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Admissions Question, Fall 2014: Contacting the Department


chagallgal
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I'm new here, and was hoping for a little feedback about admissions etiquette.... from past, current, or hopeful gradate students. Thanks in advance, as anything will help : )

Some background for my question:
I am currently in the throws of choosing grad programs for Fall 2014. I'm also in the middle of choosing my writing sample, studying for the GREs, and writing my letters asking for recommendations, among other lovely tasks : )
 
I've been concerned about applying, since my undergraduate GPA is considerably lower than most average students admitted. It was the result of a horribly bad semester, and my GPA steadily grew every semester following. I studied abroad for a year, completed an internship, and excelled in higher level courses. It's also been 4 years since graduation, and I've taken that time to be sure that this is what I want- and that I will be fully dedicated. I'm also not focusing on top schools, as I doubt they'd look past this GPA.
 
Question:

I've contacted a couple of the schools to ask a few questions about their programs (tuition, fellowships, part time vs. full time, etc.), as well as describing myself a bit. With that, I have asked if I have a chance in being admitted, or what I can do to help my application shine through the low GPA (extra letters, interview, etc.). Unfortunately, I have not heard back from any of the schools for weeks, and I am not sure if I need to take the questions directly to the department. Are those questions a burden/inappropriate to send to the department? In other words, what questions ARE appropriate to direct to the department?


Thanks again, and to anyone reading this, good luck with your applications!

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Questions that cannot be reasonably answered by the department's or the graduate school's website, including their FAQ sections, could be appropriate to direct to the DGS or, better yet, the department secretary. The questions you put in parentheses seem like the information typically found on the website and FAQ section. I imagine that if a department does respond, it will simply direct you to the department website. Questions about your fit with a potential adviser are best directed to that individual, and there are several places you can look to see how to write such a letter.

 

Now, for the meat of your question: I think it's inappropriate to direct those kinds of questions to schools or departments. They can't reasonably know because it's relative. You'll be judged in comparison to other applicants, and they haven't reviewed those applications. That doesn't mean you can't have an idea of what school you'd be competitive for based on previous years' statistics, and you should have a good sense of that based on conversations with your professors, but it won't spell your fate. Each department looks at applications holistically. That means that no one number or item will determine whether the department accepts you or not. You can overcome a low GPA by having outstanding letters of recommendation (no, don't provide extra letters. Do exactly as the application asks), a concise and focused statement of purpose, and well researched and well written writing sample (preferably one in the field you'd like to study, but no matter what, it should be your strongest) and a good verbal GRE score. These are all things you should strive for regardless of your GPA. A high GPA certainly won't be your trump for getting into grad school. As a side note, not all departments conduct interviews. Those that do will contact you to schedule one, not the other way around. 

 

More than that, I think those questions betray a lack of confidence on your part. Be sure to not be apologetic about your GPA; if needed, explain the circumstances, but you're there to research, and that should be the focus of your conversations. Frankly, I would surprised if any department sent a detailed response to your line of questioning. Walk it off, and focus on putting together an excellent application. 

Edited by Lamantin
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Thank you for your very thoughtful and informative reply. The questions I mentioned deal with items not found on the website or frequently asked questions, after a great deal of searching. I appreciate the direction you provided!

 

I also appreciate your advice and and perspective, and will certainly take them to heart. I do not feel as though my GPA is the most important aspect of my application, so it makes sense that I not treat it that way.

 

Thanks again for taking the time, take care

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You might want to consider a strong MA program first--Williams, or the University of Chicago's MAPH. If you're not aiming for a top program, may I ask why you're considering investing 6+ years of your life into the kind of intensive work a PhD requires? The employment scenario in Art History isn't much better than in most of academia. In sum, if you pursue your PhD at a program that isn't recognised as among the leading ones (both in your specialties and in the discipline), you increase the risk of finding yourself simply edged out by graduates from more competitive programs. 

 

On the other hand, a strong MA program can help you move into a top program. I think that's something you should consider.

 

Also, the kind of questions you implied are usually clearly discussed on most programs' websites. 99% of Art History PhD programs will be fully funded with a stipend, anyway. And if it isn't, I'd say it isn't worth considering. You're not going to do a PhD...in any discipline...part-time. That's just unrealistic, I think, and I definitely don't know anyone who's ever done that. 

 

GPAs can be overcome. My undergraduate GPA was well below 3.0. Doing an MA at Chicago helped me overcome that. More importantly, what matters for PhD applications are the writing sample, the statement of purpose, and the letters of recommendation, really. Good GREs and GPAs can help, but they won't win the game. 

