Earning his master of fine arts degree in photography from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2004 should have been a moment of satisfaction for Matthew Liam Conboy, who knew that the M.F.A. was a requirement for getting a college art teaching position, and teaching is what he wanted to do. However, when he went to the annual College Art Association conference that year to hear about and apply for teaching jobs, “I heard rumblings that the M.F.A. may not be the terminal degree for artists anymore and that I might have to get a Ph.D."
So, a few years later, he entered the School of Interdisciplinary Arts at Ohio University, one of the few programs in the United States oriented toward visual and performing artists (with M.F.A.s) who are seeking a Ph.D. These programs help turn people who had heretofore been just creators of art into scholars and philosophers of art – a double threat, as they say in Hollywood – who can teach both studio and academic courses. “I didn’t want to play catch-up. I wanted to be at the forefront.” Conboy is expecting to receive his degree at some point in the second half of 2013.
Things may be looking up. The head of the art department at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, where Conboy is currently an adjunct instructor in photography, has been encouraging, letting him know that he is in line for the next tenure-track position to open up.
“I’ve seen a lot of artists interested in Ph.D. programs,” said Charles Buchanan, interim director of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts at Ohio. “The job market is glutted with M.F.A.s, but there aren’t that many scholars in the studio.” Graduates will have “a leg up on people with just master’s degrees,” because they can teach both studio and art history or critical theory. Graduates will “continue to be creative artists, while also thinking and writing about art.”
The master of fine arts has long been touted as a “terminal” degree, the furthest point one may go in one’s formal art education, but at colleges and universities where Ph.D.s are the union card in one discipline after another, the M.F.A. has been seen as an anomaly, not quite as rigorous or as trustworthy.
“Most colleges and universities don’t understand that the M.F.A. is a terminal degree,” said Tammy Parks, a painter currently teaching at New River Community College, in Blacksburg, Va., and also enrolled in the low-residency Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts, which is based in Portland, Maine. She hopes to earn a Ph.D. in 2016, thereby “enhanc[ing] my employability” at the four-year college level.
“I didn’t feel I needed a doctorate, but the Ph.D. is the terminal degree in other areas, and it is what college and university administrators understand as the terminal degree. So, I decided to get a Ph.D. so we can close the discussion. Let’s move on.”
The idea that the M.F.A. is not a terminal degree or that artists now need a doctorate in order to obtain secure teaching jobs at the college level has not gone down easily with everyone.
James Elkins, a professor of art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and author of Artists with PhDs, noted that “there has been massive skepticism (and disdain) about the degree itself,” and the introduction of the second edition of this book (2013) lists “Fourteen Reasons to Mistrust the PhD in Studio Art.” Among these reasons are “it is not clear what kinds of art, exactly, are improved by serious research,” “the new degree exacerbates the academization of art” and “no one knows how to assess the PhD.”
One who has experienced skepticism and disdain directly is painter Christopher Lonegan, who earned his Ph.D. from the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts in early 2013. When he started his doctoral program, he was a part-time adjunct instructor at the Maryland Institute College of Art and was met with “paroxysms of resentment” by his colleagues and others.
“It was not comfortable for me,” he said. “One day, my department head, who had a Ph.D., took me aside and asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Then he told me that even with a Ph.D. ‘there will be nothing for you here.’ ”
He also has been teaching as an adjunct at Loyola University of Maryland, where colleagues and administrators have been no more favorable to his degree. “I’ve been on thinner ice than ever before,” he said, adding that his “doctorate has engendered considerable hostility among other faculty.”
The benefit of these doctoral studies programs on the art the current and graduated students create is more equivocal. Conboy said that he has become “much more critical about the work I am making, instead of just letting it happen.” The largest drawback to his art of his studies was that he “had to give up my studio practice for the first few years, while I was doing my classes.”
For Lonegan, the years of reading and absorbing theoretical and philosophical treatises “threw my work into disarray. You throw all this information in, and it takes time to assimilate everything.” In other words, we will have to see if he is still an artist – and what kind of artist he is – or if he has become purely a scholar.
What is clear is that Ph.D.s for artists are here for the long term. Besides the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts and Ohio University, Texas Tech University and the University of California at San Diego also offer these degree programs, and the United States is well behind the United Kingdom and Europe, where approximately 40 such programs have been in operation for years.
George Smith, president of the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts, said that while some visitors to the school’s booth at the 2013 conference of the College Art Association “grumbled a little bit” about Ph.D.s for artists, “40 people came to our informational session, and quite a few of them took applications.”
Daniel Grant is the author of several books published by Allworth Press, including The Business of Being an Artist and The Fine Artist's Career Guide. He has taught at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and has a blog  on the arts page of the Huffington Post.