Study Art: Master's Degree, PhD & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in graduate programs in art, art education and art history? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of master's and Ph.D. degrees and potential careers.
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Art Master's and Ph.D. Degrees at a Glance

A Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is the terminal degree for visual arts. Depending on the media concentration you choose, some jobs this degree program may prepare you for include illustrator, jewelry artist or cartoonist. Art sales depend heavily on the state of the economy. Though some artists make a living exhibiting and selling their art, many artists need to find additional jobs. Teaching is a popular option for artists, and art education graduate programs are available if you wish to specialize in a career teaching art.

If you want to study art history, graduate programs prepare you for academic careers, as well as some jobs with growing opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted a strong 25% increase in job growth for curators from 2010-2020 ( Graduates also work for government arts agencies, corporations, libraries and publishers, among other employers.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? People with undergraduate art training who want to become artists, teachers and curators People who want to develop the research and teaching skills to become a professor or assume curatorial positions in major art institutions
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Museum curator ($48,900)*
- Postsecondary art teacher ($62,300)*
- Art director ($81,250)*
- Elementary school teacher ($52,900)*
- Secondary school teacher ($54,300) *
- Education professor ($59,400)*
- Art history professor ($64,300)*
- Curator in the federal government ($78,250 - a Ph.D. may be required to compete for these prestigious positions)*
Time to Completion 2-3 years full-time 3-5 years depending on school and subject
Common Graduation Requirements - 30 semester credits
- Master's thesis
- Master's exams
- Graduate exhibition/portfolio review
- Ph.D. qualifier exams
- Dissertation prospectus (proposal)
- Dissertation
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree in fine art, art history or art education
- Portfolio review
-Bachelor's or master's degree in fine art, art history or art education
- Teaching experience for some art education programs
- Letters of recommendation
- GRE scores
Online Availability Yes (in art education; rare in fine arts and unavailable in art history) No

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's Degree in Art

Whether you pursue a master's degree in fine arts, art education or art history, you can expect program admission to be more competitive than admission into undergraduate programs. To get into an MFA program, for example, you typically need to submit a portfolio of your work and a professional artist's statement along with your undergraduate transcripts. The cohort of students will be smaller in your MFA program, and you will have your own studio space. You will have more opportunities to work with faculty mentor artists to help you improve your technique and understanding of art theory.

Master's programs in art education are available on campus and online to meet the needs of working art teachers. Some programs are designed as professional programs specifically for teachers working with elementary, middle school or high school students. If you think you may wish to pursue scholarship at the Ph.D. level in the future, ensure that your master's degree program emphasizes research and a research-based thesis. Artist-teacher graduates from some of these programs also work as educators in museums and community art programs and as advocates for art education.

Some schools offer free-standing master's degree programs in art history, while others offer only a Ph.D. program and allow students to apply for an 'in-process' Master of Arts after meeting coursework and foreign language requirements. Some art history departments offer master's degree programs specifically in modern art or curatorial studies designed for students who wish to pursue curatorial positions after earning their master's degree.

Pros and Cons


  • Earning a master's degree could qualify you for a postsecondary teaching position or a job working as a curator in a museum
  • Many schools are affiliated with internship programs that can provide you with valuable hands-on experience working at art galleries, schools, museums, design companies or alongside established artists
  • Pursuing a higher degree in art will give you more time to hone your artistic technique while working alongside mentors


  • Art programs can be expensive in comparison to the median salary for careers in the field, with some schools charging upwards of $1,700 per credit hour
  • Admission to master's programs in art can be competitive (with some schools accepting as few as 7% of all applicants annually)
  • Though the BLS predicted more curatorial positions to become available in the 2010-2020 decade, strong competition is still expected for these attractive positions

Common Courses and Requirements

Concentration options in MFA programs in visual arts are diverse, including traditional studio arts like painting and sculpture, as well as new media art, metalsmithing and fiber arts. The curriculum includes studio, art history and art theory courses. Faculty and group critiques provide you with chances to learn how to evaluate art and receive feedback on your work. Theories and criticism, methods of art criticism and contemporary art history are common courses taken in addition to studio classes within your concentration. Many MFA programs require a written thesis, which contextualizes your art work, as well as an exhibition of a body of work.

As an art history student, you will choose from a wide range of specializations, such as ancient Greek art and archeology, the history of photography or African art. Your coursework is focused within your field and combined with independent research, which culminates in a research-based master's thesis. Courses could include topics in modern art, Byzantine textiles, monuments of India or history of pop art. You may be required to demonstrate proficiency in at least one foreign language.

Art education students complete education, studio classes and art history courses. Many programs allow you to earn your teaching certification, for which you will complete student-teaching requirements. Courses in art education often include research methods, psychology of learning, art education methods and art curriculum development. Some programs allow you to complete an art education project instead of a thesis.

