Visual Arts

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216 Mandeville Center for the Arts

All courses, faculty listings, and curricular and degree requirements described herein are subject to change or deletion without notice.

Master of Fine Arts Program

The program is designed to provide intensive professional training for the student who proposes to pursue a career within the field of art—including art making, criticism, and theory. The scope of the UC San Diego program includes painting, sculpture, performance, installation art, public art, photography, film, video, and digital media. The program is unique in that the course of study provides for and encourages student mobility within this range of traditional and media-based components. It also offers opportunities for collaborative work.

The educational path of students is focused around their particular interests in art. The department seeks to provide an integrated and comprehensive introduction to the possibilities of contemporary art production, the intellectual structures that underlie them, and the “world view” which they entail. All art-making activities are considered serious intellectual endeavors, and all students in the program find themselves confronted by the need to develop their intellectual and critical abilities in working out their artistic positions. A body of theory-oriented courses is required. Therefore, we have no craft-oriented programs or facilities; nor do we have any courses in art education or art therapy. The courses offered are intended to develop in the student a coherent and informed understanding of the past and recent developments in art and art theory. The program also provides for establishing a confident grasp of contemporary technological possibilities, including those involved in film, video, photography, and the electronic media.

The program includes formal education in lecture and seminar courses as well as study groups, studio meetings, independent studies, and quarterly departmental critiques. Course work is intended to place art making in critical and intellectual context but doesn’t underestimate the central importance of the student’s own work. In fact, this aspect of the student’s activity is expected to be self-motivated and forms the core around which the program of study operates and makes sense.

No two students will necessarily follow the same path through the degree program, and the constitution of individual programs will depend upon the analysis of their individual needs and interests, worked out by students in collaboration with their individual faculty advisers.

Department Admission Requirements

Grade Point Average—An overall GPA of 3.00 and a 3.50 in a student’s undergraduate major is required.

Art History—Students are expected to have had at least four semester courses or six quarter courses in art history and/or film history/criticism at the undergraduate level. Those who have a broader art history background will have a better chance of being awarded teaching assistantships. Students without this requirement can be admitted, but they may be expected to make up the six courses in excess of the seventy-two units required for the degree. If there are questions concerning this requirement, check with the department student affairs adviser.

Statement—Students are required to submit an essay of one-to-three pages on the direction of their work and its relationship to contemporary art. This essay should be critical in nature, refer explicitly to the student’s own work, and may refer to other artists, recent events in art history, and issues in domains other than art that have bearing on the student’s process, thought, and work.

Work—Students are asked to submit documentation of their best work and upload images and files into our online portfolio portion of the application.

Test Scores—All international applicants are required to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL-iBT) with a minimum score of 85 and a minimum speaking score of 23 or International English Language Testing System (IELTS) with a minimum speaking score of 7.

University Admission Policies

Please note that no application will be processed until all required information has been received. Students should submit applications with the application fee to the graduate admissions office using the UC San Diego online application. The statement of purpose, transcripts, and letters of recommendation must be sent electronically through the online application at

Requirements for the Degree

The MFA is considered a terminal degree in studio work and is a two- to three-year program. The following requirements must be completed in order to receive the MFA:

First Year Review—This review takes place in the third quarter in residence. Students make a formal presentation of their work to a faculty committee; this includes a position paper and an oral examination. This presentation is considered a departmental examination, and if at its conclusion the student’s work is judged to be inadequate, the student may be dismissed regardless of GPA, or may be reviewed again in the fourth quarter.

Seventy-two units of course work, including a four-unit apprentice teaching course, are required. Students may select sixteen of these units (four courses) from upper-division undergraduate course offerings. (See listings in this catalog.) There are eleven required core seminars:

Permitted electives:

Students who remain registered in the third (optional) year must average one graduate seminar course per quarter.

The MFA Final Presentation

Presentation of Work—During the last quarter in residence, each student is required to present to the public a coherent exhibition or screening of their work. The exhibition or screenings must run for a minimum of three consecutive weekdays. We require that the thesis exhibition show is documented in a considered manner that can be used to archive the presentation of the work.

