining your field of study, you will need to commit to a specific sub-field (e.g. East Asian, Medieval, Renaissance, Modern, or Contemporary Art) and to identify within that field topics and methodologies that you would like to pursue that expand and deepen what you have done as an undergraduate. You should also identify by name one or two graduate faculty members in your subfield who could serve as mentors.
  • Writing sample. This should reflect your best art historical work. Usually it should be approximately 30 pages in length, but this may vary. The sample should involve original research and argumentation and be written in a style that is fluid and engaging. Ideally it should relate in some way to your proposed course of study in graduate school.

Students are well-advised not to take out substantial loans to fund a PhD in art history, as salaries in the field are modest. Most doctoral programs and some terminal MA programs offer financial aid packages, which usually take the form of fellowships or TAships (or a combination of both).