I am a very strong graduate candidate in art history with a 3.97 undergrade GPA and excellent research and writing skills. My recommdations are very strong with three professors attesting that I my work is "brilliant" and "exceptional." Three months were spent intensively researching MA programs in art history, after which I applied to two schools, one very elite, and one excellent but not an elite. The elite school took ten candidates and I was not accepted. The less elite school courted me and hosted me for a day to meet the department, writing afterwards that they were "thrilled" to have someone of my caliber. I love the program there, and there are two scholars there I want to study with. Great right? No, because the funding the promised for the MA did not come through, and they have no funds except for PhD students. They were only able to offer me a $1,700 cash scholarship.

This is my new dilemma, I have three options:(1) I can turn down this acceptance, and go to a school whose program and faculty I like less, but a school where I can get full tuition plus stipend at the MA level -- there are six or eight and I will get into at least one; (2) I can accept and sell everything I own and go 70K into debt for two years, plus work part-time off campus, which is not a great option; (3) I can change from a MA candidate to a PhD candidate and they will accept me with full funding -- full ride on tuition plus stipend. I do not really want to commit to 5 years, but I am already well into dissertation research on a great topic. I am confused, does anyone have advice ?

I should add as an addendum, that if I am going to apply directly to a PhD program -- which my undergrad advisors feel I am ready to do -- should I then expand my search for the following year, or stick with the school to which I am now accepted? I am a good "fit" for this excellent, highly competitive program, but I do not have the money to do their masters with almost no funding.

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    Seems like only you can decide; you’ve laid out the options well. Though: you haven’t said what you want to do after you get your MA in art history; this seems like a key consideration.
    – cag51
    Apr 6 at 6:44
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    Also: are you sure it is five years? I don't know your field, but in general, it is not impossible for very strong candidates to finish in 4.
    – cag51
    Apr 6 at 13:58
  • I'm a bit confused. Did you apply for a doctoral slot but were offered a masters instead? And, is this in the US as I assume?
    – Buffy
    Apr 6 at 15:02
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    I personally would 100% stir away from option 2. IMO you'll regret having such a debt later in life.
    – user347489
    Apr 6 at 15:43
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    Some universities in Europe will grant you an MA if you drop out from a PhD early yet write an MA level dissertation. If that is an option in your case, then you more or less have the dilemma sorted out. Apr 6 at 16:09

3 Answers 3


I vote for option 3 (fully funded PhD). Sufficient funding for academic studentships matters not just logistically, but also has huge benefits for mental health (it did for me). Academic work is challenging, and if you can step back every now and then and treat it like a job (that is paying you) then it is more mentally manageable (in my opinion).

I highly recommend that you don't go for option 2 - that debt will follow you around for years and you may resent what got you into it.

Ask yourself why you are considering option 1 (other masters programs), when the next sequential step from option 1 is the PhD in option 3 (if you want to stay in academia).

I understand that you don't want to necessarily commit to ~5 years, but find out what happens if a PhD is dropped halfway through. In some countries, if you've passed an evaluation exam part-way through your studies, and then drop out, then you could still achieve a 'Masters' degree.

Finally, regarding your last question, only you will be able to answer this, and only after you've spent some time in the program.

Good luck! --From a professional (in a different field) that had a fully funded PhD

  • 1
    Thank you so much. I have a mentor who went to Princeton on a full ride PhD and only completed enough for masters. I did not really have the nerve to ask him how that all went down, but as an example, I guess it does sometimes happen. Interestingly he did a MA in another field and never a PhD. I appreciate your candor. I am so glad I posted this. Apr 7 at 4:18

Heavily consider getting a PhD.
Only consider #1 and #3.

If you feel you'd be a great fit for a program, then getting funded as a PhD is probably in your best interest. Most people with Masters degrees go on to get PhDs. What is your plan for the MA, your career?

Option #1 has one big downside - "Clicking" with your department is much more important in grad school than undergrad. It can be the difference between a great experience that can launch your academic career and dropping out.

Option #2 - You'll end up in debt with a very expensive degree that doesn't qualify you for a high paying job. Don't pay out of pocket.

Option #3, switching to a PhD this year. It sounds like it's a top program choice for you. You say you did months of research on these programs. If the program you were accepted to would still be top 3 choice for a PhD, it's probably not worth waiting a year and reapplying, there is a high probability you'd end up there anyway. Especially since most people with Masters go on to get a PhD, I feel this is your best option.

If you decide 5 years is too long, you can usually graduate with just a masters, but don't plan on doing this. This is university specific.

  • OP would have to check that it is possible to switch to masters at that particular university.
    – Mister Mak
    Apr 6 at 17:01
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    Excellent advice thank you! And yes, thank you for reminding me of the specificity of the programs, you are right of course, the MA will not lesson the time I would have to spend doing a subsequent PhD and a new school. I have read so much of he work of the scholars at this school. I'll write the grad program director about #3 as an option. We have excellent rapport so I will see what he says. Thanks again this is helpful! Apr 7 at 4:22
  • @sevensevens I'd be very surprised if most people with a Masters in art history go on to a PhD. Over the span of only 3 years I personally taught probably 120 Art history master's students. Only a very, very small number of them have gone on to PhD. A PhD wasn't the goal of most of them, rather they wanted to in museum and art market careers. Apr 8 at 13:32

Speaking as a kinda-sorta Art Historian (or at least someone who was 25% in Art History on a joint appointment for a few years), 1 vs 3 depends on what your goals are from graduate level study (for the reasons others have stated, don't do 2).

You say that you are not ready to commit to 4 years of PhD, which is totally fine, but then what are your career aspirations? Do you want to become an academic? If so, PhD is your only option and there isn't a lot of point in doing a Master's. If your goal is to work in museums or generally on the art market (or the likes), a PhD is likely totally unneeded and isn't something that will allow you to get a foot in any door, it would just be several years away from the type of experience you need to land the job you want. A Master's may be needed however as a minimum requirement for some jobs.

  • I am more interested in writing than anything else, although i am also interested in curation. I have a book topic in mind which focuses on developments in Post ww2 abstract art and it's relationship to "reality" as a bridge between post war nihilistic ennui and capitalist materialism. it is hard to put in a sentence but focuses on two major 1960s exhibitions on New York and London. Apr 11 at 0:48

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