A guide to a successful undergraduate Art History practice: Florida State University

This post is a guest contribution from Stephanie Fischer, a senior in the Department of Art History and current Library Media Collections Intern in the Office of Digital Research and Scholarship. As part of her internship, Stephanie produced this helpful guide for incoming undergraduates in Art History that includes both library resources and her own extensive research into graduate schools, professional training programs, and internships in the field.

This guide is for the incoming art history student curious of what lies ahead. Navigating the field of art history is something that may be very intimidating, especially as a student trying to figure out what their next step is. As a transfer student, I was kind of thrown into this program without knowing much about the expectations of a successful art history student and feel like I have done a pretty good job seeking out opportunities while taking advantage of the ones presented to me. The following outlines what I’ve learned and what I regret not knowing/doing.

Seminars

Here at Florida State, undergraduate art history students are required to take at least two upper-level seminars in order to meet graduation requirements. The way the program is currently set up is that students must complete 12-credits of lower-level art history courses in order to enroll in a seminar class. However, with permission from the professor, anyone can take a seminar, regardless of the amount of art history courses taken so far. Students should take advantage of this opportunity and get into a seminar as soon as they can. These seminars are designed for students to conduct research and make direct examinations of works of art through leading class discussions and writing a developed research paper. The quicker they get enrolled, the quicker they can learn these advanced skills and apply them to their remaining art history courses.

Another way seminars can enhance undergraduate study is by inspiring a topic of research students can use as a writing sample for later internship or graduate school applications. When applying for summer internships at big institutions, for example, it is advantageous for students to have experience in research and project development. Many of these institutions require students to provide a writing sample or personal statement, and this is an opportunity for students to showcase their research areas and skills with written communication. This may sound obvious, but it was something no one told me: when applying for internships, an application is much stronger if it demonstrates tangible experiences with developing and executing research projects. An application will benefit more to focus on academic interests (backed by concrete examples of research done in a given area), and taking a seminar early in your undergraduate experience will allow students more opportunities to pursue such projects.

Honors in the Major

Florida State offers undergraduate students with a great opportunity to complete an honors thesis throughout their junior/senior year prior to graduation. Through the Honors in the Major program, any undergraduate student can apply and propose a thesis to develop over two to three semesters alongside a faculty advisor in their department. By undertaking an Honors in the Major thesis project, art history students will be preparing themselves for graduate-level coursework which will enhance their application for graduate school by providing examples of completed, ongoing, and upper-level research. Many students derive their thesis projects from research done in seminars and further produce it alongside this professor (another reason to get a head start on seminars).

UAHA

The Department of Art History at FSU is one of the smaller departments on campus, but still provides opportunities for student involvement through the Undergraduate Art Historian Association (UAHA). UAHA on our campus serves to connect students and create a community within the department, while also inspiring curiosity in the field of art history. The club organizes bi-weekly meetings covering topics about upcoming events and socials, club merchandise, research opportunities, and provides tools for building great applications for internships, jobs, or graduate school. The club really strives to create a community within the art history department through social events to help students connect to one another.

As I am currently writing this, I serve as a co-vice president for UAHA. It is one of my goals for this school year to elevate the experiences associated with the organization, as I believe past years have lacked the social aspect and the collegial feel to the club. Our team this year is determined to reconstruct the environment of our department by urging students to do more and get everything out of the program that they can. For example, the art history department at Florida State does a wonderful job of organizing a lecture series throughout the semester. Roughly every other week, professors and graduate students present their previous or current research. This program can help undergraduates get a sense of their desired area of study and expose them to other aspects of art history. Attending these events also gives students and professors a chance to get to know each other better. Taking advantage of being apart of a student organization can aid students in giving their feedback to the program in order to make it stronger for future students.

Internships

The study of art history is often focused on research and writing, but students have the opportunity to build more hands-on skills through experiences like internships in museums, galleries, and other cultural heritage institutions. In museum and gallery spaces, students can gain experience in institutional research, art handling, curatorship, and visitor experience. Take advantage of the art community surrounding the university, find a gallery or two, and apply. Utilizing all the resources surrounding the university will impact student resumes and highlight that the student is eager to take charge, which is a great quality to have when applying for jobs or graduate school.

Over the course of the past three and a half years, I have held five internship positions in a variety of different institutions – one at a student newspaper, a national art museum, a local gallery, a public art program, and in digital archives.. Throughout these positions, I have learned skills like copy editing, research, public speaking, art handling, curatorship, administration, and digitization. While museum and gallery experiences are great, students should also consider branching out to other fields of study that can be related back to art history. Art history is not necessarily a skill based field, so I encourage students to look into technology, librarianship, archives, journalism, and even studio positions. Having a collection of diverse experiences can not only help you learn what your enjoy, but also help you become a desirable candidate when applying for jobs and graduate school.

