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MFA Studio to PHD Art History?


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I'm an American working towards a studio MFA degree in the United Kingdom. I'm planning on heading back to the States when my degree is complete.

I love the idea of going from an intensive art practice program, to an intesive art theory and history program. I'm ready for the challenge and committment to research and writing. I would like to apply to an American institution that has a PHD program in art history.

What are my chances? What tips do you have for applying? What about Ivy Leagues? Could I get into those? I'm doing a dissertation for the MFA. I plan on doing a streight academic art history paper to bolster my credibility. Does anyone have tips on subject matter for my MFA dissertation that will help my chances for the PHD?

Apologies for the plethora of questions. Any help will by appreciated.


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There seems to be kind of a mixed attitude towards students who come from a studio program and it varies from institution to institution. Very few schools in the US require that you have a previous degree in art history (BA or MA)and as long as you have taken the required number of courses in art history you are eligible for admission. However, as I have responded to the other post about a specific institution's reaction to studio training, some schools whose programs are more theoretical and based on philosophy, rather than on object centered research, don't tend to favor people with this background. This is far from being universal and most schools welcome people with studio backgrounds and see them as having a special perspective on art history because they have been practicing artists. A good way to see how MFAs are viewed at a particular school is to look at their current students and alumni. Do any of them have MFAs? I think, but am not sure, that Ivies tend to prefer a stronger academic background. A good writing sample will probably be key in convincing them (or any school) that your training has been adequate for PhD studies. I don't know what subject matter would be the best choice, especially not knowing your area of interest.

Edited by Shelley Burian
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Was your undergrad also in studio art? I finished a BFA in 2010 and was accepted into an MA for art history at an Ivy for this coming fall. This is a question that I really struggled with during the interim years. It was a really difficult transition, but, I think, very fruitful, and not impossible. 


In order to prepare for graduate study I took non-degree courses at the school I wanted to apply to. Interning at museums was an eye opener as to the differences between art history and studio art. Learning to be academically objective and the structures and methods of writing were really difficult for me. On a personal level, I have found studying art history to be a much more insular practice, for one. I have found that it is more common for students studying studio art to transfer into modern and contemporary art history. I have also found that different texts and different artists circulated the different groups—it might be helpful if you haven't already and if you're planning on studying modern and contemporary to read through the general books and anthologies that undergrad survey courses require of their students and familiarize with the texture of art historians practicing in your field. Art Since 1900, Art in Theory, Anti-Aesthetic, art in modern culture, the painting of modern life, etc. are some of the books that I've been required to read. 


The most famous examples of art historians that transferred to art and artists who transferred to art history are Leo Steinberg and Donald Judd. There are professors at the Courtauld who have practiced as studio artists and at least two professors at the school I was accepted to studied studio art. You can message me if you want to talk. It was very difficult for me to find people in the same boat as I was when I was applying to schools and making the transition. Most importantly don't let anyone discourage you. Art history needs more practicing artists!

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