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Nontraditional student considering Art History PhD program - any advice?


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A little bit of background: attended a small Northeaster liberal arts college after graduating high school in 2007, but due to a few personal reasons, had to leave after a year. After two or so years working/traveling, I returned to school in New York while simultaneously working full-time jobs. I'll be graduating this year and am strongly considering pursuing a PhD to eventually secure a curatorial position. My area of research/study is Conceptual art of the mid- to late-20th century.


I'm wondering if anyone has any anecdotal experience or advice for someone in my position, who is completing an undergraduate degree three years later (and longer) than typically expected. I've held positions in and around the art world throughout the past few years (specializing in Art Books and Publications at a photography agency; Exhibitions Manager at a small contemporary art gallery), but I'm concerned that PhD programs are much more interested in academic and scholarly prowess. I have a high GPA and am currently working on a 30-page senior thesis (and typically test well on standardized testing), but my school (which caters to "adult students" that need flexibility for work/scheduling) is not exactly academically rigorous, as well as having a rather small art history department. I've taken as many courses as was possible in art history, and sought out advisors outside of my school to assist me in my research and independent studies, but I'm not sure this matches the more traditional undergraduate college experience.


I'm interested primarily in top-ten PhD programs.


Is there a particular course of action anyone would recommend to "up" my potential candidacy for a PhD to attain my end goal of being a curator? Or any other words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated!


I have a lot of other questions, but figured I'd start with this for now!

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As long as you have a compelling and rigorous personal statement and writing sample, I think you should be a contender... I can't imagine an admissions committee writing off a strong candidate just because he/she has taken a different/longer route through college.


But, having said that, it's probably important that you vet your writing sample and personal statement through the advisors you've sought out outside your "not exactly academically rigorous" school... to make sure that you're hitting all the right notes.


Good luck!!

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I am also curious about how top PhD programs supports students pursuing curatorial position.


Pulling the top ten from Art History Newsletter (in 2011, mind you):


1 University of California-Berkeley

2 University of Chicago

3 Columbia University in the City of New York

4 Yale University

5 Princeton University

6 New York University

7 Harvard University

8 University of California-Los Angeles

9 Northwestern University

10 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Then google them in combination with "curatorial" and "phd" see if you come up with anything. Then look for museum internship opportunities, or museum studies certificates or "tracks". Columbia has MODA, which is an MA, but specifically for modern/contemporary art and curatorial studies. Obviously NYU's IFA program is a top choice for curatorial track studies, as their curatorial-aimed PhD culminates in a year long internship with The Met. A school does not necessarily need a curatorial program, although it is beneficial. However, if you have people willing to support you and/or prior experience + the desire to go out and find your own internships, you can learn a fair bit just as well. Some schools accept internships as registered credits, sometimes these credits go towards a secondary focus. It can also be helpful to find out: How many museums are on campus? Are they utilized for classes? Near campus? Are there any close departmental/institutional relationships? Will my potential advisor know people within the museums field? 


Personally, I think if you want to be a curator in a Museum you'll need the PhD at some point. If you want to work in a gallery, however, I would imagine a specialized curatorial MA for modern art would be sufficient, though my only gallery experience was not run by anyone with such a degree. (It was curated by an artist). 


I would also suggest that most people in museums aren't straight out of NYU's IFA program anyways. Simply put -- there's far more options for curatorial studies than just the "Top Ten". True, many museum employees are internal hires based on prior internships, but Harvard isn't the only school near Boston, if you catch my drift. Consider location and emphasis on program. We don't necessarily have the same goals as those who are being shuttled towards Academia. 

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