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My long term goals are to become a professor and/or to work in a museum setting. There are many factors contributing to why I will be applying to each program, and so far, my list is very diverse in terms of location, MAs or PhDs, cost, faculty size, structure, and more. I would only be applying to schools that would provide resources to challenge myself, fine tune certain skills, gain extensive knowledge, and finally- equip myself to become a meaningful teacher. Though many of the top schools offer these opportunities, I have found a few programs outside the top ten who could match these goals as well. Obviously, I will reach for the best!

 

I still have a bit of time before applying, so I feel it’s important to not limit myself right now. I really value your perspective on the MA and hearing a bit about your story. So many people have encouraged me to go for the PhD, and I have taken that seriously, especially considering so many programs do not guarantee much aid for MA- and cost is a very reasonable concern. I’ll definitely consider those programs, as well as remain open to different avenues in pursuing my goals. The more information the better, as I’d like to make as cognizant a decision as possible.

 

I also appreciate the words on the job market- I certainly don’t want to complete a program and to not be able to work in my field. I’m not sure how to realistically predict what will happen, but I hope my contacts in museums will come in handy if I have trouble becoming a professor- as well as the added assurance of always having a job to fall back on (even though it’s not in the field.) I also am confident that my work ethic and attitude will help a good deal too : )

 

Thanks again for your all your words of advice, I sincerely appreciate the time you took. If you don’t mind me asking, what are you up to after completing your MA at Chicago?  Congrats, by the way!

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It's the middle of summer; depending on who you emailed (esp, a professor), they're probably on vacation or out of office. Expect a response, or resubmit your email, closer to when the semester starts (mid-August, early Sept). You might have a better chance of response. However, I feel that some of these questions, minus the one about your chances of getting in, should be available on the website. 

 

If there is a POI you are interested in, I would email them specific questions (not general ones that may be answered on the website), closer to the semester. 

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My long term goals are to become a professor and/or to work in a museum setting. 

 

So many people have encouraged me to go for the PhD, and I have taken that seriously, especially considering so many programs do not guarantee much aid for MA- and cost is a very reasonable concern. I’ll definitely consider those programs, as well as remain open to different avenues in pursuing my goals. The more information the better, as I’d like to make as cognizant a decision as possible.

 

I also appreciate the words on the job market- I certainly don’t want to complete a program and to not be able to work in my field. I’m not sure how to realistically predict what will happen, but I hope my contacts in museums will come in handy if I have trouble becoming a professor- as well as the added assurance of always having a job to fall back on (even though it’s not in the field.) 

 

A PhD is expected for curators of top museums; sometimes, museum administration hold advanced degrees. Occasionally, you'll find a director of education or education staff hold MAs/PhDs. But pursuing a PhD for several years and having a PhD degree is generally NOT necessary for museum work. In fact, it may affect you negatively in terms of landing administrative museum work (especially database-driven museum positions, e.g. collections management, development).

 

Now I am not saying it is not a good idea to have the idea of a back up plan of museum work, because the process of professorship is competitive, but going in with the idea that professorship may not work out/professorship is not your ultimate goal, sounds like to me that you don't have a concentrated plan for your career.

 

Also, you don't do a PhD because it is financially more sound than a MA, you do it because earning a PhD will help you land where you want to go in your career. And when stopping at a MA doesn't make sense. However, in your case, a MA in Art History would probably help your museum prospects, likely better than a PhD (which is limiting).

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If not professorship...

 

I should have asked you: what kind of museum work are you in, or what in museums do you want to do? That might help narrow down if you should do a MA or PhD in Art History, or in another discipline (e.g. PhD in Educational Studies, a professor example would be museum education/constructivist theorist, George Hein at Lesley University.)

 

Do your museum contacts have any advice for which degrees to pursue? What are their professional and academic backgrounds?

 

Also, keep in mind, years ago the expectations for museum roles, such as curator, did not ask for a PhD. In other words, today senior curators may hold just a BA. But for a curatorial internship or fellowship today, some museums requires a MA, or even a PhD, of its applicants.

 

But remember, this is for curators. (Maybe for museum directors.) This is not speaking of other roles in a museum, such as fundraising, marketing, school programs.

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Given those goals, it is practically imperative that you proceed toward a PhD at one of the top programs in your area(s) of specialization. Competition for this is intense. Here, for example, are some admissions statistics for Yale's History of Art PhD program (where, to answer your question, I am headed this fall--as a joint program with Film Studies): http://www.yale.edu/graduateschool/academics/profiles2012/historyart.pdf

 

One reason why I am really happy with this program is because I'm also aware of the difficult market, and am quite interested in developing myself as a strong candidate for museum-type positions, particularly those involving film and new media as well as more traditional work in the history of art. A joint program like the one I'll be doing might suitably respond both to that kind of career development, as well as my primary ambition of a tenure-track professorial job. Most PhD programs will challenge you and will develop your skills and knowledge-base, so that isn't much of a concern. What is a concern, however, is that on the job market, names appear to matter. I'm not saying this just because I'll be lucky enough to attend one such 'name' program. But if you look at the leading programs, inside of or outside the "top ten"--where do most of these faculty come from? That's something to think about.

