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Advice on MA Programs


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So, a bit about myself first. I just graduated in Spring 2012 with a B.A. in Art History with Honors from a very, very, very well-regarded and universally well-respected university in a large Midwestern city. Within the major, my focus was on 19th-20th century photography, although I wrote my thesis on the figurative illustrations to a Weimar-era German guidebook to Berlin's seedy, kinky underbelly written for strait-laced provincial tourists. During my 4th year, I decided to switch my focus from late 19th-early 20th century West European and American art and visual culture to post-1960 photography and visual culture with a focus on cultural/sexuality studies and a methodology heavily influenced by literary criticism of the past 50 years or so. Although I tried to start warming up to a professor specializing in contemporary, he unfortunately experienced a medical problem during a graduate seminar I took with him, killing my chance at a recommendation. Therefore, a couple (but not all) of my recommenders haven't had me as a student since 2010.

I'm currently living at home in North Jersey and working as an exhibitions/curatorial/research intern within an archive at the International Center of Photography currently planning a major exhibition. From what I've heard from professors, it might enhance my chances of admission to a great PhD program (that of my alma mater, Yale, UCLA, etc.) if I have an MA. I'm increasingly thinking this might be a good idea, both for the aforementioned reason and that I don't feel ready to commit to a PhD program. I'm looking to go into academia, not curatorial or art market/gallery work. And now, for the quantitative part. I haven't taken the GREs yet, but I received a 1470 (800 verbal, 670 math) on the SATs, so I'm hoping my scores will be comparable, although I'm not too concerned. I had a 3.8 overall GPA in undergrad with no grades lower than one B- in my first year, wrote an A honors thesis, and have a 3.95 in my major. Out of 16 classes in Art History, I had 14 As and 2 A-s, and a wide distribution of courses, with Byzantine, African, and Chinese art as well as 19th-to-21st century. I have about 5 good potential academic recommendations, in addition to the curator I just started working for, should that continue to go well. I'm also a boy (man?), although I don't know if that matters. I also speak Spanish and German.

I'm not really here to get people's thoughts on where I will or won't get in, but to solicit opinions on which MA programs would be a good fit for me, and help me towards my ultimate goal: admission to an excellent PhD program. I'm looking to apply to ~5 MA programs. I'll list the "likely" ones first, then some that are probably crossed off the list, then a few I haven't considered enough. I'm only considering programs in the US and Canada east of the Great Plains for financial/familial reasons. The first two categories will have pros and cons. Thoughts and suggestions?


1. University of Texas-Austin.

Pros: Within a superb research university; location is fun, liberal, and temperate; a few good faculty for my interests (Ann Reynolds, Linda Henderson); rigorous program with a good reputation; MA students aren't supposed to be total second class citizens.

Cons: No one fits exactly with my interests, since there's no one who focuses on photography; far from home; closest major art museums are in San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston.

2. State University of New York-Buffalo.

Pros: Cheap location with good arts resources, close to Toronto, and some hip neighborhoods; program and faculty fit very, very well with my interests; I'd have a good chance at getting a very extensive merit scholarship and/or teaching fellowship considering my pedigree and degree of fit; I'm acquainted with the program's director; within a major research university.

Cons: One needs a car in Buffalo and it's cold and economically depressed; the program is NOT a known quantity as it's only a few years old.

3. Tufts University.

Pros: Extremely well-respected program with an excellent track record of admissions to PhD programs; no PhD students so lots of individual attention; varied faculty, some of whom (Monica McTighe, Eric Rosenberg, Adriana Zavala) fit with my interests; in a city with tons of students; great connections with local museums; good funding; fairly close to home.

Cons: Expensive and in an extremely expensive location.

4. McGill University.

Pros: Good faculty (Christine Ross, Amelia Jones) who fit well with my interests; fantastic location; I'd learn at least some French; fairly close to home; MA students are not second class citizens as everyone gets an MA in Canada basically prior to a PhD.

Cons: Track record with admission to American grad schools is an unknown variable, faculty may be unstable.

5. Columbia University - MODA

Pros: Excellent faculty and professional contacts; fantastic location for contemporary art; close to home; my mother and three out of my four grandparents each have undergrad or professional degrees labeled Columbia; within a fantastic research university.

Cons: It's quite likely a moneymaking opportunity for Columbia; it's too pre-professional and not pre-academic; it's a bit too close to home and New York is an extremely expensive place to live if you're not making money; you're "junior varsity" compared to the PhD students.

Maybe but probably not (mostly crossed off the list):

1. Williams College

Pros: Incredibly well-respected program with an amazing track record of grad school admissions and amazing opportunities to work in museums.

