There are several colleges in our country that offer undergraduate and graduate programs in Ceramics. There are also departments in many colleges that offer Ceramics, but not as a full major. Academic institutions define these courses of study, and they are based upon financial resources and the level of importance ceramics holds in their curricula. As you climb the academic ladder, there is less of an opportunity to receive a higher degree in the ceramic field, than there is in painting, or what is known as the Fine Arts. Obtaining a PhD in ceramics was a goal I had from the day I touched clay. I didn’t realize then how difficult it would be to locate a school to pursue that dream, and when I did, I was amazed at the negativity I encountered in fulfilling a PhD in Ceramics.
My quest began simply as an adolescent desire to be highly educated. As a child of second-generation immigrants, a major goal in my family was to become educated. My post WW II parents put three children through college, hoping we would aspire to their vision of the American Dream- to be prosperous, cultured and bear children. I grew up in such an environment. As the family developed, we brought forth lawyers, doctors and socially conscious professionals. In this climate of BS’s, MS’s, MA’s, DVM’s and Esquires, I sought the precious PhD. My concept of a fully evolved and cultured woman was the beneficiary of the highest degree in my field. To be an artist in my extraordinary family was as prestigious as being a doctor, and to obtain a PhD would be a great achievement.
A PhD is basically a doctorate of philosophy in your particular field. My BA was in Art History, but then I transgressed and received my MA in Pottery and Sculpture. My ultimate goal in higher learning was to combine the two worlds of creating art and philosophizing about its historical heritage. I also wanted what was known as a “terminal degree”, which in the 1980’s and 90’s was the MFA. But this degree seemed less than my dream. I researched colleges all over the country and could not find one that would grant me a PhD in Ceramics. As I researched this further, I discovered there were some colleges that were considering a new degree, called the DOA, the Doctor of Arts. Some people believed this to be Dead On Arrival and most schools were not ushering it into their programs. Besides, getting a DOA in Ceramics was still unheard of; the degree was governed towards painting students, with departments that supported painters.
There are those of us artists that need more than the hands on experience of art; we need to explore the intellectual, verbal and written facets of our profession. At one time it was important for a painter to just paint, but in today’s academic community it is expected that an art student be interdisciplinary. Many college art departments require their students to concentrate in several artistic endeavors as well as being able to write, speak and critique the art in which they are engaged.
Therefore, as we are leaning towards this collaboration of studies, I believe the PhD in Ceramics should become an acceptable degree for ceramic students.
I finally located a school in which I could work on this degree. The Union Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio offers a doctoral program of studies that is based upon the Independent Learner. Those of you who have seriously worked in independent programs know that this kind of academic pursuit is quite rigorous. It is aligned to the Adult Learner, one who is already established in a community and cannot freely move from home to attend college. These people have mortgages, families, jobs, etc. Therefore, the degree comes to the student, not vice versa. I had finally found my way!
The nature of a PhD is to be involved in new and unique work; oftentimes this is in research, but in my case, it involved both research and artistic creativity. The ceramic historian part of me desired to research an unfamiliar slice of ceramic history at the time, the ceramics of Prehistory, (the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras). I was thrilled to delve into archaeology and anthropology texts as well as get to know several great professionals in the field. My goal was to assemble information from archaeologists and anthropologists and communicate this to the ceramic community through articles and lecturing. (Refer to "Ice Age Ceramics", Ceramics Monthly, Feb. 1992, pp. 78-79).
The other facet of this degree was to create a body of artwork that would reflect my relationship with this period of art. I developed a series of Venus figurines echoing the Paleolithic era, yet were reinterpreted through my abstract style. I also produced vessels reminiscent of Neolithic pots, as I frenetically coiled vessels evoking my contemporary approach. Because PhD’s are interdisciplinary, I also studied storytelling and wrote a Fable about the period. This was an exhaustive yet thrilling period in my life.
As I blissfully worked on my degree, I was establishing my all important dissertation committee and Core Faculty Advisor. These people would scrutinize, discuss and analyze the totality of my work. My committee was quite prestigious; my faculty advisor was from Cornell University, my anthropology professor from the State University of New York at Albany, my ceramic professor from the School of American Crafts at Rochester Institute of Technology, and my editor a published writer. With my committee in place, I began working on my dream.
Ironically, I had difficultly in finding the Ceramic component to my committee. Everyone I spoke to was definitely opposed to being a part of this program. They believed it would diminish the traditional MFA, and wanted no part of it. The ceramic professor, Richard Hirsch worked with me because he believed in ME, even though he had some reservations about the degree. I am forever grateful to him; because of him I was able to complete my work in 1992.
I continually worked for three years and grew as an artist, an educator and a person. Pursuing this degree was one of the most important decisions in my life. I discovered a way to obtain a degree that was basically unattainable at that time.
There was an expression that encircled the program; “there is life after the PhD”. I sometimes felt that I would never be finished, but the day of my orals arrived. My Fable was written; my body of artwork completed, my dissertation in print and my dream was realized.
So, is there life after the PhD? Absolutely! Upon receiving my degree my teaching salary increased and I began writing for publication. I started presenting ceramic history lectures and studio workshops to colleges and art centers and continued creating new and innovative artwork. After retiring from my teaching position I have continued to pursue these efforts with even more energy and commitment, a work ethic I gleaned from working on my degree.
For students who are searching for places to work on their degrees, especially the advanced degrees of MA, MFA, DOA and PhD, I recommend they look into the many Independent Programs that are available throughout the country. These schools are fully accredited and have proven to be vibrant institutions of learning; they provide a necessary component to this quest for higher learning. We should never be limited to the structures of availability and acceptability; we should strive to execute our dreams and make our goals a reality.