 

It's true that MAs are often not wholly funded. At the same time (and here I speak for my own observations in Film Studies and Art History both), there seems to be a definite shift toward accepting PhD students who already have an MA somewhere. Partly, I feel, it may be a response to institutional pressures to control time-to-degree, costs, etc. Someone who has already completed an MA might, in many cases, offer a more cogent proposal and have a clearer sense of "how to do things in graduate school" than someone fresh out of a BA. Again, this won't always be the case, but...it's a likelihood. 

 

I can say that I would never have had a shot at any top programs in the field if not for my Chicago experience, and I know several friends in other disciplines who experienced the same change in fortunes. It isn't so much Chicago itself (though that obviously helps) but rather the experience of doing graduate work itself that positioned us better for graduate applications. 

 

 

My long term goals are to become a professor and/or to work in a museum setting. There are many factors contributing to why I will be applying to each program, and so far, my list is very diverse in terms of location, MAs or PhDs, cost, faculty size, structure, and more. I would only be applying to schools that would provide resources to challenge myself, fine tune certain skills, gain extensive knowledge, and finally- equip myself to become a meaningful teacher. Though many of the top schools offer these opportunities, I have found a few programs outside the top ten who could match these goals as well. Obviously, I will reach for the best!

 

I still have a bit of time before applying, so I feel it’s important to not limit myself right now. I really value your perspective on the MA and hearing a bit about your story. So many people have encouraged me to go for the PhD, and I have taken that seriously, especially considering so many programs do not guarantee much aid for MA- and cost is a very reasonable concern. I’ll definitely consider those programs, as well as remain open to different avenues in pursuing my goals. The more information the better, as I’d like to make as cognizant a decision as possible.

 

I also appreciate the words on the job market- I certainly don’t want to complete a program and to not be able to work in my field. I’m not sure how to realistically predict what will happen, but I hope my contacts in museums will come in handy if I have trouble becoming a professor- as well as the added assurance of always having a job to fall back on (even though it’s not in the field.) I also am confident that my work ethic and attitude will help a good deal too : )

 

Thanks again for your all your words of advice, I sincerely appreciate the time you took. If you don’t mind me asking, what are you up to after completing your MA at Chicago?  Congrats, by the way!

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It's the middle of summer; depending on who you emailed (esp, a professor), they're probably on vacation or out of office. Expect a response, or resubmit your email, closer to when the semester starts (mid-August, early Sept). You might have a better chance of response. However, I feel that some of these questions, minus the one about your chances of getting in, should be available on the website. 

 

If there is a POI you are interested in, I would email them specific questions (not general ones that may be answered on the website), closer to the semester. 

 

Thanks so much for responding! All very helpful info!

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If not professorship...

 

I should have asked you: what kind of museum work are you in, or what in museums do you want to do? That might help narrow down if you should do a MA or PhD in Art History, or in another discipline (e.g. PhD in Educational Studies, a professor example would be museum education/constructivist theorist, George Hein at Lesley University.)

 

Do your museum contacts have any advice for which degrees to pursue? What are their professional and academic backgrounds?

 

Also, keep in mind, years ago the expectations for museum roles, such as curator, did not ask for a PhD. In other words, today senior curators may hold just a BA. But for a curatorial internship or fellowship today, some museums requires a MA, or even a PhD, of its applicants.

 

But remember, this is for curators. (Maybe for museum directors.) This is not speaking of other roles in a museum, such as fundraising, marketing, school programs.

 

 

A PhD is expected for curators of top museums; sometimes, museum administration hold advanced degrees. Occasionally, you'll find a director of education or education staff hold MAs/PhDs. But pursuing a PhD for several years and having a PhD degree is generally NOT necessary for museum work. In fact, it may affect you negatively in terms of landing administrative museum work (especially database-driven museum positions, e.g. collections management, development).

 

Now I am not saying it is not a good idea to have the idea of a back up plan of museum work, because the process of professorship is competitive, but going in with the idea that professorship may not work out/professorship is not your ultimate goal, sounds like to me that you don't have a concentrated plan for your career.

 

Also, you don't do a PhD because it is financially more sound than a MA, you do it because earning a PhD will help you land where you want to go in your career. And when stopping at a MA doesn't make sense. However, in your case, a MA in Art History would probably help your museum prospects, likely better than a PhD (which is limiting).