Online Degree Options

Accredited graduate programs in visual art, including MFA programs, are available online but are very rare. In on-campus programs, a lot of your development as an artist takes place outside of class time, as you're working in your studio and interacting with fellow art students and faculty members. This is worth considering if you're thinking about pursuing an MFA online.

Several online programs are available in art education, some of which are designed exclusively for current teachers. Some hybrid programs may require that you take some courses on campus during the summer. Degrees from accredited online programs are viewed as being the same as degrees earned through a campus-based program.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Jobs that involve art are competitive, even in growing fields. Though teachers are often in demand, educational policies and budget constraints have reduced funding for art education. Here are some ways to gain a competitive edge:

  • Create a website to market your art work. Some MFA programs emphasize the business side of being a working artist more than others. In any case, developing some digital marketing tools will help you promote and sell your art.
  • As an art education graduate student, you may wish to complete field work in a variety of school settings, including after-school arts programs for at-risk youth. Having experience working with students in various settings and from diverse backgrounds will help you develop unique lessons that address the needs of all students, which schools look for.
  • Completing an internship will give you work experience that some art history graduate students lack. Working alongside museum curators or with publishers of art books can pave the way to a paying job.

Degree Alternatives

Some MFA programs offer a concentration in graphic design, but graphic design is a separate degree program at other schools. Graphic design programs will teach you how to create visual concepts, often used in advertising, using computer software and editing programs. Though the general job outlook for graphic designers is average, according to the BLS, job growth is striking in some sectors. The BLS predicted a 61% increase in job opportunities from 2010-2020 for graphic designers specializing in computer systems design and related services.

If you have scientific curiosity in addition to artistic talent, a career as a medical or scientific illustrator could lead to a rewarding and more secure job. Working with scientists and doctors, medical illustrators convert complex information into visual images used for education, research, marketing and public relations. The four accredited graduate programs in medical illustration offer a curriculum that is heavy both in science (anatomy, pathology, etc.) and art (especially using electronic media). According to a 2009 Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) survey, the median salary for a self-employed medical illustrator was $79,000, but annual earnings were reported in the $250,000 range.

Ph.D. in Art Education or Art History

Though other career options exist, like museum curator or art education policy maker, doctoral degree programs in art education or art history are primarily designed to prepare you for academic and research-based positions in your field of study. Fewer candidates are generally admitted into Ph.D. programs, so you will have increased opportunities for interaction with faculty. Getting in is more competitive, however, and you can expect stiffer admissions requirements.

As a Ph.D. student in art history, you will develop into an expert in a specialized area of the field, such as baroque or contemporary American art. When working on your Ph.D. in art education, you will develop quantitative and qualitative research skills to explore a wide range of topics in art education, which could serve to improve teacher development or the collaboration between school art programs and museums, for example.

Pros and Cons


  • A Ph.D. in Art History may give you an edge when competing for higher-paying positions in government arts agencies or for curatorial positions in reputed art institutions
  • Holders of Ph.D.'s are more likely to have their research published in academic journals
  • Some campus programs offer fellowships for qualified students and will cover the entire cost of tuition, as well as provide a living stipend for the duration of the doctoral program


  • Very few art careers require this high of a degree
  • Programs are competitive, with some schools accepting only 15 students annually
  • Completing a Ph.D. program in art history could take an additional five years after earning a master's

Courses and Requirements

Courses in your doctoral art history program will be more focused on your specific field and research interests. In addition to completing the required amount of courses in art history, you may need to take graduate-level courses in other fields, like philosophy or literature, to develop an interdisciplinary perspective. Many programs require doctoral candidates to serve as teaching assistants. You can also expect to acquire reading knowledge of two foreign languages. After being accepted as a Ph.D. candidate,following successful completion of master's level work, you will develop a plan of study with faculty advisors, which culminates in the proposal, completion and oral defense of your dissertation.

Some doctoral programs in art education require that you hold a master's degree in art education and have acquired some years of experience teaching art. Coursework at this level may include professional writing and teaching seminars, research methods and art education philosophy. You will work closely with faculty members who share your research interests in areas that could include visual culture, community-based art education, emerging technologies and multiculturalism. After completing required coursework, you will likely need to pass preliminary exams before dedicating yourself to the completion and defense of your dissertation.

Online Degree Options

At this time, accredited Ph.D. programs in art history or art education aren't available online.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

To compete for professorships in art history and art education, you can take some steps while earning your doctorate to stand out.

  • Aim to publish in academic journals. When researching and writing essays for your coursework, particularly in your area of specialization, direct your efforts toward publication. As a published scholar, you will be a more attractive job candidate.
  • Develop your skills in using educational technology. Art and art history educators who engage students with lectures and projects that involve different forms of digital media are desired by many schools.