Beth Merfish... find out more about

Beth and her dad in front of Ghiberdi's Gates of Paradise in Florence.

Beth describes the process of earning a PhD in the humanities from undergraduate...

When I found art history and I really loved it, I could just keep taking art history over and over again and learning about all these different areas of the world and different time periods. And graduate school was sort of an extension of that in some ways, because in college I had gotten so excited about learning about these topics, and I had grown to value the skill of writing about them, and how to express both my enthusiasm and what I had learned, and what was gleaning through analysis, basically that I I sort of was coming up with these new ideas and learning how to express them.

To earning a master's degree

Graduate school was sort of the next iteration of that in many ways. I did a master’s degree first. It‘s typically two years but it can vary. Your master’s degree is often more general. By general I mean that it was all in art history, but I was taking classes about different time periods, still. I went to NYU for both my graduate degrees. I spent two years in school actually across from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and so whenever I sort of wanted, I could look at the slides that we were looking at in class, and then I could run over to that museum which is what we call an encyclopedic museum, that is has art from um most if not all time periods and places, um and I could see examples in person which was really exciting. I did two years of a master’s which is more general. 

Then, the doctoral process

Then my doctorate which then took five years, it involved more classes, a big scary exam, that you are well-prepared for by the time you get to it and then a dissertation which is basically a book-length project, so by the time I got to the PhD, I was really specialized. So at that point, you start to take classes that are only about the classes that you want to focus on. For me that was 20th century Mexican art. Then you start to do independent projects that are only about that area, and you eventually choose your topic for your dissertation. Then you start a really intensive period of time researching that topic, reading everything you can about it, developing your own ideas, doing archival research, which is really exciting because you’re looking at original documents and original works of art. You write this dissertation. It’s this big project with working very closely with an adviser, with one member of the faculty who is sort of guiding you and mentoring you.  And then you’ve submitted and you have what’s called a defense, when you meet with your adviser and a series of other scholars who are very, very familiar with your field or what you hope to be your field. And you talk about your dissertation, and they ask you  what you’re going to do with it in the future, how you’re going to improve it, because you’re not ready for it to be a book. They give you suggestions, you talk about what your next project will be. Then hopefully at the end they declare you a doctor and you have your PhD.

And the excitement of completing the process! 

Then you have a doctorate and it’s really this exciting time because having your doctorate means that now you are a colleague of your advisers instead of their student. It’s this really exciting transition from being this student that you have been your entire life from school to college to graduate school to now being an independent researcher and a colleague of these people that you so admire. It’s a long road, but it’s exciting. If you're someone who loves to read and to do that kind of research and to write, and then also if you’re someone who wants to use that degree to teach- because not everyone does- and you love expressing your excitement and trying to spread your enthusiasm for a subject that you care a lot about, it’s a really exciting road, because get to really immerse yourself in what you care about most. It’s exciting.

It is very exciting. It’s sort of hard to believe, too, because it happens and then you think, but you’re all so smart and so accomplished and then you sort of think to yourself “Wait, I’m one of you” and there’s a continuum and you have to remind yourself of that constantly, because you don’t feel smart and accomplished every day. But you have to remind yourself that you’ve sort of reached that level that these people you so admire have also reached.

Can you tell Beth is excited about art history?

The unexpected element of being a professor: service to the university

In addition to teaching and research, there is another element to being a professor. Beth says:

The third part and that’s called service means that as a full-time assistant professor, I’m required to give a certain amount of my time to helping things run, so serving on committees that address student issues or academic issues or administrative issues and working to make sure the university is welcoming to everyone and also runs the way that it should. I was surprised by how much time it took. It’s also really exciting because a lot of the work you do in terms of research is pretty solitary. Teaching is wonderful; I really love interacting with my students, but it involves you mostly being in a room with you and only students without colleagues.

Service is the time you get to know your colleagues. For example, I serve on a committee call the Latina and Latin American Studies committee. And that’s a committee with everyone across the university who works on subjects of that touch on Latin American regions or Latino culture in America and so I get to be on a committee with my colleagues from history and my colleagues from psychology and from education and from sociology, and from Spanish language and we all sort of team up and think about how we might promote our fields at the university and how we might encourage more students to attend and things like that. It can be very time-intensive but it’s a really nice way to have colleagues. From the outside this looks like a career that’s more solitary, but in fact service is the time you get to know everyone else in the university.

Read our interview with Beth and check out her reading picks!