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Hopeful BA to PhD Seeking Advice!


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Hi everyone, I'm seeking reassurance in regards to my resume and my chances of going straight to PhD. I'm a rising senior at the University of Florida with a major in Art History and a minor in Chemistry, and my end-goal is to focus on late 19th, early 20th century modernism, either focusing on the feminisms of the era or post-war historic avant-garde politics. I've known since I started at UF that I wanted to get a PhD and go into academia, and thus have tried my hardest to make myself a good applicant. I have a 3.63 GPA (thanks to physics and late-stage chem courses) but I've gotten A's in all of my art history classes (9 total with one A- in intro). I've had two curatorial internships, one in Modernist art and the other with a broader focus (the Modernist one with my local museum and the other with the NPG), and am an officer for two art-related organizations at my school. One is in charge of the art school's student publication (in which I've been published twice and was basically chief editor for both editions) and the other is a general, social art club that I started over the pandemic. My top choices are Yale, Princeton, and Northwestern (not in that order, and there are 6 other programs I'm applying to) because they each have Modernist scholars whose research focuses I really admire. I'm taking German in the fall and spring so that by the time I apply, I'll hopefully be fluent and will thus have that along with English and Spanish under my belt (native speaker of both). One thing that gives me confidence is that I took a graduate-level course this past semester in curatorial studies and the professor (who almost never gave out compliments) said I was the best writer in the class. I have a good handful of professors with whom I've formed good relationships with, along with my internship supervisors so letters of rec are OK, I think.

My main fear I guess is that the past two years of stalled admission cycles are going to shoot me in the foot. I have tried to make myself as competitive as possible but I have no reference as to what is good enough or where my resume really stands. The posts I read on here blow me out of the water with what some of you guys have accomplished. I am confident in my ability as a writer because writing has always been my forte, and I have a relevant writing sample to my interests, but besides that I don't know what else I can do to strengthen my application. Any advice? Thank you!

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Familiarize yourself with the field in general and more so your subfield of modernism—which is vast—to gain a good sense of the historiography and how you plan to advance research of a movement, or a cluster of movements, that have been well-covered by many of the best and brightest in the discipline. What's been done already, and what are a couple of new directions that you foresee yourself taking as a modernist? Your extracurriculars and skills will help bolster your application, and a well-written sample is crucial, but perhaps more critical is a statement of purpose that convincingly argues that what you plan to contribute will be good for art history and why you're the one to take this on and why program X with this and that faculty would enable you to make said contributions. 

Very promising applicants can have lackluster results—perhaps, that's what you mean by "stalled admission cycles"? I'm unclear. Even with a great application, it's still a crapshoot. But if you have professors happily willing to write you letters of recommendations, you're just as deserving of a shot as other applicants.

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Your resumé sounds very strong, but a strong resumé will only get you so far. What will distinguish your application from the hundreds of others is the quality of your writing sample, personal statement, and letters of recommendation. Your writing sample needs to show that you're ready to do grad work at the highest level. That means, in addition to being well written, demonstrating an ability to develop a clear and original argument, carry out sophisticated visual analysis, work with primary sources (hopefully in at least one language other than English), and engage meaningfully and critically with secondary scholarship and theory. Your personal statement needs to demonstrate an awareness of the key debates and methods in your field, as well as a clear and well thought out research agenda that complements the research of whomever you want to work with.  Your letters of recommendation need to attest that you are among the strongest students your professor has taught, that you've mastered the skills I listed above, and that your work to date demonstrates potential for growth into a mature scholar. You can't control what your letters writers write about you, but hopefully you've developed relationships with them over the years so they can write knowledgeably about you and your work. You should speak to them early and often about your goals, and hopefully they can give you more advice. 

Edited by Bronte1985
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On 6/21/2022 at 1:21 PM, killerbunny said:

Very promising applicants can have lackluster results—perhaps, that's what you mean by "stalled admission cycles"?

