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Art Lawyer to Art History PhD?


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Hi all,

I am hoping to get some advice.  I'm a 35 year old lawyer.  I graduated with an Art History degree from a fine but not notable state school in Ohio (my GPA was 3.9).  I then went to law school, getting into a top-25 program in NYC and, for the last decade, have been practicing law.  My law practice is generally commercial litigation, but I also handle a fair amount of art law (e.g., litigations involving consignments to galleries/secured transactions, authenticity issues and representing artists in disputes with gallery owners).  Lately I have been thinking about foregoing my legal career -- and most importantly the client stresses that come with it -- and trying to get admitted to an Art History PhD program.  I now live in the SF Bay Area with a husband who has a great job and a toddler daughter, so I am limited geographically.  I would likely only apply to Stanford and Berkeley.

My main question is - am I the type of candidate who admissions committees would find interesting or compelling?  Or would I appear like an individual who is aimlessly looking for the next-best-thing?  I don't want to waste my time reconnecting with old professors, studying for the GRE and working on papers/personal statements if I really don't have a chance.

Any insight would be tremendously appreciated!! Thank you! 

Edited by kaa2018
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(disclaimer: I'm not in art history) If I were in your position, I would probably start by taking a few courses in art history in the bay area (no need to finish a master's imo - 2 or 3 courses by the time the app season comes around). Maybe at SFSU? This could help me make new connections with professors for recommendations, and allow me to figure out if this is really what I want to do. It would also demonstrate to PhD faculty that this is a serious career change.

Moving out of the hypothetical, as someone who also had an unusual background, I would say that what matters in applications the most is how compelling your SOP, your project and your recommendations are -- and if they all resonate with some of the faculty in the department. GPA, GRE scores, etc matter a lot, lot less after a certain (nebulous) baseline. While it always helps to be the candidate that admissions members want, sometimes it is beneficial to be the candidate they did not realize they would have wanted as well. I think your current work could furnish a fascinating connection to the discipline -- what matters is how you present this story.

Edited by frenchlover
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  • 1 month later...

If your potential advisor asks why you are applying to PhD programs in art history, what will you say? I found the biggest part of PhD applications and interviews was being able to answer this question sincerely. Are there gaps in the field you feel compelled to address? What would your dream dissertation entail (if funds and research sources were unlimited)? This field is very oversaturated, to begin with—what can you contribute? Do you want to teach? Tenure-track positions are almost nonexistent. Do you want to curate? Your salary will be 30k/year (if you’re lucky). These are all questions I’ve been asked or things I’ve been told by professors/curators at some point or another.

I think your law background could help you in writing a compelling statement of purpose, but you’d need to have a very clear idea of what you want and what you can bring to the table. Berkeley and Stanford are two of AH’s most competitive programs. Both departments have an emphasis on feminist/queer studies. Are these topics that interest you? I sympathize with your inquiry—it’s a big decision and not an easy path forward! I’d really do some homework and read a few books and articles by Stanford/Berkeley AH profs.

I agree with the post above: taking a few courses might help clarify things.

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  • 1 month later...

Just another suggestion for where to take classes. I took some art history classes at SF City College before applying for my masters in museum studies. It is free now and the quality of the instruction is very good. I got my undergraduate degree from Temple University and I would say for the most part many of the instructors at city college are equally as good as my profs at Temple were. I also am going to grad school after being out of school for a while and two of my professors at city college were references for my grad applications. I know some people might say that city college isn't prestigious enough. But, honestly, if you have been out of school for a while it shows interest and commitment by taking courses leading up to grad school. 

Also, yes, Sfsu has the "open university" where you can enroll in courses that have open spots after all other students have registered. Here is the link:


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  • 2 months later...
On 6/11/2018 at 1:26 AM, kaa2018 said:

 I would likely only apply to Stanford and Berkeley.


You definitely have a chance with strong grades and good recommendations (GREs don't matter, unless you completely bomb them), but you need to have a strong sense of what kind of art history you'd like to do, and who you want to work with.

Previous posters are correct that there is a strong focus on queer theory and feminist approaches to art history in both departments. But there are faculty members who diverge from that.

If you are interested in contemporary art, your best chance is to specifically frame your interest around questions of art and the law, since that is your background. Once you are accepted you can basically do whatever you want, but I would suggest your scholarly interests as an extension of your legal practice.

As someone who knows these two programs extremely well, I would suggest you have a much better shot at Stanford. Not only because there are professors who deal with the intersection of art and the broader culture, including legal culture, such as Nancy Troy and Alexander Nemerov, but also because there is generally more of an interest on the part of the university in intersections between art history and other disciplines. I might even consider doing a joint PhD and LLM with an art history advisor and John Merryman in the Law School, whose specific focus is art law.

That is, of course, unless you want to completely forego your legal training entirely. You could do that, but if you do, it may be challenging to be admitted to these programs, unless you can produce a writing sample that knocks the socks off your POI and the committee.


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