Skip to Main Content
Skidmore College
Art History

Graduate Study - Some things to think about

bannerMA versus PhD programs...

An MA program (usually 2 years) is probably right for you if...

  • you’re interested in career paths other than academe
  • you’re thinking about combining art history with another field (like conservation, library science, law, business, etc.)
  • you have many areas of interest and are not sure what you’d like to specialize in
  • you’re not ready to commit to more than 2 years of graduate study

Remember that successful completion of an MA will greatly improve your chances of getting into a good PhD program if you decide to continue.
A PhD program (usually 5-6 years or more) is probably right for you if...

  • you’re committed to a career in academe (college teaching and scholarship, curator in a world-class museum)
  • you have a specific area of interest and feel able to undertake intensive, original research
  • you’re prepared for a considerable investment of time, money, and energy


The Following points are especially important if you’re looking at PhD programs, but they will help you find the right MA program as well.

Graduate Programs in Art History: The CAA Directory (2008).  A key resource that is kept outside the art history office.
Find a person you want to work with.  Ideally, s/he should be tenured, active in the field, and well regarded as an advisor, and there should be some evidence that her/his former students have been successful.  Identify scholars whose work you admire; find out where they teach and whether their schools have graduate programs.  Initiate contact by email (share your interests and ask a focused, intelligent question about their program or work) and meet them if possible.  Ask the department chair to put you in touch with some of his/her current graduate students.
Consider language requirements.  MA programs generally require the ability to read German; some require the ability to read two languages, generally German and French or Italian. Virtually all PhD programs require the ability to read German and French or Italian.  Depending on your proposed area of study, you may also need other languages.  Some programs require language exams during the first semester, others allow preparation time, and some provide or fund language courses.  Find out what you need, when you need it, and whether they will help you get it.
Ask about funding.  Some programs fund all graduate students with tuition and stipends, others require you to compete for limited funds, and many require you to teach in exchange for support.  Be realistic about your financial needs and the risks you’re willing to take.
Ask about teaching.  Students in most graduate programs are encouraged (sometimes required) to teach (or assist in teaching) undergraduate courses.  This is important experience, especially for those on a PhD track, but it can also get in the way of your scholarship.  Ask about the opportunities and expectations.
Consider the resources.  Your work may benefit from access to particular museums, libraries, or archival collections, commercial venues, or communities.  Think about whether the institution and region you’re considering will be a stimulating place to begin your research.


An application usually includes a resume, statement, writing sample, undergraduate transcript, 3 letters of recommendation and GRE scores; you may wish to include other materials that demonstrate special achievements.  Don’t send the same statement to every program; tailor it to fit the strengths of each one.
Play by the rules of good writing.  Be focused, clear and well organized.  Make sure the syntax, grammar and spelling are correct and all materials look professional.
Define an intellectual position.  Discuss specific scholarly interests and influences and explain how they developed.  Define the methodological approach(es) you find most compelling.  Especially in PhD applications, propose a direction for research and show that you already have some knowledge of the subject.  Be focused but realistic; don’t propose working in a field in which you have no experience or for which you have not begun language acquisition.  Choose a writing sample that demonstrates strong research skills, critical thinking, and polished writing, and (if possible), that relates to your proposed specialization.
Avoid generalizations and focus on your accomplishments.  Assume that every applicant loves art and has good credentials.  Focus on what makes YOU especially qualified.  Discuss specific things you have done and address key aspects of the other materials in your application (resume, writing sample, etc.).
Don’t tell them what they already know.  Don’t generalize about the merits of the program—they already know why they’re good!  Show that you’re a perfect match for them by discussing interests and goals that mesh well with their strengths.  Suggest a specific way in which your work might engage resources in their institution or region.
Prep your recommenders.  Well in advance of the deadline, provide your recommenders with copies of your resume and application statement and information about deadlines and submission format.  If it has been a year or more since graduation, also provide an account of the courses you took with them, the work you did, and the grades you received.

In the meantime...

Not sure you’re ready to take the grad school step?  There are lots of things you can do to stay involved with the field and boost your credentials.

  • work at a museum or other art-related venue, even if only as a volunteer
  • take a German-for-reading course or one in another language you may need
  • polish your best undergraduate paper into a strong writing sample
  • become a member of the College Art Association or another professional organization
  • attend the annual conference of the CAA or other organization
  • Read!  stay abreast of new publications in the field and look for prospective mentors
  • stay in touch with your Skidmore professors—it will yield stronger recommendations!

And most of all...

Talk with your Skidmore professors while you’re here.  Take advantage of our experience, networks, and desire to help you find the path that’s right for you!