Art Doctoral Degrees Under Debate

Traditionally, the Master of Fine Arts has been accepted as the terminal degree for art fields in the United States. However, art doctoral degrees are increasing in availability abroad. Now, art scholars in the U.S. are debating whether or not providing art doctoral programs will be beneficial or harmful to the field and students of the subject. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that both critics and proponents of the art doctoral degree are trying to answer the question — are art doctorates in the field’s best interest?

Those in favor of the art doctoral degree hope that having a higher level terminal degree will increase job prospects and make it easier for degree-holders to move up the career ladder at colleges and universities. Many art instructors only hold master’s degrees in their fields, which makes it difficult for them to advance their careers toward tenure. The hope is that a doctorate will give these candidates more of an opportunity to advance their careers.

Proponents also argue that bringing the art doctoral degree to the U.S. will keep the U.S. as a strong competitor in an increasingly globalized environment. As it stands right now, doctorates in art are commonly offered abroad, but only a handful of institutes in the U.S. offer advancement beyond the M.F.A.

Those opposed to the doctoral degree argue that the doctorates will replace the Master of Fine Arts degrees, thereby rendering them useless. This could make it difficult for master’s degree-holders to advance — or even keep — their positions. Another opposing argument is that luring students into getting their doctorate degree in art while the field’s job prospects are uncertain is unethical. Institutions cannot promise that art students will benefit from advancing their education. Opposed individuals are also concerned that the scholarship of the doctoral-level programs may take away from creation, instead making art into a uniform production.

Despite the debate, both sides of the argument agree that the availability of doctorate programs at research institutions gives artists the opportunity to cross mediums and explore different areas of study. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that even critics support a multi-discipline approach to art. The question is, however, whether that benefit outweighs the cons.

Ultimately, arguments both in favor of and against expanding beyond the master’s degree in the field cannot hold back what is beginning to be perceived as an inevitable evolution of the field of art. The Chronicle of Higher Education quotes James Elkins, professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and editor of Artists with Ph.D.’s, as saying the eventual progression toward art doctorates "can’t be stopped." The field is producing more scholarships over the subject of doctoral degrees, and institutions like Parsons the New School for Design are exploring the art doctorate option.

As schools begin to consider art doctorate programs, the need to evaluate cost and risk has become stronger. Institutions must determine whether the art doctorate will be worth it for students and universities alike.

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