Oral Examination—A committee of three Department of Visual Arts faculty members and one faculty member from another department will administer an oral examination to each student covering the student’s work and its relationship to the field of art.

Thesis—Students are required to submit some form of written work for the MFA. A thesis is a research paper that demonstrates and investigates the context, process, and purpose of the student’s work. The written thesis should be produced out of discussion with the student’s adviser and in dialogue with the VIS 209 Seminar. It should be seven thousand words minimum with illustrations, footnotes, and addendum as appropriate.

PhD Program

The Department of Visual Arts offers a PhD in art history, theory, and criticism with specializations in any of the cultural areas in which faculty do research (see below) and also a PhD in art history, theory, and criticism with a concentration in art practice, for artists whose work engages in art historical and cultural research. Offering a distinct alternative to other PhD programs in art history, our program centers on a unique curriculum that treats the study of art past and present—including fine art, media and new media, design, and popular culture as part of a broad inquiry into the practices, objects, and discourses that constitute the art world, even as it encourages examination of the larger frameworks—historical, cultural, social, intellectual, and theoretical—within which the category “art” has been contextualized in the most recent developments in the discipline.

This program is also distinctive in that it is housed within a department that has been for many years one of the nation’s leading centers of art practice and graduate education in studio, media, and—most recently—digital media. The offering of the PhD and MFA is based on the department’s foundational premise that the production of art and the critical, theoretical, and historical reflection upon it inherently and necessarily participate in a single discursive community. This close integration of art history and art practice is reflected in the inclusion of a concentration in art practice within the PhD in art history, theory, and criticism.

The innovative character of this program is most evident in a unique curricular structure that is broadly organized into three groups of seminars. The importance of critical theory to the field today is reflected in the seminars under the Theories/New Visions group, while the study of art in its concrete historical, social, and cultural contexts; across different cultures and media; and is emphasized in time, place, and media-specific seminars listed under Times/Terrains.

The program builds most distinctively on recent developments in the field in the seminars under the heading Categories/Constructs. These seminars address the core questions about artworks and practices that the department believes every doctoral student in art and media history, whatever his or her area of specialization, should engage. How is the category “art” itself produced, now and in the past, in the urbanized West and in other cultures, in the context of ever-changing technologies? How are artistic identities constructed across distinct epochs and societies, and with reference to categories such as gender and ethnicity? What are the circumstances and contexts (social, intellectual, institutional, and the like) within which art is both produced and disseminated? What are the alternative modes of engaging art objects and practices and what are the histories and theoretical assumptions of the specialized discourses used to describe and analyze them?

Seminars in the Categories/Constructs group are unique in the degree to which they foreground the self-critical turn in recent art and media history by making reflection upon the central concepts, constructs, categories, and languages of art historical inquiry a key programmatic concern. They are also distinctive in that they are designed to cut across traditional categories of history and contemporaneity, art and media (film, video, photography, digital media), history and theory, and to promote cross-cultural inquiry insofar as they center on questions crucial to the study of art of diverse cultures as well as diverse art forms and historical epochs.


The PhD program in visual arts accepts only applicants seeking a PhD. It is the policy of UC San Diego to admit new students in the fall quarter only. For circumstances under which the MA is granted, see below. Prior to matriculation, students must have obtained a bachelor’s or master’s degree in art history, art practice, or another field approved by the departmental committee on graduate studies, such as (but not limited to) history, literature, anthropology, or philosophy.

Applicants must submit their academic transcripts, scores on the Graduate Record Examination, three letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose (no more than 750 words), and a sample of written work (e.g., senior honors thesis, MA thesis, or other research or critical paper, preferably in art or media history). Applicants to the PhD in art history with a concentration in art practice are also required to submit a portfolio and artist statement. A GPA of 3.00 overall and 3.50 in a student’s undergraduate major are required. All international applicants are required to take an English language test. All applicants must have a good reading knowledge of at least one language other than English at the time they enter the program.

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL-iBT): The minimum TOEFL score for admission is 85 for the internet-based test and 23 for the speaking component. Visual arts does not accept the paper-based test.