Thank you so much for your response! 'Stalled admission cycles' was in regards to how many programs stopped admitting people during the last 2 years of the pandemic, so one of my worries is that a lot more people will be applying this year than other years. And in regards to my focus, I have a more specific idea but not as hyper-specific as many dissertations/theses I've seen so was planning on reading more of the literature and hopefully having it narrowed down more within the next few months. Thanks again!

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On 6/23/2022 at 4:04 PM, alvartez said:

And in regards to my focus, I have a more specific idea but not as hyper-specific as many dissertations/theses I've seen so was planning on reading more of the literature and hopefully having it narrowed down more within the next few months. Thanks again!

Ah! Gotcha. That makes sense now. Yes, admissions have become more competitive. And yes, you're right about being somewhat specific in your stated focus but not hyper-specific. Best of luck!

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  • 3 weeks later...

BA to PhD here! I applied to 7 PhDs & 1 MA, and got into the MA (with partial funding) and 1 PhD -- I'm at the latter now.  If I could do it again, I would apply to fewer programs with more contact with the program before submissions. 9 is a lot to consider and to balance, especially while you are still in school.

I can't really speak to your resume, but it sounds like you'll make for a strong applicant! The things I'm saying below are coming from a place of being stronger & framing the work you're already doing most effectively. 

So the advice above is great, but I think the most valuable thing you can do is make good connections with your potential advisors. Send emails, ask for a phone call, ask to meet with their current students. If possible, read some of their work & be able to articulate how the specific work you want to do fits with theirs. Some of them will respond. Some of them won't. But far and above, good contact with them before you apply will set your application apart.

Next, I'd just say (and I'm coming from a similar background): As a BA student, it can be difficult to fully understand who YOU are as a scholar within the field -- what your research is contributing, and how your approach to this field fits with other methods, frameworks, and theories. This is something you will continue to develop through your studies, but it is one of the ways to really show that you are prepared to enter this field. In your statement of purpose, and in your conversations with your advisor (and in your own thinking) really take the time to consider a few questions. Some things I wish I'd asked myself:

  • Why is Art History the most relevant field for my research project/specific research interests?
  • What projects & research have I already completed successfully that I can use to demonstrate the kind of art history that I do?
  • How will a PhD in art history, specifically, help me in my professional, academic, and career goals? Why do I need to do it *right now* and not in a few years?
  • What methods & forms of art historical scholarship do I *disagree* with, and why? How is my work different from these? Why is it important that more of my framework/method exists? (And from there -- which scholars at these universities are using those methods?)
  • And while you're thinking about that dissertation topic (and I agree with above, don't make it too specific -- or say explicitly that you expect it to change as you grow as a scholar -- but have a strong general idea of what your project is) -> why does it matter? what does your specific research interest contribute to the field? and how do you know it's contributing something?

All of these are big & complicated questions, and things you will continue to develop as you study. I don't expect you'll have complete answers before you apply, or before you even start. But showing your admission committees that you're ready to think about these will show that you are a strong candidate despite your "academic youth." 

Finally, and this one may be a bit difficult to hear, but I really think it's worth thinking about a year off. I know firsthand the eagerness about moving forward with the degree, especially thinking about funding for a year. And I know exactly what it's like to know that this is your next step, so why wait to take it?  I encourage thinking about a year off for a few reasons. 1) While most PhDs are funded, they do not pay well. Taking a year and saving a little buffer will protect you while you're in school. 2) Burnout is *so* real. For a high-achieving student like yourself, your senior year is going to be *rigourous.* Taking a year to breathe, center yourself, and even think about some of the projects you've begun can only help you succeed more in the next year. and 3) Taking the time to connect with advisors, hone your research questions, and develop your ideas takes work, work that is very hard to do while you're in school and balancing so many other things.

The people around me that are most successful in the PhD program are the ones who have had to live in the non-academic world for at least a little while -- long enough to understand that there is so much more to life than our research. For me, that time off compelled me to work even harder, and I have a healthier work-life balance, a better understanding of money management, and more professional knowledge I'll use to get a job when I finish. I know it's a hard thing to consider, but you may find that it opens more doors than it closes.

Good luck, and feel free to DM me if I can offer any other help!


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