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Art History

Degree Types: PhD

The Department of Art History offers a full-time doctoral program that is designed to prepare our graduates for professional lives as art historians and theorists of visual and spatial cultures. Coursework is for students with a solid undergraduate grounding in the field, and moves from a general, introduction to the methods and philosophies of the discipline to a more specific exploration of the student's chosen field. Graduates are primarily trained for teaching careers, but many alumni have had considerable success in the museum field.

The faculty is renowned for its forward-looking, often transregional scholarship, with particular strengths in Black Visual Culture in the United States and African Diaspora; Modern and Contemporary art and architecture across the globe; Middle Eastern and North African art and visual culture; and European art and architecture from the early modern period through the 19th-century.

The department's comparative and transdisciplinary orientation offers ample opportunity for innovative research, which is amplified by programs and clusters across the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences (WCAS) and within The Graduate School (TGS). Students in this program are  encouraged to participate in TGS’s Interdisciplinary Cluster Initiative program.

Our highly ranked program is designed to make the most of our local resources, from courses at neighboring universities to holdings in Chicagoland libraries including the Newberry and Ryerson Libraries. The Chicago Objects Study Initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, brings together scholars from Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) via shared programming that includes first-year graduate student coursework, internships and fellowships, and symposia open to a wider Chicago audience. Graduate students also garner experience working within departments at other local museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Northwestern’s own Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art.

Additional resources:

Program Statistics

Visit PhD Program Statistics for statistics such as program admissions, enrollment, student demographics and more.

Program Contact

Contact Mel Keiser
Department Assistant

Degree Requirements

The following requirements are in addition to, or further elaborate upon, those requirements outlined in The Graduate School Policy Guide.


There is no terminal MA in the Department of Art History. The MA is awarded to all students who successfully complete the first and second year requirements in good standing and apply for the degree with The Graduate School. All students entering the program, whether with or without a master’s degree from another institution, are required to complete the qualifying paper at the end of their second year to verify their readiness to complete major and minor doctoral field requirements.


Students are expected to take courses with a wide range of faculty members. Students must take 8 courses the primary field, and 4 courses in 3 major fields other than the student's own major field. Two of these courses must be in a geographic area that is different from the student's primary field. 300-level courses approved by The Graduate School may be taken with permission of the graduate advisor and instructor.

Total Required Graded Courses: 18

Plan of Study Grid
First Year
ART_HIST 401-1 Methods and Historiography of Art History (Proseminar)
ART_HIST 403-0 Objects and Material Seminar
ART_HIST 405-0 Art Historical Research (Summer Seminar Abroad)
Other courses in primary field and to fulfill breadth requirements (8 units)
Second Year
Courses in primary field and to fulfill breadth requirements; or independent studies as approved by advisor (at least 9 units)
Third Year
ART_HIST 406-0 Dissertation Prospectus (Prospectus)
ART_HIST 499-0 Independent Study (in preparation for the Qualifying Exam, over the 3rd year, students register for 1 credit with each field examiner, and typically also register for 1-2 addition credits with the dissertation advisor)
Other courses in primary field and to fulfill breadth requirements (as necessary)
Fourth Year
See PhD Degree Requirements below

Other PhD Degree Requirements

  • Examinations, Language: Students must demonstrate proficiency in two foreign languages before being advanced to candidacy. One of these must be completed by spring quarter in the first year; the second by the end of the third year. Typically, one of these languages is either French or German. The second language is selected by the student and advisor in relations to the student's plan of study.  In some circumstances, additional language competency may be required. Please see the Department of Art History Graduate Handbook for more information.
  • Review, Holistic Second Year Review: In early fall of the second year, no later than October 15, students meet with committee consisting of the advisor and a second faculty member. In advance of the meeting, the student will update the Academic Progress section on GSTS and submit to the committee a seminar paper from their first year that they feel represents their best art history work to date as well as self-evaluation of their first year performance. These materials, along with seminar reports from the student's first year, are discussed, along with a proposed topic for the PhD qualifying paper. More information about this review can be found in the Department of Art History Graduate Handbook.
  • Paper, Qualifying: At the end of the winter quarter of the second year, students are required to submit a PhD qualifying paper. This paper must demonstrate an advanced level of art historical research, rigorous analysis, convincing argumentation, clear organization, and mastery of the discipline's (or subfield's) conventions of citation and illustration.
  • Examinations, Oral Qualifying: In the winter quarter of the third year, all students take a three-hour oral PhD qualifying exam. The exam is administered by a three-person committee chosen by the student in consultation with the advisor and is based on field bibliographies generated in consultation with the advisor and appropriate committee members by the fall quarter of the third year.
  • Paper, Dissertation Prospectus: After passing the oral PhD qualifying exam, students write an 8-10 page dissertation prospectus (plus bibliography) in the spring of the third year. This is written in close consultation with the advisor and refined in ART_HIST 406-0 Dissertation Prospectus (Prospectus Seminar). It is meant to present a clear vision of the student's project, the objects/issues on which it focuses, and the contribution it stands to make to the field.
  • Paper, Fifth Year Chapter: Before the end of the spring quarter of the fifth year, a candidate is expected to have completed an acceptable draft of at least one chapter of the dissertation. Candidates should submit a copy to their primary advisors and committee members. The chapter need not be “defended” in a meeting with the committee, nor is it awarded a pass/not pass grade, but is vetted by the committee who provide feedback to the candidate within a reasonable amount of time, no more than one month after submission.
  • PhD Dissertation: Dissertation supervised by at least three-person faculty committee and defended at an oral defense with the committee.
  • Other: Students are regularly assigned teaching and research roles in the department. Written evaluations of seminars and teaching are submitted by the faculty after every quarter, distributed to the students, and reviewed collectively by the faculty. Students with worrying reports meet with the advisor and DGS or Chair to discuss paths to improvement. On the basis of consistently observed and formally noted difficulties and problems, students in serious difficulty at end of the first or second year may not be permitted to continue in the program. Students must select an advisor by the last day of exam week in spring quarter of their first year, their exam committee by the second week of the fall quarter of their third year, and their dissertation committee by the end of winter quarter in their third year.

Last Updated: September 12, 2023