The International English Language Testing system (IELTS) Academic Training exam: The minimum IELTS score is Band 7.0. IELTS registration information is available on the IELTS website.

The Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic). The minimum PTE academic score required for graduate admission is overall score 65. Registration and test information is available on the Pearson website.

International students whose native language is not English will be required to demonstrate English language proficiency before they may serve as teaching assistants.

To apply, visit

Financial Aid

Generous funding packages are possible for highly qualified students. Upon recommendation of the department, several types of financial aid are available: full or partial remission of fees and tuition, fellowships, research assistantships, teaching assistantships, and readerships. Graduate students are eligible for one or a combination of the different forms of financial support.

For additional questions on our program and the admissions process, please email

Master of Arts Degree

All students will apply for and be admitted to the PhD program. An MA may be awarded to continuing PhD students upon successful completion of the following: (1) at least twelve four-unit courses, including VIS 200: Theories and Methods, VIS 204: Re-Thinking Art History, and breadth requirement (2) a three-hour written examination in a designated field of emphasis (see “Examinations” below); (3) one language examination; and (4) an MA thesis. The MA is not automatically awarded; students must apply in advance to the graduate coordinator and in accordance with university procedures no later than the first two weeks of the quarter in which they expect to receive the degree.

Students interested in an MA only are not admitted to our program.

Areas of Specialization

During the first year of study, art history students declare an area of specialization in consultation with his or her individual faculty adviser and with the approval of the PhD program faculty coordinator. The area of specialization may be selected from the following: ancient art; medieval art; Renaissance art; early modern art; modern art (nineteenth and twentieth centuries); contemporary art; media studies (film, video, photograph, digital media); Meso-American art; North American Indian art; Asian art; Latin American art; design studies; and art practice. A student may also choose, in consultation with his or her individual adviser and the PhD program faculty coordinator, a field of emphasis that cuts across the areas of concentration within the department (e.g., art or media theory and criticism) or, with appropriate approvals, one that involves another department (e.g., early modern art history and history). Once the field of emphasis is established, it will be the responsibility of the student and their adviser to devise a program of courses, independent study and outside reading, over and above the required program, that will ensure that the student will attain command of the major field of emphasis.

Course Work

A full-time program consists of twelve units per quarter, and full-time study is expected until the degree requirements are completed. All students must be enrolled in twelve units of graduate-level courses (200 and above) each quarter. Prior to the qualifying examination, students are required to complete twenty-two courses (eighty-eight units). The twenty-two-course requirement will be satisfied by a combination of research seminars, independent studies, professional development, and apprentice teaching (VIS 500).

Students of the PhD in art history, theory, and criticism (VA76) are required to complete eight required courses (thirty-two units), including VIS 200: Theories and Methods, VIS 204: Re-Thinking Art History, VIS 502: Teaching in Visual Arts, four units of VIS 500: Apprentice Teaching, and four breadth seminar courses chosen from four different areas in the list of breadth seminar courses. The four breadth seminars must be taught by three different faculty members; and fourteen elective courses (fifty-six units), including VIS 299 in the first year with the provisional adviser, VIS 220: Professional Practice, a minimum of six additional art history seminars (VIS 230–269), a maximum of two seminars from the theory/practice group (VIS 206, VIS 210–219), a maximum of three graduate seminars in other departments, a maximum of four art history undergraduate reading courses (VIS 113+), a maximum of four units of VIS 298: Group Studies, and a maximum twelve units of VIS 295: Qualifying Exam Preparation with adviser.

Students of the PhD with concentration in art practice (VA77) are required to complete twelve required courses (forty-eight units), including VIS 200: Theories and Methods, VIS 204: Re-Thinking Art History, one course from the theory/practice group (VIS 210–219), VIS 206: Seminar in Art Practice, twelve units of VIS 207: Working Practice, VIS 502: Teaching in Visual Arts, four units of VIS 500: Apprentice Teaching, and three breadth seminar courses chosen from three different areas in the list of breadth seminar courses (the three breadth seminars must be taught by three different faculty members); and ten elective courses (forty units), including VIS 299 in the first year with provisional adviser, VIS 220: Professional Practice, a minimum of three additional art history seminars (VIS 230–269), a maximum of two seminars from the theory/practice group (VIS 210–219), a maximum of three graduate seminars in other departments, a maximum of two art history undergraduate reading courses (VIS 113+), a maximum of four units of VIS 298: Group Studies, and a maximum twelve units of VIS 295: Qualifying Exam Preparation with adviser.

