Visual Studies Ph.D.


The History of Art and Visual Culture Department offers a course of study leading to the Ph.D. in visual studies. Visual studies is an interdisciplinary program focused on visual-cultural scholarship, comprising specialized coursework and individual dissertation research in close coordination with faculty supervision. The expansive expertise of our diverse faculty addresses, and offers a broad scope of supervisory possibilities in researching, a variety of art forms and visual cultures with historical and contemporary perspectives and with global reach, including such regions as Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, North America, Latin America, the Indigenous Americas (including pre-colonial California), Asia, Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific Islands.

Our program provides students with unparalleled opportunities to consider the role of social, political, and cultural forces in both shaping and being shaped by assorted modes of visual experience and their relations as well to complex workings of multisensory perception. Areas of particular concern, both historical and current, include spatial and visual theories, environmental, social, and racial justice, colonial and decolonial visual culture, Anthropocene and Indigenous studies.

Our graduates consider a range of theoretical approaches and significant methodologies for the study of visuality, including object-centered, ecocritical, de- and post-colonial, new materialist, and social-historical (feminist, antiracist, Indigenous, and Marxist) varieties. Students explore diverse cultural perspectives across time and space, and cultivate the necessary skills, knowledge, and expertise—including those of archival analysis, site-specific research, live interview and digital humanities techniques—in order to excel in academic, curatorial, publishing, and other related professional careers.

Focusing on a wide range of visual culture, our program is unconstrained by traditional mediums of art or conventional canons of art history. The capacious array of subjects examined in our courses and in the research of our faculty and students are as diverse as landscapes, ritual, performance, material culture, bodily adornment, popular entertainment, digital art and cybernetic data, photography, film, advertising, and design, as well as painting, sculpture, and architecture. Our Ph.D. program is particularly strong in comparative studies with historical and geographical expansiveness, examining significant differences in how disparate cultural groups engage, shape, and interpret their visual worlds.

Advancement to Candidacy

Course Requirements

Students take a minimum of 60 credits during their first two years of study, comprised of three core courses and nine electives.

Take the following three core courses:

HAVC 201AIntroduction to Visual Studies and Critical Theory


HAVC 202Introduction to Visual Studies Methods


HAVC 204Grant Writing, Pedagogy, and Professional Development


HAVC 201A: fall of the first year

HAVC 202: winter of the first year

HAVC 204: second year

Nine electives

Of the nine elective courses to be taken, at least five must have a visual studies designation (i.e., taught by core or affiliated faculty), and at least three must be drawn from departments outside of visual studies. Among the five visual studies electives, at least three must be from the HAVC courses numbered 212-282 and taught by core faculty, and at least one of the three must be a seminar course on a subject outside the student’s disciplinary focus. Only two of the five visual studies electives may be independent study courses. Please review the visual studies website for a list of electives offered in the current year.

Field Clusters/Field Specialties

Appreciating that most of our graduates will be required to fit themselves back into traditional disciplinary structures once they enter the academic job market, the program is designed to provide students with both new means of interpreting visual evidence and suitable depth of understanding in older disciplinary traditions. While all graduates will acquire a shared foundation in different approaches to visuality (attained through our core course requirements), individual student programs vary considerably depending on the type of department or other intellectual and professional context in which the student hopes to secure employment after graduation. In addition to completion of the core courses required of all students, students will develop a cluster of individualized field courses in consultation with their advisor based on their particular professional goals.

To provide our students with the disciplinary background to facilitate employment within curatorial departments in museums and non-visual studies departments at colleges and universities, each student is required to take a minimum of four 5-credit courses in a disciplinary cluster (beyond the core course requirements). This requirement pertains both to students entering with a B.A. and an M.A. Acceptable field cluster courses might center on a medium (i.e., painting or architecture), a temporal/stylistic category (i.e., Early Modern or Postmodernism), a cultural, national, or social group (i.e., Pacific Islanders or China), or a disciplinary approach (i.e., cultural anthropology or gender studies). Field clusters are developed in consultation with the student’s advisor based on the student’s intellectual and professional goals. To count toward the degree, field clusters must receive prior approval from the director of graduate studies.