Cons: In the middle of f*cking nowhere, with only 24 students in the program; unduly traditional.

2. New York University - IFA

Pros: Very well-respected program in a fantastic location for modern and contemporary art.

Cons: Expensive location, overly conservative in focus, more pre-professional, catty, stuffy.

3. Rutgers University.

Pros: Great photo history faculty (Andres Zervigon, Tanya Sheehan), I'm an NJ resident so I'd have a high probability of receiving financial goodies.

Cons: Location is fairly boring, no contemporary faculty focusing on the US or Western Europe, MA program is much more geared to careers in museums, historic preservation, etc. than preparation for a PhD.

4. CUNY - Hunter College

Pros: Relatively inexpensive in a fantastic location; pretty good reputation.

Cons: Modern/contemporary faculty doesn't jive well with my interests; more pre-professional.

Not considered enough yet:

1. SAIC - Master of Arts in Critical and Visual Studies

Pros: Amazing location in Chicago; I'd have a decent shot at getting merit aid; faculty really suits my interests and are well-respected; free-thinking program; connections to AIC and MCA; perfect distance from home.

Cons: I'm not convinced it passes the litmus test for being academically rigorous; it's not within a research university; it could be more pre-professional; and I know nothing of its reputation with grad schools.

2. University of Pennsylvania

Pros: Good name, good faculty, good location, great university.

Cons: Not focused at all on contemporary.

Let me know if there's anywhere I'm missing, and your thoughts on both my fit for these programs and my assessments of them.

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At Penn, I don't think you will find a professor that can meet your interests. Besides it is super expensive. You should also consider several master programs that offers full fundings (UC Davis, Ohio U, UC Boulder, Tulane). And please allow me to say that the MODA at Columbia is merely a cash-cow master program. If I am wrong, someone please correct me.

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Hello lasterhafte,

It seems like you've done a lot of reflection about MA programs and have a great list. Have you thought about the Courtauld MA? They definitely have some great people working on contemporary art with focuses on sexuality and photography (Mignon Nixon, Julian Stallabrass, etc.). The Courtauld also has amazing placement into PhD programs, and how fantastic would it be to be in London for a year? I'm not sure what type of funding there is for international (US) students, though. But it might be worth considering!

Also, I'm in a very similar position to yours, and realized recently that since my ultimately goal is to go to a PhD program, why not apply now to some standalone PhD programs as well as some terminal MA programs?

I think an MA can be a really terrific option for a lot of people who are interested in continuing with art history, including those who want to go onto a PhD, and I know that there are a lot of benefits to doing this before going on to a PhD, like exposure to varied teaching styles and methodologies and a chance to cement exactly what you want to focus on in art history.

But I think that for the last several months, I had convinced myself that I should apply to only MA programs because I wasn't "sure" about art history, or that I didn't think I was ready yet to take on the pressure of a PhD program, or that my writing samples weren't good enough, or that I didn't have a close enough relationship with my recommenders. We are our own worst critics. And, at the bottom of it, I think I was just scared of getting rejected from the schools I want to attend. From what you've written above, it is clear that your ultimate goal is to attend a PhD program, and that is something you are certain about. If so, why don't you think about applying to a few PhD programs (only ones you would actually attend if you got in!) as well as your list of MAs. If you get into both, you'll be the one to decide which type of program is the right fit for you at this stage. If you only get into an MA, fantastic, as it will help you further clarify your interests in the field before jumping into a PhD. But it sounds like you have a great shot of getting into PhD programs without an MA, and if it is what you really want, just go for it!

(Here's hoping I will end up taking my own advice!)

Good luck!

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If you're thinking of studying in the UK there are a surprisingly large number of scholarships available for American students interested in doing their grad studies in the UK. One program you might want to look at in particular (I've been considering the possibility of studying overseas in a couple of years) is the Marshall Scholarship- they pay for 2 years of schooling, provide a small living stipend and apparently even pay your airfare. The deadline is sometime in November so its even still theoretically possible for you to apply this year- good luck!

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I second 2013app with not selling yourself short on Ph.D. programs especially as it sounds you are fairly focused and have excellent qualifications. As a graduate of McGill, their modern/contemporary program is excellent,and I don't think that either Amelia or Christine are going anywhere anytime soon. However,I would be cautious about Canadian schools because unlike most U.S. schools their graduate funding comes from federal and provincial governments,for which students have to apply separately for. I am fairly certain that most of this money is only for citizens and permanent residents. Some schools have extra money, but full funding is going to be unlikely. As for getting into U.S. schools, it really isn't a problem,especially when you are working with faculty as well known as those at McGill.

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