If a student has completed some graduate work in art history, theory, and criticism before entering UC San Diego, there may be some appropriate adjustments in course work as approved by petition to the PhD program faculty coordinator and the department chair.

Foreign Language Requirements

Students pursuing the PhD in art history, theory, and criticism (VA76) will be required to demonstrate reading knowledge of at least two of the foreign languages commonly used by scholars engaged in the advanced study. One should be the language most directly relevant to the student’s area of specialization. Students are required to pass the first foreign language examination by the end of the first year in the program. Students must pass both language examinations before taking the qualifying examination.

Students pursuing the PhD in art history, theory, and criticism with a concentration in art practice (VA77) will be required to satisfy competency in one foreign language. Students must pass the language examination before taking the qualifying examination.

The program’s language requirement may be met in one of four ways: A. passing the department’s in-house language exam for each language, B. passing one approved graduate-level language course; C. passing two approved upper-division undergraduate language courses; or D. taking two years of lower-division undergraduate language sequence courses. The student and his or her individual faculty adviser will jointly determine how to fulfill the program language requirement.


By the end of the second year the student, in consultation with his or her individual adviser, will form a doctoral committee. The membership of the committee will be either:

  1. three members from the student’s department, one of whom is your chair (who must be a tenured PhD faculty) and one of whom may be a non-PhD faculty; and two tenured or emeriti PhD faculty members from outside the student’s department. Untenured visual arts PhD faculty may be co-chair. Two members’ academic specialties must differ from the student’s; or
  2. four members from the visual arts faculty (one of whom is chair and must be a tenured PhD faculty) and one of whom may be a non-PhD faculty member from outside the student’s home department, as long as two members’ academic specialties differ from the student’s. Untenured visual arts PhD faculty may be cochair.

This committee will conduct the qualifying examination required by university policy and oversee completion of the dissertation. The membership of the committee must be approved by the relevant PhD program director and ultimately by the dean of the Graduate Division.

The qualifying exam consists of two bibliographies, a qualifying paper, a dissertation prospectus, two timed exam papers written in response to questions provided, and an oral exam. The PhD with concentration in art practice involves a practice-related addition to the prospectus, and a practice-related third bibliography. The qualifying examination will consist of a written examination, followed within the next week by an approximately two-hour oral examination, in the student’s major field. The QE may be expanded by approximately half an hour to accommodate students with a concentration in art practice. A student must have completed all required course work and passed all language examinations before taking the qualifying examination, which will be held no later than the end of the third year. Upon successful completion of the qualifying examination, the student will be advanced to candidacy.

A student who fails either the written or the oral examination may petition the committee and PhD program director to repeat the examination. Any student who fails a second time will not be advanced to candidacy. In some cases, the committee and graduate program director may judge such student eligible to receive a terminal MA.


Following successful completion of the qualifying examinations, the student will complete a doctoral dissertation in their field of emphasis. After the committee has reviewed the finished dissertation, the student will defend their thesis orally. Students in the art practice concentration will submit a written dissertation that observes the same regulations and conventions, except that its length may be reduced by one quarter. In addition, the student will present the visual component, the nature of which will be decided by the student and their committee.

Normative Time from Matriculation to Degree

The student will normally advance to candidacy in two and one-half to three years and must be advanced to candidacy by the end of four years. They will normally complete the research for and writing of the dissertation by the end of their sixth year of study. Total university support may not exceed seven years, and total registered time at UC San Diego may not exceed eight years.