I really appreciate you taking the time to discuss my options with me. It's great to have your perspective to consider!

 

I was trying to give as much information as possible about myself, and although my dream is to be a college professor- I was expressing a willingness to remain open to other avenues down the line. I feel confident about this, and I personally do not feel that diminishes my drive in becoming a professor. Since this is my goal, I am currently working towards pursuing the PhD, and remaining open to the MA while I'm considering each program, depending on the opportunities it provides.

 

Your questions seems to focus a lot on my wishes for museum work, so I'm not sure it's worth it to go into great depth about my potential back up plan at the moment. Hope you can understand. But for your reference, with my experience in museum work, it has been very difficult to climb too far within a few settings because of the advanced degrees other applicants have held, even with stellar personal and professional recommendations from staff. Perhaps it was the climate, or isolated circumstances, but nevertheless, this has been my experience. That is not my motivation for pursuing a degree past my BA. My museum work has left me with incredible relationships with collectors, artists, curators, administrators, handlers, educators, and more. I enjoyed it very much, but teaching is where I belong, and this work is what I love.

 

Thanks again for all of your help, I really really appreciate your point of view. Take care!

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Given those goals, it is practically imperative that you proceed toward a PhD at one of the top programs in your area(s) of specialization. Competition for this is intense. Here, for example, are some admissions statistics for Yale's History of Art PhD program (where, to answer your question, I am headed this fall--as a joint program with Film Studies): http://www.yale.edu/graduateschool/academics/profiles2012/historyart.pdf

 

One reason why I am really happy with this program is because I'm also aware of the difficult market, and am quite interested in developing myself as a strong candidate for museum-type positions, particularly those involving film and new media as well as more traditional work in the history of art. A joint program like the one I'll be doing might suitably respond both to that kind of career development, as well as my primary ambition of a tenure-track professorial job. Most PhD programs will challenge you and will develop your skills and knowledge-base, so that isn't much of a concern. What is a concern, however, is that on the job market, names appear to matter. I'm not saying this just because I'll be lucky enough to attend one such 'name' program. But if you look at the leading programs, inside of or outside the "top ten"--where do most of these faculty come from? That's something to think about.

 

It's true that MAs are often not wholly funded. At the same time (and here I speak for my own observations in Film Studies and Art History both), there seems to be a definite shift toward accepting PhD students who already have an MA somewhere. Partly, I feel, it may be a response to institutional pressures to control time-to-degree, costs, etc. Someone who has already completed an MA might, in many cases, offer a more cogent proposal and have a clearer sense of "how to do things in graduate school" than someone fresh out of a BA. Again, this won't always be the case, but...it's a likelihood. 

 

I can say that I would never have had a shot at any top programs in the field if not for my Chicago experience, and I know several friends in other disciplines who experienced the same change in fortunes. It isn't so much Chicago itself (though that obviously helps) but rather the experience of doing graduate work itself that positioned us better for graduate applications. 

Congratulations on being accepted to your dream program! I can tell you've put a great deal of thought into your decision, and I really value your perspective on pursuing your Phd. It looks like a challenging and rewarding program!

 

Again, I will be shooting for the very best programs, and I cannot deny the fact  that name schools matter. I did not attend an Ivy League school for my undergraduate degree, and my professors came from all walks of life- ranging from various disciplines, backgrounds, and degrees. A few of my most intelligent and engaging professors did not attend a "name" school- yet their classes were the first to fill up. It also happens that their professional lives are some of the most interesting and dynamic ones I've had the pleasure of hearing about.

 

I think it's incredible that you're attending your dream program, and I wish you all the best- it sounds like you have a nice career ahead of you! Thanks again for your perspective on the MA, you've certainly cast a new light on the idea.

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Happy to provide my perspective! I wanted to be certain you knew for some museums (usually smaller ones), or for particular museum positions, an advanced degree is not necessary. However, you are striving for something else, and academia is needed to accomplish your career goals. 

 

it has been very difficult to climb too far within a few settings because of the advanced degrees other applicants have held, even with stellar personal and professional recommendations from staff. Perhaps it was the climate, or isolated circumstances, but nevertheless, this has been my experience. 

 

^^ Yes. Museums can be choosey with new hires! It is a buyer's market right now. While I have no idea about the circumstances of the museum where you are trying to climb up, or even your full qualifications or position sought, it may be that the hiring committee preferred a non-internal applicant ("fresh ideas"), or that the committee had a difficult time seeing you in a new role. For instance, if you work in visitor services (of some kind) or administratively, and you wish to go into curatorial, it can be challenge to cross over.
 
You can have stellar recommendations, yet still not be truly "seen"; and also, the "grass is always greener on the other side." Does any of this make sense?
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