Foreign Language Requirements

Students must demonstrate reading knowledge of one foreign language prior to the start of their second year (either by attaining a score of 550 or higher on the Educational Testing Service Graduate Student Foreign Language Test or by passing a reading/translation examination administered by the department).

Students are encouraged to master a second foreign language. Based on a student’s area of interest, and the joint assessment of the student’s advisor and the director of graduate studies, proof of proficiency in an additional language or languages may be required prior to the student being admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. Should proficiency in additional languages be required, it must be demonstrated prior to the close of the student’s third year of study.

Qualifying Examination

After completing all coursework and passing one language examination, students are required to pass a qualifying examination prior to the close of the winter quarter of their third year, unless a petition for an extension, demonstrating reasonable cause, is approved by the visual studies director of graduate studies. The qualifying examination is divided into three topic areas, with each one including a written and an oral component. Each topic area should display historical breadth and variety of media. Two of the topic areas should ideally relate to the future dissertation topic, while one of the remaining must constitute an outside area, examining a topic that is chronologically, geographically, and/or methodologically distinct from the other two.

During their second year, a student should consult with their advisor to assemble a group of four faculty members who will serve as examiners and aid the student in assembling the necessary topic areas, compiling the needed reading lists, and preparing for the written and oral components of the examination in each area. The examination will have two parts. In part one, students will respond in writing to three general questions, posed by three of their examiners in the pre-arranged topic areas. In part two, students will gather together with their examiners to field questions probing and clarifying the previously submitted written component of the qualifying examination. In order to pass the qualifying examinations, students must receive the unanimous endorsement of the committee members.

Post-Qualifying Requirements

Dissertation Prospectus and Colloquium

After passing the qualifying examination, a student must complete an approved dissertation prospectus and a colloquium. The written dissertation prospectus is due no later than the end of the second quarter following the student’s completion of the qualifying examination. The prospectus is a brief, concise essay of approximately 3000-5000 words (with bibliography) that defines the scope, methodology, and rationale for the proposed dissertation. It is prepared in consultation with the student’s dissertation advisor, who must approve of the document prior to sending it to the colloquium committee. The prospectus must be sent to the colloquium committee at least one month before the colloquium.

The student and the dissertation advisor will invite three to four faculty members (including the advisor), in appropriate fields, to be on the colloquium committee, attend the colloquium, provide input on the prospectus, and assess the student’s preparedness to begin researching and writing the dissertation. Faculty participating in the colloquium may or may not have been members of the qualifying examination committee, and should represent faculty whose expertise has bearing on the student’s project. A student will pass the colloquium after having demonstrated to the satisfaction of all colloquium committee members adequate preparation to begin researching and writing the dissertation.

Advancement to Candidacy

Advancement to candidacy follows and is contingent upon passing the qualifying examination and all needed language examinations, completing an approved dissertation prospectus, passing the colloquium, and the subsequent appointment of a dissertation reading committee of at least three members. The requirements for advancement to candidacy must be completed no later than the end of the winter quarter of the fourth year.



The dissertation must make a significant and original contribution to the field of visual studies, as judged by each dissertation committee member.

Dissertation Defense

An oral defense of the dissertation is the only final examination requirement, unless a petition to waive the oral defense, demonstrating reasonable cause, is approved by the student’s primary advisor and the visual studies director of graduate studies. The student’s dissertation committee, under the direction of an exam moderator, will conduct the examination. The moderator is selected in consultation with the faculty advisor and must be a visual studies core or affiliated tenured faculty who is not part of the dissertation reading committee.

Normative Time from Matriculation to Degree

The visual studies Ph.D. program at UCSC is designed to require six years of study. During the pre-candidacy period students will devote themselves to coursework, completion of the language examination, some teaching, preparation for and completion of qualifying examinations, completion of an approved version of their prospectus, passing their colloquium and selecting their dissertation committee. Requirements for advancing to candidacy must be completed by the end of winter quarter of the fourth year. Students will finish their dissertation and successfully defend it before the end of their sixth year.