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Should I apply to art history or history programs-- or both?


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Hello, folks. I hope that you are all doing well in light of the circumstances.

I am starting to think increasingly about PhD applications and would like to start my search for possible mentors after Easter break. So far, I have done a little bit of casual searching for programs and have found some professors that I believe I would fit well with. I am just not sure if I am on the right track and if I should center my search more on history or art history programs. I have found professors in both, though admittedly more in art history. 

In a very broad sense, I am interested in women's participation in religious ritual and how this factored into the ways in which this shaped how women imagined and performed their devotional lives and, in turn, how they formed their identity. I am specifically interested in how religious art, architecture, and objects were used in facilitating devotional lives, particularly in the context of the cult of saints. This will also explore the relationship between devotion and power/access, specifically queenship and patronage. My research will ideally be an anthropological, aesthetic, and archeological approach to the cult of saints, and place worship in a more female context, therefore filling gaps left by Peter Brown and Robert Bartlett. 

This may be a stupid question, but am I on the wrong track for looking at art history programs? Is it even necessary to apply to just one type of program or the other, or should I go with fit? For reference, I am a current History Master's student and got my BA in History. 

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I recommend that you focus more on trajectories of debate among academics centered around topics and approaches that appeal to you. When you have gathered about two hundred scholarly works, see if anything jumps out at you so you can say "This is what I want to do and how I want to do it." 

Barring that result, start sorting and resorting the works based upon a growing number of increasingly refined criteria. Figure out what you think and feel about the results of your sorts and the patterns you see. 

Something to keep in mind. Your interests have greatly shifted since January. You may benefit from exploring the degree to which your interests have shifted and understanding what components of your interest have remained relatively constant. 

What ever array of tactics you use to define your interests and to identify potential POIs, please consider the benefits of increasing the level of effort and the amount of time you invest into your explorations. Your interests are complex. Teaching yourself how to take them apart and put them back together will help you to narrow things down to an increasingly concise statement of research interests in a statement of purpose.

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Hi @MtrlHstryGrl!  This is a great question.  I have a non-answer for you: look at both.  There are some excellent art history programs who use historical lenses, anthropological and sociological lenses to study cultural artifacts and ideas.  However, there are also a great many that emphasize visual analysis and theory over these lenses, which is probably not the right fit for you.  I would look at both History & Art History -- prioritizing the mentors whose fields and methods/approaches match what you're most interested in studying yourself.  Fit is probably the most important consideration for both of these fields (imo -- others may disagree).

That said, three things.  1) As a History BA and a History MA, you may appear (in your applications) to lack some of the specific skills relevant to Art History, in doing visual analysis in particular.  You will need to make it clear why art history is the right lens for your research goals (as opposed to history).  You will also need to demonstrate your capacity to do visual and material analysis, and how you have developed that skill alongside (separate from/in addition to) your abilities to do textual and historical analysis.

2) What is your ultimate career goal?  Museum work? Public history?  Academia?  If academia, what field do you want to teach in?  How will the programs you are considering best prepare you for the field you want to move into next?  It's important to be intentional now about what you want to do next.  If you plan to be a professor of history, an art history degree may not be your best next step.  If you want to work in museums, an art history degree might set you apart.  

3) What is the material makeup of your research interests?  Are you looking at specific artifacts or architecture?  Archaeological records?  Diaries, texts, and personal entries?  Books of hours, madonnas, relics?  Religious ephemera?  Your thematic goals seem to fit either history or history, but if you have a clear research plan entailing a specific body of material, that might point you towards one or the other.  As in: madonnas, relics, and books of hours might make you lean more firmly towards Art History.  But archaeological records, texts, etc., might trend more so towards History.

Maybe this makes more questions than it answers!  Ultimately, focusing on the fit -- specifying not only your thematic interests, but also your materials and methodological approach --- will help you narrow down which program is the best place to grow and expand your research.  Best of luck!!

PS: I saw your other post about language exams, and asked the same thing here -- https://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/122983-prep-for-language-exams/ -- in case the answers there are helpful.  Feel free to PM to exchange ideas too :)

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32 minutes ago, Sigaba said:

Something to keep in mind. Your interests have greatly shifted since January. You may benefit from exploring the degree to which your interests have shifted and understanding what components of your interest have remained relatively constant. 

What ever array of tactics you use to define your interests and to identify potential POIs, please consider the benefits of increasing the level of effort and the amount of time you invest into your explorations. Your interests are complex. Teaching yourself how to take them apart and put them back together will help you to narrow things down to an increasingly concise statement of research interests in a statement of purpose.