One of my internship experiences was a hands-on, art handling and curating internship in a gallery local to Tallahassee. I held this position for an entire school year to really immerse myself in the setting of the institution. Over the course of over 500 work hours, I did what was expected – installation, deinstallation, and visitor experience. But, I also introduced projects, worked on personal research, and worked double the hours expected of me. You get what you put in. Had I just done the bare minimum, I wouldn’t have built a strong work ethic or a strong relationship with the director, who I can now use as a reference. It’s so important to stand out as best we can in everything we do, especially if we want to be successful in this limited field of study.

That position will likely prove to be one of the most valuable in the course of my career. The director of the gallery was very hands-on, giving interns guidance on learning all the different variables of running an art gallery, she made sure all interns were comfortable doing all of the various tasks. Something that this experience has taught me is how the different positions in the museum or gallery space intersect. While I had a lot of interactions with visiting artists and curators, I realized how important it is for someone who wants to pursue a curatorial career to know how to install a show. Curators should understanding the process of art handling, not just the intellectual aspects of selecting a body of work.

I have consistently tried to challenge myself throughout my academic career by seeking out different intern positions. I typically try to have an internship every year/semester depending on my class load. I have found most of these opportunities through posters or newsletters sent out or posted by an organization or the art history department. Once I come across the advertisement, I will research the organization and compile a list of what I would like to mention in a cover letter. I then finish my cover letter, edit my resume, send off my application, and wait for an email or phone call to schedule an interview. For me, the interview process is the least stressful part of the whole process, I can really showcase my personality and enthusiasm for the position. This gives the employer a sense of how I will perform in the workspace and interact with colleagues, which is just as important as having the right qualifications.

I’ve included a list of internship opportunities local to Tallahassee for the Spring 2020 semester, as of October 2019: Internship Experiences

Graduate Programs

Students should start to research potential graduate programs their Freshman and Sophomore years of college. With a wide variety of Art History-based programs nationally and internationally available to them, students should get an idea of what type of requirements their desired programs may have. For example, New York University offers a dual Masters program in Art History and Conservation. The program is four years, fully-funded, but requires students to have an academic background in both chemistry and art history to even be considered. These kinds of prerequisites are things students should be aware of as early as possible in their undergraduate experience. Knowing exactly what institutions are looking for in an applicant ahead of time will only allow students to be proactive in designing their undergraduate coursework and hopefully increase their chances of getting accepted into great graduate programs.

I have compiled a spreadsheet of current graduate programs in Museum Studies, Curatorial Studies, and Art History that I found interesting: Art History Degree Programs

Library Resources

Florida State Libraries presents students in the College of Fine Arts with a unique opportunity when it comes to research assistance and resource access. I say unique opportunity because not many other universities, apart from Art and Design schools specifically, have a subject librarian in this field. A subject librarian is designated for faculty and students in each campus department and program. While serving as a liaison to the department, the subject librarian teaches classes and individual students how to maximize their use of library resources, particularly for research. Students are able to meet with any subject librarian in order to expand their interdisciplinary studies and use the librarian as a resource. Visual & Performing Arts Librarian, Leah Sherman, says, “Not all our resources are books, but people too.” She suggests students utilize the Art History Research Guide as a starting point for research.

Our campus libraries are some of our biggest resources for young art historians and they offer us dozens of different opportunities to learn new skills to aid us in our research and academic careers. Alongside meeting and interacting with various subject librarians, students should also take advantage of different library events like the events put on by the Office of Digital Research and Scholarship. The Office of Digital Research and Scholarship gives workshops on citation management, academic publishing, copyright, and more. You can RSVP to events here: Event RSVP and Information

If you are interested in meeting with Leah Sherman, you can schedule a consultation here: Consultation Request, or email her at lrsherman@fsu.edu.

Forgien Languages and other fields of study

One small, but important tip, something that will help in research throughout the thesis process and into graduate school: take advantage of the foregin language courses. At Florida State, art history students are required to take 12-credits of a foreign language, but students who continue their language study are better prepared for graduate school. Many art historical resources may need to be translated to English, and reading knowledge of a foreign language related to your course of study, would be very useful in this situation. Plus, if students begin their study early, they have the opportunity to learn more than one language throughout the course of their undergraduate study.

Many students in the art history department take advantage of double majoring or minoring in a different field to make their research and knowledge more interdisciplinary. Within the art history department, students have the opportunity to minor in Medieval Studies or Museum Studies in conjunction with an art history major. These minors are useful for students who are particularly interested in Medieval art or who want to pursue a career in the museum or gallery space. However, students should be open to the full scope of possibilities FSU makes available through its undergraduate curriculum. Some majors/minors that could be particularly interesting being paired with an art history major are Business Administration, majors in STEM (which might align with a career in art conservation), Psychology, or Studio Art, just to name a few. Exploring an additional field of study can help to refine the scope of research interests and familiarize the student with non-art historical areas of research.

There are so many opportunities at FSU that students can take advantage of to further our careers and we should utilize these resources while they are at our fingertips. I hope this guide serves you well in your career pursuit as a starting point to the many opportunities presented to you.

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