Specialization in Anthropogeny

Visual arts PhD students with an interest in human origins may, with the approval of their dissertation adviser, enroll in a transdisciplinary graduate specialization in anthropogeny, spanning the social and natural sciences and focusing on one of the oldest questions known to humankind, namely, the origins of humans and humanity. The specialization provides students the opportunity to undertake specialized research and education on explaining the origins of the human phenomenon, broadly construed to include culture as well as biology. It is not a stand-alone program but aims at providing graduate students who have just embarked on their graduate careers with the opportunity to interact and communicate with peers in radically different disciplines throughout the duration of their PhD projects. Such communication across disciplines from the outset is key to fostering a capacity for interdisciplinary “language” skills and conceptual flexibility. This program is open to all visual arts PhD students in art history, including those with a concentration in art practice.

Admission to the Specialization

The visual arts PhD program will advertise the specialization to those students in our programs who have an interest in human origins. Qualifying applicants will have the opportunity to enroll for the specialization prior to taking their qualifying examination. Students pursuing an anthropogeny specialization are eligible for fellowships from CARTA (the UC San Diego Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny). Please contact CARTA for further information about the fellowship. 

Specialization Requirements

Students pursuing this specialization will be required to take a series of courses in addition to research rounds over four years of study. It is advised that students begin their course work in their second or third year. Visual arts PhD students interested in pursuing an anthropogeny specialization should inform their adviser and the faculty PhD program coordinator prior to taking their Qualifying Examination and should include a section on human origins in the dissertation proposal submitted for the Qualifying Exam.   

Course work: Introduction to Anthropogeny (BIOM 225) and Advanced Anthropogeny (BIOM 229) are each taken once, in the winter and spring of the students in the second or third year. Current Topics in Anthropogeny (BIOM 218) is to be taken every quarter for four years, unless the student is not in residence at UC San Diego, and must be taken no fewer than ten times in any case.

Research Rounds: Monthly seminars during which all participating students talk about their respective research.

Qualifying Examination

Visual arts students in the anthropogeny specialization must meet the department’s PhD program requirements for advancement to candidacy and are expected to do so within the normal expected timeframe. In addition, students must meet internal deadlines, mentoring provisions, and proposal standards of the anthropogeny specialization track.


PhD students must complete a dissertation, which meets all requirements of the home program. In addition, it is expected that the PhD dissertation is broadly related to human origins and will be interdisciplinary in nature.

Time Limits

It is expected that students will retain the same time to degree as students not pursuing this specialization. Additional course load consists only of two regular courses (two quarters, twenty lectures each). The third required course (BIOM 218) takes place only three times a year from Friday noon to Saturday evening. None of these courses will be counted toward the twenty-course requirement for qualifying for candidacy in the visual arts PhD program.

Specialization in Critical Gender Studies

Students in the doctoral program in visual arts may apply for a specialization in critical gender studies to complement their course work and research in visual arts.

The Critical Gender Studies Program is built on the intellectual foundations of intersectional feminist thought and queer studies, and incorporates the interdisciplinary methodologies, intersectional frameworks, and transformational epistemologies central to contemporary gender and sexuality studies. The graduate specialization in critical gender studies provides specialized training in gender and sexuality for students currently enrolled in a UC San Diego doctoral program. Through advanced course work in critical gender studies and its affiliated departments, graduate students in the specialization develop an understanding of gender as necessarily linked to other social formations, including sexuality, race, nation, religion, (dis)ability, and structures of capital. At the same time, doctoral students engaging gender and sexuality studies have the opportunity to develop their work among peers who take up similar questions in their scholarship.

Admitted students are required to complete five courses in addition to their home department’s core requirements, consisting of two core courses and three electives. The core courses are Advanced Studies in Critical Gender Studies (CGS 200), to be taken shortly after admission to the specialization, and Practicum in Critical Gender Studies (CGS 299), to be taken in the student’s final two years of dissertation writing. Electives may be chosen from a list of preapproved seminars in participating departments (students may petition other courses with significant gender/sexuality studies content) and may be taken at any time during the student’s tenure at UC San Diego. Admitted students must also include at least one member of their dissertation committee from the list of CGS core or affiliate faculty.

For more information about the graduate specialization in critical gender studies, please visit