Thank you for the response-- it was very helpful! 

I have been looking more into the debate of my intended field, and will thankfully have more time to do so because of the crisis. I have also taken a look at the publications and especially approaches of scholars I may be interested in, and will be using my reading as a guide. I have had these interests for a long while, but (erroneously) assumed that my public history interests may be more profitable. Ultimately, this is what I am passionate about and I am in love with the reading and research. Speaking with my advisor and two professors has really helped me to discern my passions and goals. One common thread I have noticed in my interests is the ways in which people have used the objects and place to identify, especially with the past. Yes, I agree that there are a lot of moving parts in my current research description. Do you have any methodological tips for helping take them apart? Not specific to my interests necessarily, but generally?

Thank you again for your response. You continue to be a very helpful person on this site. 

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3 minutes ago, venusofwillendork said:

Hi @MtrlHstryGrl!  This is a great question.  I have a non-answer for you: look at both.  There are some excellent art history programs who use historical lenses, anthropological and sociological lenses to study cultural artifacts and ideas.  However, there are also a great many that emphasize visual analysis and theory over these lenses, which is probably not the right fit for you.  I would look at both History & Art History -- prioritizing the mentors whose fields and methods/approaches match what you're most interested in studying yourself.  Fit is probably the most important consideration for both of these fields (imo -- others may disagree).

That said, three things.  1) As a History BA and a History MA, you may appear (in your applications) to lack some of the specific skills relevant to Art History, in doing visual analysis in particular.  You will need to make it clear why art history is the right lens for your research goals (as opposed to history).  You will also need to demonstrate your capacity to do visual and material analysis, and how you have developed that skill alongside (separate from/in addition to) your abilities to do textual and historical analysis.

2) What is your ultimate career goal?  Museum work? Public history?  Academia?  If academia, what field do you want to teach in?  How will the programs you are considering best prepare you for the field you want to move into next?  It's important to be intentional now about what you want to do next.  If you plan to be a professor of history, an art history degree may not be your best next step.  If you want to work in museums, an art history degree might set you apart.  

3) What is the material makeup of your research interests?  Are you looking at specific artifacts or architecture?  Archaeological records?  Diaries, texts, and personal entries?  Books of hours, madonnas, relics?  Religious ephemera?  Your thematic goals seem to fit either history or history, but if you have a clear research plan entailing a specific body of material, that might point you towards one or the other.  As in: madonnas, relics, and books of hours might make you lean more firmly towards Art History.  But archaeological records, texts, etc., might trend more so towards History.

Maybe this makes more questions than it answers!  Ultimately, focusing on the fit -- specifying not only your thematic interests, but also your materials and methodological approach --- will help you narrow down which program is the best place to grow and expand your research.  Best of luck!!

PS: I saw your other post about language exams, and asked the same thing here -- https://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/122983-prep-for-language-exams/ -- in case the answers there are helpful.  Feel free to PM to exchange ideas too :)

Wow, this is also a very helpful response! Looking at mentors specifically, especially in terms of methodology was what I was originally leaning towards, so I feel a bit validated in that! 

To address your points, preliminarily: 

1) As an undergraduate, I was able to take on-site courses in theology and art history that ignited an affinity for church architecture and religious art, as well as interests in patronage, continuity from the ancient to medieval worlds, and the anthropological use of art and architecture. Concurrently, I held an archeological internship that allowed me to handle artifacts and get a better sense of what objects were used in devotion and how, and went on a dig excavating architecture. In my original research piece for my writing sample, I do some art historical analysis of Florentine birth trays to illustrate a point about class stratification and how nobility represented themselves through art. I will also be taking two art history courses this summer and a Visual Culture course in the Fall, so I am hopeful that I can use all of that as a booster. The question about why art history would be the right lens is really helpful, and something I will think about and be sure to include in a SOP!

2) My dream career is medieval curation at the British Museum. This is not very helpful, but I want to do both academia and museum work. I am very much in love with medieval historical research, but curation is very appealing to me. 

3) I am mostly interested in relics and reliquaries, architecture, jewelry, and iconography. However, I do want to rely on archaeological records, hagiographies, and documents relating to charters, but I would prefer to use those as supplementary to art and artifacts. 

