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How Much Does Language Exp. Matter for an Americanist?


American Beauty
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Hi everyone,

I'm a fall 2016 applicant, and I'm planning to definitely apply to 4 particular PhD programs right now. I am currently a senior at Swarthmore College, and I have very good GRE scores, a high GPA, solid recommendation letters, and a substantial honors thesis I've almost completed. I am interested in studying early 20th century American painting, particularly the Ashcan school and other artists on its periphery. I also recently have become more interested in American popular films as well, and my thesis is on a reading of Edward Hopper and the 1999 film American Beauty.

The one area I'm really worried about is my language experience. I have a good reading and writing knowledge of Spanish, but that's it. I am planning to study French next summer so that I will be prepared to take an exam for it my first semester at grad school. I have read on some schools' websites as well as on here that having reading knowledge of French and German is really important, so I was wondering if my chances will be really hurt by not having that experience yet. Knowing that I'm interested in studying American art, will it be ok if I don't have French and German yet? Should I apply to more safety schools? What has your experience been with how much emphasis is actually put on having French and German experience before you are admitted?

Thanks for your help.

Edited by American Beauty
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You should be okay applying without French and German--since you won't really need to rely heavily on those languages for in-depth dissertation research, it shouldn't give admissions committees much pause... particularly if you indicate a plan of sorts to take German class the summer before you begin. (EDIT - I see above you talked about taking French over the summer... but German should probably take priority)

Having said that, the question of whether you should "apply to more safety schools" is a separate issue entirely. With a senior thesis that brings together two such disparate things as Edward Hopper and Kevin Spacey, you might be waging an uphill battle to convince PhD admissions committees that your interests are focused and sustained enough to finish up a dissertation within the next 5 or 6 years. For whatever its worth (from an anonymous internet advice giver), I'd recommend you add to your list several programs that offer robust terminal MA programs. 

 

Edited by qwer7890
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I received my BA from a fine liberal arts college last May and have just begun my PhD program at a fairly prestigious institution for my field.  With that said, I must warn you that this is a very rare case.  I am the only incoming student in my department with this type of background as well (the others bear MAs from programs such as U-Mass, Williams, and WUSTL). I had already published a few articles, attended and presented at conferences, and curated exhibitions.  I think that may have been a reason why. Twentieth century American art is a hugely competitive field (more so and more popular than mine) and I am sure that most applicants will already have MA degrees. I can also say that most programs don't view the GRE as a major compoenent. I would focus on a killer written sample and a killer personal statement - really demonstrating why you don't think the MA path (prior to the PhD) is an appropriate match.  Though, at many of the "big name" programs for your field - Princeton, Yale, Berkeley, etc -- I am afraid this too may only go so far.    I don't think knowing French and German is what got me accepted to most of the programs I applied too.  However, I will say it was really nice coming into the program with the language requirements already down.  I hope this helps!

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I don't think you will get into a truly top PhD program, in a field as popular as 20th century, straight from undergrad, without knowledge of French or German. There is nothing wrong with getting an MA, and if you have a strong background already you may be able to get into a fully funded program. It can only improve your odds of getting into your top choice PhD program. It's much better to wait 2-3 years and get into a fantastic program, than it is to immediately go to whatever school accepts you. 

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I'll agree again with the individual above.  Often times (especially for example in my field 18th-19th cent "global art" you find fewer programs that offer your speciality). There are some top notch programs, for example, in topics such as Native American art at some places that lack prestige value in other areas of study.  The issue with twentieth century art is its a pretty hot topic now - especially in curatorial.  I think CUNY may have over 100 twentieth century Americanists in their Phd program? That doesn't even include some of the other more "popular" choices for twentieth century art including Columbia, Princeton, Berkeley, etc.  It may be helpful for you to look at the CAA list of dissertations being written in your field.  

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Whether you will get in depends on many factors that no one here can really predict, but I wouldn't let not having French/German deter you if you feel ready to apply. For what it's worth, I'm in a highly ranked PhD program and about half of my cohort came in with only undergrad degrees. Our language preparedness varies. Some people I talked to before I applied told me I would need more language skills to get into grad school (even MAs!), but I applied and got in anyway. Of course that means I've made more work for myself while in school, but that's what summer intensives are for. So by all means mention in your statement of purpose that you are currently doing private study in French, and don't let it stop you from applying. 

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