Graduate School: A Backward Glance
As I write this post, it’s been almost exactly six years since my first contribution to NewMusicBox’s ongoing conversation went live: My assignment, if you’ll remember, was to offer a grad student’s perspective on contemporary music. Very soon, however, I won’t be a grad student anymore, and I won’t be able to comment meaningfully on a landscape of opportunities, anxieties, and epiphanies that must be quite different even now than it was six years ago. My last post on NewMusicBox will appear on April 25, the day I defend my doctoral dissertation.
In the handful of posts remaining to me, I’d like to examine some of the issues that my rounds in the ring as a NewMusicBoxer have clarified for me. For starters, let’s talk about the condition that got me into this gig in the first place. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on graduate school, and I’d like to share my conclusions with you now:
Do not go to graduate school.
That’s putting it a bit bluntly. I’ll try again:
Do not go to graduate school in music right after college unless someone else is paying for it and you really can’t see yourself doing anything else.
Let’s say you’re a composer finishing up your four (to six) years of undergrad, possibly with the extra burden of student debt. You’re looking for a way to refine your craft and get ahead in the field of new music. Your professors, with the absolute noblest of intentions, might advise you to consider a master’s degree. You apply to a few programs, and they get back to you with offers of fellowships and assistantships that seem no less remunerative and stable than the entry-level jobs you might be filling your days with as a recent college graduate. Why not accept one of these offers? Let me hit you with a few reasons.
First, the opportunity cost is very high. By the time you leave grad school—particularly if you continue through a doctorate—you won’t be competitive for the very entry-level jobs outside of music that you could have gotten into when you were leaving undergrad. There’ll be a whole raft of people who spent their twenties acquiring work experience (and, in all likelihood, getting paid more than you) who will elbow you aside if you decide to jump ship once your advanced degrees are complete.
Second, even if you do everything right, what happens when the time comes to look for a job in music? The “default” path seems to have been to find a university teaching position, but you don’t need me to tell you that’s easier said than done. Furthermore, regardless of your professional qualifications, not everybody is inclined to be a teacher—the prospect of spending years explaining key signatures to freshpeople may terrify you. (But what about jobs in arts administration, you ask? They have dedicated degrees in that now; I imagine you need one to snag one of those gigs. Tough noogies.)
Finally, the deprofessionalization of cultural production is now sufficiently advanced that we’ll all be out of our jobs in 25 years, probably. If you have the discipline to train in music, you could probably hack it in the more lucrative STEM fields as well; that’s what I recommend. You’ll be able to do more concrete good for family and country. Music is a much better hobby than a job, and we all know plenty of amateur musicians who derive (and even provide) as much satisfaction from music as pros.
I know it sounds like I’m arguing myself out of a job here, but as an instructor, I feel a duty not to mislead the students who have entrusted themselves to me and whose long-term livelihoods are the stakes of this discussion. However, let me attach a more hopeful postscript: Music schools around the country seem to be getting a little hipper to the notion that turning out highly specialized graduates doesn’t serve them well. If more grad programs in music adopt a philosophy that accommodates nontraditional means of making music and prepares its students for nontraditional careers, giving them a broad set of competences and tactics to eke out a place for themselves in this bewildering cultural marketplace, maybe grad school won’t be such a risky proposition: I hope that turns out to be the case, and I hope I can help in some modest way to bring these urgently needed changes about. After all these years of graduate school, it’s the least I can do.