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Proposed Research Areas and Suggested Reading for MA programs


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I'm new to the forum and the application process in general, so apologies if these questions have been covered.

I wonder if anyone might be able to talk to me about how narrow my intended course of study should be when I'm applying to MA programs. I was an Art History minor for undergrad at a large university. My AH coursework wasn't extensive, though I did study abroad twice (Oxford and Siena) and took AH courses specific to those areas.

My interests primarily center around 19th century French painting (I spent a fair amount of time in Paris growing up, not sure if I should mention this), but I also want to strengthen my understanding of the canon of AH and am open to the idea that I may discover knew areas of interest.

My first question is this: How focused should my intended research area be on my statement of purpose? Can I propose multiple areas of study/express alternate curiosities? Will professors be interested in working with a candidate who is exploring topics on her own, rather than having formal undergraduate guidance?

Given my above questions, I plan to spend quite a bit of my time catching up on reading.

Can anyone provide suggestions of absolutely essential pre-MA reading?

For reference, I have been working in the art world (auction house, though in dec arts) for the past three years and I'm applying to MA programs with the intention of continuing to a PhD program. I know I have quite a bit of work to do, so I'm giving myself the next year to prepare my applications.

I really appreciate any guidance you can provide.


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I finished an MA program in June, and I think for most terminal MAs it's fairly common to not even be certain who you are working with when you start a program. I ended up changing advisors and topics (drastically) in my first year, and so did serveral other people in my program. That being said, I think it's good to have a focus going in (even if it changes later), but I wouldn't make it too narrow. I think 19th century French painting is perfect, and leave it at that. You can explain briefly that your interest stems from visiting Paris during your childhood; I think that's a great connection. I don't think you need to express everything you're curious about, but know that you have the option to change your focus later.

As far as "essential pre-MA reading," these books were my textbooks for the proseminar in methods, and I think they give a pretty good overview.




I don't think you NEED to read them before you get into a program, though. You'll still have to read them again, and I don't think you'll be behind not having read them prior to class.

I hope that helps! I took the same path you are taking (terminal MA, now applying to PhD programs), so if you have other questions I'd be happy to help.

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During my undergrad I was friendly with most of our grad students in AH and found that most of them had minimal experience with AH during their undergrad. Experiencing anything in the field rather than in a classroom speaks volumes, so I wouldn't worry about that aspect.

For the reading, I wouldn't stress too much. I think you should read what interests you and gets you excited about art. There are going to be many nights in the future where you sit wondering why you're torturing yourself with theory books.

I definitely understand your concern about how focused SOP's should be, I'm terrified of being too specific and alienating myself.

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I disagree with sonatine -- and if you're worried about "torturing yourself with theory books," then maybe graduate school in art history isn't the place for you.

If you're keen to study 19th-century French painting, you'll want to demonstrate as much deep engagement with the topic as possible in your SOP. Demonstrate to them that you've read the best/most influential/smartest scholarship out there. Let them know what you think about it, how you situate yourself and your thinking in relationship to it.

It's totally fine to change your focus once you get to graduate school, particularly at the terminal MA level (the SOP is not a binding document) -- and it's totally good to write that curiosity and willingness to think expansively into your SOP. But there's no reason to do it at the expense of demonstrating to the admissions committee deep and sustained engagement with your primary area of focus.

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