When looking at slides of Raphael’s School of Athens literally makes your heart pound, you know you’re an art history major. But it’s time for a reality check. Are you ready to go out in “the real world” and watch yourself get rejected from museums that aren’t even offering a salary after four years of “Oh,you’re an art history major, how cool. What are you going to do with that?” Or do you want to sign up for another round of standardized tests, applications and essay supplements? (Ones where you don’t even get to show off those 1,000 titles, dates and artists you memorized.)
Here are 5 questions to ask yourself as a senior art history major.
1. What Do Employers Want?
An art history major might not even earn you a gallery girl coffee-fetching position with just a bachelors, but will a master’s make your resume shine much brighter with left art history jobs? “The decision to go back to grad school was mostly driven by my desire to be more competitive on the job market,” University of Virginia Ph.D. candidate Jennifer Camp said. “[After undergrad], I worked a few low-paying and unpaid internships that, while great experience, offered little possibility of upward mobility. Most museum jobs require at least an M.A., particularly for curatorial positions.” Storm the art history internship market with your art history degree, but if you want an art history job behind a gallery desk, consulting with Upper East Siders on how to decorate their million dollar apartments, or spend your days tucked away researching in a museum, hit the books…again.
2. Are You Prepared to Apply?
“Uncertainty about yourself and what you want to be when you grow up are not resolved by attending graduate school,” UVa Career Services advisor Beverly Lorig said. Do you actually have time to start writing apps and studying for the GRE in between your papers on Kara Walker or medieval manuscript illumination? “At some points it felt like a full-time job, like writing all these cover letters and personal statements and various essays could be a thesis in and of itself,” UVa art history senior Emily Cox said. Make sure you really have a handle Monet vs. Manet and that all your class information hasn’t fallen on van Gogh ears before you commit to academia. If you’re currently taking three classes you know you’ll ace, sit down with a GRE book in your spare time (and leave The Girl With the Peal Earing for summer reading). But if you’re fitting in that last science requirement, battling the curve with a bunch of freshmen pre-meds, you might need to focus on academics first.
3. Are you ready to dedicate your life to Art History?
You don’t want to wake up a 20-something with an art history Ph.D. and a quarter-life crisis because you just now realized an art history job isn’t something you want to dedicate the rest of your life to. “I think it’s important for recent graduates from college to explore other options before going back to grad school,” Camp said. “Get a 9-5 job for a couple years and really think about whether grad school is for you. Is getting married and having children while you are young important to you? I’m not saying that this can’t be done while in grad school, but it’s certainly much more difficult.”
Once you’ve spent five to eight years interning and researching, switching gears back to school can be hard. Do you really want to be that 30-year-old sitting in the back of a Calc 2 class? Consider that nebulous cloud you call “the future,” because post-college life includes more responsibility and planning than this weekend’s bar crawl. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to graduate school even when I applied, but I wanted to keep my options open,” Cox said. “Over the fall, I applied for some scholarships whose applications required cover letters, research proposals, résumés, etc. Ironically, applying for all the programs convinced me that I actually do want to get a Ph.D. in art history and pursue curatorial work.”
4. Mo Degrees, Mo Money Problems?
Some art history grad programs offer money through TA positions, fellowships and scholarships, but they still put a dent in your savings (if those still exist). “If a potential graduate program requires that you go into debt, don’t do it. Unless you are guaranteed a high-paying job upon completion,” Camp said. How often do you see curators of the Forbes 100 list? Make sure you capitalize on scholarships, fellowships and funding opportunities so you can follow your dreams without post-post-grad debts. Just because an art history program has an expensive price tag, doesn’t mean you can’t go for it. That might just mean you want to take a year off first and save up, or see if a dedicated art history internship in museum might help pay part of your education. Remember the true reasons you’re an art history major.
5. Should you take a year off?
Time off helps you get to know yourself, save up and travel, but it also might steamroll your momentum. UVA Ph.D. candidate Erik Harrington took a year off, not from learning, but from school. “I studied German that year. To get an art history Ph.D., you need to pass two language exams, and since I study Northern European art, I need to know German,” Harrington said. “It was so helpful to get one of the language exams done shortly after arriving to grad school.” Get ahead of the game with a course in Italian, then reward yourself with a trip to Michelangelo’s Pieta at the Vatican (or just a trip to the Met if your wallet can’t take you international, yet). “I worked a couple different jobs, while attempting to find a full-time position at a museum,” Camp said.
Taking time off not only gives you the chance to get experience with your art history major, but it also gives you time to look at the art history job opportunities available to you. You may have heard of art history majors working in museums and galleries, but how long has it been since you considered working for an art publication or art consulting?
Grad school Pros:
“The most rewarding part of graduate school has been the opportunity to hone my public speaking and teaching skills. Prior to entering grad school, I had little interest in teaching. My positive experiences as a TA have shifted my perspective dramatically, to the point where I’m more interested in teaching and pedagogy than I ever expected.”–Camp
“It feels quite rewarding to use the actual objects and works that I study in my own research and teaching as a TA. I like saying that I have used an actual engraving by Albrecht Dürer or a medieval book of hours to teach. I also like the feeling that while writing my dissertation I am carving out my own niche and specialty in the field. It gives you the feeling of a sense of purpose.”–Harrington
Grad School Cons:
“The most challenging part of grad school is the uncertainty— in all aspects: funding, fellowships, research, job prospects. As a grad student you never feel truly ‘settled.’ There’s always something more you could be doing to further your career or improve your CV. Weekends without stress are rare.”–Camp
“You really need to enjoy not only art, but also reading and writing. Critical thinking is another aspect of art history that people may not consider. There are various methods and philosophies behind the approaches to art history; one is not simply repeating facts. You will find the methodologies of scholars that you like and even your own challenged just as you are challenging those of others. You really are studying to become a scholar.”–Harrington