This does help me asking questions of my methodology and materials specifically, which I admittedly struggled with. I think that thinking through answering number 3 in particular has led to a bit of an epiphany! Also, thank you for the language exam prep! Perhaps we could set up some sort of study/accountability group. 

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16 hours ago, MtrlHstryGrl said:

Wow, this is also a very helpful response! Looking at mentors specifically, especially in terms of methodology was what I was originally leaning towards, so I feel a bit validated in that! 

To address your points, preliminarily: 

1) As an undergraduate, I was able to take on-site courses in theology and art history that ignited an affinity for church architecture and religious art, as well as interests in patronage, continuity from the ancient to medieval worlds, and the anthropological use of art and architecture. Concurrently, I held an archeological internship that allowed me to handle artifacts and get a better sense of what objects were used in devotion and how, and went on a dig excavating architecture. In my original research piece for my writing sample, I do some art historical analysis of Florentine birth trays to illustrate a point about class stratification and how nobility represented themselves through art. I will also be taking two art history courses this summer and a Visual Culture course in the Fall, so I am hopeful that I can use all of that as a booster. The question about why art history would be the right lens is really helpful, and something I will think about and be sure to include in a SOP!

2) My dream career is medieval curation at the British Museum. This is not very helpful, but I want to do both academia and museum work. I am very much in love with medieval historical research, but curation is very appealing to me. 

3) I am mostly interested in relics and reliquaries, architecture, jewelry, and iconography. However, I do want to rely on archaeological records, hagiographies, and documents relating to charters, but I would prefer to use those as supplementary to art and artifacts. 

This does help me asking questions of my methodology and materials specifically, which I admittedly struggled with. I think that thinking through answering number 3 in particular has led to a bit of an epiphany! Also, thank you for the language exam prep! Perhaps we could set up some sort of study/accountability group. 

Hi!  So glad to help.  I think talking things through, asking yourself these questions... it's the best way to narrow your focus! 

1) Your undergrad courses and archaeological work will be super helpful!  Definitely something to highlight in your SOP -- help them see that you have the skills you need to work and think in a different discipline.

2) If your goal includes curatorial work, my instinct is that Art History is a better option.  However, I'm not as familiar with your period or work in the UK.  If most of the people in the jobs you are interested in at the BM have degrees in Art History, or Archaeology, that would definitely indicate it's a good choice.

When I started my PhD search last year, I thought it would be most important for me to be able to demonstrate clear thematic research interests.  I also thought I needed to spend my time learning more factual information, doing more readings, etc.  However, what I have learned in the past year is that when it comes to fit, the methodology and types of material are really more important.  You know you have the skills -- you're a qualified MA student with clear research interests.  I can't emphasize enough how valuable it has been for me to step back and assess what my approaches to art history are -- and then to find out what approaches my potential POIs use.  It would have saved me a lot of time and application fees, as I did end up applying to some programs (like Stanford, for example) where the program and my POI's focus/methodology did not match my own lens for doing this work, even though we shared common themes and topics.  

Best of luck!!  

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  • 3 weeks later...

Hi! I'm an art historian and I'd say the most important thing is to demonstrate how your past experiences have trained you into being able to work with visual content. Your research topic is really interesting and, with the right PI/advisor, you will be able to explore it to its fullest extent. Additionally, if you want to become a curator, art history is the best path for working towards it.

That being said, do try to strip your interests to the bare bones and see what ties everything together. The SOP word limit is something to keep in mind at all times when applying, so knowing which is the core of your interests will make the SOP writing process run smoothly and work in your favor as a tool for determining which programs are your best fit. I'd also strongly suggest you explore some interdisciplinary programs that allow you to get a shot to start training in curatorial studies, as curatorial work is a different kind of beast. Several art history programs will already include curatorial studies as part of the curriculum, but if the lack of opportunity of doing curatorial work is a deal-breaker to you, interdisciplinary programs might be a good option. 

Lastly, if your interest lies upon the Mediterranean region, do consider checking out programs in Europe. If you have a B2-C1 level in French, Italian, Spanish, amongst other languages, I encourage you to give it a shot. Bologna University has a good program in Art History that won't wreak your finances for years to come and the opportunity of being close to archaeological sites is invaluable. A good friend of mine is also currently studying in France her MA in Medieval Studies and plans to stay there for her PhD, and her experience with the university she's in has been great. Her PI is very supportive of her research endeavors, she has been given funding and support for her projects and, as stated before, the possibility of being few hours away from the archaeological sites relevant to her research is a major point in favor.

 

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