EDUCATION AND CAREERS IN MEDIEVAL ART HISTORY
Ever wonder how your professor got her job? Curious about who curated that museum exhibition? Considering taking your own study of medieval art to the next level? Read on for information about common career paths, education requirements, and the “how-to” of becoming a medievalist art historian.
Education: Art historians with a PhD (doctoral degree) in a medieval field often teach at the college level; research and publication are usually expected as part of this work. Art historians with an MA (master’s degree) in art history might pursue teaching jobs at community colleges or in high schools. Note that high school teaching usually requires additional, state-approved credentials.
Museums: While more senior curatorial positions in museums often require a PhD, museums often hire staff at the MA level for a variety of jobs in which training in a medieval field would be advantageous. These include curatorial assistant, museum educator, and registrar. Other paths open to students with an MA are less dependent on a specific field specialization; they include exhibition coordinating and fundraising. Field specialization might also be useful for curators managing a private collection.
Libraries and Archives: While a library degree is important for advancement in archives and libraries, having an area specialization in medieval art history (MA or PhD) offers a distinct advantage for those who want to work in special collections (e.g. rare books and manuscripts), in archives, in visual resources collections, or in major research libraries.
The Art Market: Art galleries and auction houses rely on subject experts to identify and value works of art. An MA or PhD in medieval art can be a powerful asset in these institutions.
DEGREES, SKILLS, AND EXPERIENCE
Degrees: Most art historians in the US system first complete an MA, which often involves taking a range of art history courses, the study of research languages and other disciplinary skills, and the completion of an original research project, such as a thesis. Those who wish to do a PhD can expect to complete additional coursework and study languages geared toward work in a specialized field, followed by a major research project that will become their doctoral dissertation. Some art history programs offer the MA and PhD as entirely separate degrees, while others award an MA as the first stage in a PhD program. It is not uncommon for a student to complete a master’s degree at one institution and to change to another for the PhD.
Students generally identify their field of interest in the course of the MA program, then refine it more tightly in doctoral work, when they take courses and build competencies in a particular specialization. At this stage, they work closely with one or more faculty mentors who advise them in research and writing of the dissertation. Because of this, it is very important to think ahead about which universities are home to the specialists with whom you might hope to work. While the student’s main advisors must be based at their home university, an external specialist in a field important to the student’s work might also be invited to join the dissertation committee. However, one of the most important factors in choosing a doctoral program should be the availability of faculty in the student’s field of interest.
Languages: Most art historians, especially those working in medieval fields, will need to be able to read scholarship and primary texts in multiple languages. In the US, MA programs require competency in at least one foreign language, and PhD programs require at least two. The specific languages needed will vary according to the student’s area, but widely used scholarly languages such as French and German are often required. Students planning on doctoral work in a medieval field should also expect to study those ancient or medieval languages most relevant to their work: e.g. Latin for work in western Europe; Greek for work in the Byzantine areas; Arabic for work in the Islamic world. While oral fluency is helpful, especially in the language(s) of the region where you plan to do research, the most important part of language study is to gain competence in reading.
Undergraduate students who hope to study art history at the graduate level would be wise to study one or even two relevant foreign languages during college if at all possible. Some graduate programs make intensive language courses available to their students, but many do not, and many students take alternative routes to acquiring language skills, such as post-baccalaureate programs, summer language programs, and community college courses. These do not have to be expensive: while some language programs have a high sticker price, many private programs offer merit-based and need-based scholarships, and community college courses can be surprisingly affordable. However you approach language study, sooner is always better, since graduate programs often require students to pass an exam in the relevant languages before continuing forward to thesis or dissertation work.
Other Competencies: Other competencies may not be required by an art history program but can be helpful to those studying medieval art. Paleography, the study of ancient and medieval writing, can be useful to those planning to work with medieval manuscripts; it is sometimes offered as a university course but might also be taught informally by a librarian or faculty member. Students interested in medieval archaeology might find it useful to attend a summer field school at an archaeological site; these are usually run by universities and sometimes offer merit or need-based scholarships. Training in digital tools and resources is increasingly important to medievalist scholars and is often available for free through university libraries or digital humanities centers.
Internships and Work Experience: Graduate programs do not generally require applicants to have had prior work or internship experience related to art history, but such experience can be useful in helping you to explore the careers to which your degree may lead, as well as in highlighting the fields or questions that interest you the most. Don’t assume that an internship will require you to work for free: many museums offer paid summer internships, and others may be willing to work with your university to develop a credit-bearing internship that will count toward your degree.
Paying for Graduate Study: For most students, this is the biggest question of all. The good news is that several options exist for art history graduate students. Many universities offer admitted students full or partial tuition scholarships, assistantships (paid work within the department) or fellowships (funding without a work requirement). These awards are generally merit-based rather than need-based and are often used to recruit a program’s top applicants. Students can also apply for external funding for graduate work; a number of these, such as the Mellon-Mays and McNair scholarships (see the Fellowships and Funding link), are specifically intended to encourage diversity and broaden access to graduate education, and some cover multiple years of graduate study. Your undergraduate college may offer similar programs for its alumni. Talk with your professors and your college fellowships office to see what information they can share about this.
FELLOWSHIPS AND FUNDING FOR GRADUATE STUDY IN ART HISTORY
Many MA and most PhD students in art history receive some kind of funding for their study, whether external or internal. The various types are summarized below.
Internal funding: Universities may offer funding in one or more form. Tuition waivers or scholarships cover the student’s graduate tuition but do not pay for living expenses, research travel, or other educational expenses. These are sometimes covered by assistantships, in which a student works a set number of hours for the department or a faculty member. Assistantships may involve teaching, grading, or helping with faculty research, or they may place students in the university library or museum. Fellowships offer funding for non-tuition expenses and generally do not require work hours; these are more common at the doctoral level. Some universities also make funds available by application for research expenses or travel to conferences; these may be competitive. Students planning to apply to graduate programs should look on the website and/or contact the department to learn what each institution offers.
Much internal graduate funding is awarded on the basis of merit rather than need; universities use them to recruit and retain those students whom they believe will be most successful. In addition, however, some universities also may have targeted funds to that they can draw on to support for students with special financial need, for those from historically underrepresented communities, or for those who wish to study in an area for which special funding has been made available.
External funding: Students may be eligible for federal student aid for graduate and professional study (https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/sites/default/files/graduate-professional-funding-info.pdf). In addition, a number of external fellowships are available to support graduate study in art history. Although funded by outside foundations or other organizations, these often are granted through individual universities. Some support multiple years of graduate work, while others are intended to supplement institutional funds or support dissertation research. A number are targeted toward increasing diversity and access to graduate education for all students. These include:
SSRC-Mellon Mays Fellowships (A continuation of Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowships.)
McNair Scholars Program (Institutionally based; awarded to undergraduates for undergraduate and graduate study.)
Once enrolled in graduate work, students should keep in close touch with their program advisor for information about additional sources of funding to support research and writing during the dissertation stage. Do not hesitate to check in periodically to ask if new funding opportunities have become available; graduate programs sometimes are able to reward a strong academic performance with additional funding.