Doctoral programs in the visual arts, however, have been slow to gain broad acceptance in academia. There are a number of reasons for this, none of which are the focus of this particular blog post, but reluctance to remove the glass ceiling on advanced study in the visual arts does exist. I’ve met a number of individuals in other fields who have more than one so-called terminal degree, including one memorable scholar who held three earned PhDs. Clearly, he shared my philosophy that one should never stop learning—that education exists without boundaries or quotas.
When I was working on my own PhD I wrote an extended review of James Elkins’ book “Artists with PhDs: On the New Doctoral Degree in Studio Art” (2009). At that time, only five institutions (including the program in which I was then enrolled) offered a choice for visual artists who wished to earn a doctoral degree apart from the usual options available in art history or visual studies:
- Ohio University: Interdisciplinary Arts PhD—visual art, music, theatre, dance, and film
- Texas Tech University: Fine Arts Doctoral Program—interdisciplinary PhD in visual art, music, theatre, and aesthetic philosophy
- University of California, San Diego: interdisciplinary research in art history and studio art
- Virginia Commonwealth University: MATX—media, art, and text
- Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA): non-studio PhD in visual art
Many more such programs were expected to emerge, with Elkins projecting that there would be 127 doctoral programs in the U.S. and Canada by 2012. However, the downturn in the economy, among other factors, caused many institutions to reconsider establishing new degree options. At present, only ten others have joined this list:
- Arizona State University: Design, Environment, and the Arts
- Arizona State University: Transdisciplinary Media Arts and Sciences
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Media Arts and Sciences
- Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Electronic Arts
- Transart Institute
- University of California, Santa Barbara: Humanities, Fine Arts and Engineering
- University of Southern California: Cinematic Arts and Critical Studies
- University of Southern California: Cinematic Arts: Media Arts + Practice
- University of Texas, Dallas: Arts and Technology
- University of Washington: Experimental Arts Program
Every one of the fifteen doctoral programs available to visual artists requires a course of study common to other doctorates. After students complete required coursework, they must pass an examination to qualify for candidacy, present and receive approval for their dissertation research, produce a written dissertation meeting institutional requirements, and undergo an oral defense of their dissertation. The number of hours needed to graduate varies somewhat, but many require 60 hours beyond a master’s degree.
Most of these fifteen programs are interdisciplinary in one way or another. With the exception of the Transart Institute, each of the ten newer programs leans heavily towards the technological aspects of the arts, featuring media and communications, data visualization, computing, engineering, or design in addition to or in conjunction with other visual arts. Indeed, the only institutions offering doctoral study strictly in the visual arts are UC San Diego, IDSVA and Transart Institute. The latter two bear certain similarities to one another: each is designed to be a low-residency program for artists who are either teaching or working full-time in the arts. Each offers courses primarily through summer intensives in Europe, online or independent study, and short-term school-year residencies in the U.S. Each is somewhat different than the mainstream as compared to U.S.-based competitors. IDSVA is still seeking U.S. accreditation, currently holding candidate status with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Transart Institute does not yet hold U.S. accreditation, instead receiving its authority from the University of Plymouth, in the U.K.—a defensible instance of globalization. Despite these resemblances, these two doctoral options are fundamentally different, because IDSVA is definitively a non-studio, research-based degree, whereas Transart’s PhD is a studio-based course of study, incorporating varied interdisciplinary elements depending on the student’s individual research interests. UC San Diego is unique among it’s competitors in that it involves both art history and studio art. Students may complete a traditional text-only dissertation, or they may include a studio element and a ¾ length dissertation.
Ohio University‘s Interdisciplinary Arts doctoral program is the oldest of these PhD options, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. Texas Tech’s Fine Arts Doctoral Program is only a few years younger (established in 1972). Both primarily feature interdisciplinary study in the visual arts, music, and theatre, although Ohio also adds other focus areas such as Film and African Arts and Literatures. Both have deep roots and successful graduates. Both are housed in their university’s arts college (the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Texas Tech, and the College of Fine Arts at Ohio.) Degree requirements are similar, and both require a traditional, text-based dissertation conforming to university standards.
Arizona State, MIT, RPI, UC Santa Barbara, the University of Washington, and the University of Texas all offer doctoral programs combining the arts with technology in various ways. This amalgamation is consistent with my ongoing research into arts integration, in which I continually encounter pairings of the arts and technology in numerous incarnations. Both programs at USC focus on Cinematic Arts, although one is a strictly text-based, critical studies concentration, while the other is a practice-based study of Media Arts. Virginia Commonwealth’s MATX program is somewhat different from its competitors in that it is the only one of the fifteen doctoral programs to be housed in an English department, even though it also incorporates technology in the form of media and communications.
Ten doctoral programs involve a creative project in addition to the required text-based dissertation. ASU’s Media Arts and Sciences, MIT, Rensselaer, Transart, Texas Tech, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, USC Media Art Practice, University of Washington, and Virginia Commonwealth each correlate research and practice through this dual activity. ASU’s Design, Environment, and Arts, IDSVA, Ohio University, USC’s Cinematic Arts-Critical Studies, and the University of Texas, Dallas are the only schools at which the dissertation solely involves a traditional written document. The inclusion of practice accompanied by the expectation of high-level scholarly writing about formal research brings the two seemingly disparate domains together, broadening available paths to knowledge.
All fifteen programs have expanded the choices for visual artists who hope to earn a PhD. However, when compared to the hundreds of institutions offering doctoral degrees in other fields of study, there’s still room for continued growth. If we truly believe that learning should be unlimited, we should embrace this trend and seek to support the development of more options for artists to contribute to the body of knowledge in the world through advanced study. As artists, our unique skills and abilities in knowing and doing bring depth, richness, and divergence to the university. What better way to share our strengths than in nurturing students in the achievement of a doctoral degree?
For a link to the complete report about doctoral programs in the visual arts, click here.
 Jones, T. “The studio art doctorate in America”. In Elkins, J., (Ed.) (2009) Artists with PhDs: On the new doctoral degree in studio art. (pp. 81-85). Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing.